Back in the 1980s, Ben Johnson was the world’s dominant force in the 100-meter track & field event. After winning the 100 meter bronze medal in the 1984 Olympic Games, Johnson emerged as the biggest star in the sport over the next few years, shattering the world record in the process. In the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea, Johnson became the first runner to shatter the 9.8-second barrier by crossing the finish line first in a time of 9.79 seconds. The details of that event are the basis for ESPN’s 30 For 30 documentary, “9.79.”
These days, Ben still lives in Canada, and he offers his services as a track & field consultant, and also as a speed and nutrition consultant for football and soccer teams. And, if you happen to strike up a conversation with Ben while he’s out on the track, and you ask him about what it takes to be a world class sprinter, he’ll tell you these six things.
1. Train year round
For many high school sprinters, track & field is a tool utilized to develop speed for other sports, most notably football. The idea that three months of specialized speed training each spring will transfer to the football field has merit, but Ben says that in order to reach the level of the truly elite sprinters, there is no way around the fact that yearlong training specifically for track & field is not optional.
“I trained six days a week, five hours a week for 12 straight years,” Johnson said. “And that was starting at age 14. At age 14 a lot of kids nowadays don’t know what they want to do. I knew what I wanted to do at age 14. Running was my passion. It was my heart. That’s what I liked to do. That’s what I want to do. If kids listen to the body and the mind and they see that they can do something very well, that’s the sport they should do, and they should put their all into it.”
2. Be careful in the gym
In the present era, it is understood that weight training is necessary for athletes in many sports to get the most out of their bodies. At the same time, these kids need to be careful about the way they arrange their workouts in the gym. Ben was one of the strongest sprinters of all time, but he is quick to point out that he never maxed out his lifts in the gym, and he doesn’t encourage any other sprinters to do so, either.
“When I was lifting, we did a lot of base training, but the base training didn’t last very long,” Ben explained. “You can’t overload the body too much in the weight room. You have to be smart when you lift so that you don’t max out because you have to be able to recover for your next training. I could squat over 700 pounds and bench press 450, but I would never do that during training. Instead, I would squat 560 pounds for four sets of 5, and that was it. Get in and get out.”
3. Find a great coach
Ben touts his coach and mentor, Charlie Francis, as being a coaching genius and the man that molded Ben into a marvel of sprint mechanics. At the same time, skilled and specialized track & field coaches are difficult to find in an era where many high school track coaches are part timers that usually coach the running backs and receivers on the school’s football team. According to Ben, taking the time to find a top-level track & field coach is definitely worth the effort if you’re serious about sprinting.
“If a coach cannot see that his athletes are tired because they’re running too heavy or their feet are making a lot of noise on the ground, or their vertical line is off, he’s not a coach,” Ben said. “If he’s not seeing those types of things and making the adjustments, then he’s not a coach. Everyone wants to be a coach, but the coaching market is full of wannabees. Real coaches need to be smart when they train their athletes, and in track & field, the coach has to know what the athlete is feeling.”
4. Stay flexible
Runners have a tendency to suffer pulled muscles and develop injuries to their lower extremities, and this is especially true of sprinters. In order to avoid this, sprinters need to do plenty of stretching to maintain their flexibility at all times. Also, while Ben promotes stretching as a means of injury avoidance, he finds that there are several additional benefits for athletes who stay flexible and limber.
“Flexibility is very important because you conserve your energy, you’ll recover faster, and you’ll have less tension,” Ben said. “It’s a key in a lot of sports, because if you don’t have flexibility you really can’t move. It also prevents injuries. In sprinting, you most injuries happen between 40 to 60 meters in a race. It could be due to a lot of things like not having enough water or not having enough salt, but it can also be from having tight muscles from not stretching. You don’t see too many people pull their muscles in the first 20 meters; you see it when they’re upright and they’re pumping.”
5. Mind your meals
During his training, Ben says that he was able of eating anything he wanted because he was burning thousands of calories each day, and thanks to his mother’s high quality Jamaican cooking, he got plenty of protein, minerals and slow-burning carbohydrates. However, Ben was very specific about what he did or didn’t eat on race day, and he insists that all sprinters need to be mindful not only of what they are eating, but when they are eating it.
“A lot of energy is wasted when you digest food, so you should have tea, fruits, yogurt and things that are light and easy to digest,” Ben advised. “ If I had a race coming up, around 6 p.m. or 7 p.m., I’d have something that digests easily before the race so that I didn’t lose energy just digesting it, and sometimes I wouldn’t eat anything. I could have eggs, bread and fresh squeezed juice for breakfast, and then that would be it. Sometimes, like if I ran a race in Europe, I’d say ‘Where’s the food?’ after the race because I hadn’t had anything to eat. You normally want something in your system, though, because your body will eat your muscle if you go too long without food, and that’s not good for you.”
6. Save your energy
Sprinting is an explosion of energy in a short burst, and because of that, people have a tendency to overrate the amount of energy that’s necessary for optimal performance. In Ben’s case, he did everything he possibly could to conserve energy before his races, and this self-discipline extended to both his meals and his social practices around other athletes.
“What I ate is important to the race in that you don’t want to eat anything too heavy so that it takes too much time to digest, because digesting food uses energy,” Ben explained. “Even talking takes energy, so sometimes I would try not to talk for two days so that I wouldn’t waste any energy. I would have a tag on my door to tell them what food to deliver so that I wouldn’t have to speak to anyone. I wasn’t there to socialize; I was there to perform. So, I wouldn’t even talk to my mom sometimes just to save energy.”
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