I woke up on Wednesday morning to discover Jake Wightman had won the 1,500m final. Quite a surprise given middle-distance racing has been dominated by Kenyans, Ethiopians and Moroccans for the past two decades or more. It’s only the last couple of years that we have seen the rise of Norway’s Jakob Ingebrigtsen challenging them, which led to him entering this race as the Olympic champion. It’s great to see the African dominance being shaken up as the world catches up on them.
Like Eilish McColgan, Jake has the genetics and support around him to help get the best out of himself. His father, Geoff, was a 2:13 marathoner and ran at the 1990 Commonwealth Games. His mother Susan, nee Tooby, and her twin sister Angela both ran at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. But, even with the family background, you have to have the motivation. Jake himself is a twin, and while brother Sam is still runs as a member of Edinburgh AC, he apparently didn’t continue to take it as seriously after he turned eighteen.
In seeing Jake winning the race in 3:29.23 – a personal best – I wondered how he had ascended to be the champion. He’s just turned 28 and his climb has been slow. Going back only eight years ago to the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, he was knocked out in the heats in a time of 3:43.87, almost fifteen seconds slower than in Oregon.
It’s instructive to look at his UK Athletics Power of 10 record which lists the majority of his official races and times since he competed in the Scottish Schools championships in 2007 just before he turned 13 years old. At that time he was running 4:45 for 1,500 and it only improved to 4:33 a year later. It took the better part of a decade to knock a minute off that and get down to his current ability. As the graph below shows, he was running close to these times in 2014 and since then has been working to eke out the last improvements from 3:35 to sub-3:30. Even so, it’s a steady progression over the first seven years.
It’s the same story with the 800m. He began as a 2:18 runner in 2008 at age 14 and finally broke two minutes at 17. From there it was another two years to break 1:50 and then it wasn’t until he was ten years into his running career that he became the first British man since Peter Elliott in 1991 to break 1:45 for 800m and 3:35 for 1,500m. That is a lot of running, training and development to get near to his best.
Of course what we don’t know is what his training aims were during these periods. For example, from 2012 – 2016 he ran in some 400m races seeing his times improve from 52.7 to 48.3sec. Again this highlights how it took four years to make a decent improvement from already good times to even better ones – an average of one second per year.
This idea of long term development is one that the average runner doesn’t understand. It takes years to become the best runner you can be. For many runners training consistently for 3-6 months is considered long-term and they’re happy to knock a minute or two off their half marathon time. But as Jake’s record shows with consistent training and a long term approach, you can go much further than you ever expect.
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.
The World Athletics championship opened on Friday 15 July 2022 in Oregon, USA. As I’m based in the UK, I’m not going to see much of it live as, while some events start in the evening in my time-zone, the majority take place after midnight.
What I caught on Day 1 began with the field events of hammer and high jump along with a couple of track events, the Mixed 4x400M relay and preliminary heats of the Men’s 100M. But the real highlight was away from the stadium where we were treated to the Women’s 20KM walk!
Race walking is a sport which is somewhat derided and I am being slightly sarcastic when I say it’s a highlight. Yet, I have a fascination with all things sporty and what I can learn from them and I’ve actually watched race walking at some of the past Olympics. Given it’s similarity to running it’s interesting to dig into the details and analyse.
Race walking at the elite level is surprisingly fast and there are two event distances – 20 and 50km. A little bit shorter than half marathon (21.1km) and longer than a marathon (42.2km). It’s only in the past decade the women have been allowed to compete in the longer walking distance.
There are two basic rules that differentiate it from running.
You must always have one foot in contact with the ground as judged by the naked eye. This “naked eye” caveat was instituted in recent years because with the advent of high definition television pictures, it became clear everyone was lifting off and travelling through the air!
When the front foot lands the leg must stay straight until the body passes over it. The knee cannot bend.
Breaking either of these rules results in a warning red card and if three are received, the walker has to take a penalty stop of 1-minute per 10K of race distance. If they break the rules a fourth time they are disqualified. However, there’s a twist as in the last 100 metres, a walker may be disqualified even if they haven’t had any previous cards which avoids them gaming the system and breaking into a sprint at the line! The drama of the race begins to occur as competitors accumulate penalties or risk everything to go that bit faster.
The commentators made the point that tactically there’s not much you can do in race-walking. Its limitations, as I shall explain, means there is an inherent top speed. It’s not like distance running where you might decide to conserve your energy by sitting behind an opponent and then sprinting for the line!
By always having one foot in contact with the ground, a walker’s stride length is limited by the length of their legs. As one foot leaves the ground, the other must already be touching it.
This begins to highlight a big difference with running where runners can push off with each step and travel through the air. They get a longer stride length by doing this – as much as 2.70m for world class male sprinters and almost 2m for distance runners. The average man walking along the street usually has a stride of around 90cm and when I measured my biggest possible step it was a highly uncomfortable, full stretch 1.35m.
In his book Mathletics, John D. Barrow a professor at Cambridge University analyses how race walkers achieve their speeds and concludes that to achieve the world record pace, it requires the walker to have a leg length of 2.3m. Basically they have to be leaving the ground to go as fast as they do! What the walkers are good at is eliminating any up and down motion. Their centre of gravity always remains level and all effort goes into propelling themselves horizontally forwards.
This means their cadence – the number of steps taken per minute – is a big factor in how fast they walk. The best in the race I watched were hitting a cadence of around 200 steps per minute but again this has limitations. Sprinters achieve very high cadences of around 250 steps per minute but they can only hold onto this for a minute. Middle distance runners tend to be over 200-220 steps and are closer to the race walkers in this respect.
But it’s a key difference between running and race-walking that middle distance runners achieve high cadence by ‘shortening the lever”. When their back foot leaves the ground it comes up to almost kick their backside. This shortening allows the rear leg to travel under the body quicker than if it were staying straight. This is basic mechanics that occurs with the pendulum of a clock speeding up or slowing down depending on its length and which you can easily test by swinging a weight on a piece of string.
What a tall walker gains in stride length, they lose in cadence because their long levers move slower.
Watching a racewalker, you immediately notice they all employ a distinctive wiggling method with the arms notably swinging. The hands stay low to keep the centre of gravity low and help avoid losing contact with the ground.
The reason for the wiggle is that it maximises the length of each stride. It involves rotation of the hips which is counterbalanced by the shoulders rotating. Unfortunately, if you go watch any amateur distance race you will seem many runners at the slower end of the field using a similar technique. This isn’t entirely a surprise as many amateur runners are going at paces slower than race walkers.
Together these factors begin to explain why many amateur runners aren’t achieving better times. Firstly they do too much ‘wiggling’ – their hips and shoulders rotate around the body. While this creates a longer stride, it often causes a heel strike which at best creates braking forces to slow them, but at worst may cause injury. Neither is desirable.
A secondary consequence of hip rotation is that it doesn’t cause the trail leg to swing up which would make their running more efficient. All they’re doing is penduluming their legs back and forth.
Now there are running methods which encourage runners to deliberately lift the trailing leg but I don’t advocate that, it should happen naturally with good mechanics. How far the trail leg swings up is dependent on how fast you’re running. But certainly if you’ve got excessive hip rotation going on, it will be harder to hit the top speeds that enable it to happen.
The most impressive part of race walking is the speed – they are not just ambling down to the shops to pick up a pint of milk. In Friday night’s, 20km walk the first kilometre was completed in 4:20 – the equivalent of a 21:40 parkrun! In Imperial terms it’s 6:58/mile and they went through five miles in under 35 minutes.
The Chinese women, Shijie Qieyang and Hong Liu started out quickly but were eventually caught and overtaken by Kimberly Garcia Leon and then Poland’s Katarzyna Zdzieblo. After 1:26:58 it was Garcia Leon who claimed the first gold medal of these World Championships and Peru’s first ever.
Later on the men’s race took place won by Japan’s Toshikazu Yamnishi in 1:19:07. I didn’t stay up to watch it!
Both of these times were within three minutes of the world records which are: