Five Lessons Learned From Alberto Salazar

Alberto Salazar, center, celebrates with Galen Rupp, left, and Mo Farah after the 10,000m final at the London Olympics. Photo: PhotoRun.net

Apply these lessons to your own training and take your running to the next level.

On the opening weekend of athletics competition at the Olympic Games in London two Saturdays ago, training partners Mo Farah and Galen Rupp, who are coached by former Boston and New York City Marathon champion Alberto Salazar as part of Nike’s Oregon Project, electrified the crowd at Olympic Stadium with their historic 1-2 finish in the men’s 10,000-meter final.

Farah and Rupp, a Brit and an American who have been training together for much of the past two years, kept close tabs on one another throughout the race, careful not to let the other get too far away. At one point, when the pace slowed and Rupp was getting antsy, it was Farah who tapped him on the shoulder and told him to be patient.

When the bell rang with one lap to go, Farah expectedly bolted into the lead, sprinting away over the final 400 meters with everything he had left in his legs. Not far behind him was Rupp, who found himself in fourth with 200 meters to go behind Farah and the Bekele brothers—Tariku and Kenenisa, the latter the reigning Olympic champion and world record-holder in this event. Coming off the final turn onto the home straightaway, Farah continued to lead, victory virtually assured, while Rupp found another gear, surging past the Bekele bretheren with 60 meters to go. Seconds later, Farah crossed the finish line, and, after realizing victory was his, looked back to see who else but his training partner, Rupp, raising his hands in triumph right behind him.

Meanwhile, somewhere in the stands of Olympic Stadium, Salazar was smiling. He would say afterward that he knew all along his two athletes would each medal, a goal finally realized years after it had become publicized. Since Salazar began coaching Rupp back when the 26-year-old blond haired boy with boyish looks was still in high school, he told anyone who would listen that his mission was to put an American on the medal stand. When Farah joined his training group some 18 months ago, Rupp, who had chased around the likes of Dan Browne, Adam Goucher and others when he began working with Salazar in high school, once again had someone one level above him to run down in practice on a daily basis.

Farah and Rupp crossing the finish line 1-2 on the world’s biggest stage is more than just a big win for Great Britain or the United States; it’s a victory for Salazar, too, who, not without criticism from other coaches, athletes, media and anyone else in the running world with an opinion, has been toying and tinkering with athletes, their training, their strides and their minds in an effort to prove that yes, in fact, runners from Kenya and Ethiopia can be beaten without the aid of performance-enhancing drugs.

Of course, while the myriad of resources Salazar and his athletes have at their disposal through their relationship with Nike can’t be overlooked, here are five fundamental lessons from his Oregon Project model that runners of all ability levels can apply to their own training in order to take their racing to the next level.

1. Take a long-term approach

Let’s face it: we live in a results-driven world where many people subscribe to the philosophy that something needs to get done as soon as possible or else it’s not worth doing. Running, unfortunately, is no different. Every day runners seek instant improvement and subscribe to get-fit-quick approaches to training that guarantee they’ll be in the best shape of their life in 10 weeks or less. Sorry folks, but it just doesn’t work that way in distance running.

In the extreme example of Salazar and Rupp, who have been working together for nearly 12 years, taking a long-term approach to training has allowed Rupp to mature, adapt and improve incrementally year after year to the point where he’s now able to be competitive in nearly any race he enters and contend for medals on the world stage. Throughout this process, short-term successes were often sacrificed in favor of achieving long-term goals. From the time Salazar and Rupp started working together the main goal was to eventually end up on the medal stand. Rather than rush the process, however, trying to turn Rupp into a world-beater at 19 or 20 years old and risking injury or burnout, Salazar and Rupp exercised patience, sticking to their long-term plan and taking one small step at a time toward achieving big things.

At 26 years old, Rupp has yet to run a marathon, focusing instead on improving his speed over 5,000 meters and 10,000 meters before he eventually moves up to the 26.2-mile distance, where he will undoubtedly have an almost instant impact after years of necessary physical and emotional development.

How can you take a long-term approach to your own training and racing? The most important lesson is to be patient. Set long-term goals for 1 to 3 years down the road, such as moving up to tackle the marathon distance or taking a large chunk of time off your current personal best. Give yourself plenty of time to mature as an athlete, work on your aerobic development, and improve strength and speed over the course of a few years rather than try to cram it all into a 10- or 12-week period. Of course, it’s important to give yourself short-term benchmarks along the way as a means of checking your progress, but don’t be discouraged if you’re not running a personal best every time you take to the starting line. Always keep the bigger picture in mind.

2. Find good training partners

In 2002, Salazar started the Oregon Project, a post-collegiate training group funded by Nike, where its athletes would get access to every resource they would need to succeed: top of the line gear and equipment, use of Nike’s world-class facilities, physical therapy of various sorts, altitude houses, underwater treadmills, cryo-saunas, and the list goes on. More important than perhaps any of these things, however, is the powerful group-training environment that is the core of the Oregon Project. Salazar’s aim from the beginning was to foster an atmosphere where American distance runners (and later, international athletes as well) would train together in pursuit of a place on the medal stand at major international competitions such as the world championships and the Olympic Games. Rupp, a high schooler coached by Salazar at the time the Oregon Project first came to be, would often run workouts with the professional members of the team — runners who had personal bests significantly faster than his who would push him harder than any scholastic teammate ever could.

Though the years, members of the Project — as in any training group — have come and gone, but at any given time there has always been a group of highly motivated, extremely talented athletes working together every day in the pursuit of one common goal: improvement. In its most fundamental form, this is no different than any running club that meets regularly for workouts, long runs and races.

Bottom line: group training works. The Greater Boston Track Club of the 1970s and 80s, and Mammoth Track Club, Hansons-Brooks Distance Project, and various Team USA training groups of today, are further evidence of the effectiveness of group training. You don’t have to be an elite athlete to become a member of your local running club, however, or simply meet up with other runners in your area to train with a few times a week. Find a person or persons who can push you to become a better athlete and improve your confidence when you step to the starting line on race day.

3. Work on your running form

Some of you may remember this article in the New Yorker before the 2010 New York City Marathon which explored Alberto Salazar’s obsession with running form, in this case the stride of Dathan Ritzenhein, another member of Salazar’s Oregon Project team who has battled incessant injuries throughout his professional running career.

Salazar, who in his prime ran like an old man squatting down on the toilet, spent a lot of time tinkering with Ritzenhein’s running form after the two began working together in 2010. The reason was that Ritzenhein, a heel striker, was overstriding and essentially hitting the brakes every time his foot struck the ground, sending severe impact forces throughout his body, which contributed to multiple stress-related overuse injuries. The rationale behind getting him to become a midfoot striker was to land more under his center of gravity, thus reducing the severity of the impact forces radiating throughout his body with each stride.

Did it work? Sort of. Ritzenhein hasn’t been totally injury-free since falling under Salazar’s watchful eye, but he’s now landing noticeably lighter on his midfoot, running with a more relaxed gait and has improved his efficiency over longer distances.

It’s important to keep in mind that it’s very difficult to change one’s running form in one swift motion, particularly if that runner has become accustomed to running a certain way over the course of many years. Trying to overhaul everything at once can be a recipe for disaster, but keeping these few key points in mind – and practicing them regularly – can lead to large improvements in the long run.

* Land lightly. Avoid crashing your heel into the ground with each stride and instead “think light” and try to strike more toward your midfoot. The lighter you land with your feet underneath your center of gravity, and the less time your foot spends on the ground with each strike, the less damage you’re going to do to your body.

* Relax. Ever watch one of Salazar’s athletes run? They float effortlessly around the track or down the road, and no, it doesn’t all come naturally. Every day in practice Farah, Rupp, Ritzenhein and others in Salazar’s group work on staying relaxed from head to toe in order to run as efficiently as possible. Focus on reducing tension in your body from the head down. Relax your jaw, shoulders and arms as you’re running; you’ll waste less energy and run more efficiently.

* Move forward. Seems obvious, right? Watch nearly any elite runner run and you’ll notice there’s very little vertical motion in their strides — it’s forward propulsion all the way. Many age-group runners, however, have a tendency to “bounce,” which is a very inefficient way to cover ground. The more time you spend in the air, the slower you’re moving forward. So, next time someone tells you that there’s a lot of bounce in your step, do something about it!

A good way to practice the three points described above is to incorporate form-specific drills such as high knees, butt kicks, skips and bounding into your training two to three times per week. Also, learn how to sprint. More on this last item on the next page.

4. Learn how to sprint

Yes, like Usain Bolt. While sprinting isn’t going to compromise a majority of a distance runner’s training, it’s worth paying some attention to every week. If you watch some of the best distance runners in the world in slow motion their mechanics aren’t too different from their top sprinting counterparts – they’re relaxed from the face on down, landing under their center of gravity, driving their knees, wasting very little time in the air, and covering ground quickly and efficiently.

Over the last lap of the 10,000-meter final at the Olympics, Farah sprinted away from the rest of the field to capture the first of his two gold medals. Rupp wasn’t far behind. This wasn’t my accident. Sprinting, or speed development, has been a key part of Farah and Rupp’s training program. Why? At the top level of the sport, particularly in championship races, an athlete needs to be able to close hard off any pace. For the citizen runner, possessing the ability to kick over the last quarter mile of a race can be the difference between an age-group award and hoping to win a raffle prize.

Aside from being able to finish fast, however, the main purpose of sprinting or speed development workouts for distance runners is to recruit muscle fibers that aren’t relied upon in traditional workouts such as VO2 max intervals, tempo runs and the like, which will improve your power and explosiveness while helping your stride become more fluid. Improving your sprinting ability enhances the effectiveness of all the other types of workouts you’ll do, allowing you to run faster and longer more efficiently.

How can you incorporate sprint workouts into your training schedule? Here are three effective recommendations:

* Short Hill Sprints: Once or twice a week insert a set of 4 to 10 short, steep hill sprints (8-12 seconds in length) into your training schedule. Run these repeats at near max effort with full recovery in between repeats. This is what I call a muscle workout, not a specific fitness-building workout, designed to recruit fastwitch muscle fibers, strengthen your lower legs, increase explosiveness as well as help you become more injury resistant. It’s best to do these after an easy run on the day before some of your more traditional speed workouts.

* Short Flat Sprints: After 4 to 6 weeks of including short hill sprints into your training, transition to sprinting over flat ground. The same principles apply: 4 to 10 sprints of 8-12 seconds in duration at near max effort with full recovery between intervals. Warm up with 4 to 6 x 150m strides to get loose and lessen likelihood of injury. Be sure to keep the basic tenets of good running form in mind while running relaxed and staying in control of your stride.

* Practice Kicking: Upon completion of a more traditional training session such as long intervals or a tempo run, tack on a 4 to 6 repeats ranging from 100 to 400m in length at near full speed. This is an effective way to practice sprinting while tired, which is what you’ll need to do at the end of a race. This is a more demanding race-simulation type of workout than either of the aforementioned sessions, so be careful and use sparingly in order to avoid injury. Once a week is more than enough.

5. Train your mind

While Salazar’s athletes have access to top sports psychologists so they can hone in their focus and help improve confidence, you don’t need professional help to give your own mental fitness a boost.

Physical training aside, a big reason why Farah and Rupp were able to medal in London was simply because they believed they could. When the two training partners stepped on the starting line in Olympic Stadium, they each possessed a high level of confidence in themselves and their preparation that had been developed through years of physical and mental training.

When Salazar started the Oregon Project some 10 years ago his aim was to get under-confident Americans to believe that they could compete with the seemingly untouchable athletes from Kenya and Ethiopia. Aside from getting runners like Farah, Rupp, Ritzenhein and formerly Adam Goucher, Kara Goucher and Amy Begley fit enough to compete against the best runners in the world, he had to get them to believe they could compete with the best runners in the world.

You might not be competing against top runners from East Africa anytime soon, but you can, and should, work on your mental game. Recognize progress when it occurs and see it as a necessary step toward long-term success. Practice visualization techniques and see yourself accomplishing your goals. Use mantras while racing to stay focused and work through rough patches. Remain relentlessly positive and focus on the things you can control in training and racing rather than be rattled by the things you can’t. And last but certainly not least, have confidence in yourself and your abilities when you step on the starting line. Without that key component, none of the other stuff really matters all that much.

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