Interview with Robbie Simpson on the upcoming Olympic Marathon Trials

Jason Kelly checks in with Aberdeenshire-based Great Britain international Robbie Simpson, ahead of the Olympic marathon trials on Friday 26 March 2021, which will see British Olympic Marathon contenders battle it out for places in the postponed Tokyo Olympic Marathon.

Interview Q&A

Olympic Marathon Trials

How’s training for the Olympic marathon trials going?

Yeah, okay. I’m actually pretty happy with how things are going considering the sort of winter it’s been. You know, there’s obviously been setbacks with bad weather and a bit of illness at the start of the year, but I’ve tried to make the best of it. So when the weather’s been terrible, it’s been nice to get on the treadmill and do some sessions which I’ve used to keep the mileage ticking over.

How do you find running on the treadmill? Manageable or miserable?

Well, I’ve never really done any treadmill training before apart from the odd run here and there. I’ve usually hated it before, but recently I’ve had no choice. So I just go on and do it, and a lot of the time I was trying to convince myself that it wasn’t going to be as bad as I thought. I’d just try to get to 10k and then, if I can get to that, then I can do a little more or do a few more reps, do a few more kms, and before you know it, you’ve done it. Once you go over 10k, I think the time just goes by quicker.

This time last year you were training for the London Marathon (due to incorporate the GB Olympic trial). After everything that happened throughout 2020, how did the goalposts shift through the year?

Yeah, well, to begin with it was probably a similar situation to a lot of people. You’re convincing yourself it would just be a few weeks or a few months and we would be back racing by May, so to begin with you’re thinking, I can prolong this training block.

Image of Robbie running at Vitality Half 2020
The Vitality Big Half 2020

But then everything just kept being pushed back so I took a step back and thought I could just keep training at an OK level with kind of more general training, rather than really specific marathon training and then see if any races came up. But then it became apparent that there was going to be pretty much nothing for the spring or summer. I took another step back and thought I’ll do a bit of hill work, tempo, long runs, a bit of everything. Just do what I enjoy and see if anything crops up.

Towards the autumn, it was looking like there was only going to be a few longer hilly races so I decided I’d do those. It worked well, because you could then just enjoy the running. I’m happy that we had the opportunity with the likes of the Lairig Ghru Race (Robbie won and Jason finished 2nd) and the Bennachie Ultra (which Robbie won and Jason finished 2nd again!). And then there was a Scottish Champs hill race as well (which Robbie also won). So that was something!

I think a marathon is not really about the last 6 weeks. It’s more about the last 12 months of training.

Did it feel good to return to racing?

Yeah, it just gives you that focus. And then once you’ve done it, then you can have a few easy weeks of recovering. I enjoy racing so it was better in the autumn at least having those. But now we’re kind of back where we were last spring!

Image of Robbie running in the Bennachie Ultra 2020
Bennachie Ultra 2020

So when the news of that Olympic marathon trials came around in November, did that become the immediate focus?

Yeah, definitely, because I was still thinking of trying to get another longer distance race in like the Speyside Way Ultra. But when this came up, I thought I need to really focus on this one because it’s not actually that long away. I just tried to get straight back into proper training again after the Bennachie Ultra. So yeah, it’s a good target. I did still wonder whether it would actually go ahead because there were a few races that did happen in autumn but then lockdown hit again. But I thought I’ve got to believe it’ll happen this time and go for it.

Are you happy to see a dedicated trials race happening in the UK?

I think it’s a really good idea. But the way it is going this year is still not optimum with it being on a 13 lap course and the fact that they have to kick us out by a certain time because it opens up to the public! It’s designed to have the least risk and it’s great that they have come up with something but I don’t feel that it’s really going to be an amazing course or built for perfect times and things like that.

How do you feel about the course?

I’ve never been someone who enjoys doing lots of laps. It’s a bit more like track racing! You don’t want just a straight line, but I like to see different things on the route, and I’m not so keen on the same thing over and over. I’ll obviously do it because that’s the only way they have been able to organise it! And I’ve been trying to train with that type of course in mind. People have said that it’s got tight corners but I think they’ve managed to mitigate that a bit by rounding off most of the tight corners. It is really flat and sheltered so it’s maybe more just in the head, if you can keep pushing rather than getting bored of doing laps.

What kind of shape do you feel you’re in? Or is it hard to tell without any tune up races?

Yeah that’s the thing with tune up races, because normally you can go into a half marathon a few weeks before and you have an idea then of what you could do for the marathon. Even if you don’t run an amazing time in the tune up, you could know that you ran around this time despite feeling rubbish or despite hard conditions.

I think I just have to set off and see and try and run it more tactically rather than just setting out hard.

But this time there’s nothing and it’s really hard to gauge on the treadmill because running on the treadmill is just not the same as the outside sessions. So, yeah, I mean, it could probably be anything between 2:10 and 2:30! I don’t feel absolutely amazing and I’m not running sessions in ridiculous places, but at the same time it’s all feeling quite comfortable. I’m not really in the red zone doing any sessions and I’m feeling like this is kind of easy running.

I think a marathon is not really about the last 6 weeks. It’s more about the last 12 months of training, and I think that’s been good. So if I could just keep the next few weeks going and turn up fresh, you never know what can happen.

Image of Robbie running 10k Road race

Marathon training & racing

That’s very similar to a great piece of advice I’ve heard from Fraser Clyne, that a good marathon isn’t about the last 2 months, it’s about the last 2 years of training.

Yeah. So I mean, when I ran my PB a couple of years ago (*2:14:56 at the London Marathon in 2019*), the training was not good. I had lots of issues in the build up. And then the only half marathon I did in the build up was terrible. And then the marathon wasn’t amazing, and I ran a tactically terrible race but still managed to run a PB. So it can definitely still get better.

Am I right in saying that you’ve been quicker every time that you’ve run the London Marathon? 

Yeah, slightly quicker. It hasn’t been a big jump at any point but it’s been quite consistent I would say and slightly quicker each time. They’ve all been really different in the preparation, like my second London Marathon was a brutal training regime that I almost didn’t survive. I thought that would be the fastest one, but it wasn’t because really I just overdid it. I think the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games Marathon was the best in terms of the buildup, but it was just the conditions that day that made all the times slower. But fitness wise, it was really good. It’s just a shame it was really hot.

I guess in a tactical sense, the Gold Coast has probably been your best marathon as well?

Yeah, because the problem with London is that there’s a pacer going out in 66 or 67mins to halfway, and you’ve just got to hang on and then suddenly the group breaks up and it’s just about survival from about 15 miles in. It’s just trying not to die! So I’ve always done a positive split at London and have gone through halfway in maybe like 66:45 or something like that, which is too quick, but it’s that or running on your own. So yeah, tactically London has never been great. Whereas at the Gold Coast, I didn’t really care about time. I think it works better for me doing a slower course. I run better on hilly stuff or in hot weather.

Have you thought about that tactical aspect for the Olympic trials coming up? Are you aware if there’s any pacers for specific times?

I think there are. But they haven’t been confirmed yet. I don’t know how I’ll start out. It’s not like there are medals for coming whatever place, it’s just about trying to race it and see. If I had done a tune up half marathon around 63 minutes then I‘d think about going out hard and trying to hold on. But I think I just have to set off and see and try and run it more tactically rather than just setting out hard. I think that’s the best way because it’s easier in the London race to get carried away because there’s thousands of people. And then you’ve got this downhill in the first 5km and it just gets you rolling. When there’s 13 laps you can use the first few just to sort of ease into it.

If you do 8 x 1km with steady recoveries then then you really find out if you’re fit or not.

Have you done any specific big sessions that you do in most marathon blocks? Or is there any kind of favourite session that you have in a buildup?

Yeah a couple. I normally quite like doing a long run with a marathon pace tempo at the end. Often I don’t even manage to hit the exact pace but it’s still a good indicator of what shape I’m in. I know if I can run 20km roughly at that pace then things are going well and I did a 30km effort similar to this on the treadmill recently. You know, it doesn’t need to be really quick, just some prolonged, hard running.

And then another sort of session I like is 1km reps with steady 1km recoveries. If I try to do 3:05 for the reps or something like that and then I’m struggling with, say, 3:50 on the recovery then I know I’m not fit whereas if I’ve been able to do, say, 3:35 recoveries then I feel like I’m in decent shape.

It is not so much about the actual top end speed because I’m not running that quick in the marathon but if I feel good with that sort of recovery then I gain confidence.

Do you think that type of not-too-slow recoveries session replicates a race scenario a little bit better?

Yeah, because there’s loads of guys who can bash out 10 x 1km in 3:00, but they can’t run 30 minutes for 10km. What’s the point in that? It’s obviously not translating very well. But if you do 8 x 1km with steady recoveries then then you really find out if you’re fit or not. I find that quite easy getting a 1km recovery. But then some other guy will just have absolutely smashed the rep but then he needs three minutes of lying down to recover!

Which you’re never going to get in a race?

No. Fine if you’re racing 1km. But not if you’re racing 42.2km! 

For your long marathon paced sessions, do you tend to do that every week? Or alternating every other week with an easier long run?

Yeah, I tend to do them probably every second week. I think if you do them every week, you just end up really knackered. And I don’t even think you need that many. Depends also on the sessions you’re doing. If you’re doing a lot of longer reps, you may not even need to do those long run tempos every second week. But I do like doing every second long run harder just to see how it’s feeling. I got a really good one in before the worst of the snow. But even then there were some sections of ice. I had to find a way around them and then start running well again. But those are the types of runs that I think make a big difference.

And I think you shouldn’t get too worried about the pace. I’d love to be running like 3:10/km pace for all those long runs, but then it is different when you’re running a course on the pancake flat tarmac that’s super smooth compared to running on hilly back roads in the wind and rain.

Do you have a mileage target that you’re looking to hit each week? 

Depends on how close to the race it is. At the moment, I’ve tried to do about 180km or so a week the last couple of weeks to get a consistent block of that. Maybe aiming for like 6 to 8 weeks at that sort of volume. I don’t want to do too much more because I’m worried that I won’t get the quality of the sessions. And then I’ll do a bit less the last few weeks, just obviously to freshen up. But I also don’t want to do too little, because it’s quite good doing some sessions on tired legs.

With four weeks to go until the trials race, will you be doing 1 more week of higher volume or a couple more weeks before easing off?

Yeah, one or two. The bigger the build up, the longer the taper should be. I think I will probably ease back more in the last two weeks. It’s better to just take it down a little bit on the third week out from the race, then with 2 weeks to go start that proper taper. So I’ll see how things go. But I’m kind of tempted to do things a bit differently this year because I haven’t been able to race a 10km or half marathon in the build up. Obviously, without that, I feel I’m missing a little bit of top end speed. So with three weeks to go I’ll start doing some more 10km type sessions, just to sharpen the legs up and bring a bit more spice back. And because you can just feel a bit lethargic sometimes with long tempo after long tempo. 

Nutrition

What’s your go-to fuel for training runs and race day?

Nothing too scientific in terms of the training. I’m not too fussy in training but in the race, I’d use a mix of Maurten drink mix and then maybe something a little bit less concentrated, like either High5 or some water just to vary it. The Maurten drink mix is very good. But if you get a hot day you maybe need something a bit more refreshing as well.

I don’t have a set number of grams of carbs per hour or anything like that. I think in a marathon that’s not so important. Every sort of 5k I’ll take a few swigs. With the 13 lap course, I might get them more often.

In training, the treadmill sessions were good for that – I just had a bottle of this High5 stuff and just had a drink of that every couple of km. On a long run outside, I might take a soft flask with something in it but I don’t find that I really need it so much in training. In the race it definitely gives you a bit extra.

Strength & conditioning

Are you doing any strength work?

Yes, though I don’t know if I would do it if I wasn’t forced to! I’ve been working with the Institute of Sport so I’ve been lucky to build and maintain that in the last lockdown. It has been much more structured than I’ve done for previous marathons. It definitely has some positive effects on injury prevention. There’s been a lot more plyometrics and explosive based things so yeah, we’ll see how it goes. I’m not a massive S&C fan, but if it works for me then I’ll keep doing it, so it’s a good experiment.

Team Adidas Terrex 

Now, of course, one thing we’ll need to chat about is kit! You’ve been an Adidas Terrex athlete for a couple of years now – how did that come about?

Yeah, I know quite a few people on the team and had heard that they were trying to expand a little bit and that my name was one of the names that they looked at from the UK. So I basically just went to have a chat after racing at the Jungfrau Marathon and then they basically spent two days giving me a tour and showing me everything and telling me all about the team and then asked if I’d like to join the team.

I’ve seen a lot of stuff that they’re doing in terms of how the athletes work together with the management and how it works with the production of shoes for example and I’ve just been really impressed with how we do feel like it’s an actual team. We actually feel like we’re supporting each other a bit and I do also like that we can be a bit involved in the production of the shoes and things because, you know, some brands will ask you for your feedback on prototypes but then the feedback will just disappear somewhere. 

What shoe will you be racing in at the Olympic trials? 

Adidas Adizero Adios Pro. I’ve only used them once so far. I did 10km in them and I really surprised myself with how comfortable I was running, So I think they will be great for the marathon. But with the state of the roads the last few weeks, I don’t really want to take out these precious race shoes and trash them! I think they’re really good and a massive step forward from where we were a few years ago.

What’s your view on the carbon plate debate? Good? Bad? Or who cares?!

To be honest I’m kind of fed up with it all because it is just changing times. The second time I ran London I was wearing Adidas Bostons. And I think the previous year I was in something like that, too. If I was in a carbon plated shoe, what would I have done? Who knows! It is too late. It’s still just as hard to win any race because everybody is in carbon shoes. I find it a lot fairer now though because every brand does have one.

For training, is the Boston still a shoe that you use a lot?

Yeah. The Boston is still a shoe that I use a lot, certainly. Mostly for the long tempo runs but they’re really good on quite fast stuff as well. So I’ve been using them in some of the short sessions, and it is nice to have a variety, but Bostons can take a lot of beating and last long as well.

Adidas Terrex Speed Trail Shoes

What about trail shoes?

Last year I was using the Terrex Agravic Boa quite a lot. It’s got the twisty Boa lacing system, which is nice but they were just a really comfortable, kind of hard wearing shoe to get a lot of miles out of them. And then I had the Speed LD which was the one I used for racing and sessions. But this year, the new range is amazing. So I’ve been using them since I got the new delivery. They’re all just a massive step forward, I think, from the previous shoes.

Image of Robbie running wearing Adidas TERREX gear
Photo by Adidas Terrex

I think what the Adidas range was missing previously was something that was quite quick on the road and on the trail. So the Speed LD that I ran the Lairig Ghru race in was fine, but it was a bit unforgiving on the road. And also because of the lugs it just doesn’t work so well on those road sections and hard packed tracks, whereas the new Terrex Speed Ultra is just insane. It is really good on the trail, but the lugs are not getting in the way of your running so it works well on road sections as well, and also they managed to shave a lot of weight off of most of the shoes.

The Agravic Boa that I used a lot last year I think was over 300g, whereas the Speed Ultra is 240g. That weight difference can just make a shoe feel a lot better, you know?

Speaking of weight, you’ve also got the Terrex Speed Pro, a super lightweight trail racer. Is that your shoe of choice for shorter distance trial races?

Definitely. Yeah, and probably anything less than marathon distance maybe but it depends on the trail as well. I think if it’s something technical then the super light Speed Pro is going to be a joy. I haven’t used it yet because I’m training for the marathon so I haven’t done those types of sessions this year yet. But I really look forward to trying it out because they’re really light but they’re also quite responsive with mainly Lightstrike cushioning. And with the Speed Ultra, you just feel like you’re bouncing off the ground really well with the combination of Lightstrike and Boost.

How does the current Terrex range perform in terms of durability?

Obviously the lightweight racer type of shoe does often come with a compromise in durability but the likes of the Speed Ultra just seems bombproof and the others all seem really solid as well. Boost always seems to wear really well and using Continental Rubber on the outsole makes a huge difference to the durability. So I am interested to see that. But I’ve always found Terrex shoes to be durable, in previous models as well. I’ve still got ones that have done hundreds of miles and are still in perfectly good nick.

Future plans

What are your plans post Olympic trials? 

I’d like to go to Europe. I’m not sure exactly what races might be happening. There are a couple that Terrex have mentioned, but the first one is in May. I’m not sure we’ll be allowed to travel in May. But maybe in June or July if we can travel again then I’ll probably build up towards Sierre Zinal in August again. But that kind of relies on getting out there for at least six weeks before to train. Otherwise, there’s no point just rocking up last minute and not being prepared.

Do you generally do a bit of training at altitude in Europe before some of these races? 

Yeah. I would usually like to stay at 1600-1800m for a couple of weeks just to train and get used to it because for a lot of the races you’re running over 2000 m for a lot of it and that can be really hard. And there’s warmer weather too because you can get 35 degrees in some of these races. You can’t just come in from Scotland and do that. So it’s just about being prepared for all those things. But it’s still so dependent on the travel restrictions. 

You dipped your toes in the ultra world at the end of 2019 as well, is that something you plan to do more of in the future?

Definitely. The likes of the Western States 100 looks fun. So I’d like to just try it. And I like races that are tough and also a little bit unknown and I’m keen to do something a bit different. There’s a lot more to learn for ultras. The 50 miler that I did, that was tough! And it all just depends on the race so much. Everybody trains in different ways. It is quite easy to train for a marathon because people have been doing it for so long. It’s just like maths – you add a bit of this and some of that and you’ll probably get a good result.

Image of Robbie running in sunset wearing Adidas TERREX gear
Photo by Adidas Terrex

In ultras, there’s a lot more to it and that’s the risk of it. Like really fatiguing yourself in training and things like that. And you still do need to be fast. You do these races and people are running ridiculous paces for 50 miles.

Hidden Peak Running coaching

Besides competing, you run the Hidden Peak Running group with Fraser Clyne. Is that something that will be starting up again when restrictions allow?

Yeah, we’ve had two winters now where we’ve had basically unbroken training a lot of the way through the winter. But we’ve never been able to do more than about two daylight sessions because of lockdowns. So we’re looking forward to starting up again in the spring and we can do some proper off road sessions and new venues as well because there’s lots of great places locally. But we’ve been stuck just with street-lit roads and things, so we hope to start back with that soon because it was really popular.

Actually, until the end of the year we had more than 20 people at most of the sessions. So it was great, and it was a bit sad because we did this 5km time trial series and people were improving more or less every month over the 5km and you could see they were running so much better each time than the last and then everything just got locked down. It was disappointing seeing all the good work and improvements and then that was it gone.

Join us in wishing Robbie all the best for the last few weeks of training and race day. The Olympic marathon trials will take place on Friday 26 March 2021 in Kew Gardens, London. 


Will and Chris from The Run4It Podcast will be catching up with Robbie for a full de-brief after the trials – watch this space.

In the meantime, checkout the latest episodes from The Run4It Podcast for your latest fix from the world of running.