New research has found that Olympic and world champions at 800m and 1500m strive to win even during the heats and semi-finals.
The study, published in May 2018 in the Journal of Sports Sciences, aimed to analyse qualification patterns in middle-distance running and identify whether athletes adopt theoretically optimal tactics, or whether the desire to win overrides these.
The study authors, Dr Brian Hanley (Leeds Beckett University) and Dr Florentina Hettinga (University of Essex), analysed the performances of 295 men and 258 women who competed in a middle distance final between 1999 and 2017, with the women’s 1500m competitions held in 1999, 2005 and 2008 excluded as no semi-final round was held.
Of the 57 champions analysed, 40 won both their heat and semi-final, even though finishing in slightly lower positions would still have achieved automatic qualification. For the best athletes, the key motivator was achieving a high position, regardless of finishing time.
For example, the men’s 800m champion in 2015, David Rudisha, won his heat and semi-final but was in the bottom half of all competitors when ranked by time.
According to the study authors, the performance climate of these global championships encourages a winning mentality where running a fast time is not important in itself.
They suggested that champions might have found winning the earlier rounds, rather than simply aiming to qualify, improved their confidence and intimidated their rivals.
Two-thirds of champions did not run their season’s best time in the final – most notably, the 2016 men’s 1500m Olympic Champion, Matthew Centrowitz, won in a time more than 10 seconds slower than either his heat or semi-final, and the slowest for an Olympic final since 1932.
The very best men and women appeared to have similar approaches to racing, especially in the 800m. However, evaluating the women’s 1500m finalists was more problematic as 11 of the finalists were subsequently disqualified. Most were for doping offences and highlight the unsavoury side of the will to win.
The best athletes were able to combine short-term optimal pacing in each round with long-term planning (peaking for the final). In the run-up to major events, athletes who sacrifice racing opportunities to focus more on fast times might find adjusting to championship competition difficult.
This difference between multiple-round championships and one-off, paced Grand Prix races means that true racing strategies are important to learn through exposure to championship formats, including at smaller events such as the European Championships.
Dr Hanley and Dr Hettinga will present their novel findings at the annual European Congress of Sport Science to be held in Dublin this July.