Hi! I’m Ollie Armstrong, the Head of Sport Physiology at the University of Birmingham. I’m 1800m above sea level in the French Pyrenees, in a small town called Font Romeu, where UBSport’s Head Athletics Coach Luke Gunn has organised an altitude training camp for the endurance arm of the University of Birmingham Athletics Club. It’s beautiful! Situated amongst the mountains and just 10km from the French/Spanish boarder, Font Romeu is one of the oldest ski resorts in France. With Font Romeu being the National Centre for altitude training, it is the perfect location to get some good training done for the 55-strong group of athletes from Birmingham. Joining Luke on the coaching staff during my visit, is Bud Buldaro, a legend within endurance running. The combination of these two great minds, each with a wealth of experience, is a coaching team fitting of any National Training Centre. Have a read for an insight in to a typical day in the life of a physiologist on a training camp!
Before the day gets started, I like to go for a morning walk to get some fresh mountain air and see the sunrise. This morning I’m met with a stunning view of snowy-topped mountains against a beautiful sky full of colour. Mountain life is breath-taking.
Morning monitoring kicks the day off where every other day the athletes check in with Luke, reporting identified variables that are used to assess readiness to train (and guess the music artist). Variables include, resting heart rate (a high resting heat rate can indicate the onset of illness), weight (assessing any weight loss, altitude can suppress appetite), knee to wall (looks at ankle stiffness) and a general well-being questionnaire. This is an opportunity for me to check in with Luke. We discuss where athletes are at and identify any we need to focus on today.
Following a lovely drive to the Pyranees 2000, accompanied by a sing-a-long to the Beatles, there is an easy run to be done, of up to an hour. My role here is to run with one of the athletes returning from injury, they are on a graduated return to running, where pace and duration are controlled. After 18 minutes on the dot, the running is complete. I ready myself for a couple of the runners coming in. With these two, I am taking a fingertip blood sample to check in with the intensity of their running. When at altitude exercise is harder and so the pace at which you need to run at is slower. It is easy to run harder than your given training zone. With the camp being an ideal opportunity to get aerobic development in, we want to ensure that the athletes are getting the right stimulus.
Time for some testing and so the science comes out. There are a number of the group that are unable to run due to injury. Although this is frustrating for any athlete, the environmental conditions of being at altitude can still be utilised to achieve physiological adaptations through cross training. Some of the group have a cross training plan, with individualised training zones, which we were able to put together before they arrived in the South of France. Some of the group have experienced injury since being in the Pyrenees. For these, I run some in field-testing to establish individualised training zones. This involves steadily increasing intensity, monitoring heart rate and taking fingertip blood samples. The athletes then get the pleasure of finishing off with a session. So I turn into Mr Motivator (though my DJ skills don’t go down that well, so that responsibility is taken away from me).
I host a Q&A session for the training group. This is an opportunity for the runners to ask me any questions they may have about the science behind running. Whether that be processes and rationale for training, ways to maximise performance in competition or the little things to improve effectiveness, such as the much celebrated nap. There is a strong turnout for the session, with attendance of a young training group from Windsor. The questions begin to fly from around the group, who are sat in the afternoon sun on the balcony of the apartments. One question sparks further ones, with some athletes able to impart their experiences on to the responses to bring the answers to life a bit more. ‘What is tempo running’ is asked, ‘Should we use heart rate rather than pace to inform our running intensity’ is another, ‘Why do we easy run’ and ‘I’m struggling to sleep here, what can I do to help that’ is another question to be answered. The experience and wisdom of Bud Buldaro and Luke Gunn is invaluable here. They are able to provide coach perspective to some of the responses. The session runs for an hour and 20 minutes and when brought to a close (mainly due to my skin’s relationship with the sun) a number of athletes approach me to ask further questions.
Coach-athlete meeting. I am sharing a flat with the legendary Bud Buldaro who coaches a sizeable number of the runners on the camp. Bud has arranged an athlete meeting and would like my input. The meeting is centered around where the athlete currently is and a review of their targets for the BUCS Outdoor Championships and the rest of the summer season. Pertinent questions are asked regarding how training is going. The athlete has had some lab testing done, which we review. I analyse and interpret the information and apply it in to running, Bud is then able to demonstrate to the athlete that the information explains what they’ve seen in training. Areas for improvement are discussed and a plan is put together for the athlete to target their goals for BUCS and the summer.
Following an evening meal of steak with mushroom sauce, roast potatoes and vegetables with my flat mate Bud (this is my favourite part of the day as we discuss the day and adapt our plans for the next day). I spend some time analysing the data from the 13:00 session and writing training plans for the athletes I saw. I speak with Bud regarding the targeted stimulus of the training plan for the main group and then use this information to ensure the training plans are hitting the same physiological adaptations with an individualised spin, tailored to the individual athlete needs/injury.
It’s been a long day and I’m ready for bed.
The opportunity to be with the group of 50+ athletes, providing support and a resource throughout the day is something we are just not able to do when in Birmingham. It’s an opportunity to engage with a wider collection of athletes within the club. It’s of great value to be able to provide support directly for training, but more so than that, provide education opportunities for these young runners. Furthermore, the opportunity to spend time with and have conversations with coaches, Luke and Bud are invaluable.