Matt Long does this piece on the 1994 Commonwealth Champion and current coach of Melissa Courtney-Bryant and Amy Eloise-Markovc, and how he translated his athletic experiences into developing as a coach.
ROB DENMARK- ATHLETE, COACH, AND BOY FROM BASILDON
1994 Commonwealth Games 5000m champion Rob Denmark pulls Matt Long around twelve and a half laps:
24th August 1994. Victoria Canada
Rob Denmark wins 1994 Commonwealth Games 5,000m with a stunning kick, photo by Mark Shearman, used with permission.
Wearing ‘198’ on his red and white Team England vest, arms aloft, and eyes popping wide open in a mixture of surprise, joy, and relief- Rob Denmark (13m23.00s) has held off Zimbabwe’s Philemon Hanneck and compatriot John Nuttall to become Commonwealth 5000m champion. 28 years later he reflects on an illustrious career.
Denmark recalls, “It was the excitement of coming down the home straight and realizing I was actually going to win a major championship. I just hit this wall of noise and I don’t want to sound arrogant but I knew I was going to win. The emotion just poured out. I was just a normal lad from Essex. I always aspired to be a champion but couldn’t quite believe I’d actually done it”.
The famed kick
Denmark ran the last 200m of his Victoria win in close to 25s flat and was known as a proverbial ‘kicker’ to be feared. With a laugh, he says, “I got the jump on Hanneck from Zimbabwe with 200m to go and just kept it going”. When pressed he says whilst he always worked his lactic energy system to develop fast twitch fibers that in reality, “I would get annihilated by training partners over 50m-100m sprints. I tended to try and develop my basic speed through hill work and resistance training. For me, it’s the mechanics of being able to push off the ground”.
Significantly, fans may forget that Denmark took silver in the European championships in Helsinki just weeks before his ultimate triumph in Victoria. He recalls that “Tactically I ran the race poorly. I was tracking Dieter Bauman and got boxed in with about 450m to go and was caught out. It helped me get things to spot on a few weeks later though”.
Rob was coached by his father David Denmark between the ages of 16 and 33. With an affectionate smile he says, “My father was always learning on the job. The dynamic worked. Rob says that there was a clear demarcation between David being coached at the track where he would not be challenged and Dad at home where the relationship was more fluid. Denmark senior was heavily influenced by the development of multi-paced training advocated by the founder of the British Milers’ club, Frank Horwill. Horwill worked closely with Peter Coe, who used the 5 paced multi-tier system with his own son, Sebastian Coe, who of course became the only man to successfully retain an Olympic 1500m title in Los Angeles back in 1984.
So how has his father’s influence, together with his own international career shaped his own philosophy of coaching with the likes of Team GB internationals Melissa Courtney-Bryant and Amy Eloise-Markovc? With typical self-deprecation, he confesses that “I never set out to be a coach. To be honest I didn’t think I had the right characteristics as I considered myself to be too selfish having been an athlete. The man who placed a respectable 7th in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics feels that steering athletes away from overtraining is one of his biggest assets because, “as an athlete, at times I gave myself no space to adapt”.
Denmark’s summer of success back in 1994 saw him averaging around 110km per week, a figure which was considerably exceeded in the preceding winter months. “I made the mistake of running around 190km per week at one point of my career,” he discloses before adding that, “My optimum mileage to get the physiological benefits needed was around 140km per week. It’s one of the things I try and inculcate in my athletes as a coach. A big aerobic base is paramount but mileage is a tool- a means to an end-, not something to get obsessed about”. As a coach Rob advocates Holmer-style fartlek running, progression running and threshold running as being instrumental in the aerobic development of the athlete.
Rob is an advocate of retaining a strong aerobic element in the strength endurance work that he sets his athletes. As an athlete, he ran aerobically-based hilly intervals over a park-based one-mile loop in his native Basildon, Essex. This was combined with more lactate-based work with some sessions involving 25s hill sprints with jog-down recoveries or simultaneously 50s hill sprints to facilitate the development of local muscular endurance.
Without hesitation, Rob stresses that “I hang my hat on V02 max as a coach. Mine was 86 when I was 21 years of age”. The man who took a world indoor 3000m bronze medal in 1991 maintains that for the serious 5k runner, 3k speed is paramount before moving up. He discloses that “I was a late developer and never made an English Schools national championships until the under 17 age category. My father made me focus on the 1500m and 3000m and deliberately held me off running a 5000m till I was 21 years of age”.
So what was his ‘go-to’ session? At his championship-winning peak Rob would run 5 x 1k in 2m30s or under with around 5 minutes of passive recoveries between repetitions. He understandably urges caution, however, stressing that, “I was operating at 4-minute miling. The skill for the athlete is to build towards that kind of session by progressively overloading without getting hurt”.
A trip down memory lane
As our conversation enters the home straight and the finishing line approaches whilst Rob says his career went on “too long” (he made the Team England 10,000m at the 2002 Manchester Commonwealth Games) he does say that, “In many ways my coming back from career-threatening injury in 1997 to 1998 meant just as much to me as winning a major title”.
When pressed on what he says as the major differences between the Team GB athletes whom he coaches today in comparison with his own training methods three decades ago he suggests that, “the more scientific use of altitude, cross training, and strength and condition work are all developments from my day when we played with it, to be honest”.
Rob takes a long breath and laughs. “For me, there’s no substitute for running. I just liked to run”. He most certainly did like to run and those of a certain age will tell you he was pretty good at it too!
Matt Long has served as an England Team Manager and Coach and welcomes contact through firstname.lastname@example.org