Liz Yelling is a two-time Olympian, Commonwealth bronze medallist and holder of the course records for the Bath and Reading Half Marathons. She is also a highly respected coach, supporting runners of all abilities to improve their running. She coached double-amputee Richard Whitehead to Paralympic gold in 2012 and a marathon world record of 2:42.
Bubbly and down-to-earth, with a warm smile, Liz immediately comes across as friendly and easy to talk to. She was generous enough to travel all the way from her home in Poole, Dorset, over to Cambridge to give a talk to coaches and athletes in early April. Impressively, she made the journey in one day, a ten-hour round trip, only leaving Cambridge sometime after 9pm. And it’s not as if she’ll get much of a lie-in, with her two-year-old twin boys undoubtedly primed to wake her up bright and early.
But Liz is clearly made of tough stuff. She chatted to me about how she doesn’t race much these days, but enjoys a regular six mile “jog” pushing her (fast-growing) boys in a double buggy with six-year-old daughter Ruby on a bike, and often picking up shopping en route. “Last week I put a couple of large 4 litre bottles of milk in the bottom of the buggy and kind of forgot that it would add quite a bit of extra weight.” It didn’t seem to be much of a problem.
It was a real pleasure to hear Liz tell us about her career and the valuable lessons she’s learnt along the way. Her career highs and lows tell a story that we can all learn from, both for training and for coaching…
Lessons learnt as an athlete
1. Don’t underestimate yourself.
“When I was young I didn’t imagine I would ever be an Olympian. It was a long journey,” Liz reflects.
Her career has been full of ups and downs; successes and surprises as well as disappointments.
It took a while for Liz to realise she had real talent as a runner. She says she had fun sprinting at primary school, and her competitive streak first emerged when she kept getting beaten by another girl (she even remembers the name – Kristin Patterson – so the first taste of competition clearly left an impression). Liz first ran slightly longer distances in cross country running at middle school; clocking how far ahead of the others she kept finishing, she began to wonder if running was something she might be good at.
When Liz joined a running club, Bedford & County AC, she first met her lifelong-friend, Paula Radcliffe. They ran together in a girls’ team that won the English national schools cross country championships at Roundhay Park in Leeds. Bedford & County was also where Liz was first coached by Alec and Rosemary Stanton, both of whom would come to have a deep and lasting impact on her running career and life.
Liz progressed, but was still a nervous teenager when she ran her first international race, in the home nations schools cross country championships. Her first experiences of track races also left her feeling anxious, but she persisted and started running 1,500m and 3,000m distances.
Stepping up, in 2000 Liz ran 5,000m in the trials for the Sydney Olympics, but was disappointed not to qualify. It was shortly after this that she decided to focus on the 10,000m, which seemed to suit her better. She finished in fourth place in the 10,000m at the Commonwealth Games in Manchester, in a PB of 31:57. “Although finishing fourth was disappointing, it gave me confidence that I could compete at that level.”A turning point came for Liz in 2003, when she made the decision to focus on winning an Olympic place on the GB team in Athens 2004. Throughout 2003 she concentrated on marathon training and preparation, spending a good deal of time at the altitude training camp in Font Romeu in the French Pyrenees. She then made her marathon debut at Berlin in the autumn of 2003, aiming for the 2:31 qualifying time. Happily, Liz ran a perfectly-judged 2:30:58 in the race (even with a toilet stop at 15k). More significantly, she felt she had finally found a distance she really loved. The months ahead would be focused on the Olympics.
A vital lesson in taking risks came in the spring of 2004, when she was asked to pace the women’s elite to half way in the London Marathon. There was just a slight issue: the time she was told to reach half way in was 70 minutes, but her half marathon PB at that time was 71:30.
“I set off at the pace required to reach the target time. I got to ten miles bang on pace, and just thought ‘oh well, I’ll keep going for another mile’. I ticked off one mile at a time, and just kept going, thinking I could drop out if I had to. I reached half way in 69:58. It was a valuable lesson in taking a risk and not underestimating myself.”
2. Training isn’t always about more. Find your own path and find what works for you.
The Olympic marathon in Athens would only be Liz’s second attempt at the distance. It took place in 40 degree heat, which required specific planning and preparation for hydration and avoiding overheating.
Paula was favourite to take gold, and as a close friend Liz shared the build-up, tension, and subsequent heartbreak.
At the same, Liz was learning another important lesson about setting her own path. As she points out, good athletes share practice, influence each other’s approach to training and often emulate each other. Liz had grown up watching Paula’s approach to training: incredibly hard work, high mileage and high intensity sessions, with a disciplined approach to diet, sleep and lifestyle. But sharing a flat with Kelly Holmes in Athens, Liz was exposed to an entirely different attitude. Kelly was much more laid back, would socialise in the evenings, and was more relaxed about her diet and sleep. Liz saw that very different approaches could equally lead to success, with Kelly Holmes coming away from Athens with two gold medals.
“It was a light bulb moment” says Liz. “I realised the need for each individual athlete to find their own approach.”
3. Learn from the tough times.
Liz talks about having moments in her career that have been dark, but says “How you react is what takes you forward.”
Inspired by Kelly Holmes’ success in Athens, she set her mind on winning a medal at the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne. But it wasn’t going to be an easy ride. She increased her training load in 2005, but after a “disastrous” London Marathon, she succumbed to the effects of overtraining. She had symptoms including a flu-like aching body as well as low mood. She was advised by a specialist that she needed to have complete rest for three months.
It was the winter before she could to get back into training, and with the Commonwealth Games in March, Liz was short of time. Against the odds, not only did she manage to get selected, but impressively she came home with a bronze medal.
Nevertheless, the experience of 2005 hit hard: this was the third time Liz had suffered the effects of overtraining. With advice from a physiologist, she identified the need to mix her training up more: not run hard all the time, but fit in easy days between harder ones. A new approach to training led to Liz’s best running years in 2007 and 2008.
4. Find your breaking point and operate just below it.After the tough months of 2005, Liz now had enough experience to understand and reflect on how to get the most from her training and from herself, from the specific sessions through to the self-confidence to trust her instincts. It was working: in April of 2008 she ran a lifetime marathon PB of 2:28:33 in London.
Liz describes 2008 as her golden year, explaining “I knew what worked for me”
She now draws deeply on the improved self-knowledge to apply to coaching other athletes. In particular, she emphasises that athletes run well in cycles; large cycles. Some years everything goes well, and other years can be full of frustration, but every experience can help you to learn and develop as an athlete.
The cyclical nature of endurance training is also important in shorter periods:
“Marathon training forces you to plan your training. You have to understand the important of rest, how to peak in training, and how long it takes to peak. You have to learn to work in training cycles.”
In preparation for the Beijing Olympics in 2008, Liz was running around 100-110 miles per week. She adopted a 12-week training programme, with a 2 week taper (both relatively short compared with other athletes). She went to train in Florida in order to acclimatise to running in hot conditions, to prepare for the likely heat of Beijing.
5. “It is just running”
“I was in the best shape of my life going into Beijing” she recalls. “I felt confident, and went with a view to racing Beijing.”
She was true to her intentions, confidently taking the lead in the Olympic marathon for the first nine miles. But at mile 10, she was tripped and fell. She kept going, but her arm was very swollen. With a searing pain in her side, she was struggling for breath. What later turned out to be a cracked rib did not stop Liz from completing her Olympic effort: crossing the line struggling for breath, her injury left her unable to sleep lying down for several nights afterwards.
Her 26th position was a deep disappointment, but she swallowed down the bitter pill. When husband Martin asked if she was upset she replied:
“It is just running!”
Liz has tried to retain this attitude, that it really is “just running”, as a means to keep some perspective, and balance out the ups and downs which accompany many careers in athletics (and in sport generally). There are highs, times when everything seems to go well and come easily; and there are lows, when darkness and frustration can take over. But Liz’s level-headed, healthy perspective is to “keep things real”.
After Beijing, Liz’s career gradually slowed down. She made a number more attempts on the marathon distance but was frustrated with the efforts. Her last was the London Marathon in 2012, where she aimed simply to relax and enjoy the experience: “It was a relief!”
Lessons learnt by coaching and by being coached
6. Coaching is about the athlete, not the coach.
Liz, like Paula Radcliffe, was coached by Alec and Rosemary Stanton. Looking back, she is extremely grateful for the huge amount of time and energy that the Stantons put in to their young athletes.
“Alec picked us up for training, drove us around, put up with our teenage moods.”
This made a huge difference to Liz’s ability to be involved in athletics at all: with her parents separated, Liz lived with her father who worked long hours, so she would have been unable to train to the same extent if Alec hadn’t been so generous with his willingness to act as a taxi driver as well as a coach.
But beyond the logistics of getting to training, Liz believes Alec was such a good coach because he nurtured his athletes’ own ability to develop themselves:
“A good coach needs to teach independence, to enable athletes to find what works for them individually. Alec showed this in his approach. He was very open to different ideas, and was willing to take on suggestions from other coaches without being possessive. He was a great example.”
Liz explains that Alec’s approach provided a platform from which his athletes could push boundaries themselves. For example, he would give a basic structure to a session, or to a plan, and each runner could test their own limits as they wanted.
7. Listening is key to good coaching. Learn what makes someone tick, mentally and physically.
“Coaches need to care about their athletes’ life balance, and have an ability to read runners. They need to take the time to listen and to observe, so they can understand how an individual athlete responds.”
Liz also stresses that the well-being of an athlete must come first. She has coached junior athletes, and acted as GB Girls’ Junior Team Manager at the European Championships. She concentrated on getting the young athletes into a positive frame of mind, helping them to relax through laughter and team cohesion. She is wise enough to understand the importance of mental health and happiness above the purely physical aspects of training and competing.
8. Different runners respond to different types of training.
In her own training, Liz found she responded well to high intensity sessions, including track, hills, and 7-8 mile tempo runs. She thinks this stems from a background of intense track-training as a teenager. But when she was marathon training, the higher mileage meant she needed to include more easy sessions and strike a balance.
Likewise, she knows that different runners will respond to different types of training, and it is important to find what each individual enjoys as well as what develops them.
Liz has coached runners with a huge range of abilities, with very different training plans.
“The key, when coaching a runner of any ability, is to understand what motivates them and what makes them tick,” she says. “Coaching involves a mentoring role as much as anything else.”
9. Be open and willing to adapt
Liz coaches Paralympic gold medallist and world record holder Richard Whitehead. He asked her to help him become the first above-leg double amputee to run a three-hour marathon, and she was more than happy to get involved. Richard eventually ran a 2:42 world record.
“There was nothing particularly different about coaching Richard. In training terms, we focused on the same basic ingredients as could be adopted by any elite marathoner.”
But Richard and Liz’s resilience was tested by the London Paralympics, when it was announced that the furthest race distance for his T42 classification would be 200m. Quite an alteration for a marathon runner! After an unsuccessful appeal at the Court of Arbitration, Richard made the tough decision to retrain as a sprinter. With Liz acting in a role of mentor and coordinator, they worked with a sprint coach and focused on strength training. We already know the ending to this tale: Richard won the gold medal in one of the most exciting races of the Paralympics, pumping those now-famous “guns” as he crossed the line.
What particularly stands out from the story is Richard’s adaptability, willingness to retrain and take on a completely different event, and mental toughness to go out there and win an event that was so completely different from his recent distance-based successes. Similarly, Liz’s ability to adapt her approach as a coach and mentor, to encourage Richard and believe in him, is surely an important factor in the magnificent outcome.
What really struck me from listening to Liz was that even with all her impressive experiences and accomplishments, her down-to-earth personality came across so clearly. In many ways this is summed up by her hard-summoned response in the hardest moment of her career: “It is just running.”
At the same time, Liz has never shied away from ambition and hard work. She talks about always pushing her boundaries and testing herself. As an example, she rarely used a watch to pace training sessions, instead just always pushing herself to run the best she could manage in any given session.
“If you can push boundaries in training, it teaches you the mental strength to push them in racing too. You have to learn to override the Central Governor.”
Keeping perspective, being reflective and open to ideas, working hard, pushing her limits, and enjoying developing ability in others as well as in herself, all seem to be strands that have helped Liz to achieve so much while keeping herself grounded.
We wish her and her family all the best for many years of happy running to come.
To find out more about Liz’s coaching business, which she runs with her husband Martin, visit Yelling Performance at yellingperformance.com.