Amina Maatoug & the fine art of chilled running

On any given Wednesday at Leiden Atletiek, Amina Maatoug, cuts a diminutive figure. Softly spoken, she makes her way through the loopscholing drills with balance and focus. Then, during the technieklopjes, he speed is revealed. Amina’s feet lightly touch the ground, before springing further down the track. Her co-ordination, refined technique, being testament to the many years she has already trained. Now, after finishing a year and a half or so at Leiden University’s philosophy department, she’s won an athletics scholarship to study at Duke University, North Carolina. The intensely competitive environment of college athletics in the States will no doubt provide Amina with an opportunity to further capitalise on her potential as an athlete. Amina is resolutely old school: she’s not on Strava and although she has an Instagram account, she rarely updates it with her running exploits and frequent victories.

Amina’s frequent winning of races, including winning the Dutch indoor 800m, is not only based on her solid and consistent training, but also on her tactical astuteness. Leon, an occasional training partner of hers at Leiden Atletiek, tells me, ‘whenever I asked her about her races, she always mentioned how she changed her tactics depending on who she was racing against. Her competitors would shape when she would kick or speed up. Many runners just mention how they were feeling or going during a race, but, I felt with Amina she was always well aware of her opponents strengths.’ To this, her long time coach, Han Kulker, added, ‘yes, Amina has always been keen on tactics. She would also talk about them in a very detailed manner with her father.’

Prior to Amina leaving for the States, I had a conversation with her via the fancy technology of Zoom. Amina was typically chilled and candid in answering my questions. Below is part of the conversation:

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In one of the hand-written training plans that Bram wrote, I checked to see what kind of training you’re doing. But I didn’t see your name.

Since January, Bram has been writing the schedule (schema) for the shorter-distance athletes. So, Han writes my program and he sends it directly to me. And he also writes it for Sander and a bunch of other guys. But he just sends it to us privately, rather than via the Leiden Atletiek group chat.

Can you tell me what a typical week involves?

Just training wise?

Yeah.

So, usually on Monday I have a sprint session which I do with the sprint group at Leiden Atletiek. To keep my speed up. Then on Tuesday, I just do an easy run for myself. Sometimes I also do some strength work on Tuesdays. Wednesdays, we have of course our track workout. Thursday is usually my day off, so I just don’t do anything. No running; no training. On Friday we have another group session, on the track or in the Leidse Hout. On Saturday I just do an easy run for myself. Sometimes my Dad bikes along with me. In winter on Sundays, we have the sessions in the dunes, in Duinrell. And in summer, we have the track sessions. That’s my week. My easy runs are between 30mins to an hour.

Photo by Erik van Leeuwen

I love using Strava to follow what other runners are doing. And I have noticed that you are not on Strava. But, just wondering, do you use a GPS watch?

Yeah, I’m not on Strava. I do use a GPS, so, I just look at it for myself, rather than going public with it. Strava is not that important or interesting for me. There’s no particular reason I’m not on Strava. I’m not that interested in other peoples’ training. And I don’t want to necessarily share all of my training. I don’t really care about the data that much. Like, I train and I record it, but the idea of sharing it on Strava is not really important to me.

Feedback and interaction with Han is more important to me than Strava. I see Han about three times a week. It’s in a group setting. So, it is nice that you see your coach that often. But it is also not too much, because you’re in a group. And he gives everyone feedback.

I’ve noticed you’ve got quite a kick towards the end of your races.

It kinda comes quite naturally to me. It’s not necessarily something I’ve worked on specifically. For a 1500m runner, I have a lot of speed, I think. But not so much for 800m runners. It comes naturally to me to try and kick at the end. Sometimes I am so exhausted that I can’t kick. It comes from my speed, but also my endurance. I mean, if you’re really dying, but have a lot of speed, you can’t kick, right?

So, how long have you been actually training for?

I first got introduced to Leiden Atletiek when I was six or so. But, middle distance training only really started when I was around 12. I started to solely focus on running when I was 16. By that age, I already knew that my talent was the running part, but I also did heptathlons up until that point. But when I was 16, I think it was when I won my first indoor title as an Under 18 athlete in the 800m. I think that was when I realised that I should really focus on running because then I can be really good. My coach was also Han at this time.

What do you really appreciate in Han’s coaching?

Han is really relaxed. He doesn’t make it so that it is forced or something. That suits me because I don’t like it when people tell me what to do. Then I’m like, ‘no I don’t want to do that.’ But if it is something like, ‘this is what we can do … I think we should do this’, then, I’m more comfortable. He gives me some room to figure it out myself. I figure out where I want to race, which races I want to do. So I don’t feel like he is forcing anything on me. And, of course, he also says something like, ‘maybe you can do this and that…’. It ultimately feels like it is my own choice but he kind of helps me with that.

What will you take with you from Leiden Atletiek, in terms of thinking about how you train?

Via duke Track & Field and Cross Country

I would say the most important lesson I have learn by training with Han and Bram as well is that you don’t always have to train too hard. It is better to train a bit easier, so you can train continuously and don’t get injured. That will lead to more results. And I am very pleased that in my time with Han I have been able to increase my training load every year a little bit and improve almost every year, without ever having a serious injury (knock on wood).

How is your training going in the States?

The transition is going well. The training is very different. Especially now in cross country the training is much more focused on endurance than what I am used to in Leiden. I am now running around 80 km a week. I will probably run my first cross country race in a week or so.*

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Some things change; others stay the same. Amina is still (joyfully) not on Strava.

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