Athletics: New initiative to inspire middle distance runners

Hot on the heels of New Zealand's unprecedented achievement of qualifying three men for an Olympic 1500m an exciting initiative is to be launched which it is hoped will aid the development of the next generation of Kiwi middle-distance athletes.

Athletics NZ plans to run a two month residential training hub at the turn of the year based out of Wellington in which young emerging talent will be given the attractive opportunity to train and rub shoulders with the likes of Rio-bound Nick Willis and Hamish Carson.

The concept of the initiative was brought about by the New Zealand Distance Running Leadership Group (NZDRLG), who wanted to build on the "collaborative approach" enjoyed by Willis, Carson, Julian Matthews and Eric Speakman who regularly trained together in late 2015 and throughout this year with the goal to improve performances and qualify for the Rio Olympics.

Athletics NZ High Performance (ANZ-HP) Programme Distance Coach, Steve Willis, insists 'the collaborative approach and partnership between the athletes and coaches has proved a "huge hit".

We are keen to see this philosophy expanded, and make the opportunity available for emerging middle-distance talent, their coaches and supporters".

"With the NZ domestic season approaching it's a prime opportunity to capitalise on the excitement our top middle-distance and distance athletes are creating," explains Willis. "The goal is to not only support our current crop prepare for London (2017 World Championships) and Gold Coast (2018 Commonwealth Games), but also help to expose our next generation of athletes to the demands of international competition and to help them make that transition".

"Nick, Hamish, Julian and Eric are showing the value of coming together and investing in the group to achieve something greater than they could achieve on their own. This is a concept that clearly works.

This point was echoed by Hamish who says: "I really enjoyed training with a group of like-minded runners in Wellington last summer. It's easier to get the most out of those grinding workouts training with other people. Hopefully we can have another good bunch join forces in the build-up to the 2017 track season."

Some of the specific details of the distance hub are still to be determined but the two month block will take place from approximately December 12 to February 5 - a period to coincide with the conclusion of the 2016 New Zealand Secondary Schools' Championships leading into the heart of the domestic season.

It's likely that a mix of residential/university accommodation will be provided to out of town attending athletes who can stay for any amount of time within the period. Post Rio ANZ-HP will determine the level of support available across the various tiers of athletes attending, and it is likely that performance therapy support will also be on hand.

According to Willis, the initiative will seek to fulfil four key aspects with the first to target athlete development both in terms of elite and emerging distance talent. He believes that younger athletes from countries in the Northern Hemisphere often have greater natural opportunities to train alongside elite athletes because their seasons are not split between domestic and international campaigns. This initiative he believes will help plug that gap.

"A lot of the time our elites must base themselves overseas and this means the developing athletes don't always get the benefit of 'learning their trade' from our best runners," he explains. "This is a chance for our emerging talent to train with the likes of Nick and Hamish and you can't buy that experience."

Willis hopes the initiative will also have a coach education and development aspect. As the training "collaboration" between New Zealand's elite runners is proving, different coaches can come together and share ideas and approaches. This is something the initiative will further seek to foster by encouraging coaches to attend coaching clinic weekends to be held as part of the training hub.

"We have some excellent coaches doing fantastic work around the country to develop distance running at the moment" he explains. "The goal is to build on this model and ensure that we're not just operating as isolated silos competing for national titles. The initiative is as much for coaches as athletes. It's about sharing knowledge, and understanding different approaches, and taking an athlete-centred approach to raising performance across the board."

With the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games taking place in April 2018 - some 15 months from the conclusion of the initiative the camp can also be viewed as a great opportunity for overseas athletes to head to this part of the world.

Meanwhile, Willis believes the initiative also provides a "problem solving" element whereby athletes and coaches may find answers to specific injury or performance issues they are unable to ascertain from within their own squad.

Broadly speaking the initiative is looking to target athletes aged 17 and above with particular emphasis on the under-18 and under-20 age groups to sit alongside the elite athletes.

Willis is excited by how the initiative could further re-energise New Zealand middle-distance running and believes there is further scope in the future to develop more training hubs up and down the country.

"It makes sense to support our best athletes to be training together for key blocks of time" he explains. "To work together in a squad environment alongside several athletes of similar ability is when the magic starts. We don't have as big a pool to draw from as some countries, but we do have the talent, and the collaborative approach can be a real competitive advantage for us"

As a pre curser to the Wellington hub, Athletics NZ also plans to run a 'pre-season' three day training camp in Hanmer Springs in the South Island in October 2016 (dates TBC).

- NZ Herald

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