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Focus on the Process

Dr Matt Long provides an overview of a presentation delivered by Dave Sunderland on athlete preparation.

World-class coach, coach educator, and mentor Dave Sunderland recently addressed an audience of coaches as part of the England Athletics mentoring program. The veteran of every major championship was keen to elaborate on what he referred to as When, What, and Why's of training and had much to say about the methods behind the greatest rivalry in British athletics history - namely that of Seb Coe and Steve Ovett.

What is the potential?

SUNDERLAND asserted that the basic task of the coach is to differentiate between what one can affect in terms of athlete performance and what is a given in terms of genetics. As well as facilitating physiological developments, his message was that the development of mental toughness is paramount. "Most athletes will inevitably lose far more races than they win", he stated realistically. "We are then getting into the realms of enthusiasm and dedication."

Long-term athlete development

In terms of LTAD, Sunderland confirmed the trend that, "Early developers tend not to come through, so we as coaches have to work on retaining them." In alluding to peak height velocity as an indicator of biological maturation, he emphasised that coaching 'knowledge' of all aspects of a young athlete's exercise program, including cross-training, was vital to effect progressive overload of volume and intensity. Additionally, he pointed to the need for coaches to draw upon support networks available to them, including physiological testing of their athletes and masseurs.

Goal setting

The process rather than the outcome can be the key, according to Sunderland, who recounted the tale of the late great Peter Coe telling his son to "run as hard as you can for as long as you can" before the 1978 European 800m final in Prague. A young Sebastian was crestfallen in taking 'only' a bronze, having come unstuck in the final of the 100m after a barnstorming 49-second first 400m. Despite his loss to the East German, Olaf Beyer, and compatriot Steve Ovett, Sunderland maintains that Coe senior set his young charge a process goal. This would reap dividends in terms of a two-lap world record in Oslo a year later because they had worked on what was required to maintain form over the last 100m of the race.

Aerobic endurance

Stressing the need for a solid endurance base, Sunderland pointed to Coe's bemoaning of many endurance athletes' lack of participation in cross-country races. "It's one of the reasons for his great aerobic base, and along with his conditioning which enabled Coe to run seven races in a handful of days in Los Angeles and retain his 1500m title with one of his fastest ever times."

Speed endurance

As well as event-specific training for race pace simulation, the man who was a national coach for no less than 15 years stressed the necessity for coach and athlete to disaggregate the notion of 'speed endurance' in the following ways:

  • Quality repetitions such as 2x1000m with complete recovery
  • Split intervals such as 3x600m (45sec)
  • Pace increases such as 3x600m (32/30/28sec)
  • Pace injectors such as 3x600m (30/28/30sec)
  • Tired surges such as 3x600m (45sec/100m cruise/28sec)
  • High-intensity reps such as 3x300m with 200m recovery


Diversity was the key message in terms of:

  • Drills
  • Acceleration runs
  • Flying 30's
  • Up the clock (such as 30m-70m)
  • Down the clock (such as 70m-30m)
  • Skill sprints such as 90%, 100%, 90%
  • Simulation Runs

In pointing to the former world 1500m and mile record holder, he stressed that "Everybody knew that Steve Ovett was going to kick with 200m to go. He was that explosive that he got 10m on them and didn't need to pull away more. That was because he worked diligently on acceleration runs indoors at Crystal Palace in the 1970s."

Strength, endurance and power

Recounting his twice-yearly visits to Merthyr Mawr in South Wales with the late Harry Wilson who guided Ovett to Moscow Olympic 800m gold, Sunderland remembers: "We always took the thigh circumference of athletes and equated them to their time up the legendary Big Dipper. Steve came out tops on both lists, which were an indicator of his power. He and Coe used hill running because it's one of the best all-around ways to get fit and stay fit. To develop his power further, Coe also did bounding and depth-jumping, but only after years of conditioning, as this type of training should only be done with a maturely experienced athlete."

Acclimatisation training

The National Coach Mentor encouraged coaches to consider the above notion much more broadly than its automatic association with training and altitude. For him, 'acclimatisation training' is about breeding familiarity with race-specific conditions. He adds: "I had Lynsey Sharp doing BUCS last May so that she would get the feel of the Olympic stadium and the procedures involved. It's incredible how many athletes get to championships with no specific training plan for when they get there!"


In terms of tactics, Sunderland says: "The 800m is more difficult than the 1500m because if you make one mistake over two laps, you are dead. Coaches have to engender greater tactical awareness among younger athletes. A young Coe learned how to win by running both from the front and by 'sitting in' and kicking." Sunderland feels that championship level competition offers a specific challenge negotiating a way through the rounds. Drawing upon decades of experience in managing Staffordshire schools' teams notes that, "Lots of fastest losers in English schools heats and semi's get it right by going on to gain a medal in the final. At the world-class level, tactical running through the rounds was displayed by East Germany's Jurgen Straub in the heats of the Moscow Olympic 1500m. He ran Ovett close deliberately in their first-round heat, forcing the Brighton man to exert himself to extend his unbeaten run at a distance. As a result, Ovett was tired by the day of the final, and Straub ended up grabbing an unexpected silver medal, pushing Steve himself back into third place".

Coaching inspiration

Like many other coaches of note, Sunderland professed to an eclectic approach of "taking bits from everybody" but noted the influence of Australian Percy Cerutty whose 'Stotan' philosophies blended Stoic and Spartan principles and produced his all-time favourite middle-distance athlete Herb Elliott.

Challenging African dominance

He concluded with optimism by asserting, "We can produce athletes who can challenge for medals on the global stage. Look at Fermin Cacho, who took Olympic 1500m gold in Barcelona (1992) and still holds the European record at 3min 28.95sec. If you go into a final global knowing, you can run around 3min 30sec and get it right tactically. You have a chance against the Africans. Opportunities to grab medals exist, particularly in the women's events."

Article Reference

The information on this page is adapted from Long (2012)[1] with the author's kind permission and Athletics Weekly.


  1. LONG, M. Dr (2013) What, When and Why, Athletics Weekly, 28th March, p. 42-43

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • LONG, M. Dr (2013) Focus on the Process [WWW] Available from: [Accessed

About the Author

Dr Matt Long is a volunteer endurance coach with Birmingham University AC and British Athletics Coach Education Tutor. For future workshop bookings, England Athletics Area Coach Mentor, Geoff James, can be contacted at