The MST Big Interview - Jonathan Wyatt (Part 1)
In this two-part interview the multi-world champion Kiwi took time out from his busy schedule to give us an fascinating insight into his career, training techniques, favourite product and how his inspirations are just everyday people.
We’re aiming high here at MST and when I embarked on the quest to interview one of the most successful athletes of our time I must admit I didn’t wait with baited breath for a swift reply. Less than a day later received a positive and unassuming reply simply asking me what I wanted, and to quote an email from the man “Hi Matt, no problem, I try to be accessible and I think mountain and trail running are worth talking about and telling the wider running community”. Jonathan Wyatt – a more willing and down-to-earth interviewee you will not find.
So now what?! I mean what do you ask a man that has achieved so much in not only mountain running, but road and track; an architect, a designer, a New Zealander that has relocated to Italy, that has literally traveled the globe, interacted with thousands of people, worked with some of the world’s greatest brands?
In part 1 of this two-part conversation we have also been kindly aided and abetted by New Zealand journo Ali Dennis who provides some of the questions which will be co published in print at a later date.
So, take the phone off the hook, sit back and enjoy some enlightening stuff from one of the world’s greatest runners…
Part One – The man, training and racing
AD: Firstly can you tell us what got you into mountain running?
JW: A big disappointment at the 1997 World Champs in Athens – probably one of my few real disasters at a major championship and I was left looking for a bit of motivation. I was well aware of Barry Prosser and Aaron Strong’s exploits on the mountains in this slightly mythical discipline that whoever I talked to that were ‘into’ it were incredibly passionate about it.
Aaron Strong (now one of our countries (NZ) best road cyclists after one achilles injury too many) was suggesting I give it a crack a few times before and so I decided 1998 was about time to see what all the fuss was about.
My very first mountain race was to the top of the Black Birch Range in Marlbourough at the national championship and I was hooked. It combined a huge physical challenge with a sense of achievement almost unmatched as you catch your breath on the top surrounded by the early snow capped peaks of the Kaikoura’s with views to the Southern Alps beyond.
So that was the start, following a solid 1998 domestic season on cross-country I took off in September to the remote island of La Reunion in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Madagaska. This still rates as one of the most interesting places I have been with 3500m metre high peaks and still active volcanoes on this tropical French holiday destination.
I was totally unknown in the wider mountain running community other than Aaron quietly saying to a couple of his European friends that the Kiwi team could spring a few surprises this year! It was a brutal track up the side of an extinct volcano and it was the first of my World title wins so with that I was off on a journey to the mountains.
AD: What do you think are the key fitness components required for mountain running?
JW: Endurance, high aerobic threshold, and speed endurance with strength are key to be able to maintain a high tempo running uphill without recovery is a key requirement. Leg speed and rate of recovery also come into it in descents.
Also there are technical components: such as efficiency in climbing to not waste precious energy so no over exaggerated movements, momentum always moving forward and in downhill running: coordination, balance and relaxation.
I would say that in my case, a large endurance base over many years has given me the strength to maintain a relatively high tempo while running uphill. When you have to continue running for a long period, often for an hour or more up a long climb without recovery, it’s your endurance and aerobic capacity that you are drawing on.
AD: What is your advice to others about utilising their strengths vs developing weaknesses? Do you subscribe to both or subscribe to one more than the other? For example do you believe in the old saying ‘horses for courses’?
JW: I think it will come from people deciding if they enjoy it or not. I have seen over the years excellent cross country runners try mountain running and yet they haven’t taken to it – not because they don’t have the basic attributes but just because it hasn’t clicked with them on an emotional level. If you enjoy off road running and mountain races then that will bring motivations to work on areas of weakness.
When I train for a race I work out what the type of course will be and try to do some workouts that relate to that race. For example at the world trophy in NZ 2005 with the rapid but smooth descents I ran sessions of a 2 min uphill climb followed by a flat out descent with a further 1 min climb following it to get used to the change from climbing to fast descending as well as getting the muscles used to climbing after the pounding of a fast descent.
Normally downhills are not my thing but in that period I was able to work on the weakness so that I was able to foot it with the fastest descenders. So I think that you can work on weaknesses when you have an event that requires that particular skill. By training specifically a weakness can be overcome. Of course when you are strong in one area and the event uses that skill, I would also train again specifically that area of strength as it can always be improved.
MST: You seem to have been relatively injury-free, is this the case? If so what do you put that down to?
JW: No.1. I have a quite an efficient running style and no big imbalances so this helps to avoid stress on muscles and joints, and No2. my training programme has always included off road running and this certainly helps avoid injury by using a softer terrain and also training all the stabilizing muscles in addition to the main muscle groups.
AD: Explain how you have developed your strength / endurance base over the years. Give us an overview from your junior days until now.
JW: Years of running, its pretty simple really, every year of training without serious injury adds to the endurance you can draw on. This is why the best long distance runners and ultra runners multi-sporters often mature in their early to mid thirties.
I started cross-country running and training following the footsteps of my older siblings with the encouragement of dad. Moving to a house when I was 10 at the top of the western hills above Lower Hutt brought two things – a need to be able to run up and down hills (my flat runs still required a 20 min uphill run to finish) and secondly brought me into a group of harriers that were great fun. The club system for juniors is important and the trips away were huge fun.
Then it has been cross country running as the core component / base of my season with track becoming increasingly important as I started to then race in the European or northern summer from ’94-99.
From 2000 I was spending 6 months in the northern summer then returning to NZ for our summer so I began to reduce my racing in NZ and using the our summer to rebuild for every year a more intensive programme in Europe.
Also, I always incorporate flat runs in my programme and try to turn the legs faster – I don’t do so many specific tempo fast flat runs as I used to and it does show on flat races now. But this is something I have only reduced in the last 18 months. Until then I was doing flat tempo work throughout the mountain races and this is important as there are plenty of fast flat parts in a mountain race where after a hard climb you need to recover quick and stretch out in a relaxed way on these flat parts and these parts of a race are where I often make big gains.
Speed reduces with age, but speed sessions are important to keep it at a good level while also increasing endurance over time
AD: Have you learned what your limits are now or are you still experimenting?
JW: I think I have bitten off a bit more than I can chew sometimes with regards to racing but often I have been surprised just how I have been able to respond to new demands. For instance this year I raced a mountain marathon with about 2000m of vertical climbing in under 3 hours and the next day I was able to win a Grand Prix mountain race – and that was with a 4 hour drive on Saturday evening to get to the second race!
I think you have to keep trying new things, experimenting and that keeps you motivated. Running is great in that there are a huge number of disciplines and events to choose from. Track, road, cross-country, mountain running, ultra’s.
In Part 2 Jonathan talks to us some more about his diet, thoughts on adventure racing, product developments and his all time favourite shoe!!
Coming soon on MST