More than 17 years separate reigning Olympic marathon champion Eliud Kipchoge’s first Olympics medal—a bronze in 5,000m at Athens 2004—and the latest one, a gold, at Tokyo 2020 last week. In between he won an Olympics silver for 5,000m in 2008, won the marathon gold at Rio Olympics in 2016, set the world record for the fastest marathon in 2018 and became the first man to run a marathon in under 2 hours in 2019.
Last Sunday, 8 August, when Kipchoge successfully defended his marathon gold in Tokyo, he became just the third man in the history of Olympics to do so. The fact that in the last seven years he has lost only one race that he has participated in compels not just his admirers but his rivals, too, to wonder what makes this wiry 36-year-old Kenyan so consistent. Running coaches and an Indian Olympic marathoner tell us what you need to do to perform even half as consistently as Kipchoge.
“Typically, training regularly, keeping a clear goal in mind and focusing on that goal single-mindedly is the starting point to perform well time after time,” says Praful Uchil, running coach and co-founder of Striders in Mumbai. Consistency is one of the fundamental building blocks for success, be it in the world of sports or any other aspect of life, adds Nakul Butta, founder and coach at Delhi’s All In Running. “Other fundamental blocks would be hard work, training methods and support systems,” he says, adding, “Consistency in training and consistency over race performances should not be linked with each other, especially when it comes to long distance running.”
Invest in time, trust the process
There are no shortcuts when it comes to consistency in performances. You might get lucky and perform well with a crash course of a training module ahead of a race or two. But in order to do it every time you show up at the start line takes a solid plan and long months of training according to the plan, say athletes and coaches. Butta says that expecting coaches to come up with a 4-8 weeks’ training plan ahead of an event is simply too short a notice to have any meaningful, measurable and sustainable impact on physical performance.
The first step is a planned programme, says Uchil. “A training programme is designed with an off season, mid-season, speed sessions closer to the event date and tapering in the final weeks leading up to the event.” He says that most top athletes compete in just one or two races a year. “They train through the year with that clear goal in mind. If you sign up for the New York City Marathon, you need to train without any distractions while keeping in mind the NYC course, weather and your own time goal,” adds Uchil.
In distance running, the journey of a great runner spans decades. “There is a multi-stage approach on developing one's physical abilities and the process takes anywhere between several months to several years,” says Butta. “Setting big but realistic goals is something that will ignite the fire, but staying true to the process and being consistent with training is the fuel to the fire. The process of performance evolution is long and one needs to keep training in order to progress. Only the consistent individuals will be able to reap the benefits over a period of time.”
Another key factor in being consistent is to remain injury-free, says Nitendra Singh Rawat, who has run alongside Kipchoge at the Rio Olympics, the London Marathon and the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon. “To avoid injuries you need to put in the prescribed hours for strength training, which ensures your muscles can take the excess load. You also need to pay attention to any niggles you might have and address them immediately before they turn into a major injury and throw you off your training plan and goals. You also need a good diet and proper nutrition to keep you performing well,” says Rawat.
Create a support system
On Sunday, the Olympic marathon silver medallist Abdi Nageeye kept looking back and shouting words of encouragement to the eventual bronze medal-winner Bashir Abdi, who was struggling in the home stretch. The two train together and push each other even during training. It was no different on race day.
Given the challenging times we are going through and the lack of races across the world since the March 2020 because of covid-19, the performance of most runners has dropped, observes Uchil. While having a training partner is always important, it’s especially important to have one right now, as well as coaches and running groups, notes Rawat. “Building a running group and supporting each other is key to a successful training. Whenever your motivation dips or focus wavers, it is the running group and workout partner who pulls you right back on track,” says Uchil. Not unlike Nageeye and Abdi.
Butta says one should set short-term and long-term goals. “Let's say if someone runs a marathon in 4 hours 30 minutes, I’d give them the long-term goal of becoming a 3 hour 30 minute-marathoner. In order to achieve this, one needs to commit 2-4 years into the training process and be consistent during this time. Their short-term (8-16 weeks) goals would be setting up mini-milestones, such as training for a 10K time trial over 10-14 weeks — that would help stay focused and motivated for a few weeks.”
Shrenik Avlani is the co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.