By Owen Morgan
Slow and steady wins the race isn’t a phrase normally associated with athletics – a sport where speed is key. However, when you are nurturing a prodigious young talent, the patient approach is a winning formula.
Rising Welsh middle-distance star Jake Heyward has been earmarked for success from a young age.
But too many athletes have burned too brightly early on in their careers only to see their potential extinguished too soon.
Heyward feels a gradual progression through the age groups, and staying close to home with a tried and tested support team, has been the best way forward for his career.
Speaking from a Welsh Athletics high-altitude training camp in Albuquerque, where he celebrated his 20th birthday, Heyward said: “I’ve always been a massive believer that if you are a junior you should still race as a junior.
“I know a lot of the guys step up to the senior races and I think last year, when I was in the top year at under-20, I was in a place where I was ready to do that, but too many people try and rush too soon and they forget that they are still a junior.
“They may be 16 and running phenomenal times but they are still very young and it’s a very long road ahead of you. You have got to build it up progressively and sensibly so that you’re not affected long term.”
It is an approach that has worked well so far with Heyward having won European youth and junior 1500m titles and a fourth-place finish at last year’s World Junior Championships.
His success has attracted international attention, bringing offers to study across the Atlantic and run on the hugely competitive American collegiate circuit.
But the Cardiff AAC athlete instead opted to stay in his home city to study and train under a support team he trusts.
With university on the horizon, the time was right for him to progress from his junior coach Paul Darney and join former Wales and Great Britain international James Thie’s hugely successful training group in Cardiff.
At the same time Heyward would continue under the watchful eyes of Welsh Athletics national coach Chris Jones and lead physiotherapist Adam Rattenberry, who had previously helped manage his return from long-standing injury.
Heyward, who has run faster than British middle-distance legends Seb Coe, Steve Ovett and Steve Cram did at his age, says of his decision to stay in Wales: “America is good but it doesn’t work for everybody, especially the collegiate system.
“I just felt the type of runner I was, I knew I needed physiotherapy support and I knew I needed to build my mileage up safely and allow myself to progress at my own rate rather than jumping into a programme that probably works for some athletes but could have potentially broken me.
“I guess it’s trying to be smart around the progression I was going to have. I was running fast times but my training age was very low in that sense.
“When I moved to James it was the right time. With going to university it was a natural progression. I knew I was at an age where I could step the training up a little moving on from Paul who did a great job as my junior coach.
“The group that James had was very successful and there were a lot of guys who had run just under that 3:40 mark and I knew that was what I needed at the time.
“James has had a massive impact on the group in Cardiff. He’s a really super, super positive guy. It’s just a very good environment to be in.
“Obviously then there was the help from Adam the physio and Chris Jones the head of Welsh Athletics. He works alongside James and I. The programme has developed over the past couple of years and I’ve seen that in the progression that I’ve had.
“Chris Jones has been a huge influence on my career. I think he is a very, very good manager. He is very wise and has a very good understanding of the physiology required to achieve at the top level.
“Adam has had a massive impact. The year I did the European Youths I actually didn’t have a winter because I was that injured.
“Then I got introduced to Adam and he helped develop a programme with my coach for my return and making sure my body was always in a good place.
“Obviously I was able to do well at the European youths and the same with the European Juniors, if it wasn’t for Adam, it genuinely could have been a different story.”
Heyward says the support he receives from Welsh Athletics through funding, facilities and training camps is invaluable in helping him make the transition from junior to senior ranks.
That kind of support last summer saw him lower his 1500m personal best to 3:36.90 at the IAAF Diamond League Anniversary Games in London where he narrowly missed out on breaking the 40-year-old British Junior record.
Heyward says: “When you look at the people I’m going to be competing against at the British senior champs this year, all of those guys are maximising their training, they’re going on altitude camps etc.
“If you’re not doing that as well and you’re not putting 100 per cent into it, you’re probably not going to be able to compete at the same level.”
Before he makes his debut at those senior British Championships at Birmingham, Heyward is targeting July’s European Under-23 Championships in Sweden. Then he will turn his attention to possible qualification for the World Athletics Championships in Doha at the end of the summer.
However, there is a fly in the ointment in the shape of an Achilles injury picked up after a successful cross-country season.
Once again, the approach will be a careful and well managed one, with an eye on this summer’s ambitions and ultimately next year’s Olympic Games.
Heyward says: “My goals remain the same with the European under-23s and Doha, but I’ve just got to take each day as it comes.
“I’ve been working super, super hard on the bike and in the pool out here so when I come back I don’t think I will have lost any fitness. In fact I’ll be even fitter.
“I’m hoping that I can overcome this niggle and get back on the track. I’m not going to rush anything or force anything and jeopardise bigger goals in the future.
“I always think ‘there is always another race’. You shouldn’t skip the rehab process and doing everything properly for the sake of a race.
“The big one is Tokyo 2020, so every decision I make is going to be leading towards that.”
This article first appeared on the Sport Wales website. Go to http://sport.wales/elite-performance/news-and-media/elite-news.aspx?itemId=21618