Everyone should try a training camp a couple of times a year – look what it does for Paula Radcliffe! It can give you a huge leap in fitness and a great boost to your morale. It can be two weeks in the mountains, or a week on some sandy beaches, or it can be a couple of long weekends at home, if planned properly.
I write this during my fourth training camp of the year, 7000ft up in the Pyrenees at Font Romeu. This is high level training in every sense of the world, as most of the group are preparing themselves for either the European or the Commonwealth Games, but essentially the challenges a runner meets are the same whatever your level of performance. Being a runner is one of the things that defines us. We face challenges, we overcome them, and our self-esteem is higher when we are running well.
If you are building up for a big race in 12 weeks time, the best period for a training camp is in the third or fourth week, so that you can build on the increased fitness in later weeks. The fact that you are preparing for a camp should mean that you maintain or increase your training before the camp, but you should not be tired before you start. The object is to use the time as efficiently as possible, so you will train more intensely on a five-day camp than you would on a two-week camp.
But it doesn’t matter if you can’t afford the time or the money to go to Acoteias or Albuquerque; all you really need is a little planning. If you can find somewhere which is quite isolated it will give you more chance to focus on your training, but one of my athletes, when at college, would have training camps in his friends’ houses whenever their parents were away. Cottages or caravans can be quite cheap out of season, especially if shared by five or six people.
You can fit six or seven running sessions into a long weekend. You should start and finish with easy runs, alternating between hard and easy sessions. If you are running a camp at home, look around your area and find the best long runs and the best places for speed sessions. It is a good idea to have some alternative activities like a swim or a circuit training session to break up the running, and it is a very good idea to have access to massage or a jacuzzi at the end of the day.
Runners rely on their stomachs as much as their legs, so make sure that your menus are planned in advance – plenty of carbohydrate-heavy foods, of course, but also plenty of fruit and plenty of fluid. It is just as important to make sure that it looks good and tastes good. If people cook in advance and bring things with them, it means that you can have more time for your running.
But don't go crazy with that running! The advantage of being in a training camp is that you have plenty of time to run and plenty of people to run with, but the danger lies in our naturally competitive instincts. It’s all very well doubling or trebling your weekly mileage, but you should not be increasing the speed of your running at the same time.
When I was in the Algarve on the RW/Mike Gratton training camp last spring, I ran a lot of miles in a week without problems, but only because I took most of the runs easy and drank plenty of water. I noticed that the numbers out running fell off as the week went on, and our masseur was kept very busy trying to sort out over-loaded leg muscles.
The last thing to remember is that the real benefit of a hard training camp will not be felt until two or three weeks later, so allow yourself a few easy days after the camp. You should not train hard until you feel recovered, but when you do, you should find that you can run further and faster than you did before.