Interview: On the run with James Dunne

To give you all a break from my inane ramblings I thought I'd get some proper expert coaching insight for today's post. James Dunne was a professional rugby union player with Wasps and Ealing before becoming an endurance sport coach. As one of Europe's leading specialist running technique coaches he is the founder of Kinetic Revolution and regularly contributes to the best selling triathlon and running magazines. He very generously gave up his time to answer some questions and as well as revealing his sporting hero (who isn't a runner, rugby player or triathlete) he demonstrated the ridiculous lengths he will go to, to understand his clients needs. It's a bit of a long one but well worth the effort. And if you need to give your eyes a rest you can find an audio version here.

James Dunne

You were obviously a professional rugby player so how did you get in to endurance sports? Was this something you participated in prior to your rugby career?

Prior to rugby, and rugby for me really took off for me around the age of 16, prior to that I always enjoyed pretty unstructured running. So there was always the odd local cross country race or 10k but my parents lived on a cliff top, they still live on a cliff top in Suffolk, and you can go to the end of the garden, out of the gate and you have literally got 10 miles of beach to run one way and 10 miles of beach to run the other way. So I’d take the dog and go for a run after school. It was just a fantastic thing I used to love to do.

So as I said there was no real structure to that training but one day, when my rugby got slightly more structured and slightly more serious around the age of 16, a coach said if you are ever serious about becoming a decent rugby player you have got to know that your pace at the best of times lets you down. So all this long, steady work you are doing has to stop so the furthest you are going to be doing as a rugby player in one burst is 40, 50 metres. As a second row it is very much short, sharp bursts in terms of the game play so I had to start training that way.

So between the ages of 16 and 23,24 when injury forced me out of the game that was pretty much all I would do so it would be that short, sharp natured training – completely different to endurance sport of any nature and that has thrown up its own problems trying to get into an endurance sport mentality out of the back of a rugby career. It is learning to slow down, after being used to redlining everything as a rugby player.

Who has been you biggest sporting inspiration/hero?

Ben Ainslie the multiple Olympic gold medallist sailor. As I said I was brought up on the north Suffolk coast just very much at the south end of the Norfolk broads and I spent my whole childhood on the water or in the water, although you wouldn’t know it to look at my swimming! I remember meeting Ben Ainslie at the Laser nationals, Laser being a class of dinghy, in 1998 or 1999 when I was 15 or 16 and being very much in awe of this guy who I knew was top dog on the international stage in our class of dinghy. It was the one time I met him and I’ve always followed his career with immense admiration. For me one of the highlights of the Olympics was watching him win the Finn class after such a torid week.

Great Britain's Ben Ainslie

What has been your biggest sporting achievement or most memorable moment whether it’s winning the egg and spoon race as a child, something from your rugby days, achieving a personal best or entering your first endurance event?

Although I was at Wasps and played rugby union professionally there for a couple of years and played national leagues with Ealing, and had fantastic seasons there being promoted, I think it was playing my first game for England schools, so playing England under 16s against Wales at Rodney Parade in Newport. We lost. Across the under 18s and under 16s we played Wales four times and they beat us every single time so definitely some unfinished business there but I don't think I'll ever get the chance to go back and finish that business! So the first schoolboy cap at under 16 level, that is massively memorable and what sticks out there is singing the national anthem.

If we are thinking more endurance sports I guess it would have to be the Helsinki marathon last year. Not because it was quick or anything like that because believe me it wasn't and in fact that was all part of the reason why it was so memorable. I'd coached a number of ironman athletes that summer, helping them back from injury and the typical situation is that they'd come in three or four months before their race saying they had a calf or achilles problem and couldn't run more than 20 minutes before the problem flared up. Not ideal if you are training for an iron distance race (2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bicycle ride, nicely topped off with a marathon run).

We worked through the problem and got them to the point where they were able to run without the injruy flaring up. However listening to their reports after race day, their calf muscles or achilles held up but their bodies weren't used to the loading of running a marathon, they just didn't have any miles in their legs. It made total sense - it's one thing rehabbing an injury but if you are trying to fast track yourself to be ironman fit or even marathon fit, you can't bluff that really. 

So I wanted to know what they were going through so I limited myself to somewhere between 5 and 10km a week maximum for three months ahead of the marathon which was 22 August 2011. I wanted to know what it felt like to run a marathon with no miles in the legs - forget running it off the bike, that adds in a whole new perspective I just wanted to know what a standalone marathon feels like with no miles in the legs. It was horrific, it was absolutely horrendous.

It's something I would never recommend anyone to do for obvious reasons but I'm really glad I did. It was quite an education in terms of pacing but also in terms of finding out what form and strength alone will get you. I'm 6ft 6 and 110kg so that's quite a lump to get round a fairly undulating course in Helsinki. So I had to rely on an underlying level of fitness but for me the most important thing coming out of that was knowing that a certain level of strength, a certain ability technique wise will get you round.

I came out with no injuries not even a blister, although I was coming down the stairs backwards the next day my calves in particular were screaming at me. So I think the 3.54 I got round Helsinki in that day really sticks in my mind I felt an incredible sense of achievement getting around that because I was setting off thinking "oh my god there is no way this is going to end well I am categorically the least prepared person here." It's a funny feeling. So getting around that, which I wasn't convinced I would at first, was very satisfying.

How did your company Kinetic Revolution come about?

I studied at St Mary's University College in Twickenham, London and during my time there I started Sport Rehabilitation. The degree I started out doing was actually Sports Science but I found I gravitated towards a Sports Rehab degree through watching what a lot of my friends were doing who were on the Rehab course. So after doing two years of Sports Science I asked to start again so I went into this Rehab degree and really took a shine to the biomechanics side of things and the movement analysis. 

So when I came out of University having graduated I was quite fortunate to get a job in a clinic which worked pretty much on that front in terms of not just delivering the usual hands on pyhsio treatment but really focusing on athlete and their specific rehab needs. So taking them to the gym, going through their exercises with them and when the time comes helping them get into running and look at their techniques, their compensations, their biomechanical flaws that got them injured in the first place.

So I learnt a hell of a lot there and then after three years working there in 2010 I essentially decided I wanted to do this for myself, there were certain things I agreed with and certain things I didn't agree with in terms of the way in which things were structured. I had my own thoughts and I had my own take on certain coaching practices and I wanted to be specific to endurance athletes.

St Mary's College Twickenham
One of the biggest issues I had really was the fact that at times it was a one size fits all approach when it came to running techniques so you'd be working with a professional footballer one hour teaching them one thing and then working with a 13 hour ironman athlete the next hour and teaching them exactly the same thing in terms of running technique when there are really different elements required and different specific coaching points. Coaching points you'd use when coaching a sprint athlete are different to that of an endurance athlete, as you can imagine, so I wanted to offer a more bespoke solution.

Also I wanted to focus on doing everything outdoors because I fundamentally believe running on treadmills is completely different to running outside as we all do in terms of competition. For me analysing and coaching running gait on a treadmill and then asking them to recreate that outdoors doesn't make a whole load of sense so I very much set out to make sure athletes get a specific experience to what they need in terms of their event. 

As you can imagine it would make no sense for an ironman athlete to do technique work on a treadmill running far faster than they'd run in ironman events or in training up a ridiculous incline for a short period when what they really need to do is work on holding efficient technique over an extended period at a specific pace more like their race pace. So I just wanted to be specific in what I was offering and that's proven after the last few years to get some fantastic results so I am obviously very happy with the angle I have taken there.

Are there any common mistakes people make when training for endurance events particularly if they are self coached or training on their own?

There are two major things that I see again and again. I think particularly in a sport like Triathlon if you are self-coached and you are given the choice between doing a session you enjoy and the one you need to do which, which you won't enjoy but will hold the most benefit for you the majority of us will gravitate towards the session we enjoy. I think the main message I try to give people a lot of the time is look at what you specifically need to get out of the session rather than going for the session you enjoy. There is obviously a time and a place to swim for the pleasure of swimming and run for the pleasure of running but at the same time if you specifically need something in a session to get better even if you hate that session, get it done. Don’t just constantly do what you enjoy and nothing else.

The other one, and I'm massively guilty of this myself in my own training and I should know better, but it's essentially making you're easy runs too hard and your hard runs too easy. It's essentially not getting the full benefit from your long steady runs pushing yourself that little bit too hard, pushing yourself above the heart rate zones that you should be working in at that nice aerobic pace so you're not getting the benefit from that and then in your harder sessions, your interval sessions during the week, not pushing yourself hard enough.

So I’m massively guilty of that. Because of my rugby background I'm used to redlining everything I attempt so even if I set out intentionally trying to be very conservative about my pacing on my long Sunday run I'll look at my pace and realise that I'm running 30-45 seconds per kilometre faster than I set out to run and have to reel it back in, slow myself down and make sure I truly am getting the aerobic benefit from that run as opposed to essentially  working that little bit  too hard and metabolically tiring myself out for that two hour run I went on. That will have a knock on effect later in the week.

If I worked too hard for that two hour run not only am I getting the aerobic benefit but I have fatigued myself more than I should have done for that "easy" session. Therefore when I approach my intervals I end up being pretty fatigued for that interval session, not working as hard as I should do and not taking the full benefit from that session at the high end. So you get into a spiral where everything ends up at a mediocre pace and there is not a big difference between your easy pace and your hard pace. So to package that up: make your easy runs easy and your hard runs hard it’s simple. But you'd be amazed at the number of people who just spend the whole time at a mediocre midline pace.

Do your coaching and training philosophies differ for the particular distance or is it largely based on the same approach?

I'm a massive fan of looking at what the athlete has to achieve within their events. Alistair Brownlee for example can get away with being right up on his forefoot for that distance. If someone is looking to run a hard 5k or hard 10k it's worth taking them from a heel striker to more of a forefoot striker but looking longer than that if someone wants to improve their running form for the iron distance or ultramarathon then really if they are coming in as quite a heavy heel striker then it's easier to work on a whole load of postural drills.

You have to work on getting the alignment right, stop them from over striding - that's the big one - so they are not essentially applying the brakes every time they put their foot on the ground they are landing close to underneath their hips and allow the foot to land however is most comfortable so if it's most comfortable for them to still heel strike albeit the heel strike is closer to under their hips rather than out in front of them as previously then that's fine.

If you look at Crowie (five time World Ironman Triathlon Champion and World Record holder Craig 'Crowie' Alexander) although he starts off with this nice midfoot strike, towards that 20 mile mark he's definitely heel striking. So you've got to ask the question if you're an ironman athlete what are the demands of the sport? Is it more important for you to start out with a fore to mid foot strike and hold it for as long as possible or is it more important to say I'm going to almost certainly at some point end up heel striking on this marathon when fatigue kicks in? So perhaps it's best to work on holding as good as form as possible in that heel strike.

So many athletes don't work on that, so many athletes don't focus on holding good form and good posture with the heel strike. They either think I'm either going to leave my technique as I have always done or they go down the route of trying to change to this mid foot, bare foot natural running type style. Instead there is a middle ground, so that middle ground is essentially keeping posture in right place keep the cadence in the right place and allow that foot to come down and land however is appropriate particularly when looking at the level of fatigue in a longer race.

Australia's Craig 'Crowie' Alexander
 What advice would you give to someone who is thinking about taking up running/triathlon (perhaps from being inspired by the Olympics) but is worried they are too old/young/unfit or perhaps haven't done any sport since they were at school?!

Three things. Firstly start slow, build it up. Don't just try and throw lots of intensity at it to begin with or lots of volume at it to begin with because either way you'll end up injured. Start out gently building up in terms of volume and intensity almost regardless of the sport you are talking about and build gradually. Secondly, as you are building gradually, get in the gym. Any kind of strength work to accompany the running, swimming and cycling you are doing will help to make your body more resilient to the work you are putting in. Thirdly, enjoy it. While there is certainly a place when it comes to  really trying to push your performance where you have got to get through those sessions you hate, when you are getting into it and developing your love for the sport just enjoy, get out there and train with a smile on your face. That's pretty cheesy but you get the picture.
A lot has been made of the "Olympic legacy." Have you been aware of more people wanting to get involved in running/triathlon or perhaps people who have done a few races and have now been inspired to try and take it to the next level?

Definitely on both fronts. If you look at the continual growth of an event like Park Run they are constantly seeing new runners coming in and entering new races on a regular basis, numbers are swelling significantly. In terms of people taking it on to the next level the biggest thing I've seen personally in talking to clients and prospective clients it's people who have either just run or cycled previously who have seen the success of the Brownlees at the Olympics but people also cite people like Chrissie Wellington (four times World Ironman Champion) and have just been inspired by what they have seen of triathlon in the media and heard from friends and fancy giving it a bash. In my mind triathlon is set to continue as this growth sport in the next few years.

Great Britain's Chrissie Wellington
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

I suppose the best piece of advice I’ve ever been given is just to go with your gut feeling. If your gut tells y ou something strongly enough then even if you don’t know what the reason is just go with it. I find that on the whole that has treated me pretty well and the times I have come unstuck is when for some reason I haven’t listened to what intuitively on some level I feel has been right


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