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James Sullivan has been talking to Irish indoor 400m champion Shauna Cannon.

Shauna Cannon is a 400m runner from Dublin, Ireland. She claimed her first national title earlier this year, winning the 400m at the Irish Indoor Championships in Athlone. She was a member of the Irish 4x400m relay team at the 2013 European Team Championships First League, staged in Dublin.

Shauna Cannon enroute to victory at the 2013 Irish Indoor Championships

James: Thank you for taking the time to talk to The Running Review. Easy question first, how did you first get involved in athletics?

Shauna: My dad is a huge sports fanatic so when I was old enough I started playing most sports; Gaelic football, camogie, basketball and eventually, when I was a little older, athletics. I continued playing Gaelic football throughout school and won the All Ireland final with the Dublin u16 and minor teams. At that stage I saw athletics as a way to help me improve at Gaelic football rather than taking it seriously. That all changed when I started college. My whole attitude changed and I decided to get more serious about training and I have never looked back since.

James: Did you have a particular athletics idol growing up?

Shauna: Growing up I wanted to be just like Allyson Felix. She is just such a talented athlete and I love watching her run. She makes it look so easy and flawless. I also liked the fact that she wasn’t as big and muscly as the other sprinters. It gave me confidence because when I was younger I was quite scrawny and not as powerful as everyone else. From an Irish perspective it would have to be Derval O’Rourke. Her mindset and attitude is among the best in the world and it is hard not to be inspired by that and everything she has achieved.

James: What do you believe to be your strongest attribute with regards athletics, and what area do you feel you could improve on the most?

Shauna: My strongest attribute I suppose would be that I am a hard worker. I’m quite tough and tend to be able to grit it through any session thrown at me. Maybe that’s why I’ve made a lot of progress in the 400m in just one year. Since last year was my first year doing 400m training I feel that there are so many things I can improve on, the most important being building up my strength. My coach has also been working on my technique a lot over the last year and I feel like everything’s starting to fall into place now.

James: Would you describe yourself as a speed based or endurance based 400m runner?

Shauna: Coming from 100’s and 200’s I would definitely consider myself a speed based 400m runner. Before last year I had never ran over 200m in training. I tend to run the 400 like a typical sprinter; start out fast and try to hang on, rather than saving anything for the end. My acceleration and speed is pretty good so that’s definitely the strategy that suits me best.

James: You represented Ireland in the 4x400m relay at this year’s European Team Championships in Dublin. Can you put that experience into words?

Irish 4x400m team at the 2013 European Team Championships: Sinead Denny, Jessie Barr, Jennifer Carey, Shauna Cannon

Shauna: The best thing about the European Team Champs is that they were held in Santry. I will never forget the cheers from the crowd when I stepped out on to the track for the relay. It was a really enthusiastic young team and the whole experience has definitely made me a lot more determined to get back into the Irish gear next year for the European Championships.

James: At the National Indoor Championships earlier this year you claimed the gold medal in the 400m. Can you describe that moment?

Shauna: I really had no expectations at the start of the last indoor season, it was my first time racing indoors and doing 400’s so I was quite nervous. After my first race I felt good and started to get more confidence each week so by Nationals I was quietly confident that I would run well. It would have been good if some of the women from the London 4×4 team were racing but at the end of the day I was happy to win my first National title.

James: Do you need to approach a 400m race indoors differently to how you would outdoors? What attributes are needed to be a good racer indoors which perhaps would not be as crucial outdoors?

Shauna: The 400 indoors definitely suits speed based runners. Speed is very important for indoors, it’s all about getting to the bell first, as it’s very difficult to overtake someone. This definitely suits me because I am faster than I am strong. My goal indoors is always to go out hard, get to the bell first and hang on to the finish line.

James: How would you describe the experience of competing on the brand new indoor track facility in Athlone?

Shauna: The facility in Athlone is world class, we are so lucky to have it. I never really ran indoor races before because I didn’t like Nenagh but now I’m looking forward to this indoor season. The track is so fast and the heating helps a lot. For me this indoor season will be short, it’s not a priority this year but it’ll be good to break up the winter training and help keep me focused for the outdoor season.

James: What are your main targets for 2014?

Shauna: My main target this year is to qualify for the European Championships in Zurich next August. I think the standard of 53.4 is definitely achievable so I am going to keep working hard in training to get that. Also there are a number of talented, young 400m runners coming through at the moment so I hope that we can qualify in the relay. It’d be great to go as part of a team as well, because it makes the whole experience a lot better and more enjoyable.

James: What would an average week of training be like during winter, specifically in terms of key sessions?

Shauna: This time of year is more about building strength and endurance and working on weaknesses. Runs will be longer but with shorter recoveries, and it’s all about getting through the session. Key sessions for me in the winter would be repeat 200s or 300s with limited recovery time. The dreaded hills sessions are also very important and then the longer aerobic runs which I absolutely hate!! We are also placing a lot of emphasis on gym work this winter so those sessions are very important and all about getting me stronger and more powerful.

James: During the outdoor season what type of anaerobic top speed sessions would be commonplace in your training routine? What sort of technical work do you do?

Shauna: Hard 300s with a 6-10min recovery would be an important part of outdoor season training. Those are the sessions that will make you strong and they are short enough to be able to work on speed and technique at the same time. We would also do a lot of fast 150s and flying 20/30m runs to keep up the speed. My coach is a firm believer that technique is hugely important so we would work on that a lot through lots and lots of drills and technical runs. I can definitely feel the difference when I’m running well technically so it’s good to spend time on that and then hopefully it’ll transfer into my races.

James: While the 400m is mainly an anaerobic event there are some who look at the event from a more aerobic point of view. What sort of specific aerobic work do you do throughout the year? How does this differ between winter and summer? Do you do long runs in the winter?

Shauna: Before I never placed much of an emphasis on the aerobic side of the 400m but I’ve come to realise that you need to have a good aerobic base in order to be a good 400m runner. I’m working on that a lot this summer as it is definitely the area I can improve most. This winter we have really increased the amount of aerobic sessions we do. We’ve started to do longer reps with shorter recoveries and lots of long runs, well long for me, which is 30-45 minutes. I really really hate this type of training as I find going slow boring but I know it’s important so I just try and get through it as best I can. I’m hoping it’ll pay off in the summer.

I definitely prefer summer sessions as they consist of less reps and longer recoveries which means I get to run fast. We still do aerobic sessions but the emphasis is more so on maintaining our aerobic base.

James: As a 400m runner, how much value do you place on being able to run a good 800m?

Shauna: Being able to run a good 800 definitely helps, it will allow you to stay strong longer and will allow you to remain technically sound longer. However personally I think it’s more beneficial to be able to run a good 200. That may be a little biased but all the best 400m runners out there; Sanya Richards Ross, LaShawn Merrit, Michael Johnson were all very competent over 200m, they could make World 200m finals, but it would be highly unlikely they could be as competitive over 800m.  I really can’t see myself running an 800m in the near future but you never know. I was made run a 600m last year so maybe my coach is breaking me into it slowly. It certainly wouldn’t surprise me with some of the sessions he’s given us this year.

James: With regards strength work in the gym how much emphasis do you put on this? What sort of specific exercises do you incorporate into your training?

Shauna: This year I am putting a lot of emphasis on strength work and I think that increasing the amount of time I spend in the gym will see a lot of improvements this year on the track. Becoming more powerful and training your muscles in that way is essential if you want to run faster. I do a lot of Olympic lifting such as back squats, front squats, cleans, and plyos. I am already starting to feel the benefits and the power when I am running.

James: What are your favourite and least favourite training sessions?

Shauna: It might sound weird but my favourite sessions have to be lactic sessions, the sessions where you can barely move and end up lying on the ground for about 30 minutes after trying to recover. You know they are the sessions that will make you strong, that will make the actual race a hell of a lot easier. All out 300’s or 150’s is another one I like coming up to a race. When you feel strong and can hit fast times in those you gain a lot of confidence and know you are in shape to run fast.

Coming from short sprints there is nothing I hate more than long runs. I find them incredibly boring and feel like they aren’t helping me at all, even though I know they are. I really don’t understand how anyone can like them. These are the only sessions I moan about doing.

National Indoor 400m Champion

James: What is the worst injury you have suffered? What did you have to do to overcome it?

Shauna: Luckily I have never had a really bad injury that has kept me out for months, however I did pick a niggle last January which I carried for the whole season. I could run through it but it was always there. It also lead to me straining my hamstring just before the outdoor season. I’ve learnt from this though and now realise the importance of getting regular sports massages to make sure I am constantly loose and to prevent any serious injuries building up during the season.

James: What are your views on doping in athletics?

Shauna: Drugs in sport is a topic I could talk about for hours. It frustrates me when an athlete comes back from a suspension and wins medals. A two year ban is nothing, in fact anything short of a life ban is unfair as muscle memory plays a huge role in improving performance and the benefits gained from taking drugs will always remain and allow you to train at a higher level and do things better than you could do previously.

James: What one change would you most like to see happen in Irish athletics over the coming years?

Shauna: I think introducing professional coaches to the system will lead to huge improvements. Just look at how well our distance athletes like Fionnuala Britton are doing with the appointment of Chris Jones. I’ve witnessed the benefits when I lived in France; each different department (like a county) had a professional coach for each event and all athletes at a certain level would train under this coach. Not only does having expert coaches help an athlete’s development, but having others with the same mindset and ability to train with on a daily basis leads to massive improvements. This is definitely something that Athletics Ireland should try and introduce soon as without great coaches it’s next to impossible to produce great athletes.

James: That’s great Shauna. Thank you for your time and the very best of luck in 2014.

Shauna: Thank you.

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