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Coach Culpepper: Learn From The Olympians

Did you take notes during the Olympics? Here are a few things you might have learned.

Did you take notes during the Olympics? Here are a few things you might have learned. 

The excitement and anticipation of the Summer Olympics every four years is undeniable. Some sports that fade into obscurity during the off years suddenly become relevant, and quintessential Olympic sports like track and field take center stage, much like last month in London when stars such as Mo Farah, Galen Rupp, David Rudisha, Usain Bolt and others electrified the crowds at Olympic Stadium. There is something pure and powerful about athletes competing at the highest level and representing their various countries that make the Olympics uniquely compelling. Along with a nice dose of inspiration, there are some essential elements that you can learn from watching the best athletes in the world perform at the highest level.

Specific Preparation

All of the athletes vying to win a medal have one thing in common: They have all trained specifically for this moment. They have not only trained for the particular event, but also for the precise window of time. Arriving at the Olympics in peak form does not occur by accident, but instead takes meticulous planning and advanced thinking to make sure all the physiological elements come together at the right time.

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There is a common misconception that these supremely talented athletes can perform at will, but that’s hardly the case. The psychology and the athletes’ mental approach is a whole different topic and a critical contributing factor, but without question, all the athletes going home with a medal have prepared their bodies to perform when it truly counts.

The foundational groundwork is laid through months of consistent base phase training followed by a transition to more specific targeted work, midseason racing and finally the sharpening and taper that elevates the athletes to their final peak. And most of the athletes winning medals have probably needed to modify or adjust their preparation through the various phases due to injury or other roadblocks that have gotten in the way.

You can apply some of the same principles to your own training.

— Pick a specific race or goal to prepare for and plan all your training around that objective.

— Give yourself enough time to prepare properly and include all the necessary phases including base conditioning, transition to specific workouts and build-up races, and the sharpening/taper phase.

— Tailor your training for the distance you are targeting with consideration of pace and intensity of specific workouts.

Strategy and Pacing

Every event from the 100-meter dash to the marathon has a measure of strategy, and the longer the event the more that pacing becomes essential. Watch the 400m races with a critical eye and you will see how there are various tactics in play and even an element of pacing for the top runners in the world.

As a committed, enthusiast runner that races often and is actively trying to get faster, you probably focus less on having a clear strategic race plan and proper pacing than is required to perform to your potential. You shouldn’t limit yourself by overthinking your race, but I can say with certainty that Olympic athletes have a strategic race plan and a clear understanding of what pace they should be racing. They know within a half second on the track and only a few seconds in the marathon of what their pace should be. A lackadaisical approach does not get you on the podium nor does racing without pacing yourself accordingly.

Pay particular attention to the eventual winners of the middle and long-distance races and where they are positioned throughout the race. Rarely, if ever, do they lead until the end of the race when the final sprint is in full flight. Also monitor their pacing; never does a medalist go out faster the first lap or the first few miles as compared to the last lap or last mile. Don’t fall prey to the mindset that you can cushion your time by running the first mile 10, 20 or 30 seconds quicker than what you are aiming for overall or that you can make all your race decisions on the fly.

Developing your own strategic race plan will give you confidence in your race-day execution.

o Even if the plan falls apart mid-race it is better to at least have an idea of how you would like the race to unfold and how you can adjust.

o Include in your thinking where you can push harder based on the course layout, when and what fuel you will take in and what your pacing will be based on your goal and specific workout indicators.

o Key off athletes around you; let them do work for you and pull you along while you actively try to make your last mile your quickest as opposed to gradually slowing throughout the race.

My first coach taught me a vital tool which served me well in qualifying for two Olympic teams and four world championship teams and that was: “Be ready when it counts.” Be the runner in your circle of runner friends that always seems to race best when it matters most—that takes planning and specific preparation with a particular emphasis on a strategic race plan and pace management. Whatever your level you can learn a few things by watching the Olympics, so take note, observe and study what is really happening in each race and get inspired to reach your own goals.

A version of this column appeared in the August issue of Competitor magazine.


About The Author: 

Two-time U.S. Olympian Alan Culpepper helps runners of all abilities through