5 Unexpected Running Lessons from Olympians

fri5torchLike most of us around here, I love the Olympics: the drama, the amazing athletic feats, and yes, even the back stories. Currently seven months pregnant, I myself am far removed from a competitive mindset; I watched the Games every night while balancing a bowl of mint chocolate chip ice cream on my belly. But living vicariously through my favorite athletes inspired me and I learned a few things that will help my running in the future, some from likely sources and others from some athletes I wouldn’t have expected.

Here are a few of my favorites:

1. We could all use some fans.

Starting off with the home team, I couldn’t help but be overjoyed for the two Brazilians, Diego Hypolito and Arthur Mariano, as they won silver and bronze in the gymnastics men’s floor exercise. They were so excited and overcome with emotion.  It’s always fun to perform for a hometown crowd; whether it’s having a coach at the track for your workout, or bringing your family with you to a race, you will likely do better with your own cheering section.

2. It’s better for it to be bigger than ourselves.

You already know I’m a big Michael Phelps fan. He didn’t disappoint in Rio; he proved yet again he’s the best swimmer in history. Although he showed up to these games more mature than in past years, several things remained the same: he steps it up and finds an extra gear for competitions, and he thrives in the team relays.  The entire US swim team was impressive. It seemed that every time a US athlete was in a final, they won a medal. People who weren’t expected to also swam their best times. They thrived on the performances of their teammates, and channeled the success of those surrounding them to elevate their own performance.

parsleyusa3. You got this.

While the American women distance runners had some great finishes (silver in the steeplechase, three placing in the top 10 of the marathon, an American record in the 10K), I think Jenny Simpson was the most impressive. The 1500 is arguably one of the deepest events and requires three rounds of running total. I’ve always liked Jenny Simpson; she’s stayed in the sport through highs and lows, and throughout it all seems so grounded.  She ran an incredibly smart, patient race. When she looked uncomfortable running the slow early pace, she held back instead of wasting energy to take the lead. When the leaders took off, she didn’t panic, but stuck with what she knew she could handle, and reeled them back in, running an 800 PR in the process! Her smart race tactics and awareness of what she was capable of were a lesson in having confidence in your abilities and your plan.

4. Make the most of what you have, even if all you have is a cinder track and a great-grandma coach.

Wade van Niekerk won the men’s 400 from lane 8, which is unheard of for winning a major championship, let alone breaking the long-standing world record! He has a great backstory: from his talented mother’s limited competition opportunities to his 74-year-old great-grandmother of a coach. It’s not too often that you see professional male athletes coached by women, and one in her 70s to top that! He comes from a humble background, training on grass fields and cinder tracks, rather than a state-of-the-art Mondo facility. He truly represents making the most of what you have, whether it’s less than ideal starting conditions, or simpler training conditions than those of your competitors.

5. Be open to opportunities when they present themselves.

Matt Centrowitz won the first gold in the men’s 1500 for the United States since 1908! Wow. He even surprised himself with that one. Watching his reaction was almost as fun as watching the race itself! He didn’t seem to mind taking the lead, rather, having practiced for multiple scenarios, he used it to his advantage to run his race and make sure he stayed clear for the sprint at the end. It’s easy to panic in races, whether it’s a mishap at a water stop, shoe coming untied, or someone trying to pass or cut you off. But Centro acted like a true gold medalist, staying calm under pressure, showing determination the entire race, and fighting through the finish.

Honorable mention: Duh. Have fun!

It’s always entertaining to watch Usain Bolt; he turns on the competitiveness when it’s time, but genuinely seems to enjoy what he’s doing. Watching Bolt and Andre de Grasse smile at each other coming down the backstretch of the 200m semifinal was a good reminder of the importance of having fun in your sport and not taking things too seriously.

What were your favorite Olympic moments, and what did you learn from them?

I have fun trying to sprint, enjoy long runs in the mountains, and everything in between. Former competitive runner (3 x marathon OTQ & trail marathon national champion) currently working through a lingering injury. I write about trying to stay competitive while raising young kids and moving into a new post-competitive stage.

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