Two days, seven events, sixteen women battling it out for the Heptathlon gold. The favourite was Nafi Thiam, the back-to-back Olympic champion who also won the World Championship in 2017. Britain’s Katarina Johnson-Thompson interrupted Nafi’s dynasty by taking the gold in 2019 and therefore arrived in Oregon as the reigning World champion.
The seven events of heptathlon are split into sprints (100m hurdles and 200m), throws (shot putt and javelin) and jumps (long and high) with a final 800m race providing a test of speed and endurance. Typically the best heptathletes tend to be good sprinters because their speed helps out in the jumps and 800m leaving only the throws to be developed.
As a running coach, I often feel it’s hard to fit in all the sessions I would like to do in preparation for a race. There’s speed work, lactate clearance and tolerance to be developed and there’s general work on the aerobic base; and there’s limited time and energy to do it all.
So how do heptathletes manage to conquer seven different events? The technicalities of hurdling, long jumping, high jumping, shot putting and throwing a javelin are things that rarely come naturally. Of course most multi-eventers begin when they are ten or eleven years old so the basic techniques are ingrained by the time they get to their late teens and begin competing in championships. But even so, trying to fit in training for seven different events each week must be difficult and I guess all you can do is periodise your training to allow for it. There’s probably a decision to be made whether to try and improve your strongest events vs. eliminating any weakness. These are difficult decisions for any coach and athlete.
I tuned in over the two days to snippets of the events but it was the final 800m race which I watched with most interest given it’s my event. While trained world-class 800m runners are running under 1:45 for men and 1:55 for women, watching the heptathletes provides a different look.
These women are very good athletes there’s no doubt about that but they are second echelon or they’d be 800m specialists. The nature of the heptathlon disciplines pushes them to develop speed and power over endurance and the limitations of training mean they can’t be running 40 miles or more per week as the specialists do.
After six events, the Netherlands’ Anouk Vetter had edged ahead of Nafi Thiam through a massive 58+ metre throw in the javelin leaving only the two of them contending for the gold and silver. Meanwhile the 21-year-old American sensation, Anna Hall, who had been setting personal bests in each event and bouncing around excitedly after each great throw, jump or sprint was favoured to be first across the line. She recently ran 2:03 for 800m and while she wouldn’t be able to reach Thiam or Vetter in the overall standings it was likely she’d take bronze.
The race set off and Hall sprinted into the lead opening up a gap over the others. There wasn’t much drama but down the back straight of the second lap, about 1min20 into the run, you could see Hall beginning to suffer, breathing hard, looking a little less smiley as she dug in. Rounding the last bend, Sulek the Pole and Vidts from Belgium moved up onto her shoulder and challenged. Over the last 50m, Hall found a final burst to sprint away and cross the line in 2:06.67
The others trailed in over the next fifteen seconds and then after walking a few steps, with the competition over, they all collapsed to the floor gasping for breath. I remember the feeling on my first 800m time trial – lungs busting to the very end then hyperventilating to try and get the breath back. For me, it lasted a good few minutes and the unpleasant effects of lactic build-up were still causing me to cough an hour later. On my later time trials these effects were diminished as my endurance had improved.
Breaking down Anna Hall’s race, it’s instructive to note she ran 23.08s in the 200m event at the end of the hep’s first day. The next best time was Johnson-Thompson’s 23.62s which is a significant drop off. Generally speaking the fastest runners over short distances become the fastest over long distances with the right training.
In running 2:06.67, Hall recorded 200m splits of 28.77, 31.98, 33.45 and 32.47. There’s no doubt she went out a little quick even though she was almost six seconds slower than she’s capable for 200m. The lap splits came in at 1:01.75 and 1:05.92 where a specialist aims to have a 2-second difference between the two. Let’s put those numbers into context the 800m was run at 4:15/mile, the fastest split at 3:51/mile, the slowest at 4:29! All very impressive stuff to us mere mortals.
Anouk Vetter trailed in at 2:20 to take silver behind the champion Thiam (2:13). The commentary team suggested that Vetter’s 7-second deficit, with her throws being better than everyone else, indicated she had spent more time in the weights room than the track. Of course that may have been a little tongue-in-cheek without a more detailed analysis of Vetter’s past abilities or knowing what her coaching were aiming to achieve, but likely there’s some truth in it.
Even so, the race highlights how much speed is an important factor in racing fast but also the need to balance training to build the endurance to support it. Hall may be able to run 200m at 3:05/mile pace but it quickly drops to only being able to run at 4:30/mile when another 600m is added. It really highlights the endurance work that runners need to do if they’re going to be competitive at longer distances like parkrun, 10K or even the marathon.