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By Christopher Kelsall
October 18, 2010
Nic Bideau is the Director of the Melbourne International Track Club located in Melbourne, Australia. He coaches many athletes and is best known for coaching *Cathy Freeman to 400m Olympic Gold during the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games as well as working with Craig Mottram to 5000m Silver during the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games and to Bronze during the 2005 Helsinki World Track and Field Championships 5000m.
Bideau is married to one of Ireland’s greatest ever athletes Sonia O’Sullivan, who competed mainly in middle distance track and the 5000m event to great success. She also raced well in cross-country however, she ran fast times over a great range of distances from 800m to the marathon.
Bideau currently splits his time between England and Australia coaching and working with athletes in various capacities from both countries.
He is educated in journalism and physical education from Victoria College.
As an athlete he competed well in the middle distances at school and has recorded a 69-minute half-marathon. When he decided that he was not quite talented enough to be an international level runner, he turned his attention towards coaching others.
Christopher Kelsall: Has becoming a father made you softer? You have a reputation to uphold.
Nic Bideau: It’s not for me to judge. I really enjoy being a father. My children are great fun. They certainly provide me with a different perspective on many things and help me stay grounded about a lot of situations.
CK: Are the girls showing an interest in sports? Any chance their school will get an international level coach?
NB: Both my children like sports. Our older daughter plays netball outside of school as well as enjoying all the sports at school and our youngest daughter plays basketball and runs cross-country in a club outside of school but I am not interested in coaching them at school. I am quite happy just to be their father
CK: Is Sonia coaching with the Melbourne Track Club?
NB: Sonia is a big help with many of the athletes in our group and she has been a team coach on three Australian world cross-country teams but she hasn’t shown any interest in taking over the personal coaching of any individual athletes.
CK: Her bests range from a very strong 800m in 2:00’4, to the marathon – a 2:29:41. We know all about her incredible career involving many great races in the 1500m to 5000m distances and cross-country. Was her strong range due to a high volume of training year round for many years consecutive?
NB: Sonia was an incredibly gifted athlete with enormous determination that made her such a tough competitor. But I think the key behind her having such a long career with success over many different distances was really because she is such a balanced person who was always able to look at things with good reason and work out how to achieve with the great talent she possessed. This allowed her to keep in touch with other areas in her life. She was never one of those people who could not see life beyond the world of an athlete.
CK: Alan Storey coached her for years, yes? Then did you not take over in 1999? I assume there must have been some unique level of tolerance to volume or key workouts as she was so consistent for so long.
NB: I never actually coached Sonia. Alan took over coaching her in 1997 but it took her until 1998 to accept what he was trying to tell her. Before then her tendency was to run very hard in training. This brought her great success for 2 or 3 years but she started to come apart in 1996, which cost her a good shot at the gold in Atlanta. My role was more in supervising workouts and giving occasional advice and only when asked. Alan knows far more about training than I ever will and the only area I could help him in coaching Sonia was that I understood more about how she was thinking and where her confidence was.
CK: She is still listed as an athlete with Melbourne Track Club, is she competing as a master now?
NB: Sonia doesn’t believe in retiring. She still runs most days and runs in plenty races but not seriously. She just does it for fun. Plenty of runners still love to have her at their events because of what she has achieved. I’d say she is one of the most popular runners to runners over the last 20 years.
CK: A workout credited to you is to have your athlete run 5 x 8 minutes with a 1-minute float. This allows the heart rate to drop - to keep it from racing, you do this instead of having the athlete run 45 minutes consistent. I assume this type of workout is run at AT effort. How much slower is the float?
NB: I have set this type of workout with the 8-minute efforts run to heart rate at AT or just below. The floats are slow enough to allow the heart rate to drop just below what they had been working at before ramping it up again. I set the workout like this because it gives the athlete a distraction from running the particular loop where we do these workouts in a certain time. It helps them to focus on the mechanics of the workout which is achieving 45-minutes with a decided amount of pressure on the heart rather than trying to charge around the course and delude themselves by recording their fastest ever time for the lap we use.
CK: How many times will they run a workout like this during the aerobic conditioning phase?
NB: I rarely set the same workout twice, but similar versions of the same thing. I do this to prevent athletes trying to compare workouts to what they have done previously. You can never show up to training in exactly the same physical condition or state of mind as previous so while we work the same energy systems regularly, I try to slightly alter the workout for this reason. I would have the athlete do something similar to this most weeks of the year. The only time these workouts go missing from the schedule are when they are tapering for an important race.
CK: What would a V02 Max workout possibly look like?
NB: Something like 6x800m uphill runs that take between 2.30 and 2.40 to complete with easy jog back recovery.
CK: Do you ever get into the hill circuit workout of 400 to 800 up, recovery on the flat, then same downhill with strides at the bottom?
NB: Not really. Sometimes we do workouts of 4km at anaerobic threshold (AT) followed by 10x30sec hills followed by another 4km at AT. We do a workout at Falls Creek where they run up some tough hills fast and then on the other side run across a flat plain at AT pace and carry on running fast once they get to a downhill section but that is about the only time we do fast downhill running in training. It’s too big an injury risk to do a lot of it.
CK: When you say at AT pace, do you mean pace or by heart rate or perceived effort?
NB: It can be either but I mean half marathon race pace. We have most athletes tested to know what their heart rate is when there blood lactate reaches 3.5mmol and that is what we use as a guide for anaerobic threshold workouts.
CK: Any bounding drills for your middle distance athletes?
NB: Yes. They do sprint drills at least 3-times per week, but not a lot of bounding. Freeman used to do this and I felt it was very effective. Perhaps it’s something I should consider more for women middle distance runners who seem to have more problems developing the power needed to sprint than the men do.
CK: Sounds a little more like Arch Jelley’s hills.
NB: I once went to a workout in Cornwall Park in Auckland run by Arch with John Walker and after doing reps over all sorts of distances, some drills and some core exercises it finished with a couple of reps up an 800m climb - it left an impression on me.
CK: What did you learn that day?
NB: That I could exercise different energy systems in one complex workout - but most importantly, John told me he really enjoyed it because the stimulus was always changing
CK: In 2007 for The Age.com, Doug Akerly quoted you saying the following: “80 per cent of the people who do our sport (athletics) run races. That's got to be the basis of the sport, and you've got to find ways to get more people running races and enjoying it."
Akerly also wrote: ‘Bideau is keen for the sport to reassert itself in the wake of drastically reduced grassroots participation.’
So has anything changed in the last three years towards encouraging grassroots development in Australia and is grassroots participation as Akerly states, the answer?
NB: In the state where I live in Australia, Victoria there has been a lot of good work done in the grassroots area by making cross-country and road running much more attractive to all level runners in our winter months. But still there is much more needed to be done. We need to be able to offer something to people who may like to run to try our sport and then to continue doing it. The competition is tough firstly to attract people into our sport and then to provide opportunities and pathways to develop those with talent to be very successful at it. I see many other sports doing more.
CK: What successes have you noticed in other sports?
NB: Many other sports in Australia are much more effective in identifying talent and directing it along a pathway towards elite competition, in particular Australian Rules Football. Most of our good runners get there by chance meetings with good people rather than talent ID programs. We have nothing as effective as the US collegiate system that allows talented youngsters to be warehoused in college programs for several years while they develop. Our talent has to become very good quickly or find their own way to get by while they develop.
CK: And then of course there are the post-collegiate programs in the US as well, such as McMillan Elite. Is there anything like that going on in Australia - or do you see a call for it not having a collegiate program like the Americans have?
NB: The closest thing we have to Greg McMillan’s program is probably my group Melbourne Track Club that I run with the help of several shoe companies but no government support. But we need more. It’s particularly important for us to have support because we are geographically isolated from the rest of the world and it’s not easy to travel to world-class competitions. We need to set up bases in the US and Europe just to have access to the best events in the world. We can’t just travel from home.
CK: Where do you feel this support should come from?
NB: Any place we can get it: government, sponsors, and benevolent fans. If I knew where we could get it, I’d be knocking on their doors. We manage to get by but I know if we had the funding of a group like Alberto Salazar’s group in Oregon we could do a lot better job.
CK: Many athletes are very much with you in the idea of having cross-country included in the winter Olympics. Do you know of any organized effort at this time to lobby for its inclusion?
NB: I don’t know any more than you probably do. Just what I’ve read - that Paul Tergat is trying to make this happen. Just about every school-kid somewhere runs a cross-country race at some time in their life - and that alone is reason enough to have it included at the highest level of our sport.
Ed. Note: It was actually a concept broached by Paul Tergat, Haile Gebrselassie and Kenenisa Bekele in a letter to the International Olympic Committee last year.
“From our point of view, it’s a go; we love the idea,” said Nick Davies, a spokesman for the International Association of Athletics Federations. “We’ll see what the winter federations think about it.”
CK: In the context of the following quote were you suggesting the Commonwealth Games are dead or simply too small to catch the eyes of the European athletics organizers?
“The European circuit is the centre of athletics and, as an example, when you are running in Zurich, you never get introduced to the crowd as the Commonwealth champion.”
NB: You only have to look at the results of the last Commonwealth Games to see that many top athletes have now accepted that it is not generally important to the European circuit. In countries such as the UK, Canada and Australia where it is heavily televised, success at the Commonwealth Games means much more than it does to the rest of the athletics world. However, I still think it is an important event - it’s something else we can offer people - an opportunity to compete for your country in a televised multi-sport international competition. Australia should be trying to fill 3 spots in every event at every Commonwealth Games and provide athletes with an opportunity to show they can excel in this type of environment.
The Culture of Athletics
CK: Australia seems to do very well in international competition straight up however, with a small population the results are much more impressive. Conversely India and China with their massive populations don’t fair very well in comparison. Do you think this is a more of a cultural thing?
NB: Yes it is a cultural thing. Sport has a very big role to play just in the way Australians view themselves. To many Australians our image is very much reflected to the world as being connected to our success in sport.
CK: So saying this of a sport like athletics, especially running, do we need more of a message about the simplistic nature of the sport and possible inclusion for all and less involvement from government? It’s a simple endeavor.
NB: I think the government has a role to play because it’s about the health and well-being of people. In general our governments need to find ways to get our society more active and running is about the simplest and most basic activity to do this with.
CK: Is there now school programs with grading for participation in mandatory physical education courses. Is this something you are up against in Victoria?
NB: School sport and physical education was not as well supported 20 years ago as it is now. We went through a period where less funding was allocated to school sport but it is now given greater priority in the curriculum - and this is largely due to the fact that it was so obvious that combined with changes in lifestyle the health of our children was declining. You wouldn’t allow a child to go to school and skip math so why should we allow them to fail develop the physical aspect of their growth during school years.
The Art of Coaching
CK: You credit quite a few people as mentors or people who you have modeled your training from, including Arch Jelley and Arthur Lydiard. The method is one thing, but application and the art of coaching is another. Where did you develop the ability (that you are well known for) of instilling belief and confidence in your athletes?
NB: I’m not sure I can pin point how I actually do this. It’s different with different people. The first thing is belief in yourself. I don’t doubt my own plans. I always expect them to work out. From there coaching is a relationship situation and no matter how much you know there are going to be some people you will not connect with in a meaningful way. Once you’re able to connect with an athlete they are provided with certain expectations that are associated with our group - our brand if you like. And as people realize they can fulfill these expectations their confidence and belief in themselves grows.
CK: You are known for taking all of the different phases of running, ala Lydiard and working on each all the time, throughout the year. During the aerobic phase, do you have your athletes running anaerobically? You have said yourself that avoiding anaerobic work is important so as to not pull down the aerobic foundation that was built via steady volume, as per Lydiard.
NB: We always do a little bit of anaerobic running. Some athletes need to do more than others do. I just don’t like them doing hard anaerobic workouts close to races.
CK: Were you surprised by Mo Farah’s recent 10k UK record run?
NB: Mo Farah is coached by Alan Storey. I suggested Mo came to train with my group for a period and I think he learned mainly about the structure of his lifestyle and the rhythm of training required to become a world-class athlete by training with us. Alan already knew a lot more than I did about training - but Mo wasn’t getting the results because he wasn’t living the life of an athlete. The record didn’t surprise me. I think Mo still has more to do. I could see him setting records like he did that night but also being in contention for the win rather than placing 5th and never looking like the winner. That is the next step for him. To be able to believe he can win against the very best and not just against Europeans.
CK: So is Jon Brown’s 27:18'14 British 10, 000m record next?
NB: Anyone who can run under 13min for 5000m and win the European 10,000m and European cross-country titles has the ability to run 10,000m in 27.10 or better. It wouldn’t shock me if Mo ran under 27min.
CK: It’s an old record and Jon’s best 5000m was 13:19, so this makes sense. Do you expect Mo to take the record soon, perhaps spring of 2011?
NB: I’m sure if Mo were to run in a 10k such as the race where Solinsky ran inside 27min this year he’d have the British 10k record.
On Craig Mottram
CK: What are your thoughts on Mottram returning to the same level of glory he had with you?
NB: It’s hard for me to know as I don’t really know what he’s doing. He hasn’t looked close to it on the occasions I’ve seen him this year and it’s certainly not common for an athlete to turn up to their 4th Olympics and do better than they did at the previous three but he is an enormous talent and I wouldn’t say it was impossible.
CK: Any chance of you coaching him again, if he doesn’t get back to the level he was with you? Obviously there are at least two people to consider a decision like that, but you did coach him for a good length of time.
NB: At the moment I’m focused on the guys I’m working with. I spent 10 years working with Craig and while we got some very good results I’d have to say that overall I was disappointed in the level of achievement for his talent. But that was the best I could do so I think it’s only right he gives another coach the opportunity to do better with him before he’s no longer physically capable.
CK: Yes but he made a tactical error in a very big race and subsequently the split happened. It appears on the surface that perhaps the decision was made in haste perhaps fueled by the emotion of not winning.
NB: I think it’s fair to say there was more to it than Beijing. I didn’t really enjoy working with Craig for much of 2008 and it wasn’t just myself that found him difficult. Many of the guys in our group just found him a difficult guy to be around at that time. He just wasn’t happy being there so it was probably best he moved on. Some of them improved a lot once he moved on and while I don’t know this, my gut feeling is that they may not have had that improvement if he was still working with us.
* Just for the record Nic did not coach Cathy Freeman in the lead up to the Sydney Olympics. Cathy and Nic had split well before Sydney. Cathy was coached by Peter Fortune for her Sydney Olympic campaign.