Interview with Colin Griffin.

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Colin Griffin is a former Irish international athlete having represented Ireland at the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games in the 50km race walk. He is currently the director of the Altitude Centre Ireland as well as being a Strength and Conditioning Coach specialising in running reeducation with the Sports Surgery Clinic, Dublin. Recently Colin graciously sat down to answer some of my questions.

ES: Colin, thanks for taking time out to take part in this interview. To start, could you give us an insight into yourself, your background, how you got into strength and conditioning and some of your past positions?

CG: I am a coach with roles encompassing strength and conditoning, injury rehabilitation, endurance, performance and coach education.

I am an ex international athlete with over 15 years international competitive experience including two Olympic Games. My event was race walking competing over distances of 20km and 50km. Race walking is a very technical event and I was not the most technically gifted athlete and had to work hard on biomechanics. So I had a great curiosity about human movement and from very early in my career had a strong appreciation for strength and conditioning. Throughout my senior international career I was also actively coaching at international level.

I come from a sporting family – my mother competed internationally for Ireland from 400m up to Marathon and my dad was president of Athletics Ireland, twice Irish Olympic team coach and was director of coaching with Athletics Ireland in the 1970’s and 1980’s. My uncles played inter-county football – one of whom was Leitrim’s first All star back in 1990. My family sporting background has been my biggest influence and inspiration as an athlete and a coach.

My competitve athletics career began to wind down in 2013. I had started my own business and built up a strong network of connections over the years and went outside my own sport to broaden my knowledge and skills. I continue to invest heaviliy in education and CPD opportunities. I have just started a Masters in Coaching and Exercise Science.

My current job at the Sports Surgery Clinic was my first formal Strength and Conditioning role.

ES: You have the unique insight into strength and conditioning from both the perspective of a coach and an elite athlete. From an athletes view what do you feel are the key components a coach needs to possess?

CG: I was self-coached through a large part of my senior career. But it’s important that an athlete has somebody with an objective eye that they trust. A coach must have an open mind, be adaptable to the athletes needs and to a volitile training or competition environment. A coach needs to communicate well and listen.

ES: Athletics is an interesting sport in that at the elite level strength and conditioning has played a major role in athletes preparation for years but until recently hadn’t maybe been part of the amateur athletes training. Do you think this is changing and what common misconceptions and mistakes would you see amateur athletes make when including S&C in their training?

CG: Even elite athletes in endurance sports are very conservaitive with S&C in their training programme with many traditional beliefs and misconceptions still existing. But it is slowly changing with better knowledge in the domain and younger coaches with intuitive minds not afraid to challenge traditional norms.

For the athletes who do include S&C in their training, many spend too long doing things that have little benefit. One example would be a belief that an endurance athlete should just work on strength endurance with high rep ranges. An athlete gets enough endurance on the road and would bebefit more from lower rep ranges of heavier expolsive movements.

ES: What would you consider the basic components athletics athletes need to address when including strength work in their training?

CG: They need to do exercise progressions at a level appropriate to their current competency. If they can’t achieve a good squat pattern, they shouldn’t squat with heavy loaded bar on their back. If they can’t achieve good stiffness during a landing task they shouldn’t do high load plyometrics. An athlete or coach should not be afraid to regress an exercise appropriate to their movement competency and earn the right to progress.

In general terms two S&C sessions per week is sufficient on days that there is no cross interference with other training components. Depending on the time of season, a typical programme should include some power/plyometric element at the start when neuromucular system is fresh and in a more ready state, and some bilateral exercise (squat/deadlift) and single leg exercise. For most time-restricted endurance athletes if they did those components very well, they should get some good benefits. Some upper-body exercise and trunk work would fulfill a well rounded training session. The programme does not need to be fancy or complicated. Just do simple things very well.

Exercises that target individual movement deficiencies can also be included. This can be integrated into the warm-up.

Colin representing Ireland
Colin representing Ireland

ES: You are Managing Director of the Altitude Centre, Ireland, can you give an insight into what the company does and what motivated you to start the company?

CG: The Altitude Centre Ireland provides technology that create hypoxic conditions to simulate altitude that can be fed through a mask, tent or into a room. We also provide a consultancy service. The company was founded in 2011.

I spent a lot of time training at altitude during my career and also used an altitude tent. While I was based at the University of Limerick, I submitted a proposal to build an altitude house on campus as a novel training and research facility. It was completed in 2012. Having had a good relationship with The Altitude Centre UK, who had the contract to install the hypoxic system in Limerick, I set up a franchise of their company in Ireland. I work primarily with elite athletes and mountaineers.

ES: Can you give a brief explanation into the various methods of obtaining altitude exposure and the protocols for each?

CG: The three most common methods are live high train high (LHTH), live high train low (LHTL) and live low train high (LLTH).

LHTH would be the tradtional protocol in natrual altitude environments for a training camp. The benefit is you get 24/7 altitude exposure which will maximise blood value increases and aerobic adaptations. The negaitive is that at a fixed altitude there are different individual adaptations and there is an accululated chronic stress and training quality is compromised while there.

LHTL can be done at natrual altitude where you reside in the mountains and drive down to sea level to train. But you can also use LHTL by sleeping in an altitude tent being able to adjust hypoxic conditions and train in your own sea-level environment maintaining training quality. The other benefit of an altitude tent is that you can have a more indiviadualised acclimation porotocal by ramping up the altitude over a number of days as opposed to landing in the mountains at 2500m and having to curtail training for first few days due to acclimation stress. LHTL achieves more aerobic endurance adaptations.

LLTH can be done by training with a mask and hypoxic generator or in a hypoxic controlled room. This would be more appropriate for anaerobic or muscular adaptations. The altitude exposure is short and training intensity is high. It essentially promotes a greater training overload by enabling muscle to desaturate further than would so in normal oxygen conditons during high intensity efforts triggering a host of biological adaptations.

ES: What do you feel is the most effective method of altitude training and what is the nessecary exposure to elicit what may be considered significant benefits for an athlete?                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              

CG: It depends on that system you want to train. If its red blood cell value increases or aerobic performance then live high train low or natural altitude training camp would be most appropriate. If its anaerobic performance (lactate buffering), musclular strength, speed or hypertrophy, then live low train high would be most beneficial.

Like any training intervention – you need a block period of at least 4 weeks to see any meaningful benefit e.g. for a live high train low approach – >12 hours per day at an altitude of 2500m+ for a 25 day period is the accepted recommended protocol to maximise blood response.

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ES: Increaisngly, team sport atheltes are looking to altitude exposure to benefit their performance such as the Welsh Rugby team in the their preparation for this years World Cup. Do you think brief exposures such as that will provide good benefit to these players or is larger more long term exposure nessecary?

CG: As we know rugby like most field sports has a high aerobic component required to maintain high work rate througout a game as well as ability to recovery quickly in between high intensity bouts. Bringing a team up to the mountains as Wales (St Moritz) and England (Denver) have done can be risky due to individual varience in their tolerance and adaptation to altitude.

Timing of altitude camp or hypoxic intervention is key as well as god individual player monitoring. Both Wales and England will be using an altitude chamber pre-World cup following their altitude training camp. If programmed well and good individual monitoring in place, this should work well.

ES: Your work in the Sports Surgery Clinic in Santry sees you manage the Running Re-Education Program. Can you give an insight into what this is and how it came about?

CG: This programme was set up by Dr Andy Franklyn-Miller in 2012 and has proven a successful rehabilitation tool for most running-related injuries. Essentially we analyse a runners gait to see what may be causing biomechanical overload to the injury site. Then we alter the runners gait to reduce that localised mechanical loading.

We also prescribe strength training to improve local tissue load tolerance, while also improving the capacity of the runner to make and sustain those technical changes. This is suported by running/movement drills and verbal coaching cues. We advise the runner on their programming. It works very well, has steered many athletes clear of injections, surgeries and other invasive interventions. But it requires ownership, motivation and compliance on the runners part!

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ES: What are some of the more recuurent injuries you see in your pateints and the common mechanisms behind these?

CG: Shin pain, calf pain, achilles tendinopathy, Anterior knee pain, IT Band syndrome, hamstring tendinopathy, hip tendinopathy and lower back pain would be most commin injuries I see. Most of these are as a result of biomechanical overload – high running volume with poor running biomehcanics or poor conditioning to tolerate high running load.

ES: Achilles injuries are something runners will regularly complain of suffering from. Can you talk through your method of rehabing achilles injuries?

CG: We have a very successful achilles rehab pathway that begins with heavy loaded (we find a load that the athlete can tolerate) isometrics progressing to plyometrics towards the end of the rehab pathway. We know now (more than I knew while I was competing!) that tendons respond well to appropriate mechanical loading. I work closely with the MSK physiotherapy department lead by Colm Fuller with running-related achilles patient cases where I have learned a lot about managing these injuries.

ES: Footwear is often a hotly discussed topic among endurance athletes with support for both minimalistic and cushioned footwear trying to fight for dominace! In your experience how much does footwear play a part in someones technique, performance and injury prevention/occurance?

CG: From personal experience and from being influenced by my sports medicine colleagues in the SSC, I belive that choosing a shoe that is comfortable (not necessrily cushioned) is of more benefit to a runner. Only in some cases can a specific shoe design or orthotics help with altering tissue loading.

I generally recommend a light neutral running shoe that fits well, unless there is a logical reason to be more specific with shoe structure. A cushioned shoe will not make up for weak hips. The foot needs some proprioceptive feedback from the ground up the kinetic chain and a heavily supported shoe may dampen that.

ES: Having had the pleasure of learning from you when assessing someones running technique one thing I noticed is the importance of the hips and torso in injury prevention for runners, which is often overlooked. Can you talk through this?

CG: Good proximal control is essential in absorbing and generating force. We look at position of the limb and torso at initial contact. Over-striding as well as a forward lean at initial contact makes it difficult to recruit hip extensor muscles properly as they are in a stretched position. We then look at their ability to maintain good stiffness during mid-stance – when foot is under the hip. If there is continued flexion of the knee and ankle and lowering of centre of mass, this would indicate poor proximal control.

ES: Some quick fire questions!! What are three books you would advise any coach to read (strength and conditioning related or not)?

CG: For general endurance ‘The Science of Running’ by Steve Magness. A modern book from a bright and creative coach. I recommend Charlie Francis book – The Structure and Training for Speed. It’s an easy read and good resource on programming for speed or power based work that has a high nervous system demand. I am reading an old book from the IOC medical Commission ‘Strength and Power for Sport’ at the moment. It’s quite a technical read with a host of contributing authors covering the underlying biological mechanisms in S&C, biomechanics and human performance.

ES: What coaches would you say have been most influential on you from both literature and personal experience?

CG: From personal experience – I would include Sandro Damilano who was my Italian-based coach from 2007-2011. He has coached over 40 World, European and Olympic medallists. I learned a lot from him in physiology and biomechanics which can be applied to any sport. He never planned training more than a week in advance which made me first question traditional periodisation models that we were always taught.

I was also fortunate to have worked with John Kiely. John helped me with my S&C programme in 2004/2005 before he took up his role with UK Athletics. He is somebody I would chat to regurly for advice. He is very much a solutions man and ‘outside the box’ thinker.

As a graduate of Setanta College, I learned a lot from people like Dr Liam Hennessy and Des Ryan. I would also include Liam Moggan often referred to as ‘the coaches coach’ in Ireland. Liam was my tutor for my Level 2 Athletics coaching certication and again last year while I was training to be a coaching tutor. Liam has been a great influence on the people connection when it comes to coaching.

Also my sports medicine colleagues at the Sports Surgery Clinic have been a great influence on me. Working among a top class multi-disciplinary team under the various department leads in a dynamic learning environment has certainly accelerated my development as a practitioner over the past 18 months.

In terms of literature. There are so many. I am influenced by Dieter Schmidtbleichers work particularly how endurance athletes should programme their S&C for neural adaptations. Twitter is a great resource with plenty of good material shared by respected coaches.

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Sandro Damilano

ES: Finally Colin, what pieces of advice would give to aspiring coaches who are still completing or recently finished their studies?

CG: Keep investing in yourself, get coaching, knock on doors, network well and be patient. Gaining practical experience in front line coaching is vital alongside an acedemic qualification. You need to be develop good communication and social skills which can only be acquired through practical experience. Also practice what you preach. Look after your health and physical fitness. It can be a demanding job and you need to set a good example to your clients and look healthy and fit.

ES: Thanks again for taking time out to do this Q&A Colin, I really appreciate it.

CG: My pleasure!

For more of Colins work see his websites and blogs below:

The Altitude Centre Ireland: http://www.altitudecentre.ie

The Sports Surgery Clinic Blog: http://www.sportssurgeryclinic.com/blog-research/blogs-infographics/407

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