Tom Niner

SEPTEMBER 2020: Tom Niner’s running progression is quite remarkable. He only properly discovered running three years ago, at the age of 25, and earlier this month reached the heats in the 800m at the British Championships. He represents Brighton & Hove AC, and trains with the local AB Training Group.

Tom, first of all, congratulations on making it to the British Champs. How was the experience?

Thank you. It was a goal of mine to hit the qualifying time for the Champs, this year, in the 1500m. The way the year has panned out, I’ve ended up training more for the 800m because race prospects under social distancing were greater. I hit a strong time in early August, which turned out to be enough to earn me an invite. You do everything you can and then you need to be lucky.

It was an exciting experience. The tension in the warm-up area is palpable. In the race, I got off to a slow start and remained overly cautious, sitting at the back of a slow-moving pack. I wish I’d made a bold move earlier and rolled the dice a little, but there is still every chance it wouldn’t have been enough in such a strong field. I know the things I could have done better and I’ll take that with me into future races.

You’ve produced some great performances on the track this year. But, with the uncertainty as to whether or not events would go ahead, owing to the pandemic, that must have impacted on your training and race preparation?

Allison, my coach, sets my training programme and ensures I peak at the right time for races. We didn’t know when to start focusing on the speedwork that you need on the track in the middle-distance events. We placed our bets and got to work.

As time went on, there were opportunities coming to race over 800m, staying in lanes the entire time using a very large stagger. I travelled all the way to Manchester and back, one Saturday, with a very supportive Richard Clayton, to participate in this peculiar method of torture.

As it turned out, the horrible time-trial style races played out in our favour because I was ready to run fast when racing returned in its usual format, which then resulted in being invited to the British Champs.

What sports did you enjoy when you were younger, and what prompted getting into running?

I always played football, growing up, and I played throughout university for the uni team and for a club. Funnily enough, I entered Brighton Marathon for fun during these years and ran for charity, but forgot about the training until March – too much alcohol, I think. I injured my knee ligaments in a tackle in my final year and I was out for 6 months.

When I was able to move again, I kept it to straight lines by running, then took on Preston Park parkrun every week. I initially tried to break 20 minutes, then 19, 18, 17, 16… and I should probably try and post a sub-15, but my efforts tend to lie elsewhere these days. It was this aspect of running which attracted me to it – you get out what you put in!

Luckily, I managed to cross paths with Allison in 2017 and she saw some potential and was able to identify my strengths, put me on a structured training plan and now here we are.

What have you found to be the key benefits of training with the AB group?

The training group is like an extended family. We celebrate each other’s successes and push each other on. When someone takes an event to a new level, they tend to drag everyone else up with them and we all win. They show you what’s possible and you believe you can do it too. It can be a scary place on the start line of a big race that you’ve been working towards for months – we share moments of fear, suffering and joy and it brings you very close and makes it all worthwhile, no matter the result.

I know you do regular Strength & Conditioning sessions with Matt Bartsch at Riptide Health & Fitness, in Hove Park. How important is that?

Matt is brilliant. He knows his stuff inside out and is such a positive influence.

My training program requires everything from long, slow runs to sprinting, as well as heavy powerlifting. Matt has helped me hugely, by identifying weaknesses and ensuring I’m strong in all areas that take the strain.

I was injured for months, last summer, because I hadn’t conditioned my body to deal with all those stressors. Now I take it seriously and it results in more consistent training, which is vital for long term success in running. We also have such a laugh in our weekly group sessions and that’s hugely important too.

Do you ever get nervous on the start line of a race, and how do you keep calm and focussed?

I get nervous every time I’m on the start line, but it’s helpful to reframe the nerves as excitement and see it as your body getting ready for what’s about to come. I try to anticipate the best- and worst-case scenarios and plan for how to respond and visualise how I want it to go. In my experience, no race has ever been harder than the tough training sessions. And if it all goes wrong and you have a terrible race, it’s not the end of the world and nobody else really cares!

And you’ve recently earned sponsorship from Saysky. What does that entail?

Saysky kit me out, which is like being a kid in a sweet shop. They are a great fun team and they relate to ambitious runners who train seriously but also have other commitments like work and family. So, I train and race in the kit, which is a pleasure, and I keep an Instagram account updated with my running activities. I love talking running and training and am always happy to interact with other runners – we’re all overcoming similar challenges!

What do you do for work and how easy is it to fit a training schedule around that?

I work as a data analyst, which involves translating masses of data from a range of sources into plain actionable English for strategic decision making. It’s very varied in my day-to-day tasks and there are always more skills and technologies to pick up, which I love.

I’m fortunate to have flexible working hours, so I’m able to shape my day somewhat to fit my training in. But usually, we train in the morning and/or the evening anyway, so it doesn’t make too much difference.

What’s next in your race diary?

Race schedules look like they might get a bit unpredictable again. But winter usually involves more miles and working on that 5k type strength to hold an extended fast pace. Hopefully, there will be some indoor racing in December/January, where I can get at some 3ks and 1500s, but it might not be possible and, if that’s the case, then so be it – there are more important things going on right now.

And what do you like to do to relax when you’re not running?

I got engaged to Mel in January when we were in South Africa – so now we have a wedding to plan! Although, planning anything right now is pretty difficult, so we are not rushing that yet. We love chilling out down the beach and are both very happy spending an hour or so sitting in the sun. We love trying new places to eat out in Brighton and trying different bottles of red wine at home, nothing fancy necessary, just sampling different flavours and finding something you like is fun.

It’s also worth noting that Mel is always incredible support at my races and can be heard from anywhere within a mile radius!

Tom, it’s been great to chat. Congratulations on all you’ve achieved with your running, so far, in such a short timescale. And good luck with whatever races come next – and with your weddings plans too!

By Mike Bannister