Treadmill running became a key tool for the distance running international on her way back from injury
It wasn’t the story she wanted to write, but Hannah Irwin’s opening line perfectly captured her mood in the aftermath of an injury-hit Commonwealth Games debut. “Sport can be brutal,” she wrote on Instagram. “But it is the love that keeps me coming back.”
It had all been going so well for the 24-year-old Cambridge & Coleridge athlete. Having joined forces with Cardiff-based coach James Thie in the autumn of 2020, she went on to deliver a series of personal best performances, most notably an impressive 32:25.34 at Highgate Harriers’ Night of the 10,000m PBs in 2022.
Her first Great Britain and Northern Ireland vest followed at the European 10,000m Cup in France, then in June she was selected to represent Northern Ireland at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.
In a cruel twist – and on an otherwise incredible night at the Alexander Stadium – Irwin was forced to withdraw from the 10,000m mid-race due to pain in her foot. She was later diagnosed with a metatarsal fracture.
For an athlete who loves structure, the early stages of recovery and rehabilitation were particularly testing. “It really frustrated me to think about what I’d done,” she says. “I just felt like I’d wasted that opportunity and let people down, and when I didn’t have a routine, I struggled to deal with those emotions.
“Before we reintroduced running there wasn’t really any direction. They said eight weeks, but it became 10 weeks, then 12 weeks, then longer, and I think I struggled not knowing where the end point was.”
Irwin’s return to running took longer than expected. It wasn’t until the end of November, almost four months post-Games, that she eventually took her first tentative steps – a total of three minutes of running (3 x 1min of running, 9min of walking) – back to fitness.
“We spoke as much as we could, but it was really tough,” says Thie. “It was trying to catch up every couple of days, even if it was just a message to say: ‘How are you?’ or positive messages of reinforcement, and also not dwelling on things.
“So, when there was a mini aim like the European Cross Country, once you know that’s gone, it’s moving it on to the next goal. And actually, the goal shifted – and it was a really conscious decision – from getting back and thinking about racing, to just getting back and running.
“You just have to be super smart and listen to the experts, and that’s what we did. I think we were over cautious in the end, because neither of us wanted to regress or to be too greedy too soon.”
Using a treadmill was crucial to Irwin’s comeback due to the ability to create a controlled environment – temperature, gradient and pace – on a safe surface. For the first eight weeks, almost every run took place on a NoblePro in her house.
“At that time, just being able to run for three minutes was a really exciting prospect, but if someone had said to me: ‘Oh, is that all?’ I’d have questioned whether it was even an achievement,” she says. “Everyone in my village knew I’d gone to the Commonwealth Games, so they’d stop me to ask how it had gone. Running at home on the treadmill was a lot better, I could just be in my little happy zone.”
As training progressed, Irwin’s running duration and frequency increased, her walking decreased, and the speed of runs was subtly altered, along with the reintegration of outdoor runs into her programme.
With the gradual introduction of fartleks, in and out tempos and continuous tempo blocks, the shifting goalposts eventually stood still. Race stimulus was needed and race plans became realistic.
Irwin’s first outing was a parkrun (16:39) on March 11, seven months after her stress fracture was diagnosed. She has since run 33:15 at the Cardiff Bay 10km and a 16:01 PB at the Friday Night 5km Under the Lights in Battersea Park.
“The return from injury is never easy, but I don’t want it to be,” she reflected post-parkrun. “I’m not here for the easy option, I’m here to put in the grind, be sensible and enjoy the process. The line is in the sand and I now have something to work with. The only way is up.”
Typical training week
Irwin operates on a five-day run programme (six days maximum) and is back up to about 80-85 per cent of her pre-injury training (note, this article appeared in the May issue of AW magazine). She also follows a strength and conditioning programme.
“When things are ticking along pretty well, we keep a fairly structured routine,” says Thie. “It obviously changes depending on time of year, but we’ve found what works. Hannah does a fair amount of cross training to supplement her running. We’re also still using the treadmill for key runs (eg, progression runs) and recoveries, and that has really helped in terms of impact and controlling the paces and environment.”
Monday: 40-50-minute progression run – pace starts easy and picks up towards tempo feel by the end
Tuesday: (am) race-pace session. eg, 16 x 400m off 45sec (track); (pm) 20-30min recovery run
Wednesday: recovery run or cross training session (bike or cross trainer)
Thursday: easy to steady run. eg, starting around 7min/miles and progressing to just inside 6min/miles
Friday: tempo-based run. eg, 8-mile tempo around half marathon pace (plus warm-up/cool down)
Saturday: total rest day every two weeks/alternate weeks cross training
Sunday: long run up to 80min currently – focus on time on feet but around 6:40-7min/miles and 140 HR
READ MORE: AW’s how they train series
Favourite session: 8-mile tempo session (as above)
Least favourite session: Rest day or anything super-fast, like 1200m (slightly faster than 5km pace) – 1min recovery – then 400m (around 1500m pace) – then 4min recovery
(x 3 sets)
This article first appeared in the May issue of AW magazine, which you can buy here