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Dublin: 7 °C Sunday 26 January, 2020

'I’d have an auld square of chocolate and a few chicken nuggets - it’s not a crime'

It’s all about the balance for Ireland Olympic hero Thomas Barr.

THOMAS BARR IS a name that became an Irish household one in 2016.

Thomas Barr celebrates coming first in his semi-final Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

One of the standout performers in Rio, Barr hit impressive heights and ran a lifetime best to win his 400m hurdle semi-final at the Olympic Stadium.

A day later, he went one better.

He may have fallen just short of a podium position, but the Waterford athlete recorded a new national record and finished fourth in the world. Incredible.

The feat was made all the more impressive when you consider his whirlwind run-up to the Games. He defied the odds in every way possible in a year plagued by injury and other misfortunes.

One thing’s certain — it was his hard work, his discipline, his dedication and great individual efforts that got him there. And he’s not stopping any time soon.

Barr is planning similar feats this year and beyond.

He visited The42 just before Christmas to look back on a stellar year — one of incredible highs but also gut-wrenching lows. But that’s all in the past now. It’s a new year, a new opportunity and Barr is back on track and relishing every opportunity.

Between the track and the gym, he’s putting in a serious amount of training hours. His ‘get it done’ attitude is one that stands to him and it’s clear that he enjoys every minute of what he does, even the ‘winter slog” as he calls it.

“This time of year it’s mainly just about building a base, building the endurance base” he tells The42. ”It’s a tough time of the year, this is when the work is done really.

“We’re in the kind of winter slog — lot’s of long reps, plenty of long reps and short recoveries. So a sample repeat session would be 500m, 400m, 300m, 200m, 100m, obviously as fast as you can do each of those reps, with six, five, four, three-minute recoveries in between. Testing your speed and your speed endurance, collectively.

Thomas Barr on his way to finishing fourth Barr in action in Rio. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“In the gym, it’s again about building the base, build on strength, working on weaknesses and injury prevention. With the gym work we’d have one heavy lift per session and then the rest of it would be working on my hip injury. I have to do a lot of glute activation work and strengthening in and around there and core work then. That’s what I’d work on there, it’s all filtered into the gym session.

“We’re in the gym doing strength and rehab and prehab work Monday and Friday morning. We’re on the track on a Monday for a speed endurance session, we do circuits on a Tuesday. Wednesday we do technical, so that would be hurdles or sprintwork or drills or block work.

“Thursday, we do a speed session on the hockey pitch because the track in UL is a little bit hard so we’re trying to avoid running on that too much. Then Friday is gym and flexibility. Saturday is hill training and I slot in a medicine ball and strength and conditioning session. I do two 20 minute runs during the week as well.”

Every athlete knows that pre-season is where the work is put in, where you build your base for the rest of the season.

It’s undoubtedly a tough grind, and one which many don’t enjoy. Some athletes would rather skip the gym and strength and conditioning work in favour of sticking to running on the track. Barr, however, is happy to oblige and actually likes doing it.

I do enjoy it because it’ something a little bit different to run in. Sometimes you come out feeling like you’re after sweating your balls off, if you’ll excuse that.

“But you feel like you’re really after working hard, the sweat is pouring off you and you’re wrecked. They’re good sessions as well because you’re working on weaknesses and it allows you to run faster on the track as well. Your body is feeling good and strong.”

The slog pays dividends come outdoor racing season, with training itself getting lighter and more speed-focused both on and off the track.

“At the moment we’re in a very heavy kind of strength phase in the gym, but as we go through the summer and racing, everything gets a lot lighter with more recovery and less reps.

“Everything is faster, it’s quicker, lighter and more powerful. Just like on the track — the track and the gym programmes would compliment each other.”

The UL student does most of his strength and conditioning training under Sport Ireland’s Tommy Cummins. A lot of his sessions are with a group — encouraging him to push himself to the limit and ensure that he is ever-improving.

While a lot of the gym sessions are focused on keeping himself in optimum shape and preventing injury, Barr often finds his competitive edge shining through.

“A lot of it is about maintenance. We kind of push ourselves. It’s a bit competitive between myself and my training partners in that we’re always trying to beat each other.

“We record what our personal bests are, or what we’ve lifted for certain things and we try and make it a bit heavier, and if it’s not the strength phase then you’re looking at making it faster. You’re constantly trying to improve on those things, make yourself stronger or faster depending on the time of year.”

Thomas Barr He was given a hero's welcome as he arrived home. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

It’s common knowledge nowadays that a successful athlete isn’t just built on the track or in the gym, other factors from their daily life determine their performance.

Nutrition is one of these factors.

Fortunately for the Olympian, watching his eating habits is another thing he enjoys rather than one he sees as a chore. That being said, he’s a strong believer in the ‘all in moderation’ rule. Balance is a word he touches on quite a lot.

I do enjoy it, but then again, I cook to eat to get by. I’m not going to be bringing out a cookbook or going on Masterchef or anything like that.

“It wouldn’t be overly strict but it’s (his diet) well-balanced and healthy. In the morning I’d usually have scrambled eggs with spinach, peppers and brown toast and maybe a bit of ham or cheese thrown into it as well. I’d have a snack then after the gym, more protein obviously than if I wasn’t. I might have an omelette, or chicken fillet and maybe a bit of rice. Or maybe even just yogurt, nuts, fruit that kind of thing.

“Then for lunch, usually a wrap or sandwiches, protein pancakes, oats that kind of snack. Then another snack — nuts, yogurts, a little bit of scrambled egg if I haven’t had it for breakfast. Then usually for dinner it would be salmon, chicken or beef with sweet potato or rice, if I’m making a bolognese then spaghetti or brown pasta, plenty of veg to bulk it up so carrots, broccoli, peppers, spinach onions, whatever I have there and then usually another small snack before bed, a pint of milk or something like that to give me a bit of a protein hit.

“All around it’s a good balance. Obviously, I need more protein on the days that I have a heavy gym session or fast sprinting sessions, but then for the likes of speed endurance sessions, I need to be making sure I have enough carbs in the system so I’ll be taking in more carbs on those days.

Generally, it’s just a good balance. I did the Masters in Sports Performance there in Limerick, so I have a good idea what has to be taken in on a daily basis. I don’t measure everything, I’m not that precise about it all but I’ve a fair idea about it all.”

With regards supplements, he tries to get all of his nutritional values from food first.

“If I’m in the gym or if I’m at training and I know that I can go straight home to breakfast, lunch or dinner or whatever after training I’ll do that. But if I can’t, I’d take a protein shake or whatever I have with me. I’ll take that with me to the track and get it into me as quick as possible so that I can begin the recovery process. I’d usually prefer to go food-first and then I have a few supplements that I add to the diet, they’re never meal replacements or anything, they’re just an addition.”

What about treats and cheat days? The 24-year-old says there’s nothing wrong with either, and that he’s fond of the odd indulgence every so often.

But there’s that word again — balance.

NO FEE ROCK N ROLL Barr at the launch for the Affidea Rock ‘n’ Roll Dublin Half Marathon. Source: Marc O'Sullivan

“It’s balance, it is strict but then sometimes athletes have the biggest sweet tooth, it’s hilarious. We probably shouldn’t be advocating it but once you have a balanced diet. For me anyway, the biggest things were my meal portion sizes and my meal timings were of massive importance and I’m getting the balance right and my diet right.

Still, I’d have an auld square of dark chocolate now and again and every couple of weeks I might get a few chicken nuggets, it’s not a crime.

“At the same time, when you’re pushing the body hard on the track and in the gym and anyone that’s training on their way up to half marathons, or 10kms or 5kms or anything like that, you can actually eat those sort of things. It’s actually recommended that you get the simple sugars in directly after training, so a few jellies or a square of chocolate isn’t a bad thing. I allow myself a treat every now and again, it’s not something I would strictly cut out or anything.”

With no solid plans for the year ahead, Barr is taking things as they come. He has no official racing schedule yet, but is happy to take all in his stride.

The one event he knows for sure he’ll be competing at is the Intervarsity Indoors this weekend. After that, he’ll be kept quiet until April or May and then it’s all-go throughout the summer as he works towards the World Championships in August.

One thing that is concrete though, is that he’s ready. Freshly home from a training camp in Tenerife, everything seems to be going in the right direction for another iconic season for the Athletics Ireland 2016 Athlete of the Year.

“I haven’t missed that much training this year because of injury, which I might have had in previous years. Training camp went really well. Every day we were in the sun, we were able to cheat the winter a little bit. Motivation levels were high, we were able to push ourselves a little bit more than we would at home.

“At home you have the risk of injury a little bit and you can’t push yourself as much due to the fact that it’s wet or it’s too cold or it’s very windy whereas there we had optimum conditions.  I love the sun, it just gives me motivation every day whereas you’re putting on five or six layers going out onto the track in Limerick every day, it’s a little bit different.

I felt like it really did kickstart 2017 for me and put me in a really good place physically going into January and February and continuing on, I’ll be able to build on that.”

Written by Emma Duffy, with interviewing by Ryan Bailey.

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Emma Duffy

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