Meet the athlete and coach - Robbie Britton
Robbie Britton is a GB ultra-runner, an ultra-distance cyclist, a writer, a coach and has also recently authored a book (1001 Running Tips - The Essential Runners' Guide). He's also one of the nicest people I've encountered in running (and runners are often exceedingly nice). In his spare time he jointly runs the Fastrunning website https://www.fastrunning.com , an independent running site dedicated to creating great running content. It's hard to sum up his achievements or adventures succinctly. Supporting Dan Lawson running LeJog, running across Jordan and setting a FKT, or ranking as one of the best 24 hours runners in the world are just a few. If you haven't already checked out the films featuring the Jordan FKT or Dan's LeJog epic then you really should. Robbie very generously agreed to answer some of my questions about his life as a coach. There's so much to take away from this interview - enjoy!
You can buy Robbie's book here - https://uk.bookshop.org/books/1001-running-tips-the-essential-runners-guide/9781839810664 and check out other great authors published by Vertebrate Press at this link - https://www.v-publishing.co.uk.
You can follow Robbie's latest exploits on Instagram @ultrabritton.
Robbie at the La Thuile Vertical Kilometre
I’m originally from London, but right on the southeast edge. My Mum and Dad met living in Brixton, before moving out to a town called St. Mary Cray in Bromley. I come from a working class background and I think it instils a lot of the strengths and characteristics that have helped me in my running and coaching career; the importance of community, looking after each other and working hard to keep learning. After the age of 17/18 I’ve moved around a fair bit. I spent five years up in Liverpool for university, studying Geography and Archaeology and then working for the Field Studies Council, teaching Geography in the outdoors and volunteering with the British Exploring Society, helping out with overseas youth expeditions.
I now live in Northern Italy, with my wife Natalie and our hounds Pica and Rosa. We’ve been here a wee while now, moving into a very cheap apartment in a town that used to have the factories for the sportswear brand Fila, but now most of them are empty, hence the cheap flat. For us it’s perfect, situated in a steep sided river valley that has mountains all around. We can get from 500m to over 2000m, up our local peak Monte Barone, in about 8km, but there is also flat road running and really high-quality cycling from the doorstep too.
I’ve often said that I started out as a runner, who did a bit of coaching to support my training and now I’m a coach who does a bit of running and cycling on the side. Funny how things turn out, right? I actually did my first coaching qualifications in my early teens, but within football. I worked with the youth teams of my club, and then coached at university (both levels were pretty much like herding cats with the main difference is that the cats are drunk). I sometimes think my outdoor education training and experience, mainly working with GCSE and A Level Geography students in rivers and the countryside, influenced my coaching, leading to a focus on education rather than just telling people what to do.
Photo by James Vincent - www.jamesianvincent.com
Ten years later I’m still coaching, and I love it. In the last few years, I have completed a MSc in Performance Coaching, with the university of Stirling and the IOC Diploma in Sports Nutrition, both taking a couple of years each. The MSc was huge in helping me not only develop as a coach during the two-year study, but it also provided guidance on how I wanted to keep improving in the future too. I’d really recommend it to coaches within any sport, as it’s focused on how to coach and how to develop as a coach, rather than direct physiological principles of endurance or working with a group, like some NGB (National Governing body) qualifications are like. I also undertook a 2-year post graduate diploma with the International Olympic Committee, focusing on Sports Nutrition. It’s an area that has such a large impact on ultra-running and I wanted formal qualifications to go alongside the experience I’ve developed myself over the years and through working with people like Renee McGregor in our GB&NI 24hr squad.
It’s not just about qualifications. I think the main ways you can improve as a coach is to actually coach people and to work with a good coach yourself. I’m fortunate to have the ear of Tom Craggs, who was on the MSc at Stirling with me, but also work with a whole bunch of wonderful people (who happen to like and be good at running and cycling a long way). Working with, and listening to, a range of people will always help someone develop and it’s been my full-time job for many years now, so I think that helps. It’s my profession, but there will always be more to learn and that’s part of the fun with coaching, especially in a discipline like ultra-distance.
My favourite place to run is anywhere with good friends. Anywhere apart from the A9 in Scotland with Dan Lawson. I’ll run with Dan anywhere, but that A9 was horrible. We have the Oasi Zegna national park near us here in Italy and some of the running in there is bloody brilliant, but equally I enjoy legging it round a park with a bunch of strangers on a Saturday morning like everyone else does too. As someone who’s run around a 400m track for 24hrs you probably get the idea, I’ll run anywhere and find the joy in it.
Photo by James Vincent - https://www.jamesianvincent.com
My own running certainly complements my job as a coach. I’m my own guinea pig for testing out new theories, but also trying (but not always succeeding) to set a good example for my athletes. One of the best ways to learn as a coach is to be coached by someone else who is more experienced, or simply holds a different experience or expertise, than yourself.
I started by coaching a few runners around 2011/2012, then went full time in 2013 after running in the World 24hr Champs. I say full time, what I mean is that I quit my last tutor job and made enough to get by from my sport. That did involve a good amount of sofa-surfing and help from some mates too.
Honestly, the coaching was initially to support my own running career, as many ultra-distance athletes do, and I think we’re seeing it more in marathon and shorter distances too now. It was something I enjoyed doing, but also gave me the flexibility to focus on my training and move around a lot more. At the FSC the days could be pretty long with teaching and prep, so I was squeezing in running before and after, often in the dark for both runs and the odd 30 min run at lunch. I wanted to see if I could progress more if the running became the main focus, but I also had some work with TomTom at the time too, so that, along with help from friends it helped me put the running first.
Photo by James Vincent - https://www.jamesianvincent.com
In ultra-running many see a correlation between an athlete’s own results and their credibility as a coach, but I don’t think that’s too wise. You can be a brilliant coach, but not a very good athlete and vice versa. You can be a great coach and a great athlete, or a shit coach and a shit athlete. If you want to look at a coach’s results to see if you think they’re a good coach, then look for progression, rather than performance (although I’ve not progressed in 24hr running since my 24hr in Turin in 2015 so maybe I shouldn’t say that. Ha!)
The ultra-long-distance cycling has been useful as it’s allowed me to get into new depths of suffering and psychological difficulties on a reasonably regular basis. More so than if I were running for those times (30+ hours, but up to 120) and it’s taught me a lot more around sleep deprivation and fuelling over multiple days, which I’ve needing to use with more athletes as 200 mile races and events like the Spine become more and more popular.
My coaching philosophy is focused around education. Helping an athlete to understand why they are doing the training they are doing, but also to make better choices themselves, then it can help them more than just telling them what to do. I think it’s transformational leadership versus transactional leadership in academic terms, but I try to be there for my athletes when they need me, but not overbearing as most have full time jobs, families, pets and other things in life that are important to them too. I try to support my athletes as they want to be supported, which can be quite individual.
My training philosophy is again quite individual, but is built, generally, around reverse periodisation and the training getting more specific to the goals ahead the closer we get to them. Again, this is all well and good on paper, but introducing a long-term plan, even into a full-time athlete’s life, has to be a dynamic process and good communication and trust between the athlete and coach is important. This has all changed over time though, with a big part of that being the MSc in the last few years. I cringe a little looking back at training I wrote 8-9 years ago and sometimes about how I worked with athletes, but we all have to start and learn by working with people. I like to think I’m a better coach than I was all those years ago. I have quite a few athletes who’ve been with me for many, many years, so it might be best to ask them that question.
Photo by Martina Baronio
As a runner my motivation is very much about self-improvement. I think a lot of us really enjoy that part of it, and it certainly helps with long term motivation if you’re not too caught up with comparing yourself to others but instead looking inward at your own running and enjoyment of the sport. It can be hard to do that sometimes too, when you are injured or coming back from time out of the sport and the temptation is to compare yourself to former bests. At the lower times, during a long term injury, I always make sure to have one thing I am hopeful about, even in the hardest times when it feels like you’ll never get back running. Then I can focus on that positive, and try to ignore the negative voices in my head.
Additionally, as a runner, I’m very much motivated by my athletes and their enjoyment of the sport. Be it someone finishing their first ultra or overcoming an adversity (or a series of them) that neither of us saw coming. The whole COVID pandemic has really brought a lot of the athletes in my coaching group closer together I think, because we’ve been cut off from the usual social circles of the club or racing, but we’re all in it together.
There are probably too many people to mention at this point, but my Ma and my Nan have always been huge influences on my life and I try to talk to both of them as often as possible (often when on the indoor bike as it helps with the miles too and they don’t mind). My wife Nats, but also our hound Rosa, have obviously influenced a whole bunch over the years, with the new addition to our family, Pica, mainly influencing hours of sleep so far. In the sport I take a lot of inspiration from athletes I know personally, friends and people I’ve trained with like Sarah Tunstall and Ben Riddell. Going out on a training camp with Ben and his mates from Manchester is always great with the likes of Dave Norman, Nigel Martin and William Onek really enjoyable people to train with and look up to in their own endeavours.
My own coach Tom Craggs is a big influence, but also other coaches and friends who I work with. People like James Elson, Sophie Grant, Paul Tierney, Majell Backhausen, Donnie Campbell and a bunch of others too. I like to try and build a strong community around me, people who know a lot more than I do about the sport and life in general, but also people who make you smile. In training science and academia there are people like Prof. Louise Burke, who has on our IOC Sports Nutrition teaching team, Dr. Andy Kirkland at Stirling Uni, but also the likes of Stephen Seiler, Samuele Marcora and a load of other people bringing knowledge into endurance sports and bringing that knowledge onto social media with enthusiasm and patience.
The best book I’ve read on coaching is Sports Coaching Concepts: A Framework for coaching practice by John Lyle and Chris Cushion. I referenced it a lot during my Masters: it has a good breakdown of chapters that cover subjects like expertise in sports coaching, developing a coaching philosophy and what coaches actually do in practice. It’s a textbook, but set out in a way you can pick up and learn from different sections.
It feels a bit pretentious to be picking an academic book, but a lot of the coaching books about famous coaches and their athletes come across pretty similar sometimes and I’ve not read a huge bundle of them. I liked the Rainbow Project, by Rod Ellingsworth, talking about getting Mark Cavendish the win at the world champs, but also have a dog-eared copy of Extreme Alpinism, by Mark Twight and James Martin, that was ahead of its time in terms of training for light and fast alpinism.
I read for enjoyment too, so go through a decent amount of fiction, and also love reading about mountaineering and adventure. My favourites are books like “One day as a Tiger” by John Porter and Freedom Climbers by Bernadette McDonald, and a whole host of books that are available from Vertebrate Publishing, like Joe Tasker’s Savage Arena, which made it extra cool to work with them on 1001 Running Tips.
The most common mistake I see is starting too fast and not eating enough, sometimes because they’ve started too fast.
The one thing I think is under-rated is patience. We live in a society where if we want something, quite often we can go get it, if we have the means. Everything can be delivered to your door in a flash, and it transfers into the rest of our lives too, that expectation that if you want something it can come quickly. Running is about bring healthy and building up consistent training over weeks, months and years to try and reach your full potential. Yes, fancy shoes might give you the PB you want a bit quicker, but if you want to reach your true potential then you have to be patient and not rush. Look at Sara Hall and Kiera D’Amato setting American records at 37 and 38 respectively. Generally, we’re not trying to break our national records (well I’d love to for 24hr one day), so time is often on our side, especially if you’re an ultra-runner as you can see great performances by athletes in their 60s and beyond.
Do I adjust training for my female athletes around their menstrual cycle? Yes and no. The research so far, lacking that it is, hasn’t conclusively said that female athletes should be doing X, Y or Z at different stages of their cycle. What I try to do is get athletes to track and consider their own cycle and how it impacts then and then if we can improve things, with the cooperation of the athlete, we do it that way.
When I started coaching ultras, as a lad in his mid-20s, I don’t think discussing periods felt like a great idea for any of the female athletes I coached, and I know I certainly didn’t do anything to try and start or encourage those discussion. In more recent years it’s something I’ve tried to learn more about, with resources like the Female Athlete Podcast with Jess Piasecki and Georgie Bruinvels, as well as research from people like Kirsty Sale, some of the excellent sources of information and actually I’ve found that by sharing this with my athletes, often in our group discussions, it hopefully lets them know that it’s a subject I’m happy to talk about (even if I still have a huge amount to learn).
I actually had a good chat with my Ma about the menopause and how that impacted her, because again it’s not something I know a huge amount about but certainly can be a consideration for the athletes we coach. Learning about pre-and post-natal physio work and a return to play for athletes is another subject I’ve been reading up on in recent years, but I still can’t even start to say I’ve got my head around yet, partly too because everyone’s experience can be really individual in that regard too. Sophie Grant helped me with a chapter in the book focused on obstacles and considerations for female athletes around their training and racing. We chat about menstrual cups for racing and all sorts as Sophie knows I want to keep learning more, but it’s certainly still a taboo subject for many and the more we can do to encourage open communication, the better.
I’m really happy with the athletes I’ve got, a real range of good people who want to keep improving and enjoying their running. I have a bunch of elite international runners and they’re great, but I’m sure a few of them won’t mind me saying they can be hard work at times, as I know I am myself with Tom. We just expect a fair amount of time and effort from our coaches and the expectations can be high.
I’m really content with the people I work with, the likes of Hayden Hawks, Dan Lawson, Sophie Grant and Peter van de Zon and a whole bunch of others who run for their country really keep me on my toes. There’s also a huge amount of joy working with any athlete who is focused on improving and running their best. Some I have seen grow as athletes over many years and seeing them achieve a long-term goal that we set 5 years back, or grab their first international vest, is always a wonderful thing.
I feel like I have untapped potential in literally all distances, but I am an optimistic soul. I still think I’ve got a PB in me at every single distance I’ve ever raced, and I intend to chase them all and new distances too. It doesn’t mean I’ll do anything particularly special at, say, 5k, but I’d like to improve my own best.
My favourite tip is #85: You don’t need a coach. Plenty of people are capable of finding their own way in the world of running, but there are pros and cons to having someone help you out.