Defying Limits - Steve Watmough and his pursuit of peak performance
Meet Steve Watmough, the V60 Masters runner defying the notion that age hinders performance. Despite beginning to run seriously as a V40, he now represents Team GB internationally, boasting impressive PBs of 34:06 for 10K at 57 and 74:57 in the HM at 58. Discover his training insights as he races at the sharp end of his age category. Masters running is captivating enthusiasts worldwide and as Steve speeds into the golden years, he inspires with his relentless pursuit of self-improvement.
Tell us about the training changes you've embraced as a Masters runner. Could you share some insights?
I only started running as a Masters runner after being average in school and giving it up. In my 20s and 30s, I ran random half-marathons. When I reached my 40s, I wanted to stay fit, so I started with marathons. In 2005, I ran the London Marathon in 3.51.57, finishing just behind Adrian Chiles dressed as Huggy Bear. The following year, aiming for a qualifying time of 3:15, I improved to 3:12. However, in 2007, I regressed with a time of 3:18. That's when I learned that progress in running isn't always linear. I joined Warrington AC and got a coach, which made a significant difference. As a Masters runner, focusing on marathons opened up a world of competitive opportunities.
I used to think there was a mystique around marathons, but I've discovered that there's just as much excitement in the 1500m, 3k, or 5k races. It's interesting how in running, you start with short distances as a junior, then move to longer distances including marathons, and eventually, the older guys go back to shorter distances. I witnessed this first-hand when I saw two 92-year-olds competing in the 200m and 400m races in Torun. The 400m race went viral, with Hiroo Tanaka going off at WR pace but then fading badly. He also smashed the V90 record for 200m with 38.79, I don’t think people appreciate how impressive that is.
How has your approach to training changed over time?
As I got more serious about running, my training approach became like that of younger athletes. I began to understand the importance of rest, nutrition, and tailoring my training to suit my needs. My training is conventional, grounded in prioritising consistency, including two sessions and a long run. It’s developed to become more about targeting specific races and working backwards from those events. Competing at local races and winning my age group was enjoyable, but as I progressed to UK age group races, I aimed to win outright. Then came European-level races where it dawns on you just how seriously all your competitors take their running.
How has starting running at a later age impacted your career?
There is an advantage to starting later in that you have fewer miles on your body. If you have natural ability and apply yourself, you can see improvement quickly. I've noticed two types of latecomers in running. Some individuals were talented in their youth, took a long break, and then came back to running with their inherent ability and a good period of rest. Then you have those who have been running consistently throughout their lives. It takes great talent and strength to run for decades, and I have immense respect for them. In the marathon, I've noticed that the 60s age group is particularly competitive. The depth of talent has increased compared to the past, especially in the 55-65 age group.
How do you manage the balancing act of intensity and recovery?
Sensible running has been key for me, especially with the guidance of a coach. Recovery becomes even more crucial after a race. I take few weeks off after a marathon. Instead of jumping straight into intense sessions, because they're on the calendar, I allow myself three days of rest after a key marathon session. Finding out whether I respond better to mileage or intensity has been a challenging process. I don't consider myself as blessed with raw speed and often wondered whether focusing on shorter distances I might have found more speed.
What's your approach to strategy in racing?
In races, I try not to worry about what others are doing. In bigger races like the World Championships and British Championships, I'm still learning. When I went to Finland, I had expectations of medalling, but I realised that all my competitors were experienced and tended to perform well due to their age. I study my opposition and assume they're racing reasonably well. I set realistic targets for myself and aim to be in the mix during the shorter races towards the end. In longer races like half-marathons and marathons, I've learned that it's essential to run my own race. In the past, I tried to match the pace of rivals, but if you're not in the same shape, you can undermine yourself. Factoring in conditions, being realistic about my capabilities, and striving to be in the mix at the end of shorter races is my strategy.
What's your approach to cross-training for longevity?
I haven't emphasised cross-training as much, but I do use the gym at home. I enjoy biking, I'm not a great swimmer so I try to incorporate elliptical and biking workouts. I'd rather be outdoors on the bike than in the gym. As I age, cross-training becomes more important, and now it has become a habit for me to stay fit. Cross-training doesn't guarantee you'll stay injury free of course. I’m currently in the gym 2-3 times a week for core and strengthening exercises. In time, I may have to concede to supplementing my running with more cross-training to maintain peak fitness. I've been hearing positive things about elliptical bikes.
How do you challenge the misconceptions about Masters running?
Many people used to believe that Masters running wasn't serious and just something that old people did. They often dismiss the V35 category and even V40. However, in distance running, some of the best marathoners are in the V35 category, like Kipchoge. Athletes like Chris Thompson and Jo Pavey are also breaking masters records. When you enter the V50-55 and V60 age groups, the competition becomes incredibly fierce. The World and European Championships are brilliant competitions. But it's not all about the elites. What's great about Masters running is that it's treated more seriously in mass competitions. Great runners of their time continue to gain momentum and are taken very seriously. Age groups are getting extended, with competitions for individuals aged 75-80 and 85+. Interest in these age groups is increasing. I had a friend, Nick Jones, who unfortunately passed away shortly after entering the V45 category. He was a quality runner who ran for GB in his prime and became even more engaged as a masters runner, always inspiring me. The British and Irish Masters International Cross Country is one such competition where you have to be selected, and it's highly competitive. Overall, I think Masters events are gaining more respect.
Could you share your most memorable achievement as a Masters runner?
Winning my age group at the London Marathon 2019 with a time of 2:40:39 stands out as a significant achievement. In 2021, I won the open race in the Lancaster 10-miler. Regardless of the level of competition, it's always nice to win, even if the field wasn’t the strongest. However, my most memorable achievement is winning the International Cross Country as a V60 runner. It was a race that we had all targeted, and many respected runners turned up. To win that race, surpassing my competitors is something I rank as my greatest accomplishment. Unfortunately, I suffered a hamstring injury four days later, which meant I had to drop out of the Valencia marathon. This experience taught me to appreciate the joy and victories in running because you never know what challenges lie ahead.
What are your future goals and plans?
My main target is to go back to Valencia in December this year. I've been eyeing the V60 record for the marathon, which was previously 2:45 until September last year when it was reduced to 2:39. It's a tough target, but I'll keep it in sight for as long as I can. I also hope to participate in the International Cross Country again and focus on shorter-distance races in the summer to regain my speed, depending on how my injury settles. I'm considering competing in the European Masters in Italy at the end of September.