Building the World’s Greatest Athlete – Decathlon
Guest blog by coach Jerome Simian of Synaptic Athletics
The world record holder in the Decathlon is deemed the world’s greatest athlete.
The decathlon is a track and field sport in which athletes compete in 10 events over the course of two days. They score points given for each performance and the one with the most points at the end of two days wins. The events are the 100m, the long jump, the shotput throw, the high jump, the 400m in the first day and the 110m hurdles, the discus throw, the pole vault, the javelin throw and finally the 1500m to cap off the second day.
Decathletes are extremely versatile athletes for whom physical abilities are paramount as they cannot possibly match the skill level and the training volume attained by specialists in each event. The event has always been part of track and field and the history of the decathlon is rich with prestigious names such as Jim Thorpe, Daley Thompson, Dan O’Brien, Roman Sebrl or Thomas Svorak. Up until September 16th 2018 the world record holder was Olympic Champion Ashton Eaton of the USA who scored 9045pts, which was considered an out of this world performance.
Only two men had ever scored over 9000pts in the history of the event. That is until France’s Kevin Mayer scored 9126pts that week end. As his Physical Preparation coach since late 2013, I will give you an inside look at what it took to build the world’s greatest athlete.
Disclaimer: Kevin’s physical development was absolutely key in his rise to the world record, however the reason physical preparation work had such a tremendous effect is that he was very well coached by Bertrand Valcin from a technical skill point of view, reflected by the fact that he was already junior world champion. Acquisition of new motor abilities transferred to better performance rapidly because of his skill proficiency. Nobody, no matter how strong or fast they are, can pole vault 5.50m if they do not have the skills necessary.
Part 1: Running
The scoring table heavily favors running. Four of the events are races . Besides that fact, running fast helps performance in the long jump. Good long jumpers are always fast sprinters. The best example being Carl Lewis who held the world record in the 100m while being the best long jumper as well for some time. In the pole vault, even if the running happens with a long pole in the hands, a good reserve of speed is necessary to create forces high enough to bend the strong poles that will propel you upwards. Pole vault great Serguei Bubka was said to run a 10.3 100m dash.
The importance of speed in the decathlon as underlining most of the events is obvious. More over the 100m is the first event of the first day, often early morning and athletes see it as the gauge of their fitness on that day. A good 100m sets them up right. To them, it means that they are powerful, ready to perform, carrying that confidence into the two day challenge ahead of them.
Now Kevin grew up playing team sports then was a pretty good cross country runner in his early teenage years, hardly a recipe for great speed. After a few years of combined event training, in 2013 at the world championship in Moscow, Kevin ran 11.27 in the 100m dash, finishing 4th overall in the decathlon. He had previously run a faster 11.04 a couple months earlier in Tallinn Estonia with a bit more wind at his back.
By contrast, in 2012 Ashton Eaton established his first world record of 9039pts in 2012 running the 100m in 10.21, the best ever then in a decathlon! A full second faster! The belief then was that Kevin was very technically gifted but he was always going to lack the speed necessary to be the best in the world.
Fixing The Weakest Link
When I met Kevin in winter 2013 he was suffering from chronic back pain and had a hard time recovering from an ankle injury as well. All this was hampering his power and speed development and consequently his running speed. The first order of work was to properly rehab his ankle to allow him to put force into the ground. He needed to balance the strength of his plantar flexors and dorsiflexors and the length tension relationship in his ankle everters and inverters.
As far his lower back pain was concerned, I took the focus away from his spine which had been the target of his low back rehab to put it onto his hips. He had uneven extension/ flexion ratios in his hips and the stiffness of his hip extensors was overriding the stiffness of his spine muscle during hip flexion. Hip extensors have a posterior tilting torque on the pelvis and that tends to cause spine flexion. That situation caused too much posterior strain on the spine upon strong hip flexion as the extensors would not relax and resulted in back pain.
Starting With Posture
That fact was illustrated by a poor knee lift in stride on the right side. The earliest goal was to get him to execute the romanian deadlift in perfect form. We started with the empty bar. I had him pause at the bottom for long isometric pauses that were purposely fatiguing to force his spine extension to match the hip extension torque. When that became easier along with hip flexion promoting soft tissue work, his back pain showed great improvement after only a few sessions.
As I do with all the athletes I coach, Kevin also embarked on a full postural reprogramming regimen. His forward leaning posture was putting strain on his toes who where already showing signs of deformity at such a young age. Getting him back to a more vertical alignment also probably solidified the gains made with the exercises.
The Body Composition Goal Every Athlete Should Have In Mind
It is of my experience and opinion that running fast is all about absorbing and putting force into the ground with the right direction. Good sprinting technique is the reflection of the state of the athlete’s structure. The idea that sprinting is more reflexive that thought out, is one I learned from the late Charlie Francis and my later experience seemed to confirm it. Not much technique in the 100m once full tilt, except for the block start that has to be learned.
Another structural point of importance was body composition. Kevin had a bit of a student lifestyle going and carried way too much fat for the caliber of athlete he desired to be. After the initial measurement, he attempted to lose the weight the old fashioned way by running more. I knew better, but in the early stage of the work relationship I decided to let him make his own experience as everybody around him was more keen on running than nutritional intervention from a strength coach. I measured him initially at 15% BF and after a month of running his ass off, he measured at 15.9%! That convinced him to clean up his diet somewhat. I used the knowledge I had from Metabolic Analytics. It turned out that carbohydrates were definitely not for him at that stage.
It’s NOT All About Carbs For Performance
Working on very little carbohydrates, kicking his occasional beer binges and finally finding out and avoiding foods to which he showed intolerance on a blood test, brought him down to 8% BF. In 2014 he weighed 81kg/ 178lbs at 15.9% body fat and in 2018 his weight was up to 85kg/ 187lbs at only 8.3% body fat, a 19lb lean mass gain. The hypertrophy was spread out over a four year span as the blend of jumps and runs of the decathlon can be sensitive to sudden increases in body weight. But by track and field standards, outside of throwers, it was quite a big shift.
That increase in lean mass was a by product of strength/ power training as opposed to hypertrophy training as the new mass needed to favorably influence power to weight ratio, which it did greatly! Lean mass / fat mass swings are an essential piece of the running improvement puzzle when the mass is acquired where it needs to be.
Improving Power To Run Better
My assessment of his running told me that we needed to increase his acceleration capabilites. Kevin was good at bouncing off the ground once he had gathered momentum, but he was not gathering enough of it to fully benefit from his elasticity. After the Romanian deadlift progression we moved on to more dynamic exercises in which he was forced to bend /squat either under progressive higher force or speed. Also now armed with new range of motion in his ankles and hips Kevin was able to front squat ATG in the spring.
The lifts first aimed at teaching him how to overcome inertia and then how to accelerate a heavy weight. The strategy produced a good 11.10 with 1m/s head wind at the European championship that summer in Zurich. That time was .17 better than the previous year in Moscow.
For the next two years we focused on improving his acceleration capabilities with success as he ran 10.81 (-0.4w) in the Olympics in Rio then 10.70 (-0.8w) at the worlds in London. The program was a mix of high velocity drops in different positions as well as barbell work centered around variations of snatch grip deadlift and the squat.
It All Start With Good Structural Balance
A lot of the improvement came because of strength improvement in his spinal extensors. Initially I had noticed that, as he came out of the blocks, he popped up early because his spine could not withstand his hip power. The better solution then is to stand up rather that buckle and fall flat on your face. As his spine strength improved he could hold the pushing position better under progressively higher forces building more speed into the next phase.
He also showed relatively weak knee flexors on his right leg as well as relatively weak hip extensors on the left. Fixing those weak points were a constant thread through out these years as the work on the track seemed to foster those imbalances.
After the world championship title in London 2017, I judged that he needed to focus on more elastic qualities rather than frictional. He was now accelerating well enough for his elasticity. We spend a lot of time bouncing in and out of positions targeting different muscle groups during the fall. That did not seem to hurt his start however, as he ran a 60mPB of 6.85 at the World indoor championship in March 2018. His very poor .220 reaction time let me think that his real time was more 6.78, very close to Damian Warner who ran 6.75 and is the fastest decathlete ever with a 10.15 100m. Although showing up quite tired due to a heavy winter meet schedule Kevin won the title over Warner in dramatic fashion.
In the spring, we switched back to more strength oriented work and the deadlifts came back. The new strength in his back and hips notably showed up with a 16.51m shotput in a open meet at a body weight of 85kg. We kept working on strength all the way up to the Europeans sparsely adding more reactive type workouts. In Berlin he opened with a 10.64 (.220 reaction time) ahead of the whole field, which meant that he was in shape! As he fouled out in the long jump, we prepared for the Talence Decastar meet. We went right back into filling the same need that he had before Europeans. Only in the last 10 days before competition was the deadlift replaced with a quicker lift such as the clean grip snatch. The rest is history as he opened his world record decathlon with a 10.55 PB (-0.3w).
More Strengh Equals Better Starts
Kevin ran faster every year since 2014 from age 22 to 26, which is usually not the norm. Speed is supposed to be given not taught right? Good decathletes tend to be blessed with speed and get stronger, throw better and maybe jump a bit better. But they rarely improve their speed to such an extent, especially when little sprinting is done in training. Before Rio Bertrand, Kevin’s coach, said that he did not expect Kevin to improve in the 100 as “they had run so little during that year” .
But he still improved a bit more than a tenth of a second. The other factor to also consider is that 100m sprinters tend to need between 10 to 15 races to peak to a PR. The high intensity stimulus of competition is difficult to simulate in practice. Kevin only races two to four times a year, major championships included. So most of his speed gains come from general training as he is rarely exposed to max intensity sprinting, at least compared to specialists.
The increased acceleration power and greater stride length allowed him to switch to a seven stride start before the first hurdle during the early 2017 indoor season. That year his PB improved by .20s. In all his 110m Hurdle best decreased from 14.21 no wind in Moscow 2013 to 13.75 in Talence 2018 with a 1.1m/s head wind, even 13.71 earlier in the year with no wind at a three event meet. A big difference in total score as that event scores big on the points table.
Improvements That Produce Results In The Field
Being able to start with ease with seven strides not only brings him quicker to the first hurdles but allows him a more consistent flatter flight phase over the hurdle setting him up right for the remainder of a race, that is more about rythm than raw speed. The increased postural strength also made him stiffer upon landing behind the hurdles keeping a higher position in the interval more conducive to proper clearance of the following ones. Hurdles score a lot of points in the decathlon table and are an area that is always good to improve.
The 400m improvement to a 48.26 in London 2017 is a pure by product of better sprinting speed reserve. Again in that event, races play a major role in the improvement of performance. For example in 2017, Kevin had not run any 400m in competition. As lactate capacity training is quite costly in terms of recovery, the strategy was not to focus too much on it in training. That leaves room for further improvement as 48.26 is a bit slow for a 10.55 runner
And The Results Are In!
The days of Kevin running the 1500m in 4.18 maybe gone, but who is complaining? He smashed the world record! However, after London 2017, where he virtually was world champion before the final race, he nonetheless intended to run a fast race, which he was not able to do, finishing in 4.38, very tired. My take on this was that he had PB’ed in 5 events and his anaerobic work capacity did not allow him fresh enough legs when it came time to run the 1500. Over the course of the following year of training, I set out to slowly increase the number of sets in his workouts in order to give him higher work capacity in the hope that it would afford him more possibilities in the last race of the decathlon.
The hypothesis was not really tested as in Talence he only needed to run 4.49 to beat Ashton Eaton’s world record. However, during that decathlon he had beat 7 decathlon PB (SEVEN!) and despite a bit too cautious of a first 1000m he managed 2 seconds better than in London last year. I feel confident that he could have run well under 4.30 had he needed it for victory or record.
Kevin morphed from a relatively slow runner with a strong second day to one who can grab the lead as soon as the 100m, the first event of the Decathlon. I credit his gains in running speed for making him the most balanced Decathlete ever. During his world record decathlon he scored the exact same number of points both days! This is absolutely unheard of at that level. Kevin is a great example of speed earned through hard work and careful planning, not just talent!
Jerome Simian has coached athletes who medalled internationally in seven different disciplines. In track and field, he has coached Kevin Mayer to a world record in the decathlon as well as others who won medals at the Olympics and World championship in the throws and paralympics sprints and jumps. In his now 20 year career, athletes he has coached have participated in 8 olympics and have made countless national team selections. Jerome has also trained successful athletes for sport as diverse as pro rugby to figure skating, skeleton, tennis, judo, golf, basketball, soccer or bobsleigh to name a few. He founded Synaptic Athletics and works out of Lyon, France.