Paul Byrne is one of Irelands athletes heading to the European Championships this year. He has dedicated his life to getting the best from himself as an athlete and gained his qualifying time early this year and confirmed it again in early May with a time of 50.73 in London.
He comes from St Abbans, a club with a proud tradition of International Athletes and is their second athlete heading to Amsterdam. He has been performing at the highest level in the 400mH for a number of years and has given us this time to talk about his preparation for the Europeans and some opinions on athletics.
Thanks Paul for taking the time to talk to talk to us. Firstly, how did you get involved in athletics?
Cheers for having me! I got involved at a very young age, probably around 6 or 7 as I grew up only a mile from St Abban's Athletic Club. My brothers and sister were heavily involved at this stage so it was natural that I followed. I was lucky to grow up in a locality steeped with sporting facilities and I tried my hand at everything, gaelic football, soccer and handball, but athletics was the one that stood strong.
You obviously have a lot of speed in the sprint events. How did you decide on the 400 metre hurdles?
Funnily enough it’s the lack of speed that drew me to the event. I was never fast when I was younger and I stuck to events that required little running (high jump, long jump etc.) for most of my juvenile years. It wasn’t until I started to dabble with the 110mH that I realised that I had good technique which compensated for my lack of speed. My brother (Colin Byrne) was one of Ireland’s best 400m Hurdlers in the early 2000s and it was he who encouraged me to give it a go. Once I got used to the training, and actually having to run more than 200m, I took to it like a duck to water. I was still by no means fast but I was technically proficient and that’s what stands to me even today.
Is there any athlete that you would have considered an idol growing up?
Apart from my brother obviously, I used to look up to the likes of David Gillick a lot. Here was an Irish sprinter winning European medals and making global finals and I thought if he could do it then why can’t I? He and a few other athletes of that time paved the way for Ireland to be more competitive in sprint events and changed our thinking of ‘Irish athletes can only be competitive at middle/long distance’.
You are representing Ireland in the European Championships. Can you describe how it feels to be representing your country?
At the ripe old age of 26 this will actually be my first senior international. I competed for Ireland only twice before so they don’t come around that often for me. The feeling of pulling on the green vest is unlike any other, it instills a great sense of pride knowing that all the hard work, pain and injury is all worth it just for those 50 or so seconds of running in a green vest on a European or World stage. If anything it’s testament to why you should stick with the sport past the ages of 20, 21, 22 when a lot of people seem to give up. Keep plugging away and good things will happen!
What are your goals for the European Championships?
Like every other athlete I just want to go out there and perform to the best of my ability. I’ve had a couple of injury niggles in the past few weeks so preparation hasn’t been ideal. The times I’ve already posted this season would be good enough to make it in to the semi-finals. I’m under no illusions that making a final is a tough ask but championship running is very different to every other race and anything can happen out there, guys can start hitting hurdles etc. and as long as I run my own race and control what I can control I’ll step off the track in Amsterdam happy.
Amsterdam should have interesting matchups before Rio, which match-ups are you looking forward to see?
I train day-in, day-out with one of the best 400m Hurdlers in the world, Thomas Barr, here in Limerick. He, like myself, has had a far from ideal lead up to Euros but I’m really looking forward to getting the chance to race with him (potentially even against him) at a major Championships. We’ll be both warming up at the same time and in the call room together so I’ve no doubt that’ll ease the nerves before stepping out on the track in Amsterdam. I’m really interested to see him face off against guys like Karim Hussain (Switzerland) and the British who are always dangerous.
Can you describe an average week of training and how it will change getting closer to the Europeans?
An average week of training for me consists of 10/11 sessions during the winter (training twice a day Monday-Friday, once Saturday and a rest day Sunday) but this changes a lot coming into summer and as we start to race. The 400mH is stuck right between being a sprint event and a middle distance event so we have to cover all bases. A sample training week for me would be:
Mon: AM: Strength Gym Session. PM: Track (Speed/Speed Endurance)
Tues: AM: Plyometrics (Hurdle hops, bounds). PM: Circuits
Wed: AM: 20min Jog. PM: Technical (Hurdle work/drills/starts/sprint technique)
Thurs: AM: Medicine Ball. PM: Track (Longer Endurance Work 300s, 400s, 500s)
Fri: AM: Strength Gym Session. PM: 20min Jog.
Sat: AM: Track (Specific Hurdle Runs). PM: Rest
It’s pretty intense and often a fine line between feeling good and lying on your hands and knees unable to move on the track for 15 minutes after a session. There’s a saying in 400m circles that “Running the 400m requires every energy system the body has at its disposal to be completely exhausted – and then you still have 100m to go!”… This is then made even more difficult by having ten 3ft barriers to contend with on the way round and believe me the last couple start to feel more like 5ft than 3ft when there’s so much lactic acid in your legs! This is why the 400mH is known as the “Man Killer” and you really have to push your body to its limits in training and competition if you want to succeed.
What do you believe is your strongest attribute with regards athletics, and what area do you feel you could improve most?
My strongest attribute has to be my hurdling. I’ve become pretty efficient at hurdling off both left and right legs in the past couple of years which is particularly important when competing at the top level. Knowing that if there’s a strong headwind I can comfortably change my stride pattern to suit the conditions without having to think too much. I’d say the area I need to work on the most and have been doing so for the past couple of years is my raw speed. It’s slowly getting there but still would like to be able to run faster over 200m/400m to give me even more confidence that I can attack the 400mH with everything I’ve got.
You are involved with Sky Sports working as an Ambassador/Mentor. What does that entail?
Yes, I started working with the Sky Sports ‘Living for Sport’ Programme as an Athlete Mentor in February this year. It’s a sport based intervention programme funded by Sky Sports and ran by the Youth Sports Trust. It’s for 11-18 year olds and run in over 1,500 schools in the UK and Ireland. It’s a dream come through for me to work as part of this programme as it allows me to share my own experiences and knowledge in my sport to make a genuine difference to students lives by inspiring them to achieve their own personal best - be that in sport or elsewhere.
Where is the most interesting place you have visited as an athlete?
Definitely has to be South Africa. I went there on a 3 week training camp in January this year and it really made the difference. While the country was being hit with storm after storm it seems like the best decision I ever made. Motivation was at an all-time high with weather in the high 20’s/low 30’s
What is the most bizarre thing that has happened to you at an athletics meet?
Running a race about five years ago in Ireland where two full sets of hurdles were missing down the back straight. We were in our blocks ready to run before it was noticed. Wouldn’t have minded if it went unnoticed to see what I would have run!
If you had the chance to have a training session with any athlete of your choosing. Who would you pick?
If Bob Tisdall (Irish 400mH Olympic Champ 1932) was knocking around today I’d love to share a track session with him. He was one of our earliest Olympic Gold Medallists and a real pioneer in the sport. I’ve seen a few grainy clips of him training and going over hurdles and he looked like a proper work horse… My kind of training partner.
It has to be very tough to continue training as a full time athlete, how hard is it to cope with both the financial and time constraints?
The financial constraints associated with the sport have100% been the most difficult aspect of performing at a high level for me. I’m extremely lucky to belong to a very special club in St. Abban’s that look after me in any way they can. My parents and family are always so supportive of my decision to pursue athletics full time and they help me out in any way they can also. But that can only get you so far. I’m constantly on the lookout for a financial sponsor or someone that can ease the restraint financially. I know being involved in an individual sport it’s a lot more difficult to gain sponsorship, but competing on the European circuit on a regular basis, World Championship and World Student Games around the corner in 2017 will hopefully entice a sponsor to come on board so I can focus on these major championships. This will give me the opportunity to travel the fastest races, at the best meets and all I have to concentrate on is performing and running fast.
Timing is everything when it comes to athletics, both on and off the track. From making sure I eat at the right time before training to making sure I get enough hours sleep in order to recovery fully from the last session in prep for the next one … Sometimes it feels like they’re aren’t enough hours in the day. If working for Sky Sports/Youth Sports Trust and training twice a day wasn’t enough for me I also started a Masters here at the University of Limerick for my sins. It’s a MSc in Sports Performance so it links in very well with what I’m doing on the track. I’ve already learned a lot in terms of nutrition, psychology and strength & conditioning that I can apply to my own training to help me improve and prosper. Studying the MSc allows me to become a ‘dual career athlete’ whereby I can focus on running but also develop a career in a field that will allow me to work in when I retire from athletics.
It is always a problem to keep young athletes in the sport as they pass through their early teens. Is there any advice you could give a young athlete to keep them motivated?
As I mentioned earlier at 26 years old Amsterdam will be my this is my first senior international. If you asked me in my late teens/early 20’s that I’d be running the times I’m running now and qualifying for major champs I would have definitely laughed in disbelief. I was never the fastest, the strongest, the biggest or the most athletic when I was growing up (some would even argue that I’m still not!) but I knew that I loved athletics and I loved competing and training. As a by-product of my commitment to training and working hard I began to see results. It’s easy to give up when things aren’t going too well (and believe me I thought about it a lot of times myself) but no matter what challenges you may face, having the right attitude in combination with the hunger to achieve, good things will come your way.
Thank you Paul for your time and for giving us a chance to know what one of our top athletes is up to. Best of luck in the Europeans.