Template for Success in Elite Track and Field

During my PhD (2004–2007) I researched some of the best endurance runners in the World. I spent almost 4 years exploring why Kenyan runners were so dominant in endurance running events. In that time I looked at everything from diet, hydration, altitude, blood profiles, childhood physical activity to genetics (you can see some of the research here). Since then I have worked with some of the best that Britain has to offer. And while there are individual parameters or experiences that athletes will pin down as a reason for their success, there is undoubtedly a pathway to success that they all follow.

I’ve been to 2 Olympic Games and 13 World Athletics Championships and when you sit and observe for long enough you realise that this is true accross all Olympic events. There is a pattern that you can differentiate in winners. That is, they all have to hit certain markers along the way that raise the probability of success later on in their careers.

Over the years I have become obsessed with unearthing what those markers are and whether you can predict success in young athletes if you know what they are (more on that in another blog post). Here at LAP 25 I have had the opportunity to do this thoroughly and I would like to share some of the summary data with you.

I compiled data for all the Global medalists since 2000 (4 Olympic Games and 11 World Athletics Championships) in all Olympic events. I then tracked them back for 4 years to see what their world ranking, personal bests and season bests were. I looked at whether they had previously won a World Junior medal and or won a minor medal (e.g. Europeans, Pan Ams, Asian Games etc). I looked at whether they had been to a Global Championships before, wether they had made a final and lastly whether they were a previous Global medalist. I also looked at what performances they achived in the Championship year when they medalled, plus what they had to do to get through rounds and make the final.

I then created individual event profiles for both sexes (more on that further down). But there is a lot to be learned just looking at the summary data across all events (using median values). You can download the PDF version here which also has a free bonus profile of the men’s 800m.

Taking the first row of data, it is fair to say that having been to a previous Global Championships significantly raises your chances of wining a medal next time round (82 vs 18%). It also helps considerably if you have made a final, with around 75% of medalists having been to a previous final at a Global Championships. And lastly, around 50% of all medalists will have won a medal at a previous Global Championships.

So if you’re going to your first Global Championships it is likely you won’t win a medal this time round (although there are exceptions of course!), and in fact making a final should probably be your performance target in view of winning a medal at the next Global Championships.

Does it help if you have won a minor medal previously? It would make intuitive sense that winning a European medal for example would stand you in good stead but actually the data suggests (second row of data) that only a third or so of Global medalists have won one prior to their Global success. Just being to a Global Championships previously provides a greater probability of success.What about a World Junior Medal, does that help? Surprisingly no! Virtually no medalists at the Global Championships across all events are previous World Junior Medalists. The reason for this is probably another post but it’s likely that it is because athletes who win when they are young (in Track and Field events) are all ready performing with a fully matured body and when everyone else catches up they are no longer the biggest and best. There are also issues with injuries at a young age due to overtraining, issues with too much success too soon and all that comes with that.

Bottom line is that experience at a (senior) Global Championships is the biggest determinant of success for a future Global Medalists.

Next, looking at the age profile, the data suggests medalists are usually aged 22–30 years old, again there will be exceptions. But, it is a fairly robust age range that comes up again and again whichever way you analyse the data (longer endurance events and some of the throwing events have longer trajectories). Using the annual rate of progression (year to year progression), it is possible to work out how many years you are away from being in the “Medal Zone”. For example, at 0.6% a year, if you are 1.8% away in terms of performance, you are approximately 3 years away. If you download one of our event profiles, we give detailed info on what the Medal Zone is per event Plus normal rates of progression for that event.

For example in the men’s 800m, which you can download for free here, suggests that that the season’s best Medal Zone performance is equal to or better than 1:43.47. In the men’s 800m it also suggests that the rate of progression is lower, at just 0.27%. In our reports, you can see what all medalists have done in terms of progression and performance but you can also see what they have had to do to get to the final. In the men’s 800m, you need to run at least 1:47.11 in the first round, at least 1:45.70 in the semi-final and at least 1:44.46 in the final. For those wondering why you need a season’s best that is quicker, well generally it always is across all events as that is the capacity required to deal with surging races but also to deal with the rounds.

World Ranking is important as it gives an indication of where you are relative to everyone else in your chosen event at a given moment in time, which is good for tracking talent profiles. Our summary data (4th row down) suggests that at 4 years out to the Championships you are probably looking at needing to be in the top 15. And by 3 years out you are probably looking at having to be breaking in to the top 10.

With the Paris 2024 Olympic Games just 3 years away, those young and developing athletes with an upward trajectory in the World top 15 are the ones to watch for next time around, especially if they make a final at this years Tokyo 2021 Olympic Games.

If you would like to download the free summary PDF and or the free 800 men’s profile you can do so here.

If you would like to purchase one of our event profiles or even an event group pack, you can do so here. Please use code INTROSALE50 at checkout for 50% off!

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