Rhodes alumnus Lindsey Parry is the coach behind Charné Bosman and Caroline Wöstmann who took first and second place at the 2016 Comrades Marathon. He talks to Heather Dugmore about elite athletes and developing the potential of high school learners from disadvantaged environments.

Top South African distance running coach, Lindsey Parry, is committed to ensuring that young athletes from disadvantaged backgrounds are given every opportunity to succeed. Grade 8 to 12 learners with athletics ability from high schools all over South Africa that do not have athletics programmes, are offered scholarships to the University of Pretoria’s TuksSport High School Athletics Academy.

Parry is the Technical Director of the Academy, which has several full-time coaches. Currently, 68 male and female learners, predominantly from South Africa’s townships and rural areas are enrolled in the Academy where they are coached in their running strength – sprints, middle- and long distance running. The learners live at the Academy where they receive an excellent education in addition to their athletics training.

“They are our future Comrades Marathon and Olympic gold winners. Two of our 18-year-old learners are participating in the Rio Olympic Games this year. It’s important for these learners to see what they can achieve. At the same time they are receiving an excellent academic education, including participating in a time management and study methodology programme run by the Psychology Department at the University of Pretoria’s High Performance Centre,” Parry explains.

“This way, they are able to matriculate well and get into university or college or pursue a trade or find good employment, parallel to their running careers. One of our learners is currently studying medicine at the University of Pretoria.

Parry is also the Official Coach to the Comrades Marathon Association and he has coached Comrades stars Charné Bosman and Caroline Wöstmann since mid-2014.

“My coaching career has exploded since I started working with these two elite ultra-runners. I think one of my key strengths as a coach is that I am a very positive force in their lives,” he explains. “Elite athletes are highly strung while I am generally a calm person who is able to keep them calm, focused and positive.”

Parry always focuses on what has gone well for his athletes, what is working for them and what they have achieved. “I also have a firm grasp of human physiology and I quickly get to the root of a problem when things are not working for them. This way, they can put their energy into fixing what is wrong instead of worrying about it.”

Parry explains that in every elite athlete’s life they experience times when physically they are just not feeling great and there is a sudden drop in their performance. “When this happens, we do blood tests to determine, among other things, haemoglobin, inflammatory markers or mineral deficiencies. They might need an immune system booster, they might be coming down with a cold or they might have pushed themselves too hard.”

He offers the current example of Wöstmann’s Comrades run this year:

“Caroline felt good on the day and went for it. But when she started feeling she was in trouble 60kms into the race, she pushed on instead of slowing down. If she had run slower from the outset of the race she would have been fine, but she wanted to push for a better time. She absolutely does have the ability to do it; she just wasn’t ready for it.

“She has only been running seriously for three years and is already a three times Comrades gold medalist with one win and one second. With more experience I am confident she will be able to run the race she was aiming for. She is still young and has so much running ahead of her.”

“After the race we naturally went through what happened and the incredibly positive aspect that she could take out of this is that even on a really bad day she came within three kilometres of winning, and came second in the 2016 Comrades.”

He adds that Charné’s win was well deserved. One of her Comrades strategies is to break the race into nine segments of 10 km: This way, she focuses on running each 10 km segment rather than on the 89 kms.

Parry says: “She has worked incredibly hard for years to fulfill this dream, and this year was her year. I am so proud of her.”

From Rhodes to High Performance Coaching

From a young age I always knew I wanted to be involved in professional sport. At school I was awarded provincial colours for swimming, athletics, cross-country and football and I played A-team rugby. I am from a sporting family. My Dad, Trevor, is a Comrades gold medalist and my Mom, Philippa, played national hockey.

At Rhodes I did a BSc with majors in Zoology, Human Kinetics, and Ergonomics, graduating in 1999. I then went to the University of Zululand to do my Honours in Exercise Science, specializing in biokinetics. An internship followed at the Sports Science Institute at UCT. I then went into private practice in Cape Town for five years. In 2008 I moved to Pretoria to head up the High Performance Lab at the University of Pretoria and in 2015 I moved to the TuksSport High School Athletics Academy.

In between I got married to Hayley, who was a provincial hockey player and she’s run Comrades. We have two children, Ella (4) and Oliver (20 months) and we live in Fourways, Joburg. Hayley owns and runs a business called The Money School that specialises in adult financial education.

I commute to Pretoria every day and I’m really excited about the work we are doing with our high school athletes. I am also currently working on increasing the number of girls who focus on athletics, which, in South Africa has traditionally been seen as a mostly male sport and career path. This is changing and girls can now see this as a career. It has only been in the last five years that you can regularly watch female sport on TV and this has made a big difference to girls’ perceptions of sport in their lives.

Tips from Coach Parry on how to start long distance running:

Build up slowly and be patient, it will lower your risk of injury;

  • Run slower to become a better runner; if you run above your threshold you don’t fully develop your aerobic system, which is necessary to improve your long distance running ability;
  • Always acknowledge pain and have it checked out or take a rest to allow the pain to subside. Pain is not a normal part of running and you must not push through;
  • Find a buddy or join a running club to embark on the long distance running journey with you; the first couple of weeks are particularly hard and not something you want to do alone;
  • If you join or register with a local running club, you will have access to coaches and runners with experience, who can advise you and help you to improve, as well as to prepare for events like Comrades and the Two Oceans Marathon. Also consult the official websites for these events;
  • Diet-wise, get advice on what works best for you. There are aspects of Dr Tim Noakes’ approach that resonate with me because the world is far too reliant on sugar and processed food. There are plenty of hidden sugars in fizzy drinks and foods, including so-called health foods. Protein is key but I do not support reducing carbohydrates in very active lifestyles. I believe in including carbohydrates from natural sources such as brown rice, potato, sweet potato and butternut.