Elliot Giles - from injury to record breaker

·8-min read
Photo credit: Duncan Nicholls
Photo credit: Duncan Nicholls

His 1:43.63 knocked over a second off Coe’s 1983 time and it was the second-fastest indoor 800m in history. What made it even more remarkable was that it marked the latest chapter in a story that has seen Giles fight his way back not only from persistent injuries but also the terrible damage his body suffered in a motorbike accident in 2014. Giles, 27, has rebuilt himself by adapting his training to suit his body, running just 15 miles a week. Indeed, the ‘world’s greatest cross-trainer’ shows runners at every level that there are many paths to becoming the best we can be. Runner’s World caught up with Giles to hear about the power of thinking outside the box and refusing to take ‘no’ for an answer.

How did your running journey begin?

I started running just after I left school, when I was 16. I got fed up with playing other sports and decided to try running. So I went down to the local running club and got turned away, but luckily my first coach, Eddie [Cockayne], gave me a shot and took me under his wing and it blossomed from there.

They turned you away? Seems a bit of a not-signing-the-Beatles moment…

I’ll take that as a massive compliment, but I’m not quite there yet! Birchfield [Harriers] are quite strict on who they let in because they’re a big club, with a long waiting list, but I figured if I didn’t try my luck, I’d never find out. Luckily, as I was turned away at the registration desk, my coach-to-be was walking past and said “I’ll take him on. Let him come with me and I’ll give him a trial” and we hit it off.

Sixteen is late to start running. A lot of the people you were up against must have joined the club at six or seven

I’d always played loads of sports and kept fit. Yes, I came to running late in terms of being a professional, but I think that if I had started any earlier, I probably wouldn’t have continued because I had got bored of so many different sports. I think I may not have been running at this point if I’d come to it any earlier.

How close was your accident to costing you your career?

The crash was back in 2014. I was 19 and my PB was 1:53, so at that point you could argue I wasn’t even really considered to be an athlete because 1:53 didn’t even get you an invitation to the British Champs. But a lot of the start of my career was spent on the sidelines. In my first year, I managed to get an England vest, but then 17, 18 and 19 were all injury years. So the crash came after this long period of injury and it helped me gather myself and rebuild slowly through the help of [coach] James Brewer. He was based at my university, Twickenham St Mary’s, and he is largely the reason I was able to put the pieces of the puzzle together. He slowed me down whereas, prior to that, I was stuck in a cycle of run for six weeks, get injured, run for six weeks, get injured. I’ve got a Word document that shows it all and when I look back, I don’t know how I’m where I am now with how little training I was able to commit to over the years.

I think that’s why my performances of late have improved so much, because back then I only had guts and determination; I never had consistency. It’s only been in the last year that I’ve had a full year of training and I was able to come out at the Indoors off the back of the only winter I’ve been through without having a significant injury. That showed in the fact I ran as well as I did.

Photo credit: Duncan Nicholls
Photo credit: Duncan Nicholls

The injuries you sustained in the accident were horrific. How did it happen? And how were you in the aftermath?

It happened in Birmingham city centre. I had picked my younger brother up from rugby training and I was in the left lane of a three-lane road leading up to a set of traffic lights. A lady in the far-right lane made a late manoeuvre, jumping across two lanes, not realising I was coming up to go past the lights. So as she came across, she side-swiped us. My brother went over the top of the bike and where she hit me, my knee was wedged between the bike and the car. Then I was thrown off to the side and I landed on the kerb, so I damaged my lower back. I hit my head on a bollard and was knocked out. Even now, I can only give you what I’ve seen on the CCTV and what my brother remembers.

He was OK, but he saw big bro knocked out, so it was pretty scary. I woke up in pain in the hospital. The bruising on my lower back made it feel as though my back almost wasn’t a part of me. I also tore my PCL [posterior cruciate ligament, in the knee] and ruptured my glute, and I suffered brain damage. Even now, the glute is still sort of deformed – where it detached from the muscle, it’s reattached in kind of a ball instead of a curved shape. My PCL sorted itself out because I spent three weeks bed-bound after the accident.

It was tough, but I always think when you go through adversity, it shapes your character and shows you what you can achieve.

It must have been incredibly tough at the time

It was the worst period of my life. Because my head was such a mess and I’d suffered brain damage, I didn’t really understand what was going on. I couldn’t move out of bed for three weeks – I had to wee in a milk bottle because I couldn’t get up. I couldn’t go to the toilet for a number two for three weeks, so I had constant constipation, and then I had trapped wind and was wincing, and every time I winced I couldn’t crouch because my back was hurting so much. Every time my knee moved, it felt like it was going to fall off. And because the nerves were damaged, I had no sensation in part of my lower back and my right side.

It was rough. I remember going through one period, about two weeks in, when I felt so down and out, and my hands started peeling. I could just peel the skin off my hands and I can only put it down to a form of heightened depression. I’ve never experienced a low like it.

It would be wrong to say I was really an athlete back then – my PB was 1:53 and I was on the back of constant injuries – but I knew if could get through that period, then I would be able to become an athlete. I believed I could be one of the best, I’d just never had the opportunity to prove it. And I guess after those three weeks in bed I knew that, relatively, the running was easy. I just had to take it slowly. Standing on the start line when you’re fit is the easy bit – the dark days are what shapes the champions.

It must have taken some serious determination and self-belief to come back

I think I was just a young, stupid kid who wouldn’t take no for an answer. My problem is that my superpower is also my biggest downfall. Because I’m willing to push through the pain, I often make problems out of nothing. When I should just stop, my mind tells me I can get through anything. But it’s my superpower when I step on the start line, because I’m more than willing to go through that pain. There are pros and cons to having that mindset, which is why I run very limited miles now and only three or four days a week.

It’s incredible to hear an elite athlete only running three days a week. How have you adjusted your training to work for your body?

I just do the three sessions a week and maybe a drill session around that. I don’t do any long runs any more. I’d had so many calf tears and Achilles issues that something had to change. I had to figure out a different way to train because I knew I didn’t need the same running load as the other guys to compete at the world level. What I needed was consistency, because consistency trumps talent every time. The way to get that consistency was to focus on the key sessions and top up the rest with cross-training.

By limiting training to three days a week, I became consistent – you’re training for six weeks back to back and then those six weeks become six months. I was doing stuff in training and not feeling fatigued or tired; not feeling like my Achilles was going to snap or my calf was going to snap. It was the first year where I ran pain-free and I wasn’t considering, “Am I going to finish the race?” or “Am I going to get through the session?” That consistency, on top of everything I’d built as foundations, really rocketed me forward.

Listen to the Elliot Giles episode of the Runner's World podcast to hear more.

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