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Looking Back And Forward With Justin Gatlin

Justin Gatlin in happier times. Photo:
Justin Gatlin in happier times. Photo:

His doping ban ends in July. Can he come back? Can he restore his good name?

Written by: Matt Fitzgerald

Four years ago I began working on a book entitled Winning Clean: How to Build Speed, Strength and Endurance without Drugs. It was intended to instill in young athletes the belief that they could realize their full athletic potential without resorting to unethical shortcuts. In addition to providing expert guidance on training, nutrition, recovery, and so forth, it would present short profiles of role model athletes who had reached the pinnacle of their respective sports without cheating. One of the athletes I chose to include was the Olympic and world champion American sprinter Justin Gatlin.

I figured Gatlin had to be clean because of the anti-doping advocacy work he himself did with young athletes, and because he was such a nice guy. One month after I interviewed Gatlin for the book he failed a drug test and three months after that he was banned from the sport for four years. I took this as a sign and abandoned my book. Thus, that interview never saw the light of day–until now. On the eve of the end of Gatlin’s suspension and return to competitive sprinting, I thought it would be fun to share our conversation here. Enjoy.

Matt Fitzgerald: How careful are you about your eating habits?

Justin Gatlin: I work out six days a week, six hours a day, so I can eat a hamburger once or twice a week.

Taking me through a typical day’s eating for you.

I get up early in the morning and have a Myoplex nutrition shake.  Then at 7 or 8 o’clock in the morning I lay back down and take a nap.  Then I get back up and have a light breakfast and head out to practice.  I eat a late lunch at 4, and then I eat something at around 9 o’clock at night.  But throughout the day I’m always so busy that I’m always taking nutritional shakes, Gatorade—just stuff to keep my body going.

What’s a typical dinner for you?

I sit down and have something like sushi with plenty of protein, not a lot of carbs, and it restores my body for the next day.

Describe your track workouts for me.

A 100-meter sprint has four or five phases, and I spend time working on each phase.  I work on my block placement.  I work on my execution, my drive phase from the blocks.  I focus on staying low and having my knees come out in front of me.  That takes me to about 30 meters.  Then I work on the acceleration phase, getting faster, faster.  Top-end speed is from about 60 meters to the finish.

What is the key to improvement in the 100 meters?

It’s mainly technique.  Better technique is the thing that’s taken me this far in my professional career.

How important is it to have a good coach?

Your coach gets you ready for every race.  Every race is different. You have to go in there with a game plan. He [referring to his then coach, Trevor Graham, whom Gatlin splint from acrimoniously following his failed drug test] teaches me when I need to sit down and rest and when I need to get up and work harder.

What are the qualities of a good coach?

Someone who’s always trying to obtain as much information as possible about their craft.  I learn from him.  He learns from books, other coaches, and all the athletes he’s coached. He studies so he can teach me.  We learn together.  What he knows, I know.

Do you also try to learn from other top sprinters?

We study film.  We watch legendary people like Carl Lewis, Maurice Green, and Michael Johnson.  It’s very scientific.  We break down 100 meters and figure out what I have to do to get to each point to get there on world-record pace.  Do I need to drive my legs into the track harder or do I need to pump my arms faster?

Does your coach also help you with motivation?

He’s a perfectionist, and that’s what you need: someone who’s not going to settle for a gold medal.  “You’re the best.”  Because then your career is over.  You can’t reach any higher.  He says, “That was a great race.  You’re Olympic champion.  You’re the fastest man in the world.  But…”  And that’s what you look for.  That “but”.

You’ve said you want to break the world record this summer. What will it take to do that?

We’re working on a new technique—a new form of running—and a lot of people are trying to emulate what we’re doing.  It’s kind of funny to watch them, because you have to know everything about the technique in order to learn it.  It consists of stride length and stride frequency—reaching out there and grasping the track.  You want to cover as much ground with as much strength as possible.  The name of the technique is maximum velocity.

What sorts of things do you do for recovery?

I use hyperbaric chambers, chiropractors, cold lasers.  I think that’s why a lot of people resort to drugs—If you’re patient and you take care of your body and you give it what it needs, you can get to the same level as anybody who’s taking drugs, but you’re clean.

How about technology? Are there any advanced technologies you use to improve your performance?

I use a detox machine.  You put your feet in water and it drawns the toxins out of your body.  The supplements are good for you, but if you take them every day, they still have toxins in them.  It’s like cleaning out a closet.  I do that once a week to clean my body out so I can absorb more protein.

Do you see health as the foundation of athletic performance?

You have to take care of your body like it’s a newborn baby.  You give it the best nutrition, you need to work on it daily, and at the same time you need give it adequate rest.  Your body is like an engine that never stops running.  Even when you’re not working out it keeps running just so you can stay alive.

How do you prevent injuries?

I make sure to jump on any aches and pains that I have.  I ice it, I heat it, I get ultrasound—whatever I can do to make it better, I jump right on it.

How do you stay motivated?

I have to take on the responsibilities of an Olympic champion.  I can’t slack, because I know I have a lot of people behind me who are rooting for me to do better.  So I take that to the track with me every day.

I’m a naturally competitive person.  I can’t even help it.  If I see somebody out there physically, I’m going to go out there and do everything I can to do it just as well as them or even better.  If I see somebody run a fast time, you know I’m going to go out there and see if I can top it.

What is your attitude about performance-enhancing drugs?

I think that people who feel that they have to use drugs and manipulate their fans are criminals.  You’re cheating yourself.  Obviously you have absolutely no confidence in yourself that you can go out there and beat them field on your own talent, so why are you even in the sport?  Move over and let someone who’s more talented and willing to work hard have a chance.

Do you believe it’s possible to stay clean and still beat other topic sprinters who use performance-enhancing drugs?

I was always the kind of kid who always believed he could fly.  There was no way you could tell me that it was impossible for a human being to fly at one point in time.  I always believed that I could go above and beyond—that there was no limit.


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