Alberto Salazar’s school of running

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SPIKES takes a peek inside the magical world of the Nike Oregon Project, home to the likes of Mo Farah and Galen Rupp. Get prepared to be amazed.

It’s the closest thing there is to a sporting Hogwarts, so it’s only right that the man in charge has a reputation bordering on the mythical. Even the name, Alberto Salazar, is shared with one of JK Rowling’s characters ‘Salazar Slytherin’.

It gets better. The Cuban-born Boston-raised runner recovered from a near fatal collapse during a 1978 road race. His temperature had reached 108°F (42°C), and a priest had been called to the scene. Salazar went on to win his marathon debut in New York in 1980, defend his title twice, and took an epic Boston Marathon ‘Duel in the Sun’ battle against Dick Beardsley.

Oh, and he came back from the dead in 2007. His memoir, ‘14 Minutes’, is so-called after the amount of time his heart stopped for, after a heart attack at work.

The marathon master coaches at the Nike Oregon Project, and he has helped transform Mo Farah into a double Olympic champion; worked his magic on Olympic silver medallist Galen Rupp, and is even coaching teenage sensation Mary Cain (although she hasn’t boarded the Oregon Express just yet).

Salazar, 54, sounds every bit the headmaster as he watches Farah and Rupp kick a football around. “They spend more and more time doing this. We start 45 minutes late sometimes. They try to convince me it is good for the warm-up. They just like playing soccer, I guess.

“Sometimes before the workouts we check how many times they can pass the ball back and forth, keeping it in the air with their heads. Their record is 42.”

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Head tennis: #frivals Mo Farah (left) and Galen Rupp play ball

Only the best make it through the doors of the remarkable headquarters, which features a partially forested running track constructed from the soles of old Nike sneakers, a $70,000 underwater treadmill, and Mo Farah’s favourite: the recovery-boosting cryochamber.

So how does an athlete get to train with Salazar?

“It’s gotta be someone that I consider could be the Olympic finalist or a world championships finalist,” he says. They must also be a Nike athlete. Mo Farah had to transfer from adidas.

“I think I can only coach ten athletes at a time, the way I coach – we coach – is just very time consuming.

“One of the things we do now is that you kind of have to be voted in. Everybody’s gotta agree. We did it with Cam [Levins]. He came and met with everybody, and everybody gave him thumbs up.”

Salazar is keen to dispel the notion that his training regimes are shrouded in secrecy.

“There are no secrets whatsoever. I never want to talk about the exact workouts because someone will think that they also should do that, and they will get hurt. They don’t know what we did to get to that point.”

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Just another day in running paradise

“What we try to do is to apply the infrastructure that we see in other professional sports, to running. I didn’t invent all that stuff. I spoke to Manchester United and Manchester City coaches. I hired the guys from Michael Johnson’s performance centre.”

And then there’s the crucial role of Michael Johnson himself, the supreme former world and Olympic sprint champion, whose statue adorns the tree-lined track.

“Michael Johnson had just signed Galen, he was Galen’s agent. I was watching that race in Rome, a 5K race. There was Kenenisa Bekele (Ethiopia’s 2008 Olympic double distance champion) and a bunch of Kenyans. The Kenyans all ran with long strides, swinging their legs all the way backwards, while Bekele was running differently, almost like a sprinter,” says Salazar.

“When I saw that, I thought to myself: ‘Wow, he looks so different. Maybe that’s why he is so good?’ Salazar quickly found Johnson to ask what he thought. “Actually, I’m commentating on this race on the BBC right now,” came his reply.

“He said that it was sprint biomechanics 101,” says Salazar, once they finally got a chance to talk off-air. “The shortest distance from A to B is a straight line. That was the moment when I got the whole idea that distance runners could benefit from learning something from sprinters.”

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Alberto Salazar was a marathon champ in the event’s golden age

This philosophy was etched into the race plan that Farah executed in both the 5000m and 10,000m Olympic finals, both won with outstanding finishing kicks. He and Rupp train in the gym like sprinters, and can squat 50-60 lbs more than their body weight. Strength and conditioning coach David McHenry has them aiming for power, with low number of repetitions. They are careful to prevent them gaining weight from these routines.

“I credit Michael Johnson for that idea about running like sprinters. I think that distance runners should look more like sprinters than not look like them,” says Salazar.

It’s not all sprint work. Farah and Rupp run 120 and 130 miles every week respectively. Rupp does 25 of those energy-sapping miles on the underwater treadmill, which helps to decrease the load on tendons and joints. Farah is looking to get one installed in his house for next year, when he’ll be upping his mileage for the marathon.

Apart from the occasional game of head tennis, there are other treats on offer for well-behaved athletes: like chocolate milk. A great recovery food, it has a 4:1 carbohydrates to protein ratio.

As bizarre as it sounds, Farah and Rupp are pampered. 8,000 miles away, an army of East Africans work much harder, just to get the chance to race Salazar’s boys in Moscow.

“There are about 30 athletes in Kenya that are able to make the team. And they’ll have to train incredibly hard to make the team,” says Salazar. “The three that survive will be trained to an incredible level.

“They might have been running 160 miles a week [the equivalent of six marathons]. And I have Mo and Galen. Am I gonna try to train them at the same level? No, because the chances that they survive are low. Both of them are probably going to get hurt. We have only a couple of guys that are good, so we have to do everything perfectly with them. If I’d had thirty Galens and Mos, I wouldn’t have to.”

Note: All images were taken as part of the IAAF Day In The Life Project in the USA.

Notes

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