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Ten steps to track and field perfection

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Tom Fordyce | 11:42 UK time, Thursday, 22 July 2010

Ahead of next week's European Championships I had the pleasure of spending a day with Phillips Idowu, world triple jump champion and possibly the most relaxed man to ever succeed in competitive sport.

I met Phillips in Gateshead at the Diamond League athletics meeting and the notion was to see how a top-flight athlete deals with the day of a big competiton - how the mind is kept calm and the body loose, what goes on in the anxious hours pre-comp, who prowls and who preens in the inner sanctum of the warm-up area.

From bubblewrap to golf balls, jam sandwiches to headphones, this is how Phillips does it all.

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The planning

In the lobby of the athletes' hotel, pinned to a large board, is a long list of start times for each event that afternoon. On another board is pinned a list of departure times for the shuttle bus that will run between hotel and Gateshead International Stadium.

"I work backwards from the start of my competition and put it all in my phone," says Phillips. "They'll call us through 45 minutes before the start, so I count back over how long my warm-up will take in these conditions, how long it will take in the bus and back to what time I need to pack my bag to catch the bus.

"When the alarm goes off on my phone, I know it's time to start the routine. It's quite meticulous, and I've never missed a comp yet."

The gadgets

Phillips has the tidiest hotel room of any man I've ever met. His three phones are laid out at right angles to his laptop, which is itself at right angles to his, ah, well-known brand of hand-held tablet PC.

"I'm a little bit OCD with cleanliness and neatness," he says. "I even have to lay my phones out in size order."

In the long hours of hanging around, DVDs will be watched on the laptop, games played on the PC. "I could spend the whole weekend in here and be good. I can be in my own space."

Is there a triple jump app? "Nope - but there's a track and field one. I've done 12.31 seconds for the 110m hurdles and 8.50m for the long jump - British records, I believe..."

The fuel

While 200m sprinter Christian Malcolm is tucking into a bowl of porridge in the hotel restaurant, Phillips picks at a small bowl of fruit. "I don't like to eat too much on the day of competition. And because I'm not actually doing much for too long, I don't need to worry about energy levels too much.

"Three hours before I jump, I'll maybe have a small bowl of pasta salad or a jam sandwich. During the comp, you can usually feel your legs starting to tighten up after the fourth round, so I'll take on board an electrolytes drink, and I'll carry a protein bar in my kitbag in case I need something before the end."

The kit

Why the Lycra all-in-one rather than the vest and shorts preferred by Jonathan Edwards and Christian Olsson?

"I can't jump in anything else. It just feels wrong. This feels like just me and the sandpit - nothing to catch my arms, nothing to weigh me down. I feel like I'm jumping naked.

"The piercings aren't an issue. They're part of me, and I don't feel them move. When I first started jumping I couldn't even jump with a stud in my ear. I thought it was an additional weight that would stop me going as far. But I think I'm strong enough to carry them now..."

The spikes Phillips will jump in are specially designed to cope with his large frame (6' 5", 88 kg) and particular jumping style. "They're much stiffer, so I lose less power through the phases; if the heel is too spongy, you spend a little more time in the ground, which means you lose speed.

"I also have the heels rounded off to help my foot roll through when it lands. If I had a bad pair of spikes, I could lose over a metre, because I wouldn't come out of my phases properly.

"At the Worlds in Berlin last year I had almost the perfect pair of spikes, and I jumped 17.70. With the wrong pair, I'd be lucky to get out to 16.50m."

The lucky totems

Tucked away in a draw in Phillips' hotel room are two headbands (one white, one red) two sets of wristbands (white and red) and two sets of spikes.

"I always jump in a lucky headband," he explains. "There was a European Cup competition in France once when I was out on the track and ready to jump when I went to adjust my headband and suddenly realised it wasn't there. All I could think was, 'Can I go to my bag and get it?' but the clock was counting down.

"Well, I messed that jump up completely. I nearly landed on my head. So I went back, composed myself, got my head together and jumped 17.45m. And that was enough to win it. I was able to get the victory, and I'm glad I went through that experience, because I know now if something goes wrong I can still go out and get the job done."

The meditation

At departure time minus two hours, with the 'do not disturb' sign hanging on the door, Phillips takes out the strangest secret weapon you'll ever see - a large sheet of bubblewrap.

"This is another way of me relaxing," he says, working his way methodically down the sheet. "When I'm in a hotel room, I just pop away.

"It helps you just space out - it's my form of meditation. I'll see if I can get through the whole sheet before competition."

The start of the journey

Two hours before competition, Phillips climbs aboard the bus that will ferry him to the stadium.

There are British stars - Jenny Meadows, Greg Rutherford, Martyn Bernard - and a handful of the big international names. Some are quiet, some anxious, but Phillips goes straight to the back row of seats and jams on his headphones.

"I don't get nervous, not any more. I think I'm over that period now.

"I know what I need to do now. I've won a world championship and other medals round the world. The more relaxed I am, the better I perform.

"If I'm getting worked up and tense it just doesn't work. I've tried the whole winding myself up thing, but it doesn't work for me - I just can't open up."

On his lap is his kitbag. In there along with the all-in-one, the spikes and lucky headbands are two spike keys ("in case one breaks") spare laces ("a pair snapped once, just as I was preparing to jump") and two rolls of sticky tape ("to mark the end of my run-up - different colours for different tracks").

The surprise items? A tennis ball and golf ball. "I roll them under my foot to ease out the plantar fascia. The muscles and tendons get very tight from jumping, and this takes the tension out of them."

The warm-up

Dropped off at a private entrance away from the public, the athletes queue to pick up their race numbers and then file into the indoor training area to do their warm-ups.

While some athletes make use of the four masseurs on hand (Asafa Powell, Will Sharman) and others catch up with rivals (Lolo Jones, Priscilla Lopes-Schliep), Phillips begins his own routine.

"I use a resistance band, tied to a pole at one end and my knee at the other, and swing my knee through to get the muscles activated.

"I also have to get my obliques firing, so I hold onto the band, twist round from the hips and try to resist the recoil. Why? In each phase of the jump you can just tilt a little as you land, and you want to be as upright as possible to keep the speed and forward momentum.

"I use this same routine wherever I am, no matter how important the meet is. World championships in Berlin? Same routine. Room, bus, stadium, call-room, warm-ups, competition. Why change something because it's a major competition? If you've been doing something all year and then alter it, it's going to make things go wrong."

The call-room

When the time comes for the athletes to make their way onto the track, officials take them into the call-room - the final waiting-place before competition. Headphones, mobiles and coaches are all prohibited.

"There are a few people who try to intimidate you - slapping themselves in the face, screaming - and I just say... okay! I like to speak to the other competitors, just chat - it's another day, another competition.

"If anyone is trying to get in my face, I don't notice. There's probably only one competitor who's big enough to do that to me, the Brazilian Jardel, but he's a gentle giant. I stay focused on what I have to do."

The comp

Clad in that all-in-one, lucky headband on, special spikes laced up, Phillips delights the home crowd with a comfortable win over Grenada's Randy Lewis and Cuba's Alexis Copello.

17.38m might not be the biggest jump he'll ever make, but his coach Aston Moore, watching on from a seat adjacent to the sandpit, professes himself happy.

"It's coming together. There's a few more things to work on - his run-up, staying tall through the phases - but we're heading towards the European Championships in good shape."

Back in the warm-up area, tracksuit back on, Phillips has one more task to complete. "Anti-doping," he explains, walking towards the smallest room in the building. "It's all part of being an athlete."

Once that's completed, he hops back on the shuttle bus to the hotel. "Food and rest," he says. "I'm ready to chill."


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  • Comment number 4.

    get some noews BBC, who cares abt idowu, cant stand the hair not to mention the ones in his ampit, and that stuff on his eyes proves he's losing it, how did he become world champion....just a combination of good fortune i guess, cant stand this guy

  • Comment number 5.

    A really useful insight to a fine competitor. There undoubtedly is an element of luck involved on reaching the standard that Phillips Idowu has, but it is miniscule in comparison to the training & prepartion, mentally and physically (not to mention a fine talent) that is required and undoubtedly applied to achieve success. It is no coincidence that Odowu has an element of OCD- it directly correlates to meticulous preparation on a chancless quest for glory...

  • Comment number 6.

    Thanks for this Tom

    Idowu has been for some time one of GB's world class athletes and can be taken for granted - which doesn't do justice to the dedication needed to not just get there but maintain it for year after year.

    We just hope he keeps it up and challenges for that 2012 Gold medal, we need track and field medals!


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