WHEN it comes to practising what you preach, there can be few better examples than Sarah Benson. A talent coach at the Sport Scotland Institute of Sport, the 31-year-old had done so much research into how athletes improve that she decided to apply it to herself.
The results have been startling. At this year’s British Championships in Birmingham, she took almost 20 seconds off her personal best in the 3,000 metres steeplechase. Next year, having been granted a sabbatical from her work to concentrate on qualifying for the Commonwealth Games, her aim is to chop off another 20 seconds.
She may well have to, just to get to the start line at Hampden, because that PB of 10min 05sec was only good enough for fourth in Birmingham – and the three ahead of her were also Scottish. As there is a maximum of three athletes per country in any one event, Benson knows that reaching the qualifying time of 10mins is no more than an initial target. She also needs to challenge the current top three of Eilish McColgan, Emily Stewart and Lennie Waite, and clock a faster time than at least one.
“I kind of feel like I’m my own case study,” Benson says. “A big part of my job is understanding talent development. It’s an area where there’s more and more research coming out all the time, and it’s fascinating.
“I’ve literally applied it to myself. It’s now got to the stage where carrying on with the job was too much, so I’ve taken 11 months’ sabbatical from the start of this month and now I’ve got the opportunity to get the most out of myself as an athlete.”
Although a keen middle-distance runner at school in Edinburgh, Benson gave up track and field for a time after going to university.
She only took up steeplechase at the age of 28, on the recommendation of her coach Mike Johnston, and has gone from strength to strength since.
“The most important thing for being successful in sport is to love what you do. But you’ve also got to understand your physical suitability, and I learned I was more suited to endurance events.
“I remember watching the steeplechase at the British Championships in 2009 and thinking ‘I quite like the look of that’. It just really appealed to me and I needed a new challenge.
“It is very physically demanding, and I can probably still only handle five or six races a year. I am still learning all the time, and improving all the time. I’m still getting PBs and I don’t think there’s any reason why I can’t carry on getting PBs.”
Formerly Sarah Hood, she got married this year to Stuart Benson, a member of the Great Britain bobsleigh squad who has a big goal of his own to aim for at present: qualification for next year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi. With a wedding to arrange and a training schedule to fit in around her work, Benson had a lot on her plate in the build-up to the season just ended. Now, as she prepares for winter training, she is sure she has things arranged so as to give her the best possible chance of qualifying for Glasgow 2014.
“I’m convinced I’ve not been on a level playing field with my competitors, because I’ve had to fit my training around work. My sabbatical can be the one thing that really makes the difference.
“My biggest battle this season was getting to the line feeling recovered, after a working week and a flight. It’s the best job in the world – but not when you’re trying to train twice a day and travel to Europe on weekends.
“I’m nowhere near the finished article: I don’t think anyone is. I want to find out where my limit is. If it’s 10:05 I can accept that, and say at least I’ve tried. I’ve done everything an expert can do.
“The hardest thing for me is going to be to get into the top three. I need to beat Emily and Lennie to guarantee my spot, so realistically I need to be running 9mins 50sec.
“It’s a tough job – the qualifying time is probably the least of my worries. Eilish is out on her own, then the three of us are all within about ten seconds of each other.
“At the moment I’m slowest of the four, but I don’t see why I can’t take another 20 seconds off next year. My understanding of the whole process is a huge advantage for me.”
So with the benefit of that understanding, what would be her advice to everyone else trying to reach the qualifying standard for the Scottish team? “Don’t do anything differently just because you’re chasing the time. Let the time come.
“That’s exactly what I did in Birmingham. I just went out and raced and loved it, and it was the easiest race I’ve ever done. The last lap was tough, but that’s because it’s the steeplechase and it always will be.
“I genuinely believe if you have a goal in sport, the first thing you need is to love what you do. And another big part of it is opportunity. So people do well because they live next to a velodrome, or Kenyans become good runners because they live at altitude.
“If you haven’t got an opportunity, why not create it?”
Which is exactly what Benson has done. Now to seize it.