Olympic athletes: Matthew Centrowitz Jr. on when strategy trumps speed

Olympic races are always blazing, and the fastest runners always win, right? No and no. In all but the short sprints, Olympic track races can be as tactical as chess matches until a wild final burst. Matt Centrowitz Jr., a rising star in the 1,500, explains the strategic aspect of speed. Read the article or see more in this series.

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Centrowitz was the surprise winner of the bronze medal in the 1,500 at last summer's world championships. His strategy in that race:

Lap 1: Patience

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Centrowitz knew he was a long shot entering the 1,500 final, with a personal best nearly eight seconds slower than the fastest in a field that included Olympic champion Asbel Kiprop of Kenya. But he was friendly with Nick Willis, the Olympic silver medalist, who normally started toward the back. In this race, Willis took the lead early and allowed Centrowitz to draft behind him and conserve energy. Because championship races such as the Olympics
have no paid pace-setters,
the leader has to set the pace and battle
the wind while not being able to see
if he is about to be passed.

Lap 2: Flexibility

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''Following a set strategy can set you up for failure,'' said Centrowitz, who tries to be ready to react to all scenarios: a fast start, a slow start, a rogue trying to blast away from the field. A smart runner has to answer other people's moves gradually without ruining his own rhythm. Centrowitz prefers to be near the front in the early laps. He doesn't want to be so far back that the lead seems out of reach, and he doesn't want to jostle for position in the crowded middle.

Lap 3: Position

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As the pace quickens before the final lap, a runner who is too close to the inside rail can get boxed in by passing runners. (Think of being stuck standing on the right on a Metro escalator at rush hour.) On the other hand, he doesn't want to go too wide, either, particularly around turns, because each lap outside Lane 1 adds roughly 25 extra feet to the total distance.

Lap 4: Action

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The most excitement in a mile or 1,500 race nearly always occurs in the fourth quarter, where everyone goes for broke. A runner has to position himself so that he has room to accelerate without having to break stride. Centrowitz had learned in a previous race not to try to catch up all at once if someone passes him early in the fourth lap. ''You don't want to go from 0 to 100 right away,''
he said, which requires burning too much energy before
the final kick.

Finish!

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Centrowitz passed Iguider and held off the charging Olmedo to take third place by a quarter of a second. He said his last half-mile was just two seconds short of his fastest ever. In this race, Willis, spent from leading so long, faded to last.

Times: Before and after

speed charts

Sources: Matthew Centrowitz Jr.; Matt Centrowitz Sr., former Olympian and head track and cross-country coach at American University; IAAF; USA Track & Field; photo by Martin Meissner/AP
By Sohail Al-Jamea, Bonnie Berkowitz, Evelio Contreras, AJ Chavar, Kat Downs, Mitch Rubin and Laura Stanton. Published April 12, 2012.

Story: Matthew Centrowitz learns the strategy behind speed

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