A cold, stiff evening in mid-March finds eight of Matt Yates’ athletes turn up at the appointed hour.
It isn’t until 50 minutes later, however, after a long warm-up and stretch that a series of drills are carried out with military precision to the sound of Matt’s clipped commands. Alongside him is veteran coach Barry Elwell, armed with stopwatches, cones and a critical eye.
‘You would’ve taken Adele Tracey out to lane six with those arms – not that that’s a bad thing,’ Matt jokes, pinpointing the fault and making the correction.
The ’92 Olympian is a believer in drills, but only if you are strong enough and do them right, otherwise you are teaching your body to get used to the wrong action. That’s just pointless.
And nothing about Matt’s training methods is pointless.
‘One of the first things we do with a new athlete is a biomechanics and strength assessment,’ explains Matt. ‘Doing this means we can make them more efficient and hopefully iron out future injuries. We also make sure they all have the right trainers and kit to use, of course.’
Out of the eight toned bodies in his training group doing high knees on the home straight, he truly believes they will all make it to national level or world level.
‘We’ve accounted for every training day up to the Olympic trials in June,’ says Matt, if it isn’t already obvious that he takes a meticulous approach. Right now, in March, the athletes are in the conditioning phase of their training, where the workload is heaviest, leading up to the start of the outdoor season in June.
The athletes are training tonight off the back of two rest days following a ten day block of heavy mileage, with some athletes doing 70 minute doubles and racking up to 110 miles – figures the elites preparing for London would be happy with.
Tonight’s track session – one of only five for this month-long block of training – is simple.
The group, nicknamed ‘The Yard’ for its likeness to a horse racing stable, is split into two for tonight. The first comprises Revee Walcott-Nolan, Rachel McClay and Paul Scanlan, who’s just joined the group and returning from injury. The second sees the five faster guys – Dale Clutterbuck, Bradley Goater, Elliot Giles, Luke Conway and Richard Charles – take it in turns to share the pace.
The target pace for the guys is 66s through 400m, with the 150s in 21 or 22s. They run all ten comfortably in 62s and 20s.
Elliot Giles, a relatively new recruit with quads the size of tree trunks, can’t get enough. He’s done his required number of reps but continues to jog – badgering Matt to let him join in on the last reps with Clutterbuck and co. After a serious motorbike accident, Elliot had to be rebuilt almost completely and pays daily visits to a physio, osteopath and deep tissue masseur.
‘He’s the strongest of the guys here now but he’d never run longer than 30 minutes once a day before. We’ve got him up to 60 minutes and training twice a day now.
‘When he arrived, we started him on rehabilitation training, slowly building up whilst being very careful. He still isn’t allowed to run at the least sign of pain. Elliot is keen but needs babysitting.’
The theory behind the session makes sense.
‘We get so caught up in those traditional 16 x 400 sessions that have been going on for years, but they’re boring and mentally it’s easy to drag out the distance by doing 450s – that extra 50 doesn’t even occur to you, but it makes a difference. The dual pace is a killer and drags them down bit by bit, but that’s what racing is about.’
Dressed in well-worn Nikes and head to toe in black, the former European Indoor Champion barks out their 100m splits across the field as they hit Barry’s markers to help them learn how to pace.
‘A time for 450m also doesn’t mean anything when you go home and try and compare, so there’s no way you can get hung up on it – but Barry and I keep track of their splits.’
At one point during the session, a pointy-elbowed tag rugby player wanders over from the infield and asks Matt what distance ‘this lot’ are training for.
Matt’s group are the real deal and ‘all these joggers’ getting in their way on the track don’t know they are rubbing shoulders with tomorrow’s Olympians.
There is pedigree here that your average band of runners training hard out in the cold doesn’t have – not everyone’s session is observed by top-ranked junior and ‘uber talent,’ Michael Callegari, who’s here weighing up his future.
These young protégés are giving everything to become professional athletes. Their concentration and calm, focused attitude from the start of the warm up to the last warm down stride bears resemblance to academy-level football, where everyone is striving together for the same goal – to get better and better; to make it.
Off the track, Matt’s preparation is just as thorough. Alongside himself and Barry is Will Davies, the strength and conditioning coach. Most of the athletes are students or work part-time in order to accommodate training – including weekly trips up to Cambridge University for weights sessions with Will.
Post-session, while they drink SOS and protein shakes and Barry doles out protein bars to all, Matt emphasises the importance of hydration and the necessity of eating within thirty minutes of exercise to enable recovery; something we all know but rarely do.
Despite his seemingly plain-speaking no-nonsense approach, Matt has a gentle and modest touch. He talks about his athletes with a sense of pride and affection that only comes from a coach who truly believes they will go the whole way.
‘Between Ell[iot] and Rich, we are looking at the top 800m lads in Europe, and in KC [Clutterbuck] a top European in the 15, that’s not to mention what Rev, Brad, Luke, Rhys, Calle and Rachel will do this year,’ asserts Matt.
And in return, a real sense of respect and belief in their coach is immediately palpable.
As they munch bananas and chat about the latest viral video on YouTube, Matt teases them about their manners. ‘The Queen would never eat a banana like that. She uses a knife and fork for everything.’ A quiet contentment with today’s session settles.
All these athletes want to be here; want to be the best at what they do – and they’re ready and willing to let Matt Yates be the man to take them there.
Words by Hannah Viner
This article appears in the second edition of Left Spike from April 2016