Matt Long perches on the shoulder of Colin Lancaster who gives a wave to his former training partner Steve Ovett – the Moscow Olympic 800m Champion
It’s exactly 40 years ago this week (26th July to be precise) that a man wearing number 279 crossed the finishing line in the Lenin stadium in Moscow to upset both the applecart and his arch rival Sebastian Coe by unexpectedly taking the Olympic 800m gold medal.
Then editor of Athletics Weekly, Mel Watman, would describe his victory as evidence of his status as the “supreme racer”. So let’s take a look at the philosophy of training which underpinned the work undertaken by the last British man to win an Olympic title over two laps.
The Influence of Percy Cerutty
Ovett is described as having been ‘coached’ or ‘mentored’ by Harry Wilson, whom as an athlete had been Welsh 6 mile champion in 1958. Wilson went on to become National event coach for 800m and 1500m.
Evidence suggests that Wilson’s coaching philosophy was an eclectic mix from some of the all-time greats of the sport. In his book Running Dialogue (1982) he acknowledges the influences of the German coach, Gerschler, who developed Josy Barthel, the 1952 Olympic 1500m champion.
Secondly, he developed ideas from the Hunagrian –Igloi, whose athletes once held every world record 800m-10,000m and thirdly he took inspiration from Stampfl, who most famously worked with Roger Bannister.
These three men aside, Wilson’s greatest inspiration came from a man who he described as an, “eccentric Australian,” in the form of the great Percy Cerutty, who worked with 1960 Rome Olympic 1500m champion, Herb Elliott. Cerutty would leave, “an indelible impression” on Wilson after their chance meeting at 1958 Commonwealth Games in Cardiff.
Wilson met the 16 year old Steve Ovett at a Southern Counties AAA training camp at Crystal Palace in the autumn 1972, in joining the endurance group from a sprints background.
Wilson was immediately taken aback at how the Brighton and Hove AC youngster could hold his own with much older youths, including the likes of Julian Goater, who would go on to take a bronze medal over 10,000m at the 1982 Commonwealth Games.
Despite being influenced particularly by Cerutty, Wilson realised the necessity of designing the young Ovett a training schedule which was specific to his individual developmental needs.
He would say, “The difficult part of middle distance coaching is making sure that technique and training are adapted to suit the individual”.
Foundational and Fundamental Development
In being individually-centred, Wilson was able to work on the Foundational and Fundamental skills which the Varndean Grammar School pupil had engendered through his involvement in high jump, long jump, hurdles and sprinting.
Whilst Ovett was still young in chronological years when he began to focus on middle distance running, he had by this stage developed a considerable training age across a variety of track and field disciplines. One of his earliest successes, for instance, came in the sprints event group, with AAAs youth 400m win (49.1s) in July 1972.
Progressive Overload in the context of Long Term Athlete Development
Part of Wilson’s understanding of how to build on Ovett’s foundational and fundamental athletic development was his enlightened approach to progressively overloading the young athlete’s work.
A session, for instance of 2 x 600m, undertaken as an 18 year old, would become 2 x 600m plus 150m sprints at aged 19. Likewise, a session of 3 x 3 x 300m in 1973 would become 4 x 3 x 300m by 1974.
If the Australian Cerutty was credited as the major influence, then the great New Zealander Arthur Lydiard, who most famously worked with Peter Snell and Murray Halberg of course, must have informed Wilson’s thinking in terms of the necessity of aerobic base training.
It would not be uncommon for the senior Ovett to regularly top 120 miles a week for instance and this attention to volume was facilitated by his long term progression from daily to double-day sessions. England Athletics Coach Education Tutor, Colin Lancaster, who sported impressive PBs of 1m51s for 800m and 3m51s for 1500m had the privilege of training with Ovett, when the former was 17 and the latter 22 years of age.
The man who now plays a leading role with the UK Lydiard Foundation recalls that,
“We went out and basically had a lot of fun”. In particular he remembers regular trips to conduct 10 mile runs over the grass and trails of the South Downs , recalling that “We all ran together and kept it ‘chatty’”. He recalls once running with Steve when,
“He had a white coat with baggy armpits. He was quite broad shouldered and barrel chested. People had never heard of Nike so they saw the back of his jacket and thought it read ‘Mike’- so they’d be shouting ‘Come on Mike’ as he passed them in the streets. He saw the funny side of it by the end of the run you could tell he was fed up!”
Much of Ovett’s aerobic training was conducted with Scottish schoolteacher and county level runner, Matt Paterson, especially in terms of them pounding the pavements of Brighton early mornings.
The early morning training partnership and friendship would blossom to the point that Paterson travelled to Moscow to be with Ovett during the aforementioned Olympics where they would routinely run 15-20 minute recovery runs the morning after his 800m and 1500m heats in order to maintain the habituation of his double day routine.
Even when conducting work which challenged the lactate energy system through repetition based training, Ovett would more often than not take a gentle aerobic run to these sessions in Stamner Park at Sussex University. Perceptively, Harry Wilson would state that, “Provided you keep the speed work going and do about 10% anaerobic work, you don’t necessarily lose your speed during heavy mileage”.
Periodically some of this aerobic work took place at altitude, most typically in St Moritz or alternatively at South Lake Tahoe in Nevada, where Ovett would train with athletes with tremendous aerobic capacity like Tony Simmons and Ian Stewart, the latter of won an Olympic bronze medal over 5000m in Munich in 1972.
Significantly, and in line with the philosophy of Arthur Lydiard, he would run at a variety of aerobic paces. At the higher end of the spectrum long intervals of for instance 6 x 1000m (1 min) were conducted in the winter prior to his Moscow Olympic success. In addition, Steve was not averse to road racing and indeed he once ran the fastest long stage leg at the Southern Road Relays.
Critically Ovett was encouraged by Wilson to undertake cross country racing with the latter maintaining that, “If a runner does cross country races during the winter, this in itself will provide the necessary proportion of anaerobic work”.
This was something ingrained into the psyche of the future Olympic champion and world record holder for the 1500m, mile and 2 miles, from the early seventies, where he would show early promise by medalling in English schools cross country championships.
Significantly unlike many middle distance athletes of today, he kept this going throughout his career, running in both National Cross Country and Inter Counties races and mixing it with the likes of seasoned internationals like Dave Black, Bernie Ford and Mike McLeod, the latter of whom would go on to win Olympic 10,000m silver in Los Angeles.
In a training context, nowhere is the influence of Cerutty more evident than the trips Wilson and Ovett took to Merthyr Mawr which became a Spring “annual ritual” in the words of the coach. Wilson described the infamous Big Dipper as, “a diabolical dune capable of testing the most seasoned athlete”.
Benefitting from the subcultural element of group training, Steve would undertake a mixture of what would today be referred to as Kenyan hill circuits as well as more conventional hill reps. With a second nod to Cerutty, nearby Southerndown would provide the group with the location and sand to effect 300m repetitions during these weekends away.
The above is significant in that not only did Ovett’s consistent use of grass and sand to train on help him avoid impact related injuries in the late 1970s but these surfaces along with the mud of the country were a key facilitator of strength endurance.
Indeed the aforementioned Colin Lancaster recalls that, “he would undertake Wind sprints around the Preston park cricket pitch. He’d do sprints with a float in between using the flower beds as markers”.
High intensity repetitions
Whilst undertaking a significant volume of work at a variety of aerobic bases, at key points of the periodisation cycle, namely the pre-competition and competition phases, Ovett undertook a variety of speed endurance sessions designed to challenge his lactate energy system.
Typically he would undertake work which involved 200m-300m reps with very short recoveries. The volume of reps in terms of their number could be increased due to the work being grouped into sets, which allowed for much longer periods of recovery after a series of specified efforts. Examples included the following:
5 x 3 x 200m (27″/28″) [30″, 3 min]
4 x 300m (30s rec) 200m (5 mins).
4 x 5 x 100m (14″/15″) (starting at 30 secs on the first set to 5 secs rec on the last set)
Critically, whilst not following the kind of Frank Horwill articulated 5 paced multi-tier training of his arch rival, Sebastian Coe, who would of course beat him to the 1500m gold 6 days after Steve’s 800m win in Moscow, there is evidence that Wilson shared Peter Coe’s (Seb’s father and coach) concern about not ever being locked into one pace.
More often than not there was a differential pacing element to Steve’s speed endurance work which may help to explain why he was able to run a sub 51s last 400m on his way to Olympic 800m gold after a relatively pedestrian open lap of 54s. Colin Lancaster vividly recalls a session of 8 x 400m conducted in the later 70s with a group who were average 54s.
He tells that, “Unbelievably Steve was getting faster on each and every rep. By time of last rep he so far ahead that he was stood there hands on hips waiting for us at end saying ‘What took you so long boys?!’”.
A further example of ‘split interval’ type work includes a Spring 1980 session of 4 x 400m (first 200m 28″/29″, last 200m 23″/24″)) [5 min]
— Team GB (@TeamGB) July 26, 2018
Diversity of speed endurance work
As well as Wilson’s conviction that high intensity repetitions and split intervals were paramount for summer success on the track, critically it is the sheer diversity of speed endurance sessions which is impressive in terms of Ovett’s work.
The late national coach Dave Sunderland, who was a colleague of Wilson’s in the British Milers’ Club would in High Performance Middle Distance Running talk about;
(1) Quality repetitions. These were characteristic of race pace specific work with a complete recovery in between, an example for Ovett being 2 x 600m with a complete recovery. To further Sunderland’s ideal typology of modes of speed endurance, Ovett would undertake;
(2) Tired surges- he might conduct work in sets whereby he would run 400m in 49s with 100m ‘float’ and then continue to run 100m flat out;
(3) Pace Injectors- the man who would later help found Phoenix AC would often operate over 600m (200m in 26 sec, 200m in 24 sec, 200m and the final 200m in 26 sec) to cope with mid race surges.
(4) Pace Increases- again in operating over 600m (200m in 28, 200m in 26 and the final 200m in 24). These modes of sessions explain Ovett’s predictable but extraordinary ability to kick hard off an already fast pace and close the proverbial show as he did coming off the top bend and into the home straight in that Moscow Olympic 800m final.
Under distance and over distance racing
As well as the differential element to pacing in his training, Colin Lancaster recalls Steve building this into his approach to racing, at least a club level. On 30th April 1977, for instance,
“He raced 800m, 1500m and 3,000m on the same day at a National League at home in Brighton. I just ran the 3000m that day but I remember him lapping me after he’d already run the 800m and 1500m! “(Steve would run the 800m 1m53.9s; 1500m 4m04.0s; 3000m 8m18.8s).
With a rueful grin Lancaster continues that, “I trained with Peter Elliott and was always worried he would hit me if I overtook him. I always admired Steve Cram and thought what a talented athlete he was but Ovett- it was like he was living in a different body”.
Whilst a middle distance runner and event group specialist over 800m and 1500m, throughout his career Ovett would continually use both under distance and over distance races in order to maintain a differential pacing element to his work. Under distance races over 600m or the odd appearance in a 4 x 400m relay race were not uncommon and significantly the latter was done just 3 months before his finest hour over two laps in Moscow when he ran for the Southern Counties at Crystal Palace in April 1980.
On the other hand, by the time he climbed to the top of the podium on 26th July in the Russian capital it’s worth remembering that in terms of over-distance training he had already run two races over 3,000m that year at both Welwyn Garden City and Texas, recording 7:52.4s Stateside.
If you’re going to finish, finish strong 🏃
— Team GB (@TeamGB) July 26, 2019
Whilst Wilson’s philosophy made Ovett lean towards developing aerobic and strength endurance over the winter and speed endurance over the summer, it was always a question of balance and significantly at no point of the periodisation cycle was work utilising the ‘stop-start’ alactic energy system abandoned.
Wilson was crucially aware of how to train the neuromuscular pathways and ATP-CP system, pointing out that, “When Steve was in the middle of a 100 mile a week schedule, he was still running 60m indoors in about 7.2 or 7.3 seconds off a standing start”.
Either at the end of a session or sometimes purely as a stand-alone Steve would sprint 6 x 100m or 8 x 15s with generous walk-back recoveries so he would avoid the build-up of acid in his muscles and not over stress his lactate energy system further more.
We have already alluded to his use of 4 x 400 relays as evidence of under-distance work and in addition his participation at club level in 4 x 100m events in his younger days was a key facilitator of alactic energy system development.
You will have gathered by now that Wilson was a coach who implicitly understood the cycle nature of periodisation cycles and Colin Lancaster recalls that it’s often overlooked the part that rest, recovery and regeneration play in this cycle. For those of you who train all year round its worth reflecting on Colin’s memory that,
“Steve would take 4-6 weeks off after the track season and then come back slowly with jogging a couple of miles along the Brighton pier. I remember when he was coming back from his annual rest, I ran with him one week and three weeks later he was back at the front of the group chatting and messing around.
It was obvious it came so naturally to him. I was with him once when he was door-stepped by the press and my abiding memory is he turned to me and said, ‘I don’t understand why people are so interested in me. All I can do is run fast around a track!’”
Questions for self-reflection
1. How am I attempting to take a long term view of progressive overload in my training as Steve Ovett and Harry Wilson did?
2. Like Steve realised, why is it crucial I develop my aerobic base as the underpinnings for the work which may be more event specific?
3. In what ways am I developing my aerobic, lactate and alactic energy systems at all points of the periodsation cycle as Harry Wilson advocated?
4. How does my speed endurance work allow me to operate at differential race paces like Steve could operate at?
5. Why might I benefit from periodic use of both under and over distance races?
6. What can I learn from Steve’s approach to regeneration and how do rest and recovery play an inherent part in my periodised plan of training?
Matt Long is a former winner of the BMC Horwill Award for Coach Education Research and author of more than 250 coaching articles. For support and to unpick this article he welcomes contact through email@example.com