For the second instalment in our Runners of SOAR series we spoke to Irish international distance runner and sports physiotherapist Matt Bergin.
Boasting a 5,000m PB of 13:47 a 3,000m best of 7:58 and having recently clocked 22:43 over 5 miles, Matt can often be found at the sharp end of races throughout the UK, Ireland and Europe.
As well as racing internationally for Ireland Matt competes for hometown club Bedford & County AC and is a member of the JLF Racing Team - an Elite UK distance running project supported by SOAR.
We quizzed Matt on his development as an athlete, his recent training and racing, and why when he's got his physio's hat on his mantra is always "prevention is better than cure".
Hi Matt. 2020 started very well for you race wise – on the road, indoor track and cross-country - you looked to be carrying forward your pre-Christmas form. Talk us through your winter season, and what it was that seemed to be making things ‘click’ in races.
Consistency really. That and enjoying myself. I was running 70-75 miles per week, week-in-week-out, and doing regular S&C to prevent injury.
There’s a real buzz among the group I train with in Bedford at the minute. We’re all bouncing off one another for motivation, which is great, especially with everyone having to do all their training solo at the moment.
I had a few decent outings over the mud (minus the National XC), and we even picked up a team medal at National XC relays.
The big thing that I think made it click for me recently is just getting stronger. Running weekly 8-10 mile tempos has really helped on this front. I've been doing them on trail loops too - so they're not easy running either.
Also racing more frequently, and not being afraid to test my limits, which I definitely found out in this year’s Corrida De Houilles 10km in France. I went out with the lads that finished in 28:30-28:45 but blew up with a mile to go and crawled in. Then off the back of this, just few weeks later, I ran 22:43 over 5 miles.
What are you up to right now, what had been on your schedule this spring/summer and how have you adapted your training accordingly?
Pre COVID-19 I was moving really well. I was very much looking forward to the road relays – one of the most enjoyable races on the club scene – and then heading out to Portugal for a few weeks of warm weather training. Obviously, this didn’t happen.
I’ve been running with a hamstring niggle for a number of weeks (probably months…) so when races started getting cancelled, we decided to just shut things down. Rest, recover properly and rehab, then build the base. You don’t get many opportunities like this to take a step back from running without it hurting your season, and hopefully I'll come back much stronger.
You’ve been a good runner and active racer from a youth, how did you initially find the sport, and what’s been your motivation to keep on training and racing at high level?
I started running in my first year at Lincroft Middle School. My PE teacher was a big runner himself and got a big group of us into it. Even throughout Upper School I wasn’t really one of the best at school or in the group. But then in my final year of English Schools qualification things properly clicked for me. I went from never having qualified for the event until my senior years, to winning the 3000m in my last year. That definitely made me realise all the hard work is worth it.
You live and train in England, but race internationally for Ireland, what led you to make this call?
My father is Irish and I always had it in my mind that I would make a decision whether to compete for Ireland or not as I made the transition into the senior ranks. I haven’t looked back since.
Does racing for Ireland open more doors or different opportunities than you may otherwise have had?
Yes - Athletics Ireland have provided me with some amazing opportunities. I’ve been on training camps in France and Spain, and I will always race in ireland as much as possible over the summer season. In particular at some of their top meets like the Morton Games and Cork City Sports. They always look after you so well.
Now that I've competed for Ireland a number of times I very much see myself as an Irish Athlete. I’ve also worked as a physiotherapist for Athletics Ireland on several occasions at camps and events.
A few years ago you spent time studying and running in New Mexico, USA. What made you make the move and how did you find the US system of training and racing?
After the English Schools win in 2011 I started getting interest from universities out there. But, I knew I wanted to be a physiotherapist so decided to defer the US stuff until I had my main degree – assuming it was still an option. Once my undergrad was out of the way and New Mexico was on the cards I jumped at the opportunity. I probably have Alex Cornwell & Ross Matheson to blame (I mean thank) for getting me out there, they basically did the recruiting!
In terms of the US system I found it a bit of a mixed bag. The opportunities, facilities and experiences are incredible and I would 100% recommend to anyone. But in terms of the actual running my experience was a bit varied. When the going was good it was very good. But it’s not a great place to pick up an injury….we take what we know as physiotherapists for granted here in the UK.
What did a typical training week look like when you were based in New Mexico?
New Mexico is of course at altitude, 5000ft above sea level, so that alone comes with its challenges. That said, it's high but not so high that you can’t get quality workouts done. However we would only ‘workout’ twice a week -
Track sessions on Tuesdays.
Tempos on Thursdays. Infamous out and back 10 mile tempos on the cycle paths.
Sundays we would travel into the foothills of the Sandia Mountains and run on the rough terrain there for our long run.
Then around these three key days we would just easy run +/- strides.
And what does a typical training week look like now?
70-80 miles per week (when I’m running…)
2x sessions (track/fartlek/intervals)
1x tempo 6-10 miles depending on time of year and upcoming races
1x long run 13-14 miles
Gym 2x weekly
Did this change much in a race week? And what’s your pace like on easy days?
It depends on the race, if it's a big target I’ll have a decent taper, with a day off as well if I’m lucky. If it’s something a bit lower key then I’ll keep the front end of the week the same and then slightly reduce the intensity a couple days before, but then crack straight back on after.
The past year I’ve tried to add in races and just treat them as training sessions if the opportunity arises, like doing the occasional local Chiltern League XC or road race.
On my easy days I’m very much about running to feel. I’ll wear my Garmin but won’t look at it, I normally struggle to get anywhere near a 7:30 first mile or so, then by the end I’m probably clipping along at 6:30s to 7:00s.
Did you include much S&C work, or stretching?
Yep, twice a week I’ll be in the gym. One more weights based, and the second more trunk type work. It’s a fairly new addition to my training though, having begun it at the tail end of 2018. Since then it has probably been the reason I’ve managed fairly well with niggles and major injuries.
In terms of stretching I’ll do a lot of pre run release/mobility/activation type work. During any gaps I have between treating patients myself I will spend either foam rolling or stretching my hips/back out!
Looking back on your career to date, what’s the performance you’re most proud of?
My proudest performance to date is probably my 5,000m at the World University Games. I’d been injured the early part of the season which kind of played into my hands with the event being at the end of the summer season. I took one shot at qualifying for the race at Watford and luckily ran the time. I then went into the championships not expecting to make the final based off rankings, but I comfortably qualified for the final where I placed 10th .
And if you could go back and give your younger self advice one piece of advice on training, racing or recovery, what would it be?
Always enjoy it! Training, racing, trips away – whatever it is you do, if you don’t enjoy it you’ll never do well.
You’ve raced throughout the UK, Ireland Europe and North America, but what’s been your favourite race, and what makes it stand out?
Honestly…my favourite race most years is the Armagh International 5km, which is in a small town in Northern Ireland.
I’m yet to come across another race like it. Laps of just over a kilometre in the middle of the town at 8:30pm at night, under floodlights, with hundreds of locals watching. Followed by beers and food in the hotel with all participants. They love it!!
Is there any chance we’ll see you move up in distance to the half or full marathon?
All being well I definitely think in the next year you could see me doing a half. I was tempted by one this year, but when I suggested it to my coaches they seemed more amused than anything. I think that said it all! Hopefully I'll up my mileage a little, step my long runs up and I’ll give one a crack.
What advice would you give runners, young and old, as they pursue PBs whilst managing work, family and social commitments?
Planning. You know what they say ‘Fail to prepare. Prepare to fail.’
You need to set your goals to start with. What distance/times would you like to run. Only once you know that can you plan your races, your training, and your schedule.
But I would also emphasise the importance of being flexible, and enjoying yourself. If you have work/family/social commitments and you’re finding it difficult to get a run in, there is no harm in missing a day or two now and again. You’ll lose more from worrying about it than you actually will physically.
The other thing is looking after yourself.
As a ‘running’ physiotherapist I see far too many runners that wait until they are injured and unable to run a step before they seek help, it’s often too late then. Prevention is better than cure. Whether that be a regular massage, or a monthly MOT with your physio to fix any underlying issues or strengthen any weaknesses it’ll be worth it long term.
(Ed: Matt is a physio, specialising in running injuries at Witty, Pask and Buckingham)
And lastly, our bell-lap questions:
Tempo run or long run?
Long Sunday Run with the Bedford lads, followed by a full English at the local café.
Track session or hill reps?
Track. Saturday morning summer track sessions. Track to ourselves, speakers around the track. 2-3 different groups doing sessions.
Strava – yes or no?
Yup – love it (apart from when I’m not running…)
Nike Pegasus Turbo. I better not mention the Va…..
And most crucially, what’s your favourite piece of SOAR kit (and why)?
Seamless, lightweight and very comfortable.
Matt will be taking over our Instagram at 10am on Thursday 16th April. Drawing upon his expertise as a running specific physiotherapist he'll be guiding us through, and demonstrating a host of prehab and rehab exercises to combat common running ailments.
Follow Matt's Instagram tutorial and ask for his advice on your running niggles via @soar_running