In recounting the tale of the women’s 3000m final at the 1984 Olympics, Matt Long gathers training advice from the silver medallist for those taking on the forthcoming BMC 3km time trial

Thirty six summers ago, on August 10, 1984, the world tuned in to events in the Los Angeles Coliseum as the golden girl of US distance running prepared to take centre stage in her quest to become Olympic champion. While an adoring American public had wide eyes only for the star-spangled Mary Decker as the red-vested heroine set off with her trademark front running over seven and a half laps of the track, more cultured observers of track and field pointed to the threat posed by the imposing blond figure of the Romanian Maricica Puica, who had already showed her potential on the global stage by bagging the world cross country title.

As the athletes go through the opening lap in a brisk 67 seconds, the presence of a slight 18-year-old controversially running in the red, white and blue of Great Britain, in closely tracking the home town favourite, seems symbolic. Born in Orange Free State in South Africa, Zola Budd was controversially granted British citizenship at what many felt was breakneck speed, to allow her to pull on a GB vest at the Games. Anti-apartheid protestors understandably vented their anger but their targeting of Budd was an ethical minefield.

With 800m of the Olympic final reached in 2:15, it looks as if the global media had been spot on in billing this clash as unequivocally ‘Decker versus Budd’, with the imposing yellow-vested Puica seemingly being the only one capable of gate crashing America’s party which would be in full swing following the four gold medals bagged by the majestic shining star of Carl Lewis.

With the pace slowing to a 69-second third lap, for the first time in the race we see a 24-year-old from Hampton in London, whose talents and prospects seem to have been overlooked in the media circus which has come to surround Budd and the all singing and dancing razzamatazz which golden girl and darling Decker brought to her stage. Her presence in the lead group as the race enters its mid stages seems at first quiet and unassuming. Indeed the proverbial working of her way into the race was indicative of the year she had experienced. Wendy Sly was easing her way back in on the comeback trail after injury.

After four laps of the Olympic track, Decker continues to hold the inside, with both Budd and Sly level with her but spread across the first two lanes of the track. It is as if Sly’s non-verbal communications are subliminally telling the young pretender Budd, ‘hey, don’t forget I’m the British number one’.

Sly, growing in confidence, is talking back to Steve Peters’ ‘Chimp on the Shoulder’ and telling him that although she has missed some vital training, she is the reigning Commonwealth silver medallist who also turned in a hugely impressive 8:37.06 in placing a fine fifth at the inaugural word championships in Helsinki. She is reminding the field that she is the owner of the fourth fastest time in the world that year and she means business.

As they enter the home straight with just over three laps remaining, the pressure exerted on Budd by Decker, Sly and the ominous presence of Puica exposes the young woman’s fragility of mind as well as body. Her inexperience of international competition due to South Africa’s being outlawed in sport manifests itself in panic as she attempts to move ahead of Decker, clipping her slightly in the process.

BBC commentator Brendan Foster observes that Budd is lucky not to get a palm or worse in the back from Decker but there is no such fistic protest about the invasion of space and the young woman hasn’t got the confidence to commit to driving harder to ensure her acceleration gives her a clear path. Consequently, Decker attempts to check her stride and at 4:57 of the race, the inevitable occurs and the BBC’s David Coleman screams into his microphone the immortal words, ‘and Decker’s down! Oh the world champion and one of the favourites is now flat out on the infield’. The combination of the horror etched across Budd’s face together with the adrenalin rush she receives as a result of being spiked from behind in her unprotected bare feet gives her the belated surge she ironically needed to overtake the fallen Decker in the first place.

From this point onwards the medals appear set to be fought out by Budd, Sly and the imposing Romanian, with Lynn Williams of Canada giving what now appears to be a forlorn chase.

With just over a lap remaining the adrenalin is wearing off and it’s clear that Budd’s bid for gold is over as Sly and Puica effortlessly breeze past her while the chorus of home town boos for the beleaguered Budd continue to ring out from the Coliseum crowd – their Decker disappointment has now turned to outright anger.

With 600 metres remaining, a growing in confidence Sly nails her sails to the mast and goes for home. They pass the fallen Decker, receiving treatment on the infield, once more. At this point, the dogged Puica appears to grow in stature, her imposing presence on the shoulder of Sly looking more ominous than ever. The blond Romanian brushes past the gutsy Sly, instantly staking her claim to the coveted gold medal. The gap grows ever wider down the final straight she crosses the line just over three seconds ahead of a jubilant Sly in silver (8:39.47).  Budd’s capitulation on the last lap has become the good fortune of the hard chasing Williams, who has moved through to grab a podium spot with bronze.

The BBC camera pans in on a delighted young woman, sporting the number 175 on her red, white and blue GB vest, waving to coach Neville Taylor and husband Chris in the crowd as she crosses the finishing line. The inimitable Coleman utters the words, ‘Wendy Sly looks up there to the big screen and she knows she’s got the silver medal’.

As a huge and much-valued supporter of the British Milers’ Club, more than three decades after her finest hour, Sly passes on the baton of advice to those considering embarking on their own 3000m challenge by way of the organisations’ forthcoming 3km time trial.

Training tip 1: Don’t neglect the aerobic base

The woman who also bagged a Commonwealth silver in 1982 and a European indoor bronze was running for eight and a half minutes in Los Angeles. This being said, as she tapered the intensity of her training towards Olympic competition she still maintained an aerobic base of gently covering around 10 miles per day in very hot and humid conditions in Los Angeles.

Aerobic development is the basis of athletic performance for events which exceed two minutes in duration. According to research conducted by Duffield and Dawson (2017) the aerobic contribution for the 3km for male athletes is around 86%, so aerobic conditioning is foundational and critically a key facilitator which services recovery.

Sly reminds us: “I did lots of easy running around all of the hard sessions I did.” So you still need to maintain a level of lower intensity running and perhaps cross training as you approach the BMC 3km TT even as you include more speed and speed endurance type sessions.

Training tip 2: Interval training

Six days before her Olympic success, Sly ran one of what she describes as her “go to sessions” of 10-12 x 300m. She recounts that she averaged 46.3 seconds per repetition and also that she was “slowing down deliberately so that I didn’t hammer my legs too much”.

So if you are going to effect interval training within days of your 3km time trial, you may wish to bear this in mind. Your own ‘go to’ session may well be different from 300m repetitions but critically, like Sly, you should try and put the emphasis on a ‘roll on’ recovery. Sly’s mode of active recovery for this session is described by her as a “fast jog over 100m”.

While ‘roll on’ recoveries are not new in terms of athletic practice, much work has been done in recent years by Oregon-based coach Peter Thompson in terms of understanding the benefits of these modes of recovery. In drawing on physiologist George Brook’s (1986) notion of ‘the lactate shuttle’, the BMC life vice president has articulated how alternating periods of high intensity activity with lower intensity activity is of enormous benefit. It is often overlooked that during the latter you are doing more than just ‘recovering’ from the previous repetition. Your engagement in what Thompson has termed ‘lactate dynamics training’ is habituating the muscle cells to both productively utilise and clear the lactate.  Systematic use of these sessions through progressive overload will help improve running economy, vVO2max and tlimvVO2max.

Thompson uses a brilliant analogy which you should be able to visualise, in order to capture the essence of interval training, saying: “Imagine you are riding a bicycle. When you are pedalling along it is like being in the faster repetition distance of the session. When you come to the recovery interval it should feel like you stop pedalling – but you do not touch the brakes at all – you just roll on, naturally maintaining the recovery pace”. So in essence, the focus is not so much on what reps you decide to do but the mode of recovery which you choose to adopt in the interval (hence ‘interval training’) and where it lies along the passive-active spectrum.

Training tip 3: Speed endurance training

Nine days before her brilliant silver, Sly, who many feel belatedly received a well-deserved MBE in 2015, ran a speed endurance session of 5 x 400m in around 60s. This session required her to adopt not only (a) longer recoveries than her interval session of 10-12 x 300m in terms of time but critically (b) a more passive mode of recovery.

Forget that Sly chose to run this session over 400m because the golden rules for you to follow are that (1) the number of repetitions will be much lower than those in ‘interval’ sessions; (2) lean towards a passive walk or gentle jog recovery rather than a ‘roll on’ recovery and (3) make sure you are ready to run the repetition you are undertaking at a much higher intensity than your ‘interval’ sessions, so that you are operating well inside your target speed for the race.

Another way of ensuring your speed endurance work has considerable demands on developing the lactate energy system is by grouping work into sets. On July 27, Sly for instance ran a session of 5 sets of 2x200m (averaging 28.9s). By grouping work into sets and by keeping the number of consecutive repetitions low, one inevitably has more generous recovery which allows the focus to be on the quality of the intensity of the repetition being effected.

Training tip 4: Under distance time trial

Eleven days before the heat of that Los Angeles final, Sly opted for what could be referred to as an ‘under distance time trial’. As president of the Lydiard Foundation, 1992 Olympic marathon bronze medallist Lorraine Moller, has maintained, these are key during the ‘integration’ phase of training before you taper for your time trial.

Sly ran 2:03 for her 800m time trial and recalls: “My best was 2:02 in a very competitive race, so this was a good sign my fitness was there.”

If running the BMC 3km time trial you don’t need to obsess about the 800m distance. You could operate over 1km, 1500m or 2km, for instance, but critically the under distance time trial will work all three energy systems (aerobic, lactate and alactic) and also give you the psychological boost that you can operate at a higher speed than your intended race pace.

For those of you that drive, it’s a little bit like cruising along a motorway at 70mph and then pulling off on to a slip road and seeing a 30mph sign ahead of you. You may believe that by touching the breaks you are down to 30mph but in reality you may in fact be doing 50mph which perceptively feels like your car is ‘crawling’. Under distance time trials should similarly give you this feeling when it comes to feeling that your race pace is comfortably within your ability.

The big day itself

When you do your 3km time trial between June 18-21, the 1983 world 10km champion reminds you “not to overcook it early on. If you go off too hard, you will pay the price”.

This is difficult because you have no obvious reference point in terms of other real time and geographically situated competitors. Sly continues: “Solo time trials are very hard as you have to push yourself through the pain without any help around you. The key is not letting your mind wander, keeping focussed and letting the fatigue tempt you into slowing down even for a second or two. For a distance as short as 3km every second counts and it’s important to concentrate the whole time.”

In interviewing the great David Hemery (Olympic 400m hurdles champion in 1968), I and BMC Academy chair David Lowes (2012) explored how athletes constantly experience ‘reversals’ in shifting between what psychologists refer to as ‘telic’ (goal focused) states of mind and ‘paratelic’ (process based). In practical terms for you, are you the type of athlete that will be constantly checking your split times during the 3km TT or alternatively are you someone who prefers to maintain focus by listening to the intrinsic feedback provided by your body, in terms of how you are breathing or the extent to which your shoulders feel relaxed and so on?

There is no right or wrong mental state to be in – it’s knowing what works for you and acknowledging that the psychology of a solo time trial is materially different from a race which has a subcultural element.

Questions for self-reflection:

  1. How am I maintaining my aerobic base as I focus my work on the BMC 3km TT?
  2. Why do I need to consider the focus on the mode of ‘recovery’ during interval training as much as the ‘effort’ itself?
  3. What speed endurance sessions work for me in terms of developing the contribution of all three energy systems?
  4. Do I need to effect a time trial prior to the BMC 3km and if so what under distance trial would most benefit my physiological needs?
  5. To what extent do I need to reflect upon the psychological differences between participating in geographically situated races and virtually based time trials?

To enter the 3km time trial, visit britishmilersclub.com

To donate to the event’s chosen charity, MIND, visit justgiving.com/fundraising/british-milers1

» Matt Long is a former winner of the BMC Horwill Award for coach education and is the author of more than 250 coaching articles

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