Life in the fast lane with Olympic hopefuls

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As I walk onto the indoor running track at Brunel University, Olympic sprinters Marlon Devonish and Christian Malcolm give me a big grin.

“So the plan is that I’ll coach you on the start of the race for the first three hours and then Marlon will spend the next three hours on the rest of the run,” says 32-year-old Malcolm. He watches my face go pale at the thought of a six-hour sprint session and cracks into a chuckle.

I’m here for the next step in our challenge to test out as many of the Olympic disciplines as possible before the 2012 Games.

I may not be up for six hours of training but I am here for the next two hours so that this duo of 100m, 200m and 4x100m relay competitors and ambassadors for Mizuno can teach me the secrets of sprint racing.

Standing next to Devonish and Malcolm, this is a daunting prospect. Their muscles pop from their limbs, perfectly formed. There isn’t a centimetre of fat on either of their bodies. It’s a clear indicator of why they are both medal winners and I haven’t a hope.

Still, everybody can run, right? Once upon a time I was even quite keen on running – until I got shin splints, that is.

“For sprinters it’s all power in the hamstrings, quads and glutes. That’s where the power is generated as well as in the shoulders and arms,” says Malcolm before leading me over to the starting lines to set up my blocks. “People don’t realise that when you’re running so fast you’re recruiting every muscle in your body.” It sounds positively painful.

Once we have established which is my strongest leg (“Which one would you use to kick a football?” he asks. Blank look from me) we can work out my starting position. My strongest is my right, so it should be in front.

I take two pigeon steps from the start line to find the position for my front foot and three pigeon steps plus a four-finger width gap for my back foot. My toes should touch the ground and my feet should be firmly against the blocks.

Shoulders forward and over my hands I rise off the ground, ready to go.

“Psychologically, you don’t want to feel like you’re running any further than you have to, so get your fingers as close to the line as possible without touching it,” explains Malcolm.

He instructs me to use all my power as I push off, throwing my front arm back as I set off and keeping low.

“The force we put through one strike off the ground at full speed is the equivalent of lifting 400-500 kg … Your body has to be extra strong otherwise something will rip or tear,” he says.

To build the strength and speed they need, Devonish and Malcolm train six days a week, five to six hours a day in the winter and around three hours a day during competition season – which is now. It’s a mixture of weight training, sprinting and plyometrics (exercises that produce quick and
powerful movements). Next up for me is the “transition stage”. Devonish explains that I should take my time to rise into an upright position. He makes me run my first 20 metres with my eyes to the ground. “You don’t need to look where you’re going,” he says. “Once you are upright you will decelerate slightly so stay in this aggressive stage and propel yourself forward.”

On my first attempts I rise in a rush and slow right down. “Athletes can make the mistake of panicking and coming up too quickly,” he tells me.

What I need to do is relax.

In the final stage of the race this is also key.

Once I’m upright it’s a dash to the finish.

“It’s about running that straight line straight,” says Malcolm, “not with your arms all over the place. You need to be completely controlled. You have to keep to a very fine line when you’re sprinting.”

Devonish keeps reminding me to make sure that I have a “jelly jaw” so that I know I’m not tensing up. He also instructs me that I shouldn’t be “stabbing” the track with my toes, which will cause me to brake, but landing on the sweet spot on the ball of my feet, pulling back on the track with my legs to push me forward.

This proves to be a command too far for me. “Forget it,” says Devonish when he sees my stride turn into a marching stomp.

But when I do reach the finish line under Devonish’s instruction he is cheering, clapping and celebrating. “That’s brilliant,” he says. “I love it.” Watch out, Usain.

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