Training with Katarina Johnson-Thompson in the south of France: Rugged work but someone has to do it...

Mark Lawford
Katarina Johnson-Thompson puts Mark Lawford (centre) through his paces

As the sweat poured into my eyes and my legs begged for mercy I wondered just what had made me volunteer for this job.

Then I remembered… it was 25deg, gloriously sunny, I was in the south of France, being trained by a Team GB athlete – and getting paid for it.

I say ‘trained’, it was more a series of challenges which were demonstrated then assessed as we did them. In short – the BRITA Switch7 workout.

READ MORE: Katarina Johnson-Thompson teams up with BRITA to create a 7-discipline workout

The athlete in question was Katarina Johnson-Thompson, our top heptathlete and two-time Olympian despite being just 23.

Delivering her demos with a soft Liverpool accent after the coach had issued his orders in a soft French accent, this was all very much informal and easy-going. Right up to the time when we had to copy her.

Since when were medicine balls so heavy? And why do I need to throw one into the air, spin and catch it first bounce then repeat?

Mark Lawford gets a diplomatic answer from KJT about his ‘prowess’

‘Keep your neck straight, abs firm and arms out in front of you’, came the call.

‘It’s a bit easier without a 200kg sphere to carry and lob’, I thought, fondly remembering the ‘abs’ of my youth which are now abs-ent.

There were a few of these ball tasks, each one taking ten times longer than the previous one it seemed as the Montpellier sun baked us in the Stade Phillipides.

We twisted, threw, jumped and strutted with these balls as a ‘warm up’.

Who wants a ball? Katarina Johnson-Thompson hands out the medicine

There is always one star turn and one who cannot get the technique right. I was the latter and poor old KJT stayed patient with me as she tried to iron out my crimps.

Now ‘warm’ it was time for the real tasks to begin.

And they came thick and fast: A 25m cone line was set up for us to run on, jump over, bound across and hop along.

Now I can do those things. But once we had to use elite technique such as raising knees higher than one’s nose while having the left arm accompanying the right leg and vice versa, I was flummoxed.

Do three things at once? I am a man…

Katarina Johnson-Thompson does her best not to laugh when recalling Mark Lawford’s ‘arm-knee-leg’ co-ordination

Yes I did sprinting and long jump in my youth. No, I did not approach take-off anywhere like this.

I was not the worst though. Some of my fellow ‘athletes’ did struggle with these techniques but when you make someone as diplomatic as Katarina laugh out loud, you know your chances of gold in the 2020 Olympics are probably remote.

And yes, the coach did that classic Gallic shrug and pursed his lips at me.

Formidable…

I quite enjoyed that though and something about the way I did the springing must have been right because KJT did ask me if I had been a long jumper when I was younger.

Younger. Tactful.

Now for stamina. Now I can row quite a long way on a machine and am happy running up to around 10 miles. I have a level of fitness I am happy with.

But I have always been told: Don’t run upstairs. It’s dangerous.

Yet now I was being commanded to run up the stone stadium steps, all 50 of them, singly, without tripping or missing one. Twice.

Then it was two-footed jumps up the same stairs. Twice again.

Everyone who trained with KJT raises their bottles to their good health

Now then… this was exercising bits of my legs that have been dormant since there were only three terrestrial TV stations and as I descended the steps I felt worrying twangings and tuggings.

Then came full lunges up the stone seats next to the stairs. Right to the top. Lunges. With my 29in inside leg measurement. Twice.

And then we had to lower ourselves back the same way very slowly. Twice.

Then fast-paced lunges upwards followed by slow returns. Twice.

Mon dieu.

By now I had the legs of an octogenarian so did not really appreciate being told we now had to jump up three steps at a time, albeit only halfway up.

My spring had gone so I did a 2/3/2 combination. More raised eyebrows and Gallic shrugs…

One brave soul did a Facebook Live while planking with KJT

To finish we had to pair off for the resistance sprinting. My partner was a big lad, around 15 stone and in excess of 6ft. He took some reining in and we did three distances: 10m and back, 20m and back, 40m and back.

By now the heat and steps had taken their toll but I was determined to finish the job properly so I did manage the sprints even though my eyes were stinging with sweat and my top smelled like something straight from Satan’s closet.

At least KJT praised my low sprinting start and pick up. To me that’s just natural but thinking about co-ordinating arms, knees and legs isn’t.

The rubber band around the waist really added an element of realism to proceedings, replicating fatigue that a heptathlete after two days of competition would feel in the final event.

By now I was shattered and breathing heavily. The coach appeared again and said ‘c’est fini’.

Merci beaucoup.

The band resistance challenge was saved until last – and it was a hard slog

As I drained the third refill of my BRITA fill&go Active water bottle (that’s around 1.5 litres) the recovery began to set in but unlike KJT there was no ice bath awaiting.

Just a mile-long long walk back to the hotel and a shower, hot, cold or otherwise. We did have the option of a massage but I chose a warm down on the rowing machine.

Masochist.

As trainers go, KJT was excellent. She was chatty, friendly and helpful at all times. While we all sweated profusely, she stood there, cool as a cucumber having already done a very heavy morning session on the track and field which I had witnessed.

French elite decathletes were also training there and our coach was taking them through pole vault routines while simultaneously dealing with us.

These lads were doing their stuff with shirts off. In the name of all that is holy, my shirt stayed on and always will.

As a postscript, my rowing ploy did work and 24 hours later my legs did not hurt. The top I was wearing for most of the day has now been classified illegal by the Geneva Convention, however…

Thanks to everyone involved in an incredible experience for their time and expertise. And good luck to KJT at the World Athletics Championships in London this summer.

Katarina Johnson-Thompson is an ambassador for the new BRITA fill&go Active filter bottle, a sustainable way to stay hydrated on the go. Find out more at www.brita.co.uk.

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