Lessons for runners from track and field athletics

Improve your running by learning from the best track and field sprinters, jumpers and throwers.

The summer of 2022 is loaded with high quality international athletics competitions. First up is the World Athletics Championships in Eugene, USA, from 15 to 24 July. These are followed by the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, from 28 July to 8 August, and the European Championships in Munich, Germany, from 11 to 21 August. With so much on offer, there is ample opportunity for all runners, from casual observers to track and field afficionados, to enjoy the competition and learn from the best athletes in the world.

It might be natural to assume the long distance runners in the 5,000m, 10,000m, and marathon, have the most inspiration to offer Lonely Goat members. However, the other athletic disciplines – the sprints, jumps, and throws – provide lessons that can improve your running, too.

Sprinters – learn to relax

Watch the very best sprinters (like Noah Lyles, pictured below) from a head-on camera angle, in slow motion, and you’ll notice they’ll have a floppy face. You can thank pioneering coach, Bud Winter, for these “fish lips”, as he called it.

During service in the US Navy in the Second World War, Winter taught relaxation techniques to pilots so they could remain calm under pressure. He later applied these techniques to sprinters with remarkable success. Previously, many coaches were of the opinion that you had to try as hard as you could to run fast, tensing up in the process. Coach Winter, on the other hand, liked his sprinters to release tension so they could run smoothly and turn all their energy into movement.

It worked, as his athletes, including Tommie Smith and John Carlos (gold and silver medallists in the 200m at the 1968 Olympics), ripped up the record books and won all manner of medals.

Noah Lyles (from instagram.com/nojo18)
How runners can benefit from relaxing

In this instance, what works for sprinters can work for runners too. Compare how your body feels if you tense up your shoulders and face, to when you keep them loose and relaxed. Running when tense is likely to result in an uncomfortable position that can restrict your breathing and give you an awkward gait. Running when relaxed will keep your form fluid and your breathing easy.

Tension can creep in when running, especially during a race when you’re pushing hard. Get into the habit of shaking out your arms and shoulders at every kilometre or mile marker and it will soon become second nature.

Jumpers – work on your mental game

A typical competition for a long jumper, high jumper, triple jumper or pole vaulter, can be a mental struggle. Even if you’ve got to the track without any dramas (not guaranteed if you’re traveling with a 5m long pole), you’ll have to sit around between your jumps, watching your competitors take their turns.

This leaves plenty of time for doubts to creep in and for your head to start causing you problems. Even if you go in with a perfect plan, there is so much that is beyond your control. One round you could be leading, only to then be in last place if all your competitors post better jumps than you. Plus, you may have to contend with the ultimate high pressure scenario of trying to set a personal best to win after fouling all your previous attempts.

Focus on yourself

Experiment with different mental approaches before and during races to find what works best for you. Whether that’s sitting down quietly beforehand, positive self-talk mantras, or even getting angry! This will give you the mental tools to relax when stressed or to get pumped up when needed, and deliver the goods when the going gets tough.

You can see this in action when the top athletes are preparing to jump. Some are still and quiet. Others bounce around and get the crowd clapping along. Yulimar Rojas (possibly the greatest triple jumper) is constantly chatting away to herself just before she launches herself down the runway.

Slapping yourself in the face and encouraging any onlookers to clap for you might be a bit out of place at the average parkrun, but variations of jumpers’ techniques can still work for distance runners when things don’t go as planned.

Yulimar Rojas (from instagram.com/yulimarrojas45)

Throwers = technique

If you want to see graceful, controlled, fluid movement you can look at a top runner, such as Eliud Kipchoge, in full flight. Or, you can look at a thrower doing the hammer, discus, shot or javelin. They might be among the bigger athletes, physically, but they move with the precision of dancers. That’s because they have to. Their events are about taking a heavy object, building up momentum, and then transferring as much of that momentum as possible into the object so it travels as far as possible. A wobbly elbow, or a misaligned knee creates a loss of efficiency that can be measured in metres.

Work on your form

For the most part, running is automatic. It’s just one foot in front of the other. There’s also some evidence that working to ‘correct’ your natural form may actually be counterproductive (unless you’re working on eliminating the cause of a chronic industry). Our bodies tend to automatically adopt the most efficient way of moving, and our gait will evolve as our body adapts from being that of a non-runner to a runner.

That said, it is when we’re tired at the end of a race or hard run, and our bodies are no longer moving optimally (perhaps due to cramp or injury), that our personal perfect running style can go to pieces. We might start overstriding, favour one leg over the other, or hunch our shoulders. This can negatively affect our efficiency and either slow us down or make everything feel harder. When this happens, an understanding of what your proper form looks and feels like can help keep you moving smoothly.

Much like the point above about staying relaxed, use the distance markers as a reminder to assess how you’re moving. Do it at the start of a run, when you feel fresh, and you’ll be familiar with what good form feels like. Then you can refer to it at the end of the run when the inevitable inefficiencies creep in.

Think of it like a physical mindfulness exercise: Focus on each part of your body and check in with it. If something needs adjusting, do so and keep running with good form.

Anita Włodarczyk (from instagram.com/anitawlodarczykk)

Take inspiration

Finally, it’s worth noting the potential inspirational power of watching the best athletes in the world do their thing, and channeling that through visualisation. You might not be competing on the world stage, but you can still imagine you’re Laura Muir, for example, digging deep to dip under your parkrun PB.