The British Winter has brought its usual delights of dark, cold and damp days. Caressed by the winds whipping across the Peak District and Yorkshire Dales, Sheffield is able to produce a uniquely chilling version of this type of weather. Precisely the sort of weather that make you want to stay indoors, eat chocolate and watch multiple box sets. Unfortunately, for anyone wanting to succeed as an athlete it’s also the critical time to lay down the foundation to enable you to perform to your potential once the season hits. Which is why Toni is already scrutinising his athletes and making sure they’re on track. It’s the type of conversation that succeeds in making me feel guilty and exhausted in equal measure.

“Constant reflection and analysis of the training plans is important. Are we doing too much, or doing too little? How does this fit with the aims of the year and of each individuals’ athletic career?”

Toni and Karla Training

When he’s on a roll, Toni’s ability to chop between minutiae and the big picture never ceases to amaze me, “How do you know?”

“Being systematic and progressive has been the under-pinning philosophy of my coaching. And the major reason for that has been about making progress whilst avoiding injury”.

“Is injury really that much of a concern?”

“I believe 95% of injuries are caused by the coach”.

I pull up short. This wasn’t the direction I was anticipating the conversation taking, “That’s not going to be a popular opinion”.

it’s the coach who writes the training plan, it’s the coach who decides the amount of stress that is put on an athletes’ body and it’s the coach that decides how an athlete trains.

“I say that because it’s the coach who writes the training plan, it’s the coach who decides the amount of stress that is put on an athletes’ body and it’s the coach that decides how an athlete trains. Most injuries are caused in one of two ways. Firstly, the body can’t cope with the stress put on it. Secondly, the body is in the wrong position for the training load it’s working with. Either way the body breaks”.

“What about the other 5 %?”

“I put that down to accidents, freak incidents”

“Such as?”

“Such as dropping a 2.5 kilo weight on your toe or falling into a bush and impaling yourself on a twig”

“I’ve done the first myself, but the second?”

“Trust me, neither of those are made up”.

I’m tempted to explore some of the other freak accidents Toni has witnessed so I can create an athletics version of the Darwin awards but I stay on task,

“But the body needs overload doesn’t it? Without overload your body doesn’t adapt and so improvements won’t come”.

“That’s true. And it’s the responsibility of a coach to decide how much is enough to create the change, the improvements we’re seeking. Enough overload is enough, too much is dangerous. The success I had with Jess (now Dame Jessica), was all based on taking time, holding her back over her junior years. It was always a case of ensuring there was not too much training, but enough for her to progress. At the age of 13 she trained two evenings a week. By her final year as a junior she had progressed to five training days a week”.

“Six years to add three additional sessions?”

“Yes, six years and by the time of the 2012 Olympics it was up to eleven”.

I sense an elephant in the room. I’ve only recently written up a case study of an infamous injury in 2008 that not only kept an athlete out of an Olympics and threatened her career but also forced her to change her take-off foot in long jump. The case study has been prepared on behalf of a major football club, examining the impact that injury and rehabilitation has on athletes. The athlete in question was Jessica Ennis-Hill. The coach in question was, of course, Toni.

Toni and Jess Review Training

I take the plunge, “What about Jess in 2008? Was that your fault?”

Toni doesn’t hesitate, “Yes it was. We’d only recently gone full time thanks to funding and it meant we went from fitting sessions in between University and work to being ‘professional’. We were able to train every day. So we did. It resulted in training overload and a lesson learned the hard way. A very hard way”.

“Which is how you developed your systematic and progressive approach?”

I made the mistake of getting caught up in the possibility instead of sticking to the process.

“I already had that approach but failed to apply it. I made the mistake of getting caught up in the possibility instead of sticking to the process. Normally an injury would set you back. But almost every year up to that point we had completed the 28 weeks of winter training and preparation. Adaptation had been made, the body was stronger and quicker, technique and imbalances had been worked on and improved.

We just never got the chance to cash in on the hard work, to compete and show what she was capable of then. A great shame and a huge frustration but all smart money in the bank”.

“It came good in the end though”.

“It did, but what I’m trying to say is that the winter months are not about smashing the body as hard as you can. It’s the time to be as smart as you can. Don’t go hard, go smart. You don’t need to vomit and crawl off the track after every session, however tough that might make you feel”.

‘The point you’re making is to try not to put in more than you get out? To ensure you’re doing enough, to stay injury free and most importantly of all focus on being systematic and progressive?”

Feeling I’ve summarised nicely, I’m surprised when Toni interrupts,

“There’s something you missed”.

“What’s that?”

“Mind your toes and stay away from bushes”.