Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
Justin Knight, who will make his Olympic debut in August after being selected to represent Team Canada in the 5k at the 2020 Tokyo Games, has had a remarkably smooth transition from NCAA star to professional runner.
Perhaps it shouldn’t be shocking. After all, his collegiate resume boasts two national titles — cross country in 2017 and the indoor track 5k in 2018 — and one runner-up finish in the 2018 outdoor NCAA 5k. Still, athletes often have a difficult time adjusting to the intensified training regimen and higher stakes competition of a professional runner. Throw in a global pandemic and a year with no races and, well, it bears repeating: It is remarkable that, within three years, Knight went from very good NCAA runner to contender for a medal in the Olympic Games.
Knight, now 24, joined the Reebok Boston Track Club in 2018 after graduating from Syracuse. Without skipping a beat he immediately began to prove himself within professional circles as one of the best runners in the world with a 10th place finish in the 2019 World Track Championships in Doha, Qatar and a Canadian record in the indoor 1500.
Then, of course, came 2020’s COVID-19 pandemic and a suspended Olympic Games along with nearly all other races. Despite the quarantine year without races or group training, Knight came back stronger than ever this spring with breakthrough PR’s in the 1,500 meter in May (3:33) and 5,000 meter in June (12:51). Both times were under the Canadian Olympic Standard, and for a while Knight was entertaining the idea of competing in both events in Tokyo. Ultimately, he decided that, because of the way the Olympic schedule is set up, it’s in his best interest to compete in just the 5k.
“I wanted to [compete in both events], my mom wanted me to do both of them as well,” says Knight. “For my first Olympics I don’t know if it would have been the best decision for me to do both.”
There was a minute in which Knight even considered running just the 1500, but after his 12.51 performance in the Diamond League 5000 in Italy he decided to stick with the event he knows best and where he has been most competitive at the world stage.
“I was like, let’s just do the 5k,” says Knight. “That’s what you’ve done your whole life.”
How COVID-19 Forced a New Training Plan
Though a lot has changed for Knight over the past three years, his training has remained relatively similar to what he was doing at Syracuse. It makes sense. Knight’s college coach at Syracuse, Chris Fox, signed on to lead the Reebok Boston Track Club in 2018 when Knight joined the group. And though he isn’t running the exact same workouts that he did in college, the program is similar, albeit a lot faster.
“We have a phenomenal team, both women’s and the men’s side,” says Knight of the group. “It feels like a family here, like everyone gets along with each other. It’s really nice having a great group of guys and girls and also having a very competitive group of individuals that can help push you to be better. So far the results have proved that.”
Of course, the pandemic year shook things up. But it seemed to work to Knight’s benefit as an athlete, as a year without any races on the calendar gave him the opportunity to build a larger base for himself by upping his volume.
“When I was in college, usually the guys would build their base in the summer, but I was busy representing Team Canada and taking a really long break [afterwards],” explains Knight. “Without competition I was just able to get a lot stronger, up the mileage a little bit, become more consistent, and then when it came time to race I think I was just so much stronger than I was before. Running those fast paces were a lot easier for me because I was able to hold that pace for a longer period of time.”
Not only that, but there was a psychological benefit: between March and October Knight was forced to train in isolation due to the COVID-19 lockdown regulations, giving him an edge he hadn’t previously been able to hone.
“The one thing that I’ve always struggled with is just like holding myself accountable for pace,” Knight admits. “I’ve never really been that good with it, usually I can just sit on someone’s back and then over take the lead. When it came down to practicing by myself I had to learn how to hit the paces and actually get them right. Practicing by myself for such a long period of time really, really, really helped me to start to be able to do that. And I think by the time I got back with the team in October, I just felt like I actually improved and I learned something new, which actually elevated my game.”
You don’t become one of the best 5,000 meter runners in the world right out of college without an inherently competitive disposition and an ambitious approach to goal setting. So it isn’t a surprise that Knight’s aiming high in Tokyo.
“I’m training to win,” says Knight. “Everything that I’ve been doing leading up to the Olympics is with the mindset of, ‘Hey you’re putting in the work so that you can potentially get a gold medal.’”
That said, he’s self-aware. Though he hesitates to call his goal of getting a gold medal in the 5,000 meters “unrealistic,” he acknowledges that as a first-time contender it will be a hard one to achieve. Still, he believes in setting a high bar to aim for, knowing that, even though he might well miss, he will have raised his game regardless.
“The reason why I [set high goals] is because in track and field, and in life in general, nothing is perfect. And if we’re talking about track, it could be windy, it could be hot, it could be cold, you could cramp up, I’ve dealt with all of those in all sorts of different races,” explains Knight. “But if you’re training well above what is seen to be a realistic progression for you, then it kind of leaves you room for error for something to go wrong. In my head I would love to win the Olympics. That’s what I’m training for, but if that doesn’t happen, I’m not going to beat myself up about it. But I know that I’ll be much further ahead where I would be if I was easier on myself [in setting goals].
Knight, along with American runner Grant Fisher, 24, will be among the youngest athletes competing in the Olympic 5,000m, which is scheduled to take place on Friday, Aug. 6. His personal best in the event of 12:51.93 is the 5th fastest time run this year, putting him in a genuinely competitive position within the Olympic field, well ahead of any of the American men who qualified in the event.
While going to the Olympics is something that Knight has been training a long time for and is understandably personally a big deal for him as an individual, he’s eager to point out that his representation in the Games is part of something bigger.
“I know that when I go there I’m not just representing myself I’m representing my family, my friends, Reebok, and I just want to let people know that I’m very thankful for everyone who supported me on this journey,” says Knight. “When I go to the Olympics, everything that I do is not only for me. I’m going to try to do my best as my way of saying thank you to all the people that supported me.”
Knight’s Go-To Workouts
Here are two difficult workouts that Knight has done over the past year to prepare for the Olympic Games. They may not get you to the 2024 Paris Olympics but they’ll make you faster, and, hey, you can have some boasting rights for doing them.
Workout 1: 600 / 200 repeat sets
This one combines 600 meter and 200 meter repeats in sets. As done by the RBTC, the 600 is run in 1:26-1:30, or roughly Knight’s mile race pace. After a 30-second rest, they run the 200 in 27 seconds, a bit faster. Repeat seven times with a 2-minute rest between sets.
Workout 2: 200s / miles / 400s
This is a combo workout, hitting a range of paces and interval lengths: 4 x 200m + 2 x 1 mile + 3 x 400m.
As done by the RBTC: Run 4 x 200 meters in 31, 30, 29, 29. Jog 100 meters between reps for recovery. Take a 2 minute rest after the last 200 is completed.
Next, run 1 mile in 4:06 followed by a 3 minute rest for recovery. Run a second mile in 4:07 followed by about 3 minute rest recovery.
Finally, run 3 x 400 in 58, 56, 56 taking a 1 minute recovery in between reps.
Of course, anyone not an Olympic caliber athlete should adjust those paces accordingly, with the 200s and 400s roughly at 1500m pace and the miles at 3000m pace.
What Knight Trains In
The RBTC is old school in that it doesn’t run their workouts in spikes, flats, or supershoes. They train in old fashioned regular trainers. Knight’s go-to shoe? The Floatride Energy 3.