By Associate Professor Hugh Morton,
Like many New Zealanders I was disappointed that Nick Willis did not make it to the medal podium in the Olympic 1500m race. My disappointment was short-lived though, once I thought about it properly.
The 1500m is not about running as fast as you can. In fact it is about running as slow as you can, so long as no one runs faster than you. This may sound strange; but think about it. Put in another way; why bust your gut if you can win without doing so? It is about tactics and running smart.
So what are the appropriate tactics and what has sport and exercise science got to say about it? Put simply, runners whose relative strength is aerobic rather than anaerobic perform better with a faster pace held for as long as possible and without a final spurt. The converse tactic is appropriate for runners whose relative strength is anaerobic.
In scientific terms athletes with a high critical speed should exploit that by maintaining a faster pace for as long as possible, while runners with a high anaerobic distance capacity should exploit that with a significant final spurt.
More interestingly perhaps, recent research both theoretical and empirical, suggests that for any runner whatever their relative strength, a faster paced first half of the race produces better performances. In simple terms, you gain the benefit of faster pace when you are fresh rather than relying on it when you are tired.
So what do we see on the track? Do we see all runners going as fast as they can manage aerobically for as long as they can, or do we see one group of runners who hold a faster pace for as long as they can and another group who hold back and then sprint?
Neither really. Rather we a see slowish pace and then a significant spurt by those who have the anaerobic capacity to do so. This is absolutely consistent with the objective I described above.
One could draw several possible conclusions from this. Maybe all the 1500m finalists are relatively strong anaerobically? Personally I doubt it.
Maybe those whose relative strength is anaerobic are the ones who are allowed to dictate the tactics? Yes, but surely the other runners and their coaches would not permit this to happen?
Maybe many runners and their coaches are not fully aware of the latest scientific research?
Finally, maybe the winner is the smartest runner rather than the best.