What Olympians Can Teach Runners to Improve Their Performance
One characteristic, among many, that I absolutely love about running is the sport’s accessibility. It doesn’t matter if you run slow or fast; if you run short distances or long distances; if you run on treadmills, sidewalks, parks, mountains, or tracks: if you run, you are a runner. Period. Case closed.
Fortunately for the running community, too, just as the sport of running offers its participants a wide depth of experiences — mountains, treadmills, sidewalks, fast paces, slow paces, and the like — so, too, is the diversity of experiences when it comes to Olympic-level runners. The best of the best in the world when it comes to running come from all different backgrounds, demonstrate tons of different body shapes and sizes and compete in many different types of running and distances. What unites them all is that they’re at the top of their class and are at the top of the world’s stage.
When we ask ourselves what Olympians can teach runners to improve their performances, perhaps the better question to ask is what Olympians cannot teach runners to improve their performances. While we could obviously dive into the nitty-gritty mechanics of how differentiates Olympic-level athletes from the rest of us, what I think is most influential to hear from Olympic runners is their approach to training and competing.
To be the best in the world, Olympic runners need to approach their training, and view their training, in a way that’s worlds apart from how the rest of us do. Below, I’ll highlight some key takeaways from some of the world’s best runners and explore how the rest of us can use their sagacious insight to elevate our own running performances.
On being a runner for life:
“It really gets grim until the competition begins. You have to wonder at times what you’re doing out there. Over the years, I’ve given myself a thousand reasons to keep running, but it always come back to where it started. It comes down to self-satisfaction and a sense of achievement.” –Steve “Pre” Prefontaine
Steve Prefontaine is one of the most storied runners in American running history. At one point, he held every American distance record from the 2,000-10,000 meters, just missed medalling at the Munich Olympics in 1972, and was training for the 1976 Montreal Olympics when he died in a car accident at 24 years old.
Pre’s sentiment here is a great reminder to runners that in order to keep doing this stuff for life — to keep working hard, to keep striving for continuous improvement, and to simply not quit — runners have to be intrinsically motivated. You have to do this stuff because you want to do this stuff, emphasis necessary, not because someone is forcing you to.
Running is one of those few sports that people can do from the time they’re toddlers, when they first learn to run, to the time they’re old and gray. It doesn’t matter how fast or slow you are; what matters most is that you keep going.
On becoming tenacious and gritty:
“Stepping outside the comfort zone is the price I pay to find out how good I can be. If I planned on backing off every time running got difficult, I would hang up my shoes and take up knitting.”
“Some days it just flows and I feel like I’m born to do this, other days it feels like I’m trudging through hell. Every day I make the choice to show up and see what I’ve got, and to try and be better. My advice: keep showing up.” –Desiree “Desi” Linden
Desi Linden was the first American woman to win the Boston Marathon in 33 years at the 2018 Boston Marathon, a day that will likely be remembered not only for her amazing win but also for the completely hellacious weather: sideways, freezing rain; intense wind; and snow. Desi represented Team USA at the 2012 London Olympics and in the 2016 Rio Olympics in the marathon and is known for her gritty, tenacious style of racing and training. Until she won the Boston Marathon, she was typically treated as one of the underdogs in American women’s distance racing.
Desi’s words about showing up every single day are especially poignant to everyday runners. Most of us aren’t Olympians and never will be; instead, we’re chasing down our dreams on the pavement and trails between taking care of our families, leading demanding jobs, and keeping seemingly a thousand other balls in the air at any given time. It can be so tempting to put our running on the back burner — thinking what’s the point — but Desi’s words remind us that our sport’s inherent difficultness is what makes it so gratifying.
We should show up because we can. If we don’t, then we’ll never know what could be.
On staying focused:
“Dreams are free. Goals have a cost. While you can daydream for free, goals don’t come without a price. Time, Effort, Sacrifice, and Sweat. How will you pay for your goals?” –Usain Bolt
The so-called fastest man in the world, Usain Bolt is best known for completely obliterating world records and earning 9 gold medals at 2008, 2012, and 2016 summer Olympics. He is so impressively fast that during races, it seems as though he is casually jogging in comparison to his competition.
Usain’s words differentiating dreams and goals couldn’t be more poignant. Amateur athletes can elevate their performances simply by going into training with better focus and a greater commitment to their goals. It won’t be easy to balance training for a big goal with all the other life demands we amateurs must manage — such as those imposed by work, family, or school — but therein lies the satisfaction. We know we must work hard; it’s simply up to us to rise to the occasion.
Take their sentiments with you
Bolt, Pre, and Desi are some of the most revered athletes in the running community, living or deceased. The intensity and focus they bring to their training, as well as their poignancy that captures their realization that there’s nothing inherently easy about this stuff, even if you have a genetic predisposition is refreshing. It’s easy to assume that when you’re the best in the world that this stuff comes easily. These three athletes’ words show that that’s not the case at all. Even they — the best of the best — admit that running hard and competing as best you can is really, really, really tough.
Emulating Desi, Bolt, and Pre will serve any runner well and can help elevate a runner’s performance. While we may never have the physical capability that these preternaturally gifted athletes share, we can make our approach and commitment to training as gritty and never-ceasing as theirs.