Sprinting is an art form I'd never mastered. Back in my school days, sports day was voluntary - so guess who spent the day guzzling chocolate on the sidelines. So when I found myself lining up alongside Paralympic sprinter Richard Whitehead I wished I'd paid slightly more attention in PE...
Fortunately, Richard was going to give myself and the other journalists assembled a lesson in how to sprint before we took him on. We’d been invited by Powerade to meet and interview Richard in Sheffield’s Don Valley stadium, before getting an exclusive sprint masterclass on the indoor track.
Our interview with Richard will soon follow on the site – needless to say he’s a role model for runners everywhere. His is a rare running talent, excelling over distances from 200m to the marathon.
Richard holds the world record for leg amputees over the marathon (2:42:52 in Chicago) and half-marathon (1:14:59 in Reading). When the IPC ruled that he couldn’t compete in the 2012 Paralympic marathon (which is only open to runners in the T46 arm amputee category), he didn’t let that dash his medal hopes. After switching discipline to the 200m T42 category, he now holds the world record. ‘Cometh the hour, cometh the man’ reads the Thai tattoo on his arm – and few athletes could live up to that motto with as much conviction as Whitehead.
After quizzing Richard, we joined him and fellow sprinter Louise Bloor for our masterclass. After a gentle jog around the outdoors track, it was time for the lesson to begin (thankfully this time without terrifying PE teachers brandishing whistles or the dreaded gym knickers).
First up were the drills. The aim: to get our muscles warmed up, master sprinting technique and get our legs used to moving explosively. We sampled a range of drills, including a high knee drill with our toes flexed upwards, a sidewards steps drill, running backwards with a leg extension, heel kicks (not a full kick like footballers do, instead finishing slightly lower and still keeping the knee high for the follow through).
Richard said he performs each of his drills three times: the first time to warm up, the second for efficiency and the third for proficiency. None of us came anywhere near proficiency - Richard couldn’t hide his amusement watching us flail along the lanes - but it was a novel way to warm up our quads and hamstrings.
Then we had to learn how to sprint. You've heard what my experience of school PE was like - I presumed it was just a case of just ‘run as fast as possible’. Not quite. Richard explained that the first 30m are all about ‘driving’ and getting your cadence up as quickly as possible. You stay closer to the ground with your head down and aim to take smaller steps, turning your legs over as quickly as possible.
Around the 30m mark you start to straighten up and extend fully, keeping your knees high and driving your arms. The aim until the end of the race is to maintain your form and speed until the finish, combining technical efficiency with a relaxed and fluid style. It’s harder that it sounds, but seemed easy for Richard. Richard said it takes him longer to hit maximum speed on prosthetics (around 80m), but then he’s flying to the finish.
We had a brief lesson on how to use blocks and then we had to put our new skills to the test and take on the Paralympic world record holder.
There is only one way to say it - I lost. I didn’t even finish first out of the media cohort. It’s fair to say though that I found sprinting more exhilarating than I could have imagined and I now fully appreciate the skills needed - I certainly don't see sprinters as lazy (compared to my distance heroes) any more!
Richard casually mentioned that he still runs 35 miles a week and retains long recovery runs on top of taxing sprint and strength and conditioning sessions. There’s only one Richard Whitehead – and I’ll put money on him bringing home a shiny Team GB gold this summer.
Richard Whitehead was in Sheffield to launch the new Powerade Olympic Games Sports Bottle, which will be used to hydrate athletes at the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic GamesThe Bottle is available for free with any promotional bottle of Powerade. For more information visit www.poweradesportsbottle.com. Also, discover the lastest Powerade competition that could see you racing in the Olympic stadium.