© Copyright – 2014 – Athletics Illustrated
Chris Pilone is a New Zealand based athletics and triathlon coach, who has had success at the international level with the likes of 2004 Athens Olympic gold medallist Hamish Carter in the triathlon, as well as Nikki Hamblin who is one of the country’s top middle-distance athletes. Hamblin’s bests currently are 1:59.66 for 800m, 4:04.82 in the 1500m and 8:51.48 for 3,000m. Pilone also coached Dale Warrander who was a 2:12 marathon runner who also competed in the 2004 Athens Olympic Games.
Pilone competed at a high level for New Zealand and ended up racing in the 16th IAAF World Cross Country Championships that took place in his hometown of Auckland in 1988. He finished in a respectable 74th position. During the mid-1980’s he trained with the likes of John Walker, Dick Quax and Peter Pfitzinger.
A professional coach since 1997, he has guided many national champions in distances as short as 800m and up to the marathon as well as in mountain running and cross-country. Pilone these days is a keen cyclist and recreational fisherman.
5K – 14:07
10K – 29:32
Marathon – 2:16
Christopher Kelsall: It is rumoured that you can be characterised as a wholly uncompromising taskmaster. Is that a fair assessment?
Chris Pilone: No. It is something of a myth. Maybe the result of some stories put around by Colin and Keith Livingstone! Actually as a coach I am pretty flexible and also expect some athletes to provide direction and input themselves. I learned a lot about this when I coached Paul Hamblyn (3:38 1500m). I am quite proud of the fact that a number of athletes I have coached have gone on to become good coaches themselves. Examples of this are Paul Hamblyn and Kris Gemmell (triathlon). Kris and I actually jointly coach an Australian female triathlete. It has been good fun and we work very well together.
I also follow the progress of any athlete that Paul Hamblyn coaches quite closely and when asked will offer input. When Paul and his wife Gabby spent time in the USA earlier in the year I supervised his squads for several weeks. I really enjoyed doing this for Paul. I am very much a part time coach these days but for a few weeks while Paul and Gabby were away I worked full time and must admit it was a lot of fun. Paul also coaches Katie Wright who this year ran a 4:10 1500m. Prior to being coached by Paul she hadn’t broken 4:20. I think she is a big talent but needs to realise she can run well at the highest level.
I do believe in hard work. However, the most important part of any training program is recovery. Without recovery there is no form of adaptation and going to the next level.
CK: Perhaps the Livingstones also learned the hard way and didn’t recover enough back in the day.
Colin and Keith are great friends of mine and both intellectually-speaking are in the genius class. Like most of those with very high intellect though, boring and mundane things don’t interest them. They just don’t do mediocre.
Colin is also a brilliant comedian. Once while watching a track meet on TV Colin provided an alternative commentary which he taped. It was brilliant but couldn’t be allowed into the public domain!
Both Colin and Keith as well as myself at times were chronic over trainers, these days that doesn’t worry me as it proved a great learning experience that helped inform my coaching. It is one of those life lessons that helped me become successful at it. However Keith was pretty talented as a runner and I think he missed some opportunities at going to a much higher level.
Talent-wise I was an average runner who did quite well.
CK: Would you describe your training program as primarily Lydiard with some multi-pace efforts early on, to keep coordination in-tact?
CP: I think what I did as an athlete was not a good example as to how an athlete should train. I had patches of good form but also some horrible downs. Again, those experiences did help me later in life when I became a coach.
My most productive period of time running-wise was when I was coached by Kevin Ryan in 1979 and 1980. We ran together on a regular basis. Kevin shifted to the USA in 1980. When coached by Kevin I ran pretty good aerobic mileage and any speed work was restricted to hilly running or fartlek. I ran consistently well off this type of training.
After Kevin I was coached by Barry Magee. Magee had some strong views on big miles but we also did periods of hill springing and bulk intervals and time trials. I went worse off this format. Occasionally a really good race but some real lows as well.
Post-Magee I drifted to various coaches. The best influence on me was Arch Jelley although he never really directly coached me. I do however, count Arch as the best brain I have seen in all of coaching. This would be all sports, and I have met some pretty good coaches in various sports over the years. Arch also has a very dry sense of humour and there are a lot of conversations we have had over the years which are to do with matters not related to running or coaching. Politics and cricket would top the list. Arch also recognised I could be a good coach myself. Given my somewhat undisciplined approach regarding my own coaching he was something of a genius to recognise this!
A few hours after Hamish Carter won the Olympic gold medal in triathlon in 2004, I received a brief email from Arch. I still regard it as the greatest thrill I have had in coaching. To me it was better than Hamish actually winning.
CK: Care to share that email that came from Arch?
CP: I actually lost this e-mail from Arch. Even to this day losing this e-mail annoys me! It was a typical e-mail from Arch. Brief and to the point but also funny! He must have e-mailed me seconds after Hamish crossed the line because it was the first email I received. The next day post-Hamish winning I received 100 plus e-mails.
After Hamish’s win the second email I received was from Pete Pfitzinger. It simply stated “What do Arch Jelley and Chris Pilone have in common?” I think I replied that Arch had a better fast twitch type of metabolism than Pfitzy as Arch was out the blocks quicker than Pfitzy on the email front!
Steve Hollings who is now the Athletics New Zealand statistician also contacted me. Back in my early days as a coach he pulled a few strings to get me on an IAAF coaching course. This was despite my publicly criticizing him in a magazine article I had written. When I reminded him of this after Athens he replied simply “I always knew you would be a good coach.”
CK: Upstanding. So how about the principles of how you coach now, would you describe them as per above?
CP: A good aerobic base is a must and also a period of time when you just spend time developing that. For example: minimal racing. In today’s environment with the amount of racing athletes have to do this is sometimes difficult. Planning and periodisation is everything in any type of endurance sport.
I am also a believer in optimal volume for a particular athlete. Not everyone can, or needs to do 160km per week.
In a buildup period there should always be some tempo training and also hill training. Most middle and long distance races at the top level are won with a fast finish so right throughout the year there should be some alactic power work done. This could be some very short hill sprints and also some gym stuff, for example dead-lifts, but with pretty heavy weight. This particularly applies to the middle-distance events. Even in Olympic distance triathlon these days we are seeing races won in the final 100m on an increasing basis. Regarding triathlon and particularly men I think this will become the norm and not the exception. Somewhat like middle and long distance track racing.
My main differences to what was published in the early Lydiard days in books like Run to the Top that at key parts of the training schedules there is way too much hard speed work. In today’s environment regarding anaerobic work for 800m and 1500m runners you can get by with much less but better directed anaerobic work.
Also these days for heavy anaerobic work for 800m and 1500m the work has to be split into sets. Steve Ovett’s old coach Harry Wilson was one of the first who came up with this theory. For example for a 1500m runner, 4 x 300m with 45 sec rec., 3 sets of this with 5 minutes between sets. You also don’t need to do this type of work several times per week and week in and week out. It needs to be done very selectively and more than seven days out from a key race.
CK: What would you suggest is a big advancement in modern training?
CP: I think the big advance in modern training is the use of some sort of tempo or threshold running even during the competitive season. Even for an 800m runner this is very important. Maintain aerobic base at all times. Despite some of my comments above, a good aerobic base for middle and long distance running is the key to any good training program.
I also believe that you have to train the athlete for the plumbing they have, not the event they are training for. If you are all aerobic slow twitch, train that way. For example mileage hills, moderate tempo. Be very careful with the hard stuff for this type of athlete.
If an athlete has good basic speed but is a solid distance runner, train that way. Some moderate intervals even during build-up. Not too hard though. This would be for your Nick Willis and John Walker types.
CK: When coaching Hamish Carter – a world-class triathlete and Olympic gold medallist – did you apply these principles to the three disciplines of swimming, cycling and running? Or did he have a separate swim and cycle coach? Regardless, it must be a tricky balance.
CP: Hamish had a separate swim coach in Mark Bone. Mark was a former national swim coach. I did the overall training plan and took care of the individual sessions around running and cycling. Mark and I communicated on a regular basis.
Hamish’s whole program was very aerobically based and he had to be very careful of anything harder than lactate threshold for cycling and running. Even moderate VO2 training could puncture him if done too hard or too often. Also with swimming even though Mark didn’t have access to a 50m pool Hamish used to do some big threshold sets for swimming in the Newmarket 50m public pool.
CK: I assume the very short alactic hill sprints are to give the lower leg some good development as much as any other part of the leg, yes?
CP: Yes definitely but mostly to lower leg and feet. Basic speed is based on three things. Stride length, stride rate and also force that the athlete can exert on the ground. Very short alactic hill sprints and also some weights concentrating on power can make an athlete exert more force on the ground.
Short alactic hill sprints can also be used in associating with other forms of training. For example, before and after a 30 minute up-tempo run.
CK: Who did you pick the hill-strides up from?
CP: When I was coaching Paul Hamblyn, I shared an office with Kerry Hill. Kerry apart from being able to do a very good Monty Python impersonation, was, and still is an excellent sprint coach. Through him I developed a big drills and strides session for Paul. It proved successful but in the later part of his career Paul suffered injuries to his feet and knee. These injuries actually cut Paul’s career short. This drills and strides session was what I would call a stressor session and was pretty tough. It may have contributed to some of his injuries so post-Paul for 800m and 1500m runners in regards to speed and power I went more for the alactic hills and specific weights. Also regarding short hills and some weights were done for power even your very slow twitch type of athlete can do this type of training. They just have to be careful with big oxygen debt type training.
CK: Anyone who can impersonate Monty Python elevates their status. What about barefoot alactic strides?
CP: With strides and fast alactic stuff, I prefer athletes to use very light road flats. Nike used to put out those paperweight things that used to last about a 100K! Some athletes that I coached even though they were sponsored by other companies used to order them online!
Using flats as opposed to bare feet was just for safety; stepping on glass etc.
[section removed – topic picks up re: doping]
CK: Regarding doping, there seems to be a growing opinion that a second strike should call for a lifetime ban of the athlete and potentially the coach, medical staff and agent. If we look at the women’s 3,000m all-time bests the first six were all run at the same time by the same group and never to be contested again. Should there be a provision for killing records that are anomalies without positive test results?
1 8:06.11 Wang Junxia CHN 09.01.73 1 Beijing 13.09.1993
2 8:12.18 Qu Yunxia CHN 25.12.72 2 Beijing 13.09.1993
3 8:12.19 Wang Junxia CHN 09.01.73 1h2 Beijing 12.09.1993
4 8:12.27 Qu Yunxia CHN 25.12.72 2h2 Beijing 12.09.1993
5 8:16.50 Zhang Linli CHN 06.03.73 3 Beijing 13.09.1993
6 8:19.78 Ma Liyan CHN 03.11.68 3h2 Beijing 12.09.1993
CP: Well Track and Field News magazine now do not recognise some of the Chinese times. Apart from possible drug questions I am somewhat suspicious of the officiating with the above times. They were run in China and the athletes concerned outside of China didn’t run nearly as fast.
Statistically, in the sport of Track and Field, there are all sorts of performances which for various reasons shouldn’t be recognised. However how you go about sorting this out would be really complicated and is also something I don’t have a constructive answer to.
Weight lifting tackled this issue by just changing the weight limits for competitors and overnight just wiped all the world records. They just started again with different weight divisions for competitors. Obviously this type of solution in track and field isn’t possible.
CK: What do you think about the term, “World Record” when referring to marathons? For example, Berlin has hosted 9 of 15 of the fastest times. Are they really records if it comes down to one or two courses out of hundreds of marathons?
CP: I think Berlin has set a very high standard in terms of organisation. This includes course and the high possibility of best possible weather conditions. Also other things like pacing and financial incentives. I think it is up to other races just to follow suite..
CK: The IAAF World Cross Country Championships seem to be on the wane over the past few years. What do you feel World Cross needs to bring it back to its previous stature as a world-class event?
CP: Unless IAAF World Cross Country can be added to the Winter Olympics it will die out. The IAAF new qualifying windows for IAAF World Track and Field Champs works against cross country. Also road racing and things like IAAF World Half Marathon Champs have worked against cross country.
CK: Paula Radcliffe and Seb Coe have apparently made some recommendations along this line. Do you think that the Winter Games will eventually get world cross?
CP: I certainly hope so as IAAF World Cross Country Champs has some great history.