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'We have athletes but they can’t play, we've produced robots'

Leading strength and conditioning coach Mike McGurn talks fitness and nutrition, and brings us through his turbulent career.

HE’S WORKED WITH some of the best athletes this country has produced.

4K1A9295 (1) Mike McGurn.

He’s worked with some of the most successful teams across different sports through the years, both at home and overseas.

And there’s no sign of him stopping anytime soon.

Leading strength and conditioning coach Mike McGurn is currently working with international elite athletes in Queens University, Belfast. The college have an Elite Athlete Programme in place where international standard athletes across the boards have their strength and conditioning provided, and McGurn is the service provider.

Among the athletes he’s coaching at the minute are rower Sam McKeown, swimmer Curtis Coulter, Irish national 400m champion Christine McMahon, Irish fencing champion Stephen Brown and golfer Jessica Ross.

When he’s not working with the cream of the crop in Queens, he spends a lot of his time working with former Manchester United coach Mick Clegg.

A fitness coach under Alex Ferguson, Clegg oversaw Roy Keane, David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo’s training to name but a few.

“I’ve a lot going on but all good,” McGurn tells The42.

“Myself and Mick do a lot of work in Europe on cognitive training for soccer. I’m with the Queens athletes then during the week so there’s a lot of variety in that, and I’m away in Europe most weekends.

“If I’m not in Europe I do a bit of work for a Dublin company called KG Elite. I also work with Under Armour, they sponsor me so I do a lot of work with their athletes as well.”

He’s a busy man, but that’s all he’s known all his life.

Mike McGurn with Irish team McGurn with the Irish rugby team in 2006. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

A former long distance runner, McGurn was awarded a sports scholarship to Temple University in Philadelphia, where he spent five years studying and training.

While there, he got involved with the Philadelphia 76rs in the NBA, the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFL and the Philadelphia Flyers in the NHL.

“That’s where I got the bug,” he smiles.

Since his return home, he’s worked with various different organisations, teams and athletes over the years: the FAI, English Premier League sides Hull City, Everton and Leeds, Ospreys and St Helens, the Armagh and Louth senior footballers and Bernard Dunne to name but a few.

One of his biggest gigs to date came in 2002, as he was head-hunted by Eddie O’Sullivan to become the Head of Strength and Conditioning for the national rugby team.

“I was with them for eight years. I did eight Six Nations, two World Cups. I think I did a total of 86 test games with them. It was good. A busy time but a great time.”

McGurn has worked across a huge spectrum of different sports and disciplines, but believes that strength and conditioning work across the board should be more or less the same.

“It’s pretty much the same philosophy. 99% of the sports really create speed and power. That’s always been my thing up until I started working with Mick Clegg.

Through our workings together we both discovered that the one area that we all miss as S&C coaches is what we call cognitive training, actually training the brain. Even though speed and power comes from the body physiologically, it starts in the brain.

“I suppose when we compared notes on the work that he did with the likes of Ronaldo, and the work I did with [Brian] O’Driscoll, [Paul] O’Connell and [Ronan] O’Gara, we found that we had a parallel between ourselves.

“We did a lot of decision making with the ball in our training and we find that produces the better athletes and Mick was the same. The philosophy is speed and power, but in this last number of years I’ve also been doing a lot of work on the cognitive side as well.”

Mike McGurn and Bernard Dunne McGurn and Bernard Dunne. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

A huge psychological aspect of sport is the fact that athletes often don’t enjoy certain features of their training.

Strength and conditioning and gym work is often that area that’s unfavoured. Some sportspeople would rather focus on their actual sport, instead of putting in countless hours in the gym.

Many athletes would rather spend their time on the track, swimmers in the pool and football and rugby players on the pitch. That was the case for Brian O’Driscoll anyway.

“Brian [wasn't a fan of the gym] because of his experience of S&C with other people. His normal gym session was an hour and half, or an hour and forty. I don’t believe in that. My gym sessions last about 25 or 30 minutes but you actually fall out of the gym.

“The way that I got Brian on side was saying ‘right Brian, this is a 25 minute gym session. Get in, rip the place apart and fall out of the place.’

“I can sympathise with athletes that see S&C as a chore because what I’ve seen a lot is that S&C sessions are too long. Any session over forty minutes is flawed. It’s too long.

“Once you go over forty minutes, you don’t evolve any more. You become a thing called catabolic so you actually break down muscle rather than develop muscle.

“I can sympathise with people who say ‘I don’t’ like S&C it’s too boring.” I’ve met quite a few athletes in the past who said that their gym sessions last 90 minutes to two hours, and that’s far too long.”

From Enniskillen, but based in Belfast for the past 12 years, McGurn has a huge interest in GAA and he has strong opinions in response to the issue of burnout and over-training.

“There’s been plenty said about it, but nothing’s been acted upon. There’s a lot of unnecessary training done in various sports. People are doing training that there’s no need to do. It has no relevance to the sport itself, people are just putting time in.

GAA is probably the biggest culprit. I don’t think GAA players overtrain, because when you look at what other athletes do, they train far harder. But what GAA players do do is they under recover.

“They do maybe 90 minutes or two hours training, but they don’t get enough sleep and rest, and they go to work the next day. It’s their environment that’s the problem. It’s the fact they’re not getting enough sleep and resting. They go to bed for 8 hours, get up, go to work and train again, and that’s not ideal.

Mike McGurn McGurn has also been involved with the Ireland International Rules team. Source: James Crombie

“I don’t really feel that they overtrain or burnout, they just under recover. It’s the nature that they do too many nights and they don’t have enough recovery days built into their programme.”

Having spent time in England and America, McGurn feels that strength and conditioning here in Ireland was behind other countries back the but it has caught up immensely.

“The only problem is, we’ve caught up and we’ve possibly overtaken other countries to a fault. Now we’re obsessed by S&C and we have athletes but they can’t play, so we’ve produced robots.

“They can lift weights and they can run all day but they can’t actually pass the ball 25 metres or puck the ball over the bar. They’re doing too much S&C and not enough skill. Skill is the main thing at the end of the day in every sport.”

In terms of his sessions, McGurn splits time 50/50 between the gym and the pitch, track or pool for example.

He always tries to incorporate the respective skill into training also, to counteract the production of robots that he talks about.

“I love being in the gym and I love being on the pitch. It’s around 50/50. I suppose, because of my philosophy, my very first exposure of training any team was with an Australian team.

The Aussies told me no matter what you do, always have an outcome with your training, always have an output of a drill or an exercise and always train with the ball.

“I’ve always been fascinated with trying to create my own training regimes that involves the ball, or if it’s boxing involves the boxing gloves, or if it’s fencing, using the foil. But making it sport specific.”

Training and fitness is obviously a central part of any athlete’s life, and nutrition comes hand-in-hand with that.

Some people believe that nutrition and diet are even more important than the actual training aspect of sport. The opinion of some is 30% training and 70% nutrition, and McGurn firmly agrees.

If you put it on a 24 hour clock, we can only train maximally for two hours a day so it’s the other 22 hours that dictates how good your next session is going to be.

Ronan O'Gara and Mike McGurn McGurn and Ronan O'Gara. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“That involves your nutrition, which would be the 70% and your sleep as well. It’s what I call rest and digest. When you’re not training, you should be resting or eating.

The problem being, in Ireland especially, we’re in total denial in everything we do when it comes to nutrition. We haven’t got the discipline to stop eating rubbish. Our kids aren’t fit, they’re turning out to be obese. A lot of our adults are obese, and that’s just because we eat wrong.

“We refuse to acknowledge it. We can easily go online to see what’s good for us, and once we know what’s good for us we need to follow it.

“But we don’t. We reach for our biscuits with a cup of tea 6 or 7 times a day. Our nutrition is massive and it is 70% compared to 30% training.

“I find our nutrition in Ireland disgusting. I know that’s harsh, but it’s causing us to have early deaths, diabetes, obesity and it’s a real problem within Ireland.”

It’s obviously something he’s extremely passionate about, but his advice is simple: “Eat sensibly.”

“We know what’s good for us and what’s not but yet we haven’t got the discipline to reach for the good stuff and stay away from the bad stuff.

“Eat stuff that comes from the ground, that’s not in wrapper, that isn’t processed. 40 or 50 years ago , we went out the back and we dug up spuds and carrots and we got a bit of meat and put it on the plate, and that’s fine.

“But now, we’re eating chips, crisps, burgers and stuff that’s been processed and can last 6 months. We know what’s good for us but we haven’t got the discipline to act upon it.”

In terms of his own daily diet, McGurn is quite strict on himself, but allows himself one day of splurging a week — or ’6 days on, 1 day off’ as he puts it.

He brings us through his standard day of eating. and one thing jumps out immediately — he only eats between the hours of 9am and 5pm.

“I get up in the morning and I’ll have a bowl of oats mixed through with peanut butter, some seeds and nuts and a glass of water. And then two hours after that, have a couple of poached eggs on toast.

“Lunch would normally be some type of wrap with a salad, whether it be chicken, turkey or fish included. Mid afternoon would be either another bowl of salad with tuna or cheese or cottage cheese, and then a simple dinner could be chicken with garlic, chilli, ginger with low GI noodles and veg.

4K1A9320 (1) 'It just really annoys me how poor we are with our nutrition all over Ireland, it’s ridiculous.'

“I don’t eat eat from 5 o clock at night until 9 o clock the following morning because we don’t need to eat at set hours, we eat when we’re hungry. Years ago we only ate when we gathered food when we were hunter gatherers. We have this thing that we have to have our supper, have something before we go to bed. But when we look at it realistically it’s just habit. We don’t need that.”

“Then with treats, this is something I got across to the rugby lads when I was working with them, 6 days on 1 day off. You eat well for six days and then you have a blowout.

At the end of the day you’re not robots you’re people. If you are good for six days you deserve that one day.

“We tend to have six bad days and one good day in this country, we fall off the wagon and say ‘ah i’ll start tomorrow’ one day and we fall off the wagon for six more days. It’s ludicrous. It just really annoys me how poor we are with our nutrition all over Ireland, it’s ridiculous.”

As a brand ambassador with Red Bull, McGurn is currently involved with their fitness campaign with FLYEfit gyms.

He takes classes, has a fitness blog on their website and helps promote working out and fitness around the country.

“I took a class in Flyefit there a few weeks ago and did a presentation on cognitive side of training and also the physiological side of training. And then I actually put the people from Flyefit through a session.

“I showed them how you can do a 6 minute workout which is probably more effective than a 2 hour workout and they were absolutely busted. That’s quite good.

“There’s a few Red Bull athletes then that I hope to be linking in with in the future like Joe Canning and Ashling Thompson, which is great.”

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Emma Duffy

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