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Scaling twin peaks is not quite the challenge it used to be . . .

IN topping the European Championships medal table in both athletics and swimming, Great Britain and Northern Ireland have confounded tradition.

Eilidh Child ran well at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow and backed up her form to win European gold in Zurich two weeks later. Malcolm Arnold believes she can go even faster this year. Picture: Getty Images
Eilidh Child ran well at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow and backed up her form to win European gold in Zurich two weeks later. Malcolm Arnold believes she can go even faster this year. Picture: Getty Images

Their achievements followed an unprecedented Commonwealth Games for UK competitors.

When these championships have been staged close together, optimum performance in both has often been considered impossible, particularly in track and field. Even in the recent past, many elite athletes have been averse to trying both. Think Mo Farah missing the last two Commonwealth Games (but 2010 and 2014 double European champion); Jessica Ennis dismissing Delhi in 2010 but winning European heptathlon gold; and Phillips Idowu taking triple-jump gold in Barcelona before opting out of Delhi. Even in the Seb Coe era, the world 800 metres record-holder tried both championships only once, and aborted because of illness.

Swimming, which stages European Championships in Olympic year, has moved the former forward in those summers to make contesting both more feasible.

Yet this year, UK competitors have surpassed themselves in both sports. Interestingly, the athletics haul which was beaten had been set in 1986 when the European event started little over three weeks after the Edinburgh Commonwealths concluded. The demise of the USSR and East Germany is clearly a factor, but is there more to it?

Coaches have long been accustomed to "double periodisation": peaking for indoor and outdoor athletic seasons and for short and long course swimming in winter and summer. Sustaining a peak for a few weeks is less problematic, though it causes some to think twice, as stated.

Frank Dick, the former UK coaching director and president of the European Coaches Association, is certain there's something to be learned. "In the past there was almost an attitude of getting qualified five or six weeks before a championship, and then lying low. But East Germany would always put in some kind of competition before a championship. For the 1985 World Cup in Canberra they had a camp in Japan: got the time change out of the way, then flew south and had a competition a week before."

Marita Koch's world 400m record in Canberra still stands.

"Some coaches," Dick observes, "prefer a gentle run-in: do the work, have some recovery and then build up again. But in my view the only preparation for competition is competition. And the more intense it is, the more specific the preparation.

"This might be extremely pertinent looking forward. For the first time in these four-year cycles there was a European Championship in 2012, a few weeks before the Olympics. This is going to be the same before Rio. I think this is a serious heads-up. We should look at what the Europeans Championships have to offer as final preparation for the 2016 Olympics, and factor it in. I believe it will become a new approach to high performance preparation."

Swimming may be ahead of athletics here, though. It might even help to explain why swimming delivers more personal bests in championships than does athletics.

Ally Whike, performance director of Scottish Swimming, says it is the norm for Scottish swimmers to have high-level competition prior to major events. While athletes tend to do this individually, swimmers do so as a team. "Before the Commonwealth Games, the last competition was pretty much four weeks out: the Mare Nostrum," said Whike. "That's standard: we look at competition about four weeks before any main event. High-intensity performance is standard: factored into our preparations. Most of our athletes competed three times from five to seven weeks out. Getting used to high-level competition and developing the mindset against the best in the world is essential."

If swimmers were not doing this, Whike would be asking questions. He said it was always intended that Ross Murdoch do the Europeans, where he won double silver. "The Commonwealths were the target meet: the one British swimming is measured on. So it was the more important, but there was enough of a gap to prepare and taper into the Europeans. It was always in the plan, provided Ross swam well in Glasgow. Cameron Brodie and Steve Milne were also given the opportunity."

Milne broke two Scottish records in Berlin having done the Commonwealths, and the fact Chris O'Hare took European 1500m bronze in Zurich, that Lynsey Sharp won two championship silvers at 800m, and then beat the world No.1 in Birmingham, and that Laura Muir delivered her 800m personal best only on Sunday, suggests that prolonging peak performance is not just within current compass, but that high-level competition ahead of the main event is beneficial.

The British coach who has perhaps the longest personal achievement record is Malcolm Arnold. He went to Uganda in 1967 and was responsible for John Akii-Bua, who won 1972 Olympic 400m hurdles gold. He also coached the Welshman Colin Jackson to the world 110m hurdles record and is now mentor to Scotland's European champion and Commonwealth silver medallist Eilidh Child.

He reckons the best this year may still be to come. "I've not been able to do anything more than extend the peak with the athletes I've coached," he says. "Eilidh has not run a pb yet this year, but has held performances in the mid-54 [seconds].

"She is doing Brussels in two weeks and it would not surprise me if she ran her best performance this year there. Then she is doing the Inter-continental Cup in Marrakech and it wouldn't be a surprise if she runs fast there. I don't regard it as particularly challenging for an athlete to hold a peak for a couple of months."

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