BBC BLOGS - Tom Fordyce
« Previous | Main | Next »

How the world's elite sprinters prepare for a big event

Post categories:

Tom Fordyce | 08:49 UK time, Monday, 17 May 2010

Nerves. Pressure. A race to win, a stomach doing loop-the-loops and a pack of prowling rivals to be seen off. How does a world-class sprinter deal with the drama of a big sprint showdown?

It's Sunday morning, the day of the Great City Games in Manchester. Some of the world's best athletes are gathered in a cloud-scraping hotel, counting down the hours until they race down a specially-constructed track on the streets outside.

The first to show is world heptathlon champion Jessica Ennis. Later we will talk to three-time world 200m champion Allyson Felix, Olympic 400m champion Christine Ohuruogu, double European 100m champion Francis Obikwelu and former world junior champion Mark Lewis-Francis. Oh - and Tyson Gay, the second-fastest human being who's ever lived. I think we'll get our answer.

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions

Tom goes behind the scenes as the athletes prepare (because of footage used, this video is available to UK users only)


There are seven hours to go until the gun goes for the first race. Outside it's cold and blustery. How to fill the anxious hours?

"I think for some athletes it's like a war; for others of us, we treat it as a game," says Francis Obikwelu. "What works best for me is to try to enjoy myself - that helps me stay as relaxed as I can be.

"In the afternoon before a race I will talk to my friends and family on the phone, talk to somebody I feel good around - because sometimes when you think about the race too much you can start getting upset."

Ennis will retire to her room to put her feet up. Ohuruogu tries to sleep off the jet-lag of Saturday's flight back from the Diamond League meeting in Doha. Felix keeps her head down until late in the day.

"I take about an hour and a half to warm up. Sometimes you want to block out all the noise and distractions around an event. At other times you can really use it - be in touch with everything around you. I put on my iPod, get myself pumped up and get ready to go."


It might sometimes be over in less than 10 seconds. That doesn't mean it happens by accident.

"I think about my race - how I want my start to be, how my execution of the rest will be," says Gay.

"I will know exactly how I want to run that race, and I will shut my eyes and plan it to be the way it is in my head."

Ennis reveals: "I prefer to take myself off to a corner, put my iPod on and go into my own world. That gets me focused." The Jess tune of choice? "Lots of hip-hop and R&B, but I can't give away those secrets."

Felix, fresh from a classy 400m win in Doha, relies on a set routine. "I get really focused. I go through my race plan in my head.

"I find visualisation really works for me - thinking through in slow motion everything I'm going to do."


As the athletes prowl down towards the warm-up area, every one of them has a large rucksack on their back. Here's what's inside MLF's:

"One towel - you need a towel - one pair of running spikes, spare individual spikes - ones of different lengths.

"I have a look at the track and see which length spike suits it best. I know it might sound stupid, but every millimetre counts. If they're a little bit longer it can give you a little more grip, and that translates to a little more speed.

"Tape measure - to get your starting blocks in the right position. Most people don't use one - they measure with hand spans - but for me, this is like my bible. If I forget this, then forget racing.

"Bottle of water. I don't carry any food, because you don't want the feeling just before the race that you really need to go to the toilet. Finally, the big essential, to get into the zone - the headphones. A bit of Lil' Wayne, a bit of funky house, and then a bit of R&B to chill me out just before I get out there. That's what's in my bag."


The hotel buffet offers an array of northern favourites - black pudding, sausages, chips. All sit untouched.

"For breakfast I had toast, a bit of cereal, a yoghurt and a glass of orange juice," says Ennis "I'll eat something around four hours before the race, but nothing heavy, and then just stick to water, sports drink and a few sweets for the sugar burst."

At lunch, the US athletes - former Olympic 200m champion Shawn Crawford, Olympic 400m hurdles bronze medallist Bershawn Jackson, sprint hurdler Terrence Trammell - tuck into poached salmon, sauceless pasta and green salad.

The most popular single dish to all in the elite athletes' lounge: low-fat fruit yoghurt. The Tyson Gay equivalent of Usain's famous chicken nuggets: "Club sandwich - that's my lucky sandwich - and sports drink."


Half the field are still on UAE-time after racing in Doha on Friday night. The rest are preparing for their first big race of the season. Both situations bring their own challenges.

"Everyone gets jet-lagged - you just have to get on with it," says Ohuruogu, defiantly. "I'm not the only one who came from Doha."

Felix has a two-part strategy for dealing with the tiredness. "I had to try to get as much rest as possible in the afternoon - really kick back. Later, because the 400m I ran on Friday night might still be in my legs a little bit, I'll plan to use the crowd to pump me up."

Gay is ready to loosen up after resting in his seventh-floor room all morning. "About an hour and 15 minutes before the gun goes, I'll go down to the track and start my warm-up. I do some drills, some strides and then some mental preparation."


With the crowds growing in the streets around the Deansgate track and the television coverage about to start, the pressure begins to grow.

"You get nervous before the race," admits Ohuruogu. "Everyone does.

"You just have to accept the nervous part of what we do. I think about what I need to do in the race and make sure I focus on that."

Obikwelu agrees: "It doesn't matter how often you've been in a big race - you always get nervous. And it's good for you. You've got to have a little bit of that you get you in the right aroused state to race.

"Even at the Olympics you have to try to enjoy it. It's a huge race - 80,000 people watching you in the stadium, all the millions on television - but if you only think about that, the tension gets too much and you'll mess up."


"In the call room, where we wait to be taken to the blocks, I'm completely in my own world," says Gay. "I might grab a guy and wish him good luck, but that's about it. I don't get involved in any trash-talking.

"Am I scared? Yeah. Nervous, scared - before every race. I have to calm myself down - take some deep breaths, force myself to relax a little bit."

Ennis focuses only on her own needs. "When you're out there getting ready, walking round the blocks, I think it's respectful to concentrate on yourself. Don't aggravate or irritate those around you - just get on with your own race."

Called to the line by the starter, Obikwelu empties his mind. "On the blocks I don't try to think of anything - I just run. Just run to the line.

"Some people have to have it all planned - what to do at 30 metres, what to do at 40 - but for me it's simple. Just run. And don't panic - if someone is faster than you out of the blocks, don't panic.

"You have to run your race, not theirs. Even if you're the last one out of the blocks, don't try to think about catching them - you'll tighten up. Relax and run your own race. It's the best way."


I'll leave this one to Tyson, spoken as he prepared to settle onto his blocks.

"React. That's the most important part of the race. If you get a good start, the rest have a lot of catching up to do."

19.41 seconds later, he set a new world record for the straight-line 200m. Not a great deal to argue with, no?


  • Comment number 1.

    Your blog makes it sound a lot more exciting than the BBC2 coverage managed. A lot of the races seemed to have more circus appeal than true race appeal. With a lot of the bigger name athletes being kept apart it was all a bit stale in racing terms and it wasn't hard to pick most of the winners before the races even started. Andy Turner in the 110H being probably the only "surprise" winner and he is a class athlete against an aging Trammel so even that wasn't a huge shock.

    Very fortunate for the whole event that Gay managed to crack Tommie Smith's World Best as the hype the Beeb built around that would have left everyone looking silly if he had missed it.

  • Comment number 2.

    to be honest know one cares about the atletes there with the possibable exception of Gay

    people only want to see bolt and that is true i only watched the mens events and the 150 metres where over a second slower than bolt
    the bbc tried not to mention him but it is hard he is atheltics and the britions can never compete with him in there own country ,he just brings and incredable excitment that you get once and a while that 100 metre final in beijing was something else,the anticipation,the aura,the nerves

    one of the best sporting moments in the 21 century

  • Comment number 3.

    One of the most informative blog posts I've ever read, anywhere. Wish it was longer. Thank you!

  • Comment number 4.

    adrenilenepotato - hope you're not busy on Wednesday as we're screening Bolt's season debut at the Daegu Pre-Championships in South Korea. The event is on air 1055-1345 BST and you can watch live on the BBC Red Button and BBC Sport website (if you're in the UK).

  • Comment number 5.

    Interesting insight into the minds of pro athletes, but it really does go to show that you've really got to find the right formula for you!

    It's just a bit of a shame that the event was so close to the Diamond League meet, because I'd imagine that if it wasn't on, then more big names would have turned out for the street races.

    All the same, I'm looking forward to the European Champs and the Commonwealth Games - should hopefully give us another couple of decent medal hauls, with any luck!

  • Comment number 6.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 7.

    adrenilenepotato wrote:

    "i only watched the mens events and the 150 metres where over a second slower than bolt"

    Tyson Gay this year:
    * 9.88 100m
    * 14.41 150m
    * 19.41 200m

    Usain Bolt last year:
    * 14.35 150m

    No where close to a second difference at 150m point of the 200m race. Tyson was obviously focusing on the 200m and not 150m time.

    It is an incredible time for this early in the season!!!

    Well done Tyson!!!!

  • Comment number 8.

    Kevin - what were your thoughts on the format? Like the idea of unusual events, or prefer a traditional track and field meet?

    buymespresso - happy to be of service.

    Tree - what would your approach be pre-race - world of your own, or lots of stares and chat at your rivals?

    Chris G - Tyson's time sets up that rivalry delightfully, doesn't it?

  • Comment number 9.

    I would have preferred it if someone associated with athletics had been presenting the coverage to make it feel like an athletics event rather than a novelty sporting occasion. John Inverdale is fine for some sports but tends to give proceedings an overly casual vibe. I didn't get the feeling Colin Jackson took to him very much.

    The races themselves are ok but until there have been more attempts at each event it is difficult to assess the performances properly.

    I was a little disappointed by the way the afternoon came across on tv. Although reasonably well attended there didn't seem to be much excitement considering some of the athletes were world class. The intention was obviously to provide the sport with a more exciting image, so maybe holding the event at night may help. Sunday afternoon isn't known for attracting large tv audiences.

  • Comment number 10.

    Personally, I like getting myself into the zone - chill out during the day, but then when the event draws nearer, start listening to music to pump me up for it. I'm not really much of a fan of trying to psyche people out, because I find it actually distracts me more than it distracts them. Of course, if there are people you know there, wish them luck, but I don't like trying to tell them how badly I'm going to beat them, etc. I prefer letting my ability do the talking.

    What's your approach, Tom?

  • Comment number 11.

    Tree - before a triathlon I'd always double-check all the boring bits - kit, route, food etc - and then spend a little time walking through routes in transition, so it's all instinctive and second-nature when the adrenaline's going bananas mid-race. And make sure I know where the nearest toilet is. Fight or flight does interesting things to a man's system...

  • Comment number 12.

    I think it is an interesting gimmick, and I do like the unusual events. I have always wanted to try 200m hurdles but never had a chance.

    But with only 4 lanes the competition, and the entertainment value is limited. It may be good to watch live but I didn't feel that it made particularly good television. I saw it as a bit like X-Factor, which is a TV phenomenon in it's original format, and I am sure the live concerts are great but you probably wouldn't want to televise a live X-Factor concert.

    I don't think it was helped by the way the athletes were then spread around the events so that there was one big name and one semi-famous in each rather than all facing each other.

    I also don't think it helped from my personal perspective that the Christine vs Jess was hyped so much and so Christine and Jess got interviewed, while Shaunna Thompson was just ignored by the media as if she didn't exist.


BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.