Last week I began a discussion with Harry Marra, the coach of world decathlon record holder Ashton Eaton. In part one, we discussed the art of coaching. Marra wrote a detailed essay on the topic last year and was able to share his thoughts on how to improve the core of the coaching relationship: the communication between athlete and coach. In part two, we discuss the difficulties of training for a complex event like the decathlon. Incorporating technical advice in ten events, as well as finding a place for important concepts like specificity of training and transference can be quite difficult. Through the utmost focus and the careful selection of planning of exercises (especially the versatile use of medicine balls), Marra has been able to find that balance in the training of Eaton and his fiance Brianne Theisen.
If you want to hear more on these topics, I am partnering with the United School of Sports to bring coach Marra to Zurich for an evening of talking about coaching and training. The event will take place on Tuesday, May 28th.
Part 2: Training for a Complex Sport
Martin: My next questions are about training for a complex event like a decathlon. Training is relatively simple in the hammer throw; I can basically cover everything I need to develop at each training session. But when you are training for ten events, that isn’t the case. You were saying that you might work once or twice a week on some of the throwing events. Is that typical for all the events? How does that affect the technical development?
Harry: The whole thing is set up on one word: safety. The decathlon is an injury looking for a place to happen. You cannot be cranking out long jumps on Monday morning and then coming back to sprinting in the afternoon. You are asking the legs to do too much. You have to find a way to get all the events in and blend them while keeping safe. Here is an overview of a typical training week. We work two weeks of hard work like this and then the third week is a recovery week. This is the same volume of work technically and event wise, but no running. The running is in the pool, or recovery striding on the grass, but not hard intervals.
Monday: We start in the morning with a solid and thorough warmup that lasts about 40 minutes and then we focus on the shot put for 15-30 minutes. Then we do a specific warm up for the hurdles and then a hurdle session. After a few hours break, we come back in the afternoon and do an easy warm up, a high jump practice, and then 400-meter training. That can be a variety of things depending on time of year, but a sample would be 10 x 100 meters with one minute recovery.
Tuesday: We use this as a recovery day for running. Again, we have a thorough warmup in the morning to flush out any of the excesses from the interval running the previous day. That is a safety valve right there. Then we focus on the throws. Typically we will do javelin and discus. We do not throw the shot, but before we throw the javelin and discus we will do what I call “shadows” for the shot put. If we had a sticking point technically on Monday, we will work on these and I will coach him, maybe using some video too and we have a mirror at the back of the circle. For 15 minutes we will work on a cue with or without the shot put, but never with a release. We are getting neurological work done even though we are not putting real hard since it is a safety thing again. Then we move on to the discus and javelin and then strength training.
Wednesday: Again we start with a solid warm up and then long jump approaches, take offs, short approaches. After lunch we do a secondary warm up and train for the pole vault. We then finish it off with another intense 400-meter training. Wednesday is one tough day since you have long jumped, pole vaulted, and now you have to run something like 4 x 300 meters with a short recovery.
Thursday: Thursday is another recovery day. We warm up as needed depending on how sore the athlete is. And then we come back to the throws. Except for the shot put on Monday, nearly every throwing practice is done with tired legs. As you know, that is a tough way to learn too but when you come to the ninth event in the decathlon, the javelin, I don’t care what type of shape you are in your legs are not talking to you any more. You have to learn to throw on tired legs. The key event to the decathlon Martin is the discus. It is not the pole vault or the hurdles or the 400-meters. The reason why is because you have run five events the first day. The second day starts with the hurdles early in the morning and now your legs are wobbly as hell and you get into the discus circle. The first thing that happens is you want to fall into the middle of the circle rather than coming across the circle and all hell breaks loose. So early in the week we try to do the throwing events where there is some life in the legs so we can learn how to do them correctly. Then on Thursday we try to either shadow them or work on them when they are tired to get that experience. Then we also do another lifting session on Thursday.
Friday and Saturday: These are catch-as-catch-can days. Let’s say the high jump or pole vault has been a problem, then we come back and fit those events in again if it is safe. We also lift on Saturday and also do hard hills in the fall and winter on Saturday.
Sunday: Rest day.
Martin: That answers my question then. I find it difficult for athletes to make progress if they are doing an event just once a week, but you also have room built in to spend more time working on trouble areas and also doing drills to get additional technical work in without wearing down the body.
Harry: Part of the shadows is also our medicine ball program. We use medicine balls almost every day for a variety of reasons. Some people use it for dynamics and explosiveness and multi-throws. We do that, but we also use it every day just to loosen up the whole body and get the tendons strong through repetitions. And it is also another shadow. If I am down with the med ball at my hip like a batter and then turning and popping the medicine ball against the wall that is the same action as the throw.
Both Ashton and Brianne were not very good at the technique of medicine ball when I first came and now they are extremely good at it. Now I say we are cheating work at the shot put, discus, and javelin since we are mimicking them with the medicine ball in our warm up and we have to warm up anyway. Now when they are in the circle they have a better understanding.
Martin: Are you actively coaching during the medicine ball exercises, or do they just do them?
Harry: I am, but not nearly as much as when they first started. It actually just blew me away when I first got to the University of Oregon. It is a top program, but when I said lets do some med ball, they didn’t have a clue what it was and when they started throwing it you could see they were hurting and had no technique and weren’t gaining much from it. We had a lot of coaching then, but they have picked it up fast. And once you can do that with a med ball, you can bring it over to the circle and the throws will take off.
Martin: I definitely agree. I think it is important to use exercises that develop both technique and strength at the same time since you have to have both of them at once in the ring. And that leads right into my next question. In your essay you also talk about both the specificity of training and transference, which are two points that are central to my own training. In the hammer throw the concepts are easier to implement since I can set up my weight room exercises to model the hammer throw. But when you have ten events, it must be harder to develop a strength program that will give you the specific strength needed for all ten events. Is this done through incorporating medicine balls, or another way? And when you get in the weight room is the work there oriented more towards general or specific strength?
Harry: I would say compared to throwers the weight room work is more general. We build the program for any athlete who has finished college with the aim to get stronger in the weight room without adding any weight. This is a safety issue. By adding bulk you are just carrying it around and asking the body to accept more trauma when you are jumping and hurdling. Our lifting leans towards explosive and dynamic movements. Once conditioning has been established at the start of the year, we finish each exercise from cleans to step-ups with a dynamic movement like pushing a medicine ball against the wall. Everything we are doing is trying to bring the gained strength into something specific.
In the fall we are lifting four days a week which is heavier repetitions to strengthen the attachment areas. Two sessions are upper body, and two are lower body. We move to three days a week in January and then twice a week in the late spring focusing more on dynamic exercises and multi-throws. Neither Ashton or Brianne touch the weights at all three weeks prior to the Games. We do just multi-throws, hops, standing long jumps, etc. I personally think you need three weeks away from leg work to gain the real dynamic that you need.
Martin: Are you using medicine balls throughout the season then, or just as the season approaches?
Harry: We always use them. I have one under my arm wherever we are going. We do things like a double leg hop and push when holding the medicine ball at the chest. Just the concept of holding the upper body correctly and not letting the ball move you forward and exploding is analogous to other events. Neither of them did that skill very well when they started with me and now they are doing it well and their throws are going better.
On a side note, Ashton is still a little frustrated with the discus. I know he wants 50 meters and I know he can throw 50 meters. He is still a young thrower so when he throws a good one in practice then he goes “I can really hit this next one” instead of trying to relax a little more.
Martin: Even older throwers have that problem.
Harry: When he threw his javelin personal best in March his first throw was about 60 meters. His second was about 62.60 meters which was a small personal best. On his third throw he just tried to relax and it jumped out of his hand and hit 66 meters. The fact that he wasn’t trying to throw hard but instead just tried to hit the right positions was a bigger eye opener for me than the result.
Martin: Thanks for taking the time to talk. Good luck to you and your team at Götzis.