For track and field athletes travelling Europe during a global pandemic, there are worse places to be housed than the National Institute of Sport, Expertise and Performance in Paris.
Canadian runner Charles Philibert-Thiboutot has access to a pair of outdoor tracks, two indoor surfaces and weight training facilities before competing outdoors in a 5,000-metre race on Feb. 26 in Toulon, a port city in south east France.
"We're not really missing anything," he said in a phone interview, describing the campus-like bubble environment. "With the COVID situation it's ideal to get my training, food and accommodation in one place. I don't have to go to the grocery store or run errands."
While Philibert-Thiboutot arrived recently to a dorm room that is less-than-luxurious and minus a television, the cafeteria does provide large portions of food to the Olympic-calibre athletes from various sports.
"They need to feed some big guys," he said, laughing.
And what is a man to do after hauling his Xbox video game console nearly 8,000 kilometres from his training base in Vancouver?
"Jimmy Gressier [the future of French long-distance running] has made it a mission for us to try to fetch a TV," Philibert-Thiboutot said. "I'll get that thing set up sooner than later."
Joking aside, the Quebec City native's top priority is to be at his best on the track and in the weight room early in the year in hopes of establishing a strong world ranking in the 1,500 and 5,000 (top 45 qualify for Tokyo Olympics this summer) and/or run under the respective 3:35 and 13:13.50 entry standards.
Injuries in 2019 prevented Philibert-Thiboutot from building a ranking during the original qualifying window before coronavirus forced the Games to be postponed last March.
"The French athletes have been raving about how they see gains from focusing 100 per cent on training here," said Philibert-Thiboutot, who also plans to watch Netflix on his laptop and read during his downtime the next three weeks. "Sometimes after runs I'll have an ice bath rather than going back to my room. It's going to be a lot of alone time but it's about focusing on training."
'My body is feeling better than ever'
The 30-year-old began his European tour on Jan. 29 at a World Athletics Indoor Tour meet in Karlsruhe, Germany, where he clocked 7:49.82 in the 3,000 to set a Quebec record. Last weekend, Philibert-Thiboutot clocked a personal-best 3:40.21 at an indoor 1,500 in Dortmund, Germany, his first at the distance indoors since Feb. 3, 2018 at the Millrose Games in New York City.
"My body is feeling better than ever," said Philibert-Thiboutot, whose previous PB of 3:41.98 was set at the Millrose Games three years ago. "I've improved my speed endurance in the 3K and 5K the last few months and want to see how that translates to the 1,500."
Félix-Antoine Lapointe, who began coaching Philibert-Thiboutot 10 years ago at Laval University in Quebec City, told CBC Sports the three-time Canadian champion isn't "perfectly ready" for a 1,500 since Philibert-Thiboutot has focused less on speed work and more on improving his endurance and fitness for the 5,000 in the past year.
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Modifying the runner's program to include more days off between intense training sessions became necessary when injuries mounted for Philibert-Thiboutot. In recent years, the 2016 Olympian has suffered a stress fracture in his right foot, a left Achilles problem, lower back issues and torn left calf.
Philibert-Thiboutot also had an injury scare upon landing in Germany after the 10-hour flight to Frankfurt caused discomfort in his right calf and bothered him late in last week's race, but he returned to full training last week.
Lapointe called the 3,000 performance in Germany a good, not great, result and wondered not only if the calf problem was a factor physically and mentally for Philibert-Thiboutot but if they set expectations too high.
Philibert-Thiboutot believes working weekly with his physiotherapist since last fall in Vancouver compared to monthly sessions in previous years has improved his biomechanics.
"I feel I'm in control [of my body] and I'm not wasting energy early [in races]," he said in reference to the 13:22.24 PB in the 5,000 he ran on Dec. 4 near Los Angeles. "Compared to a few years ago, I'm standing up straight, my jaw and shoulders are relaxed, whereas in the past I would grind through the pain early because my biomechanics weren't great."
For Philibert-Thiboutot to reach a world-class level in the 5,000, he must improve his speed endurance and be comfortable later in races to use his natural 1,500 speed, Lapointe said.
"Maybe part of it is he's only had consistent training over the last six months [because of injuries]," said Lapointe, searching for an answer to Philibert-Thiboutot's recent tendency to fade late in races. "That wasn't a problem a few years ago when he was at his peak in the 1,500.
"If he can stay healthy and consistent through the summer season, his fitness will be better, he'll be able to have a better finish in every race and will have the tools to make a world championship and Olympic final."