Speed kills! Get over strength and conditioning in Gaelic football

When push comes to shove in any sport, whoever moves fastest finishes first

It took me approximately one hour last Sunday to drive the dandelion-lined motorway from the London Marathon to the Leinster football quarter-final. Or at least from watching BBC’s coverage of the race to O’Moore Park in Portlaoise. Worlds apart? Not necessarily so.

You know what they say about the marathon not being a sprint? Maybe the same goes for championship football. Although, once the lead women turned on to The Mall, just under 200 metres from the finish, there was basically a sprint finish – and there was only going to be one winner. Speed kills!

Up to that point Sifan Hassan had broken every single rule of marathon running, beginning with the training part. The 30-year-old Dutch athlete was making her debut over the classic distance, and was by her own admission halfhearted about it.

“Sometimes I wake up, I’m like, why the hell did I decide to run a marathon?” Hassan said two days before the start. Although her class and versatility on the track have long been established beyond any doubt – from 800m right up to 10,0000m, with world records, Olympic gold medals, etc –, it turns out she had good reason to be fearful of the long road.


Hassan was 15-years-old when the Oromo conflict in Ethiopia forced her to leave. She found herself in the Netherlands seeking asylum, and there took up running while studying to become a nurse. In the 15 years since then, she’s made a habit of winning, mainly thanks to her killer speed on the track.

London, though, looked an unlikely prospect, race director Hugh Brasher declaring it “arguably the greatest field ever assembled for a women’s distance race.”

Hassan’s coach, the 36-year-old American Tim Rowbury, had no experience in marathon running either. And her preparations were complicated by the fact she did her last month of training during Ramadan, which meant no food or water during daylight hours. Hassan also started the race with a quad muscle injury. That forced her to stop, twice, around the 12-mile mark, and she later fell almost half a minute down on the lead women, which included the Olympic champion, Peres Jepchirchir from Kenya, plus the race favourite, Yalemzerf Yehualaw from Ethiopia.

Then, having defied all likelihood – and her own desire to stop – to rejoin the leaders, Hassan came close to being completely wiped out just over a mile from the finish, narrowly avoiding a race motorbike after taking a hard 90-degree turn at the last water station.

Race now on, it was perfectly evident to anyone who knew anything about this sport that Hassan was going to win, which she did, sprinting down The Mall to finish in 2:18.33, four seconds clear of Ethiopia’s Alemu Megertu, with Jepchirchir another second back in third.

“I was born for drama,” Hassan joked with reporters shortly after the finish, which may or may not be true; she was clearly born to run.

So on to Portlaoise, Hassan’s speed still playing on my mind for the hour of road before Laois took the field to play Dublin. Unlike running, strength and conditioning are not my business. My first impression was that the teams had ample supply of both. Despite their youth and relative inexperience, there was nothing otherwise short about the Laois players.

, But once the game really got going, they difference became clear: Dublin began killing Laois softly, not with their strength and conditioning but their speed. They were 23 points ahead by half-time, 4-15 to 0-4, the four goals, from Con O’Callaghan, Colm Basquel, Lee Gannon and then Ciarán Kilkenny, all marked by Laois defenders chasing either back or forward in vain. They simply could not keep up.

Jack McCaffrey made his first championship appearance for Dublin in over 2½ years. My guess is he didn’t spend too much of that time working on his strength and conditioning, because his game is still based entirely on speed. At age 29, and despite his long lay-off, McCaffrey has lost none of that and it could prove the difference for Dublin this summer.

A few years back, Irish 800m record holder and four-time European Championship medal winner Mark English was in the same medical class as McCaffrey in UCD, and he told me how they shared the same fascination with physiology and the mechanics of the human engine.

English even provided McCaffrey with a pair of running spikes to help perfect his sprinting technique. “We would share some ideas alright,” English said, “and I’ve actually told Jack, a few times, that he would have made a great 800m runner. But he doesn’t seem to believe me.”

Before English, David Matthews held the Irish 800m record for 26 years, and he maintains that the level of fitness required to run a world-class 800m would be perfectly transferable to the modern intercounty footballer, or indeed hurler. That also requires a basic level of speed over any strength or conditioning.

Same with Paul Mannion, also 29, who made his first championship start for Dublin on Sunday after nearly two years away. He kept busy with his club during that period, and he has always been a model in athleticism anyway, but Mannion’s most enduring asset might well be his speed.

At age 33 James McCarthy still moves across the football field like a miler, and after eight All-Irelands he hasn’t lost any of his turn of pace either. One of these days he will start to slow down, but on Sunday he left the Laois midfield playing catch up. Same with Brian Fenton, still teasing us with thoughts of what might have been on the running track.

Dublin finished with 11 different scorers, including Dean Rock with his first touch off the bench, and Brian Howard came on late to add one too. It all happened fast, and all ended quick.

There is some inevitability now to the emphasis on strength and conditioning in Gaelic football, but that should not be at the expense of speed, nor indeed skill. Not every player can combine the lot as seamlessly as Damien Comer.

Ultimately, pace is what counts when it comes down to any finishing stretch. Speed kills!