Louise Shanahan, a role model for athletes on the plateau – The Irish Times

Louise Shanahan thought her time of two minutes and eight seconds in the 800m would be written on her tombstone.

She first hit the mark in impressive fashion as a 16-year-old at the European Youth Championships in 2013. Shanahan, who now holds the Irish 800m record after running 1:59.42 in May , didn’t break that 2:08 barrier for another six years. after 2013. Time has become a brutal barometer of a child prodigy failing to improve.

The sterile race had a devastating effect on a young athlete supposedly destined for greater things. As a Tokyo 2020 appearance and as the Irish record shows, Shanahan clearly was, but it didn’t look like that between the ages of 16 and 22.

Now 25, in the span of three years, Shanahan has gone from failing to improve in his teenage years to running at the Olympics, to entering the under-two-minute club and earning a first appearance at the World Championships. in Thursday’s 800m heats.

Now that she’s out the other side, Shanahan calls her 2:08 era her set.

It’s not uncommon for athletes to reach their peak and fail to improve on it. it is unrealistic to expect consistent improvement in times from year to year. But it seems odd that an athlete in her early twenties, far from her physical peak, would sit still for so long.

Shanahan thinks she’s not the only one who didn’t record better times when she was still young. Individual circumstances dictate different stories, but she spotted a trend in young women, particularly those who take time to improve and feel the conversation around these athletes needs to change.

“I put a chart of my yearly progress on Instagram and a lot of people came to me and said they showed it to their sister or girlfriend or their club athletes and it really helped them,” says she. “Clearly there are people on set who have seen it. This is the graphic I needed when I was 16, if I had received it it would have made those years easier for me, so I would be happy to help young athletes.

Georgie Hartigan, another middle-distance runner on the Irish scene, followed a similar process, running 2:06 for three consecutive years from the age of 20 to 23. Now 26, she is still trying to figure out why.

“Our bodies definitely experience a performance decline around 18, 19, 20,” she explains. “I don’t know why I couldn’t run better and then all of a sudden my body got on the right track.”

Both runners hint that this plateau is a women-specific issue. Shanahan thinks the reason has to do with physiological changes in teenage girls.

“I’m no expert on this, but the changes for girls and boys at puberty happen at different rates during their teenage years. The changes for men, many of them like higher testosterone levels, are beneficial for running fast while the changes for girls are not. Often I think a 14, 15 year old’s body is better for running than a 19, 20 year old’s body.

“It’s not true that a teenage girl will always run faster than an adult, but it takes time to build up the strength to run fast in an adult body. Once you build strength, you can improve, but it takes time to get there. I’m a much stronger athlete now than I was even at 20, 21.

“I also do a lot of strength training,” adds Hartigan. There could be something in there. It just took a little while for my body to be able to handle the amount of training needed to train at this level as well.

So if it was a strength issue to be able to run in a post-pubescent body, why not just get some strength training sooner? For Shanahan, a broken foot at the age of 18 meant she was reluctant to overtrain for several years afterwards, plus the mental effect that her plateau almost forced her to quit athletics.

“I think the fact that my coach, who was my dad, kept me in the sport for those years was an incredible achievement. He probably now sees the training I needed to break 2:08 but he also saw the athlete I was during those years and realized that mentally there was no way I could have done that [strength] coaching.

“I’m healthier and structurally much stronger than I was. In a way, the type of training I was doing was not radically wrong. People would love this quick fix and say “she should have run 500 instead of 400 and she would have improved faster”, but things had to take their course. Everything worked.

Belfast’s Katie Kirk has a similar story to tell, but with subtle differences. North of the border, she actually went through an extensive muscle-building program from an early age, but always plateaued. She ran 2:02 at age 20 in 2014 but only did better last year at age 27.

“We have a different system in Northern Ireland,” says Kirk. “We get S&C [strength and conditioning] support from an early age. I was in this system for 15 years, so I did a lot of S&C, so I wouldn’t say for myself that’s why I plateaued.

“After 2014, I had an eating disorder. I struggled with it and then got hurt regularly after that.

“I plateaued for a slightly different reason than Louise, it wasn’t because I hadn’t weight trained or gained more body fat during puberty. I probably didn’t gain enough weight during puberty to be honest.

Different stories, but similar results in terms of final plateau crossing. The three riders also agree on the solution to the cap: there is none. The injuries, the mental strain of high performance, and the time the body adjusts to development will always be there no matter how they manifest.

“A lot of people ask me what I could have done to not have plateaued or come out of it faster and I don’t think that’s the right question to ask,” Shanahan argues. “It was about accepting the plateau and continuing to train and then being ready for when my body was able to handle more sessions to come out of it.”

Kirk agrees: “You want to manage this time better, shorten this plateau period, how can we improve, is it a mental state that is causing it? I would say it’s a mix of mental and physical. How can we support young women through this? The boys too, because they also know sets.

Hartigan brings the issue back to knowledge sharing. “Maybe if there was more coaching education or more telling people if they make junior teams. Let’s not put so much pressure on young athletes.

Education is the crux. All of these athletes had to figure out why they weren’t improving on the fly with piece-by-piece information. Only twice in six years has Shanahan been told what she was experiencing was normal, once from a long jump coach watching her from afar, another from seeing an Instagram story posted by a runner in Australia who was passing by. a similar process.

Obviously, there is some awareness of the plateau, on the part of athletes and coaches. These athletes want to see this awareness grow and bring with it a change in attitude.

“When I was 15, if I watched an athlete stagnate in front of me, I just thought he was uncommitted,” Shanahan says. “There was nothing there saying it’s natural and it’s probably going to happen to you. There were a lot of people saying the failure to progress was due to overtraining in youth.

“I always think if people run well in their youth and don’t do well, people think they did something wrong. There is no narrative around a set and supporting them to come out the other side.

“I knew that once teenagers started going out drinking and socializing with their friends, they were less likely to perform,” Kirk adds. ” I did not do this. I wanted to perform well. I knew it existed but I never wanted it to happen to me. Nobody told me the plateau was normal, I just wanted to avoid it.

If a general change in attitude is necessary, is there a coaching campaign to put in place? Would more female coaches who have gone through these processes make a difference? The year Shanahan finally broke 2:08 was the year she trained with a career 2:03 runner who demanded she do more strength training.

Maybe, but despite all the potential solutions to plateaus that can arise for a myriad of reasons, those who have come out the other side still focus on support and mitigation, not prevention.

“I don’t like the glamorization of wrestling in sports,” says Kirk. “The journey is only part of it. I wouldn’t want anyone going through the same things that Louise and I went through but also sometimes we just can’t help it.

“In a way, you have to let it happen.”

Rebecca R. Santistevan