Year on year improvement should come as no surprise to anyone who’s followed the progress of Abbie Donnelly. It’s a plan 12 years in the making.
Donnelly hails from Lincoln and has, since 2011, been under the tutelage of Rob Lewis. As a junior the U15 athlete displayed brief windows into her future success.
16th in the English National, sixth in the Northern Cross-country. Though welcome bonuses, they meant little for the long-term vision of a developing partnership.
“With Rob, when I joined his group he made a really big deal of telling me you’re not going to peak when you’re a junior. He was like this training program is going to be for when you’re older.
I think that’s quite a big thing for him to know that the junior races mean a lot, but that’s not what makes you as an athlete in the end. You have to make it to the seniors.
When I was keen to do extra efforts, he would always stop me. (It) can be really hard for a coach because they put a lot of time and effort into it and it’s their success as well so it was good that stuck to that long-term plan.”
Lewis must be commended for that approach. When it’s clear an athlete’s future often may lie in a different training set-up once they join university or leave for work, there’s a clear temptation to make the most of their time in the junior ranks together. Yet Lewis did not.
Making the senior grade
It’s no small factor in why, despite moving to Loughborough in 2016, he has remained her coach to this day.
“Every year he increased my training so gradually by the time I got to seniors it wasn’t a big jump anymore.”
12 years later Donnelly’s training moves between 70 and 80 miles a week. She admits her coach is more of a fan of the old-school.
Donnelly’s typical training schedule:
|Monday||AM – 40 mins moderate (just slower that tempo pace) PM – 40 mins easy (weight session during the day)|
|Tuesday||AM – 6-7 miles easy PM – Interval session with her Lincoln group|
|Wednesday||AM – 70 minutes easy (weights session) PM – Bike if time allows|
|Thursday||AM – 6-7 miles easy PM – Interval session with her Lincoln group (same as Tuesday)|
|Saturday||AM – 10 easy, 20 tempo, 10 easy PM – 40 mins easy|
|Sunday||AM – 15-16 miles|
It’s an approach which has naturally seen her adapt well to the longer distances. Personal bests in the 10,000m, 10km and career-high cross performances all achieved in the last 18 months or so.
Most recently it saw Donnelly make a foray into the half-marathon at the Big Half. Racing off the Championship start, she approached the race with nervous energy:
“I’ve had a lot of people say the longer stuff is where you’re going to end up. As much as you’re like yeah I will, you have to enjoy it. Part of me was really worried that I wouldn’t so I’m a bit relieved that I did.”
A place on the plane to Riga for the World Road Championships was the reward for the first three who had the qualifying time of 71:30. That mark sees splits of around 5:27 per mile. Donnelly wrote down the splits for 5:20 to give herself some room.
“I think I went through the first mile in 5.10 and I was like oh god I’ve ruined the whole race.”
In terms of the British race, however, four moved up the road away from her.
“I was a bit nervous to go off quick so I think I caught a few of them at about mile five. Then they got away again. I think Rose Harvey and Clara (Evans). They sort of saw me and then really pushed on. I was too scared to go with them. I was like I’m just going to stick to the pace.”
Biding her time
It’s a tactic she has employed before. In February 2023, Donnelly headed to Australia for the World Cross-Country Champs. With temperatures in excess of 30 degrees Donnelly devised her strategy:
“I had this big grand plan where I was going to constantly, whenever I reached the water station, just chuck water on myself to cool down. So I got to the very first station, which was a few minutes into the race and I was the first one to pick up a water bottle. I poured it on myself. It was so hot because it had been in the sun all day and I was like my plan’s gone!”
Despite her misfortune, Donnelly’s caution did not go unrewarded:
“It felt like I was jogging at the start. I felt so slow and it was a weird one because it was so many laps and I don’t feel like I ever picked the pace up.
But because of the heat we were just passing people and it worked out really well. It was such an odd race but once you’d gone on that course that was it, there was no coming back.”
The 27-year-old finished 24th and first European.
Back at the Big Half the race started to turn. At mile nine Donnelly caught back up to Evans, moving third in the women’s race.
“I felt so much stronger in the last miles than I did in the middle miles. It’s nice to know that in such a long race it can change quickly.”
She finished third in 70:31, almost a minute inside the qualifying standard for Riga.Embed from Getty Images
A marathon seed planted
Lewis and Donnelly knew that how the later performed in the Big Half could shape an Olympic season.
Donnelly’s PBs are 15:25 for the 5k (road) and 31:42 for the 10k (road). The qualifying marks for those events stand at 14:52 and 30:40.
With her run in Greenwich the Olympic marathon mark suddenly seems more tempting.
Likely in Seville in February, Donnelly will aim to better 2:26:50.
The GB-international knows how hard that will be, how those miles will test her.
Balancing the fatigue with the speed is a tightrope Donnelly is getting better at skirting. She knows that expecting fireworks in high volume blocks isn’t the point.
“I think you can have good and bad sessions, but you just have to keep turning up to them. Before I did the Lincoln 10K, where I got my PB, it was a bit of a training block. I didn’t have any races.
A lot of it was hard work and I didn’t think it was going that well. And then I turned up to the race and I got my PB. It’s those sorts of things when you just have to keep going with it. You have to keep turning up and do the runs, even if it’s easy, because it’s all adding up slowly. Give it a few months and you’ll be flying.”
Donnelly admits there’s been times where she’s got the balance wrong, where fatigue has gone further, threatening the realm of the dangerous:
“I think it takes a long time to know when you’re tired, when you need to have miss a second run and just take the night off. It’s a hard one because part of you feels guilty that you’re missing training.
I think you learn to know what pain your leg is feeling. You know deep down whether it’s a tired pain that you can push through or whether it’s a tired pain that’s going to cause something a bit more sinister. It’s still hard because obviously, every injury is a bit different.
I got a stress fracture in my foot a couple of years ago and that was just such a random one. It hurt a little bit one day and then the next day I couldn’t walk on it. Those are the ones that scare me because you just can’t really plan for them.”
A tightrope puts it lightly.
This coming weekend Donnelly contests the World Half Marathon Championships in Riga, aiming to go one second better than the Big Half. Should she do so she will achieve the European Half Marathon qualifier.
But there’s a different European championships which beckons. Donnelly was ninth in the 2022 European Cross-Country Championships. A whisker behind Jess Warner-Judd, someone she describes as an inspiration growing up.
And since then she has grown, her World Cross performance an emphatic demonstration.
In the build up to Seville, Donnelly prepares for a full cross-country season. Key to that will be a potential visit to Brussels for Euro Cross on 10th December. The Lincoln Wellington athlete can rightly go there with realistic ambitions to contest for the podium.
Another step higher in a coach and athlete partnership which reminds us all – Focus on the long term and you might just surprise yourself by how far you can go.
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Featured images of Abbie Donnelly courtesy of Mark Hookway.