Indoors vs XC: Which is the best route to a summer PB?

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Indoors vs XC: Which is the best route to a summer PB?


Last weekend saw some of Britain’s most-talented speedsters take to the Sheffield boards at the British Indoor Champs – and the event wasn’t short of a little drama and surprise or two

Hot on its heels, the BUCS Indoors take place in the same state-of-the-art venue this weekend while in Birmingham, Laura Muir, Mo Farah, et al will be entertaining the public at the British Athletics Muller Indoor Grand Prix.

Which is all very well – but is racing indoors really for the grassroots club runner? With the majority of races scheduled in the climax of the cross country season, is racing indoors truly a winter target or is it more a welcome distraction from the mass-participant post-Christmas cross countries?

It’s a question that plagues coaches and athletes alike. Come the New Year, should athletes continue to struggle through the mud and rain to build up strength for the summer? Or emulate the likes of Seb Coe and hone their speed on the blue camber of an indoor track, ready for a summer of PBs?

Throw caution to the wind and do both

The big cross country championships and indoor events are spread across the first quarter of the year in such a way that you could theoretically do both.

While successfully combining the two isn’t a realistic prospect, Laura Muir is someone who chose to run cross country in the autumn before focusing on indoor events through the winter.

With Paula Radcliffe’s endurance capacity and the speed of Christine Ohuruogu, the prospect of some silverware for the Scot at the European Championships is likely – and a comparison with Coe not so far-fetched.

‘Stuck in my mind is Seb Coe launching his international 800m career by winning the European indoor 800m title,’ says Tonbridge AC guru, Mark Hookway, when asked whether going indoors was worth it for the grassroots club runner.

‘Going indoors can offer a launchpad in terms of experience and confidence, something that certainly helps for the outdoor season.’

As team manager and coach to a group of promising U23s, some of whom were involved in Tonbridge’s historic ERRA National 6-stage Road Relay victory in 2015, Mark wonders whether the dichotomy between elite-level athletics and those skating the grassroots club scene means that indoors is not an option for the ‘sub-elite’ in the UK.

Striking the right balance

Alan Maddocks, a former Welsh international cross country runner and now coach to a number of junior internationals at Beacon Hill Striders, is keen to emphasise the benefits of indoors for teenage distance runners and adult club runners alike.

For him, indoors can be pivotal in keeping athletes motivated.

‘There will be some athletes who dislike cross country so much, or are simply not very good at it, who might benefit more in terms of focus and enjoyment from having a short indoor season as well,’ says Alan.

But that isn’t to say cross country should be canned when the going gets tough. The strength benefits that come from hard miles over the mud are innumerable.

Hitting the indoor track off the back of autumn cross country, it’s easy to fall into the trap of shifting the focus solely towards speed and neglecting the endurance base that carries athletes through the long summer season.

But the opposite also applies – speed is an important part of training all year round, even when slogging out the miles during the harsh winter season.

‘Rightly or wrongly, I feel that middle- and long-distance runners should be relatively well prepared for faster work throughout the year,’ adds Mark.

‘I have recently seen a few of those at Tonbridge post fast indoor times off just two or three targeted indoor track sessions while otherwise keeping the volume work going.’

Where does indoors fit in?

Unless you are committing to the indoor season as a main aim, it can be difficult to see where it fits within the training and racing cycle.

Matt Yates is another middle-distance coach who holds reservations. The former European Indoor 1500m champion and coach to European bronze medallist, and recent 1500m British Indoor champion, Elliot Giles, among others, has fond memories of the indoor circuit.

‘I like indoor racing because it’s fun and close to the crowd, so the noise and excitement is completely different to outdoors or cross country,’ recalls Matt.

‘But some athletes just can’t take indoor tracks due to stride pattern and camber. And it also means trying to incorporate a double or even triple peak during the year.

‘It’s difficult to do it year in, year out because you need the winter base of five to six months, and running a 1500m indoors off a 100 mile week doesn’t really work.’

For those focused almost exclusively on the summer track season, keeping the powder dry and racing sparingly is one way to make sure training is kept in check.

Whichever route taken, limiting the number of races and using them simply as a means of monitoring fitness and form will almost certainly ensure, come the summer, personal bests await.

Words by Hannah Viner
Image from Andrew Peat (Eilish McColgan pips Stephanie Twell on the line to take the British Indoor 3,000m title)