Friday 28 October 2016

Medicine and athletics the perfect combination

But Mark English has to get balance right in year of the Olympics, writes Marie Crowe

Published 31/05/2015 | 02:30

Mark English: ‘You can always study, no matter what age you are’
Mark English: ‘You can always study, no matter what age you are’

For most Irish people, 2016 is the centenary of the Easter Rising. For people like Mark English, whose careers are defined by tiny margins, it’s much more than that. It’s Olympic year and that doesn’t just mean a chance to compete in a huge event, it means decisions need to be taken and sacrifices made.

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As well as being Ireland’s top athlete, English is studying medicine in UCD and so far he’s successfully managed to juggle his athletics career and his studies. He has three years done and during that time, he’s won two European 800m medals, finishing third in the outdoors last year and second in this year’s indoors.

Admittedly, English does the balancing act well; in fact he quite enjoys it. “The two of them actually help me run better because I always like running and I look forward to going out for a run after college. It also helps me come back and study a bit more because it clears my head and it makes me happier.”

Of course, he’s seen the medicine-athletics combination work for the likes of Roger Bannister. But sport is more professional now and English knows the feasibility of combining the two may not be realistic when the stakes are so high. Sprinter Paul Hession took a break from his medical studies to concentrate on running, so it’s not a road untravelled for an Irish athlete.

“I think I need to be careful next year with the Olympics, make sure I make the right decisions around that,” explained English. “Because I don’t want to look back in a few years and think that I didn’t give it everything in Olympic year. You can always go back; you can always study no matter what age you are. In athletics, you are going to be peaking for about four or five years, that’s it so it’s something I need to look at.”

There’s no definite decision made yet on taking a break, he’s going to think about it over the summer. Of course, it helps that there are plenty of big races that will serve as good indicators to show where he is at. Last Tuesday, he was narrowly beaten on the line for first place in the 600m at Golden Spike in Ostrava by Adam Kszczot. Olympic champion David Rudisha was in the race, but pulled out after 110m.

“My strength and conditioning coach texted me to say I had a grin on my face when Rudisha pulled out, it must have been subconscious. It would have been nice to have him racing to see if we would have beaten him, but we will get another chance.”

The 22-year-old hopes to run in a couple of Diamond Leagues and the World Championships are also looming. English is casual when he talks about certain things, but when he feels strongly about something, he’s quick to speak up. The coverage athletics gets is one of these things, rather the lack of coverage.

A spate of recent articles on English focused on comments he made on drugs in Gaelic games rather than his views on aspects of his own sport. He’s aware that he needs to do his bit to help promote athletics and if that means not commenting on topical sporting issues, then so be it.

“There have been a lot of reasons why athletics’ popularity has dropped. Maybe it was to do with the integrity of the sport with the drugs or maybe it’s because of the great rivalries that were there with the likes of Seb Coe and Steve Ovett. They were things that really brought athletics to the fore. I find when I speak about other sports that the coverage of athletics is overshadowed by the other sport, so it’s important to speak about my sport.”

It’s easy to understand this point of view. A quick Google search of Mark English’s name reveals less than staggering results despite his success and obvious potential. Wikipedia carries just two lines on the rising star. But fame and fortune isn’t what motivates English. It’s about performance and improving.

He is constantly striving to get better. When he gets his grant, he spends it on things that will improve him. Whether it’s going to a psychologist, getting blood tests done or buying monitoring devices, he’ll channel his money into whatever it takes to get that edge.

His attention to detail carries through to his race preparation, too. He will look at the start list. He will look up every one of his competitors on YouTube and study their races over the last year. He wants to know are they psychologically strong in a race, to find any weakness.

English also looks up videos of older successful athletes to see how they ran. In the past, he wasn’t happy with his own biomechanics, they weren’t efficient enough, so he looked at those who had won in his discipline, studied their movements and went to the gym to try and improve his technique. Another rising star of Irish athletics whose biomechanics have impressed him is Tommy Barr. They do different events, with Barr starting to make waves in the world of 400m hurdles.

“He is just so stringy and fluid and that is what you need for 400 metre hurdles. I’m very excited to see what he can do over the summer. I’d love to get a race with him over 400 metres.” Barr and English have nearly identical splits over 400m in the relay and being part of an Irish relay team for the next Olympics is something that English is interested in.

“It is always my aim to do the relay; hopefully I can a run a quick 400m this summer. There are a lot of guys hoping to make the team. I have good history racing these guys head to head. I like to think I am in a good position to do it. Our performance last year at the outdoors was good enough to make an Olympic final. It would be amazing thing to do so I’d like to do it.”

When 2016 rolls round, sports fans will be seeing plenty more of English and whether or not athletics is in the spotlight, he’ll be worth watching.

Mark English is the latest athlete to join the Sky Academy Sports Scholarships programme, which helps young sporting talent to fulfil their potential on the international stage through funding, media coaching and mentoring

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