By Lauren Evans
In the summer of 2012, running coach Alberto Salazar made a bold prediction. He said, “In the Olympic 10,000, after 24 laps of covering surges and dodging elbows, the winner is going to have to run the last 400 in about 52 seconds.”
Salazar was spot-on. During the 2012 US Olympic Trials, Galen Rupp, Salazar’s star pupil, won the 10,000m race by covering the final lap in a lightening-fast 52.54 seconds. According to Galen, “For most of the last year, all of my training, just about every moment of my life, has been focused on one goal, learning to run that final lap in 52 seconds.”
A few weeks later in August, Mo Farah kicked to a Gold Medal in the Olympic 10,000 meter race, becoming the first British man EVER to do so. On his heels was his training partner, Galen Rupp of the US, who closed hard to win a Silver Medal, the first American man to medal in the event since 1964.
Both men may have been likened to the top dogs in their events, but what the race really came down to was their closing speed. Mo Farah ran with the pack but kicked with about 475 meters to go, covering the last 400 meters in 53.48 seconds. Galen Rupp’s kick was the fastest of anyone in the field to propel him into second place.
Farah, along with Rupp, train under the former marathon world record holder and Nike Oregon Project running coach, Alberto Salazar. This coach has taught both athletes to be able to change gears, not only throughout the race but especially on the last lap and final straightaway, something that hasn’t gone unnoticed in the track world.
According to Dathan Ritzenhein, former US Record-Holder in the 5k, “Those two guys are running on a higher plane right now than anybody else in the U.S. and maybe the world…When it comes to the speed work, the specific training that lets you close a race, Mo and Galen are in a world of their own.”
Pre-Olympics, Rupp and Farah were logging fast workouts at altitude in Park City, Utah. One workout was an 8 x 200m in under 27 seconds with a 200m jog recovery. That is one FAST workout for anyone, let alone a distance runner. According to the Oregon Live website, Salazar sent his distance runners to Los Angeles last year, where they began working with actual sprint coaches (yes, you read that correctly!) named John Smith and Ralph Mann.
What Galen and Farah are proving is that distance running success is not only determined by smart training, sacrifices, near perfect training environments, and natural talents, but also on aspects most top athletes can control – the ability to learn to close the last 400m of the bell lap in under 60 seconds (4 minute mile pace), even closer to the 50 second mark.
What do we take away from all of this?
Basically, all athletes do not have the same ratio of fast to slow twitch muscle fibers. An athlete may be naturally born with more fast (speed-related) or slow (distance-related) twitch fibers, or the athlete may have taught their own fibers to act as fast or slow twitch fibers through targeted training throughout their lives.
The important thing to note is slow twitch muscle fibers can be trained to act like fast twitch muscle fibers or vice versa. This means that speed is not only a God-given talent; it can be taught and ingrained in the athlete through practice. Only by embracing the fact that an athlete needs to work on all energy systems that allow them to run fast at the end of the race, does the athlete set themselves up for an opportunity to continue to PR or to do well in their races. Rupp and Farah are just as trained as the other athletes aerobically, but their closing speed is what enables them to go beyond their limits and do amazing things in the sport.
Elements of Training as Applied to Closing Speed
A good aerobic base is necessary to run speed-endurance events. The aerobic base can be gained by long, slow runs at 60-70% VO2 max speed.
At the same time, a good knowledge of the anaerobic training systems is essential. In activities that are 20 – 60 meters in length, the anaerobic alactate system is involved. In this system, high energy compounds are metabolized anaerobically (without oxygen) to produce the muscular energy the body needs to run fast for approximately 7 – 10 seconds.
Switching to a different energy system can be delayed by this amount of time, thereby prolonging the duration of the second energy system.
The second energy system is the anaerobic lactate glycolytic. In this system, glycogen (an energy-rich compound) is metabolized anaerobically to provide the athlete with enough power to last another 40 seconds. Yet, since there is not enough oxygen to allow glycogens to be fully degraded, the byproduct of lactic acid is produced.
Then 80% of that lactic acid can be formed into another source of energy which has a paralyzing effect on the body, causing immediate fatigue. An athlete must run fast for about 40 seconds at close to racing speeds with a 1:10 work:rest ratio. This could be repeat 150’s to 300’s depending on the athletes’ ability levels.
The aerobic energy system comes into play after this initial 400 – 600m or so of work. The athlete has to use the aerobic energy system to finish the race.
If speed is practiced at distances shorter than race pace, speeds should be approximately 10% faster than race pace.
The goal in training is to show a continuous improvement to the athlete’s vVO2, lactate threshold, aerobic threshold, in addition to fractional utilization of each of these levels, including the anaerobic energy systems, throughout their career. Most athletes must be trained at aerobic threshold duration (over 30 minutes), lactate threshold duration (20-40 minutes), race pace depending on their chosen event, and at top end speed.
According to Dr. Joe Vigil, throughout the athletes macrocyle, the athlete must undergo base training and vVO2 Max training (repeat miles), a period of increasing pace work, a competition phase including races and faster than race pace work, and a peak phase in which volume is decreased and true speed is increased. The final period of the athlete’s macrocyle is the transition phase, which is 2 – 4 weeks of active rest.
An athlete of mine in Boston recently watched Galen Rupp break the American 2 Mile Record. The amazing thing about this was not the record, but was what Rupp did 15 minutes afterwards. Here is part of the email from my athlete to me:
Just watched Rupp set the 2 mile indoor record and then 15 mins later do 5×1 mile at 4:21, 4:20, 4:20, 4:26, 4:01. What a guy!!!”
In this workout, Salazar had Rupp run the first four one-mile repeats in 4:20, followed by having him change into his spikes and run the last repeat all out (the 4:01!) His rest was a jog around the track.
When Rupp races his next 2 mile, 5,000, 10,000 and later on the marathon, he will have the closing speed to make it tough for anyone to beat him.
According to Dr. Joe Vigil, “It is only natural to believe that a male with a 46 or 47 second 400m can eventually run a 1500 in 3:30 – 3:35. At the same time, women who can run 51 to 53 seconds for the 400m can also run fast times in the 1500m. These times are generally good enough to win or place in the World Championships or the Olympic Games. These athletes, through systematic training, can become this good. Yet, if the speed is not there, the athletes must undergo specific speed training in order to get closer to these times.
Competitor Running Magazine. 2013. “Farah and Rupp Working with Sprint Coaches.”
ESPN. 2012. “How Fast Can Galen Rupp Go?”
Vigil, Joe, PhD. 800 – 1500 Meter Training Programs.