Sharks and Springbok rugby coach, Ian McIntosh, use to spend hours working between two video tape decks doing analysis which today is done digitally and instantly. UK soccer teams have instant replay and analysis in the change rooms at half time, cricket uses statistical analysis of players and teams for their strategies, and the recent world championships in Paris have again emphasised the need for South African Distance athletes to adopt a similar approach to logistic and strategic preparation. This point was highlighted in the two extremes of distance running at the championships.
Maria Mutolo of Mozambique ran both the semi-final and the final with strategies designed not only to secure her own final place and gold medal, but also to ensure her training partner, Kelly Holmes of Great Britain, secured the silver medal.
Her tactics included moving out and running in the second lane alongside Holmes to create a bigger block to deter other athletes from moving ahead. Mutolo’s ability shows that she could simply have dominated the race for her own gold, but instead worked for the benefit of Holmes, who wasn’t even from the same country.
In the Men’s marathon although individual medals escaped the South Africans, they benefited from team running to secure the bronze medal in the World Cup a mere 7 seconds ahead of the 4th placed finishers. We need to build on team strategies in all aspects of distance running.
It is unfortunate that many South African athletes still seem to think that distance running is about individual performance, whereas there are frequently greater overall benefits to be gained from more detailed strategies and even ‘sacrificial’ running.
In the marathon for example although only 3 runners score for the team time, all five will receive the awards and this perhaps underlines the importance of the ‘also rans’.
It’s not only about race day strategy but also about analysis of course, conditions, competitors, and logistics. There is a need to look at the travel and arrival times of distance runners with the recognition that the longer the event, the longer the time of recovery required after a long haul flight, irrespective of the time change.
Course analysis is key: It is definitely possible to predict the potential winning time for any course, but it requires detailed analysis of surface, direction, profile and even spectator support. A classic example of this was the influence of the many cobbled sections in the Paris event. Whereas Ian Syster suffered from blood blisters, which may well have been caused by these cobbles, the French ladies were seen to be running in the smooth stone gutters in single file to avoid such irritation. With virtually all the ‘best’ performances run with negative splits, the athletes who run as a team early on (often to 30-35km) frequently gain higher places both as individuals and as a team, than they would ‘on paper’. It is not unusual for them to also beat more talented competitors who get caught up in the individual competition for places.
In spite of some very knowledgeable information, the marathon commentators seemed surprised about the breaks made by the field at 12km, from 30km to 40km and again in sections of the final 2km. Detailed inspection of the course profile would have shown the reasons for this race strategy. The first of two hills was at 12kms, and although only a 45metre climb in just over a kilometre, it would deplete energy stores and impact later. The second break came on the downhill after the second 45 metre climb, and if there were still runners together in the final two kilometres then there were a couple of short steep climbs on which to try and make a final break. Morrocan Jaouad Gharib used these very hills to ‘hurt’ Spaniard Julio Rey. It was there that the gold and silver were decided.
A similar approach can be applied to most courses, and when you add the vital information of a competitor’s list it is possible to anticipate the strategies and predict the performance that athletes and countries are likely to achieve. This is akin to the detailed opposition analysis undertaken by the rugby, soccer, and cricket teams. The logical progression for this includes the selection of ‘horses for courses’ and preparation of the distance athletes in team tactics which are intricately linked to the logistic planning towards the championship.
While we celebrate the performances of our marathoners, and Sepeng and Malaudzi in Paris, a step up in detailed analysis will take us to greater heights in the distance events, where south Africa strength in depth should see us dominate at world level.