Olympic silver medallist and former Modern Pentathlon world champion, Samantha Murray joins me on the blog today, talking through how she manages to train across five sports (swimming, fencing, show jumping, running and laser shooting!).
Sam also gives me a crash course in the basics of Modern Pentathlon. Spoiler: It’s busy!
You got into horse riding from an early age, is that right?
Yeah. It was a case of circumstances and environment. With her retirement, my grandma started to run a riding school. And that was the best place for me to be at weekends and school holidays, so I used to go there, ride a pony, help on the farm and do all those jobs.
Were you into other sports?
I had lots of energy and was quite an outgoing, feisty kid. My mum just knew that I needed to do lots of activities, so after school I’d go to brownies, to gymnastics club, tennis club, swimming club, and I was involved in sports at school. But I excelled quite early on at running, so when I was 10/11 I went to the local athletics club and started running for the club, and eventually for my county. And at the same time I was riding ponies and swimming.
How did you come across modern pentathlon?
I saw an advert for a biathlon (swim and run) at my local swimming pool and a parent suggested I try it. Biathlon is the grassroots into triathlon and pentathlon in the UK. I loved it. I saw girls pistol shooting as part in the pentathlon and was intrigued. Then, luckily, the guy who ran the local pentathlon club said, ‘We’ve got stuff that you can borrow, and we also drive to the fencing club once a week, so you can join us.’
So it was that simple, I went to the club and I was taught how to pick up the pistol, load and fire. Then I went along to fencing, borrowed the kit there and learned how to fence.
Can you explain what Modern Pentathlon involves and how it works?
The way I compete is all [five sports] in one day. I swim 200m freestyle in the morning – that’s like a race, just like a swimming competition. Then we go to the fencing event, show jumping, and finally we run and [laser] shoot.
How does the fencing work?
In MP (modern pentathlon), fencing is one hit per person and there are 36 athletes that can qualify for a spot in the final, so I fence each of the other 35 women. The first hit wins – so if you hit me, you’ve won, if I hit you, I’ve won. For each hit you score 12 points. And in modern pentathlon one point equals one second. So your swimming time is converted into points and in fencing, the more hits you get, the better.
So on to show jumping. What happens here?
It’s on an unknown horse to make it an even playing field, so the athlete from America doesn’t have the best horse in the world while I’m struggling with an old pony from my grandma’s farm. Whoever’s winning after the swim and fence goes to do the draw (a machine that randomly selects numbers, each one allocating a horse).
The show jumping event is 12 obstacles, a triple and a double. You’re given your warm-up, your mount time, which is 20 minutes and five practise jumps, and your enter arena time, which is 20 minutes later. So I might get on at 2 O’clock and go in the area at 2.20pm, for example.
And finally it’s the run/shoot?
This is where you run 3 miles – so 3,200 metres – and you shoot four times. It’s a staggered start – our points are all converted to seconds. If I’m winning after the three events, I set off first. If you’re twenty points behind me, you start 20 seconds behind me. So it’s a chase.
From the start line you run to your laser pistol, which is usually about 75 metres away on a table. You load and you have to hit the black ring of a target on a 10 metre range five times, then you run an 800m loop. You do this three more times, shoot four times and run 800m.
So whoever crosses the line first has won the Pentathlon.
How do you balance training for five disciplines?
I’m a full-time, multi-event athlete and train up to 25 hours a week. I usually do my running and swimming in the morning. In the afternoon, I’ll have fencing and do some shooting or go horse riding.
My typical week consists of four swims, four runs and two gym sessions. I’ll shoot 3-4 times, I’ll fence 3 times, I’ll try to go riding once and then I’ll check in to see physios, nutritionists, a sports masseur and a psychologist all provided by the English Institute of Sport (EIS). Recovery and downtime is really important to me so I like find the right balance in my schedule, especially when approaching major championships. I like to have a spa day or go to yoga for some relaxation.
Does it feel busy having to fit five sports in?
There are certain days when I’m go, go, go, all day. In May I’m training heavy, long hours which means that by Saturday I’m just on my sofa – forget doing anything or being interactive with anyone. I’m completely dead.
Do you have a strength or favourite Modern Pentathlon discipline?
As a pentathlete, what’s carried me, and why my career’s been quite long, is because as a runner and swimmer I’m one of the best in the world. I think that’s due to my development as an athlete – running and swimming from an early age, and also because I’m naturally very athletic.
Because I do those very well it means that if I shoot well, and if I fence averagely, hitting 18 of the 35 girls, and I get a horse that isn’t crazy and I manage to ride around the course, usually I’ve found myself in the running for a medal. People would say that my strengths are running and swimming, and I’m consistent and strong in the riding, shooting and fencing.
When you’re running hard, does the increase in HR affect how steadily you can hold the pistol?
Yes, absolutely. I don’t consciously try and lower my heart rate but I take some deep breaths. I need to make sure my hands aren’t sweaty, so I might wipe them on my shorts, or put some white chalk on my hands and also on the grip of my pistol. A lot of people, including me, use visualisation. So as you’re running in you want to visualise picking up your pistol and taking your first shot and coordinating your breath with that visualisation. Then, as you approach the range, you see your pistol, your position, and I make sure I’m really holding the pistol well, because when you’re rushing and you want to get out there as quick as possible, you don’t want to miss.
When I’m in the right position, holding my pistol, I take a breath. And I begin. I have a process that I follow; I say words in my head over and over again and I say them in a rhythm so each shot is between 2.8 and 3.2 seconds for me.
How much laser running practice do you do, or is it separate?
At the moment we run and shoot twice a week. This means two of the runs will incorporate shooting and two will be without. Usually, my track sessions incorporate shooting as we have a shooting range built on the trackside.
What is your running training like?
Depending on the time of the season, a typical track session would include a pyramid of 800m, 600m and 400m, to meet the running pace of the event. We aim to run at 3:20 pace per kilometre. It’s about trying to get the pace in your legs and feel comfortable with it. We have lots of long, aerobic running throughout the winter and generally progress to short more ‘race-paced’ sets into the competition season. At the moment I run around 45 to 50km per week in training blocks, then I’ll taper down leading into a competition.
Is there a dedicated area to shoot near the running track?
At the University of Bath, where I train, there’s actually a range built right next to the 300m line at the track.
What kind of swimming training do you do for modern pentathlon?
My coach, Mark Skimming, sets the training so it’s always up to him! Generally though, on Mondays, I have a pull session, so I use paddles and a pullbuoy and I’ll usually swim about 3.5km a session, sometimes a bit longer. Tuesday, I train speed endurance so it might be like 20 x 100m or 5 x 400m. My warm-up starts with a kilometre and then some drills and then I’ll go into a main set. On a Thursday, it’s a speed day. I might have dive-start 50 meters or reducing 100s. Friday is generally a recovery drill session, so we tend to add in some individual medleys for variety, and longer drills, maybe over 100m, and also focus on starts and turns.
Is the variety in pentathlon one of the reasons you enjoy it so much?
Yeah, it suits my personality. I get bored easily and I like to be busy. I’m quite an organised person so it really suits me with its structure and the diversity of the events.
What do you find most challenging about pentathlon?
It’s very consuming. You’re away all the time competing, you miss people’s birthdays, weddings. It’s quite uncomfortable packing your stuff and living out of a suitcase or having to eat food that isn’t great while abroad. Training all day I’m physically tired… it makes cleaning my flat hard work or even walking to the shop – I’ll sometimes have to drive and I live a mile away!
What kit can’t you live without?
I need it all! When I pack, I have to take full swim kit, running kit, fencing kit. I have a big rectangular bag that has wheels at one end and a pull at the other end. When it’s full, it weighs about 30kg. That’s what I’ll take with me when I travel. It’s got my name on the side, so you can’t miss me!
As a team we wear kit by Under Armour. I run in Brooks running trainers, I think the Ghosts are my favourite model. I race in Brooks spikes and flats too. I love swimming in colourful swimming costumes and I find Amanzi are my favourite brand for something a bit different. Racing suits, I do flit from brand to brand – at the moment, I’m racing in a blueseventy nero.
You can follow Samantha’s pentathlon training and events via her social media accounts: www.instagram.com/samanthamurrayinsta, www.twitter.com/_samanthamurray and by visiting her website, www.samanthamurray.co.uk.