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Learning From Olympians

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Former Olympic runner and American one-mile record holder Alan Webb demonstrates elements from his fitness routine that can be used in an everyday workout. Video by Atkinson & Co.

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By Vicky Hallett and Howard Schneider
Tuesday, August 19, 2008

To most of us, a seven-minute mile is a flat-out sprint. Or just plain impossible. To Alan Webb, it's an easy jog -- in fact, it seems downright sluggish for a guy who holds the American record in the mile (3:46.91). "It's really the slowest I ever run," says the 25-year-old Reston resident.

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But that's the pace Webb chooses to start every workout, and he keeps it up for at least 12 minutes. When he's done with that, there's an hour of drills and stretches before Webb kicks it into high gear. "If you did just try to go out there raw, you'd hurt yourself. You have to learn how to take care of your body," Webb says.

There are, of course, other ways to hurt yourself. And one of the biggies -- overtraining -- is the suspected culprit for Webb's less-than-stellar performances this year. Although he came in first at the U.S. Olympic Trials in 2004 in the 1,500 meters (and had the top spot at Nationals in 2007), at this year's trials in July, he placed a disappointing fifth, which is why he's not in Beijing.

But he's still quicker than all but a handful of people in the world, so, recreational runners, take note of rule No. 1: Slow down to speed up.

Jeanette Bolden, head coach for the U.S. women's Olympic track and field team, seconds the motion: "It's kind of tedious, but you have to go through a proper warm-up, and that can mean at least an hour."

In that time, elite runners tweak their form by working drills, like the A-skip and B-skip. The former is basically what most people call a plain old "skip," while the latter involves kicking out the top leg so it's straight and then planting it directly into the ground. They also do butt kicks (which are exactly what you might imagine) and leg swings (ditto).

The idea behind these lengthy warm-ups is that they prevent injury and improve times, which is something every runner wants, although an hour of preparation to train for your first 5K is probably overkill. "We're practicing for pain and fatigue. We're beating our bodies down," explains Webb's training partner Nikeya Green, who runs the 800 meters and says that she gets to a point in training where "I'd rather be hit by a bus."

Not going for the gold? Fifteen minutes of warm-up might be plenty. That's how much time Bolden, who won one of those shiny first-place medals in 1984, devotes to her stretch sessions these days. "Now that I'm one of the mere mortals, I walk on the treadmill for seven to 10 minutes doing an easy walk. Then I stretch. Then I do a 30- to 40-minute run on the treadmill."

Like Webb, she spends a lot of time on her hamstrings -- inner, outer and middle -- holding each stretch for 20 seconds. She devotes a few minutes to her back and quads, and does opposite arm-opposite leg drills. "Stretching is designed for relaxation. I think of it as my 'me time,' " Bolden says.

Athletes such as Webb don't get much me time. An intense day can require as much as five hours of exercise. But he realizes that the consistency of his stretching and running regimen is just as important as how fast he's going. "If someone hasn't run forever and then runs an hour, no matter who they are, they get hurt. I'd get hurt," Webb says.

Another way he prevents pain is by heading from the track to the gym. Strength training might not seem critical to a runner, but muscles matter, too -- ever seen just a pair of lungs cross the finish line?

When younger athletes ask Webb to divulge his secret tricks for getting faster, he doesn't mention legs. Instead, he instructs them to do 20 push-ups, 20 sit-ups and 20 supermans. "Across the board, anyone who does that improves their running," he says. Webb, of course, does a lot more -- four days a week of "general fitness" and two days of the serious stuff. That's when he performs push-ups with a clap, straight-leg deadlifts, squats, bench presses, military presses and power cleans. "My motto is higher reps, heavier weights," he brags.

Lifting moves, in particular, boost power, which is key for holding onto a lead in those last seconds of a race. But all of the muscle work helps runners keep proper form for longer. Since women tend to be weaker in the hips, Green makes sure bridges are part of her routine, and that keeps her midsection steady.

If all of this sounds like a lot more work than just tying your laces and getting going . . . well, it is. "As soon as you don't want to do it, that's when you should," Webb says.

And that brings us to the most important aspect of running like a champion: perseverance. "One day doesn't make you a success or a failure," Bolden says. "You have to keep pushing yourself." No doubt Webb will.


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