Pepper – Always a Hot Favourite!

FEBRUARY 2015: This winter’s Sussex Cross-Country Championships, which took place at the beginning of January in Bexhill, attracted a number of class athletes. The fastest on the day was Jon Pepper of Brighton Phoenix (Athletics and Triathlon Club).

And three weeks later, in the South of England Cross-Country Championships, he came an impressive 3rd, just 4 seconds behind 1st place at the end of what was a gruelling 15km course in Stanmer Park.

At 26, Jon is no newcomer to the athletics scene, consistently having churned out top race performances since his teens.

As an under-20 runner, he attained a UK no.1 ranking for 5k, 5000m on the track, 3000m steeplechase and 2000m steeplechase. And in the under-23 age group, he was ranked no.1 for 10k.

He has since gone on to prove that he doesn’t just have speed over the shorter distances, having knocked out a couple of sub-2hr20 marathons.

Jon’s slight frame and, I imagine, good biomechanics no doubt play a significant part in his success as a distance runner. But there are plenty of petite runners, with their left leg the same length as their right, and very few of them will get remotely close to him!

I met up with Jon to get some insights into his training. And, as well as sharing with me some of his running highs, he also disclosed how he has had to pick himself up and bounce back when races have not gone to plan.
Jon, congratulations on a chain of awesome results and rankings! What does that mean to you?
Firstly, thanks for calling me petite, you obviously haven’t noticed my gigantic quadriceps! It’s always nice to get a good result and recently they’ve been going my way, so of course I enjoy it when races go to plan.

You’ve clearly had success over a range of distances. Where do you think your greatest strength lies?

I’m inclined to say that my strength is cross-country running. It’s been where I’ve typically had the best results, but that may well be because I have had about 5 seasons of getting injured just before the summer season, so there hasn’t been the same consistency on harder surfaces. It’s a shame because I really enjoy racing on the track.

Did you start running at a young age? How did you get into it? Were either of your parents runners?

I remember going for a few jogs with my mum or dad when I was about 9 or 10. Neither of them were runners then, though they are now. My mum races in all sorts of events including triathlons as she’s a strong swimmer, although she isn’t as competitive as my dad about it. He’s getting better with every year and has run 2 sub-3 hour marathons in the last few years.

What would you say has been your greatest achievement to date? Or your best running experience?

My best running experiences are actually not particularly competitive ones.
A few years back I was in the Phoenix team which raced the South Downs Way relay event in June. It was a glorious day. We had such a good laugh and won by a long way. It was also my birthday and it brings back some very fond memories of the incredible landscape and the fun we had as a team.

I also have great memories of running the Bolder Boulder 10k in Colorado, despite it being at 6000ft altitude. The international race finishes in the stadium filled with 80,000 people and it makes you feel like you’re entering the Olympic stadium. The only issue was that I was going a bit ‘dizzy’ at the time because of the altitude reducing my 10k time by 3 minutes.

Competitively, my best run probably went largely unnoticed as it was when I went to Canada to race the World University Cross Country in 2010. It was one of those races that just goes perfectly. I paced it well, came through strongly and managed to finish 10th, beating some very good runners in the process.

And I guess every athlete has a bad race every now and then. Have there been any obvious disappointing moments and, if so, how have you dealt with that?

I was bitterly disappointed after London Marathon 2014, because it was a fantastic opportunity to run myself into the Commonwealth or European team, but I didn’t manage to pull it off. Having gone part-time at work to really try and make it happen, plus making the start line fit and healthy, I could not believe that I hadn’t even run a PB. It’s hard not to appear spoilt when that happens though because, on face value, finishing 20th in the London Marathon and running 2.19 is an achievement to be proud of. The sport is like that though. You have to keep setting yourself challenging goals, and when you really believe they’re possible it takes a long time to bounce back. It took me a good 4 months to recover from London, physically and mentally. I had to try and regain my love of running.

You’ve run at a high level for a number of years, which I imagine requires some attention to detail. What do you think it is that gives you the edge over your competitors? Do you like to embroil yourself in the science behind running, or maybe you study and learn from other successful athletes?

I love to run, so I’m always going to get my kit on and head out the door if I have time. Motivation is rarely an issue in that respect. In fact that’s been a difficult aspect for my coach to control because if you tell me to run 8 miles, I’ll run 10. This gives me consistency when I can avoid injury, and I’m getting better at listening to my body throughout the week and adapting sessions appropriately. I have a degree in sport and exercise science, which means I have a natural interest in the scientific basis of successful distance running. And although it’s unhelpful to create a one-size-fits-all approach, I stress the importance of good running posture and strengthening the associated muscles with gym work. I had a catalogue of injuries when I was younger and I’m still gradually trying to regain my posture from years of piling on the mileage without a complimentary gym program. I like to look at what other great athletes did, but it annoys me when athletes use this as a rationale for a training approach. It’s so unscientific to say “I’m going to do this because Paula Radcliffe does it”… Firstly, how do we know whether or not they could’ve been better by doing something else? Secondly, your body will respond differently to the same stimulus, so you can’t compare like with like. I like to attempt various training approaches, and use trial and error to adapt as I go along.

I understand you’re coached by Jon Bigg who has had some phenomenal success with local runners such as British 1500m champion Charlie Grice. What does a typical training week look like for you, and how significant is Jon’s input in your overall success?

After the marathon in April I had a long break and then resumed training, but have been running about half as much as before. The main difference for me has been the strength and conditioning work in the gym that I’ve done. Jon is very focused on getting me stronger and faster before I race another marathon, and the gym work seems to be working. I haven’t found much of a performance drop-off, even though I’m running 50 miles each week compared with 100 earlier in the year. A typical week might be:

Monday: 1 hour steady run

Tuesday: 45 minute steady state/tempo (between 5.30-6.00m/m) gym session including front squats, lunges, core and upper back work, balance and proprioception work as well as running drills.

Wednesday: Interval session on gravel track, typically something like 1mile in 5.15/4x1k in 3.00/4×400 in 66 all with short recovery between 1-2mins

Thursday: 30-40min easy run or rest

Friday: Hill/XC session, typically 4x3min hill, 15min tempo run, 4x2min hill and a gym session focusing on dynamic movements and kettle bells.

Saturday: Either race or tempo run of 8miles off-road with some extended strides afterwards.

Sunday: 1hour 45min steady run, usually off-road over the downs and gym session usually including leg press, back strength and core work.

Jon has been instrumental in keeping me in the sport to be honest. Last summer I really wasn’t enjoying it anymore and Jon’s support meant I realised there were other options and I could improve in other areas. He’s a very positive person and always picking up new training pointers because he’s so open-minded in his approach.

How do you switch off from running? What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
Running is my spare time at the moment! I really like it that way though as previously I have over-trained quite a lot. I’m currently doing a PGCE course, training to be a science teacher, and so the workload means I have to be selective and careful about training. It’s nice to have a part of the day where I can switch off; even if it’s a hard session I still find it helps me release any stress.

I imagine your focus over the winter has been the cross-country season? What’s your next big target once we’re out of the mud?

I haven’t given it much thought to be honest because I have to wait and see how busy I am with my course, but I’d like to race a 10000m on the track as well as a couple of road 10ks in May if possible. I’ll be trying to beat my PB which is getting far too old now!

Jon, it’s been a pleasure chatting with you, thanks for your time. Good luck with the rest of the cross-country season and, going forward, with whichever road and track races you select. I’m sure there’s a new 10k PB in there with all the fine-tuning in the gym!

By Mike Bannister