What You Don't Know About: Being a Sprinter

Have you ever been cornered and asked, “So, what do you do?” Or maybe, “What’s your major?” Sometimes, it can be tough be explain. Everyone thinks they know what a pro athlete does. But do we really know? In The Crossover, Blake Griffin has been cross-training with top athletes from various sports, the latest being three-time Olympic medalist Carmelita Jeter. This is What You Don’t Know About: Being a Sprinter.

People may not realize it, but success as a sprinter is less about pure speed and more about instinct, trust and feel.

Don’t get me wrong. Speed obviously matters, and there’s a lot of work involved to become fast. We put in long hours several days a week for several months a year. We train in ways people likely don’t expect. There’s an assumption that the training is just sprinting 100 and 200 meters over and over, but that’s not the case. A key part of the training is distance work, running 300, 400 and 500 meters during the preseason. You need to build endurance so you can eventually go all-out for 100 or 200 meters.

It’s not uncommon for fast runners to get beaten because they lack endurance. After a really good start and leading the pack for 60 meters, he or she suddenly just falls off. They end up in fourth or fifth, wondering, Wow, what happened?

A lot of times, it’s because they didn’t have the stamina to hold that lead.

For a few months, I work on these longer runs, then begin sprinting more. At that point, 100 meters feels much quicker — and way more fun, because you’re actually enjoying what you do. But you have to do the long stuff first. It’s like how a basketball player has to practice free throws. Do they want to practice their free throws? No. But they have to. Same with a sprinter working into shape through long distance. You don’t want to, but it helps you finish the race stronger.

It also creates the endurance necessary for success throughout multiple rounds. Championships can go up to four rounds, so your fitness must be at a certain level if you want to even reach that final round for a chance to medal.

But even more than speed or stamina, my training is designed to reach a place where I can rely on instinct, trust and feel while competing.

During a race, strategy is basically subconscious. You’re not actively saying, “Okay, do this, do that.” That’s too much thinking to do in 10 seconds. You train yourself so when the gun clicks, everything becomes second nature rather than guided by active thought.

In the morning before every race, I walk by myself for a few blocks near my hotel, going over every step I’ll take. I run the race in my head, so by the time the real one begins, I don’t even have to think. I’m mentally going through various phases of the race, because that’s how you train. Twenty meters is your drive phase, where you’re trying to get up tall. The last 60 meters, you’re trying to hold your position. Throughout a race, you’re just trying to do your phases. Sometimes, you might rush them, because maybe somebody has a better start. And you’re just trying to hurry up to reach a phase to where you know you can catch them.

Once the gun clicks, however you react in that moment, that’s what you’re dealing with throughout the race. You can’t dramatically change or fix anything, because you only have 10 seconds. But you know how everything is supposed to feel as you run, and if something’s not right, your body instantly and instinctively senses it. Boom! Boom! Boom! Literally in split seconds, a veteran sprinter can recognize, My legs are behind me. My head’s too far back. My hips are under me.

Ultimately, those are the adjustments made during a race. If you have a really bad start, you can hopefully correct it by the time you hit 70 meters.

Just don’t panic.

If you panic, you’ve already messed up, and nothing can be fixed. You have to trust yourself to recognize what’s not working, then make the correction without missing a beat. I’ve always said my biggest competitor is myself. That’s who you’re running against, and if you beat yourself, you’ve already lost.

That trust expands from yourself to others during the 4×100, because we do the exchange blind. Once my teammate hits a certain mark on the third leg, I run for six steps, then throw my hand back. My eyes are always looking down the track. If you run looking backwards even for an instant, that kills your time. I just know and trust this woman is gonna bring me the stick. When my relay team trains together, we’re building blind trust first and foremost. You can team up four of the fastest people, but if they don’t like each other and the chemistry is bad, nobody trusts each other and you’re not getting handed that stick right. It’s all about that synergy between teammates.

It’s not gonna happen overnight, I can tell you that.

Track athletes are often regarded as naturally talented. I disagree, because I am convinced hard work beats talent any day. Not all sprinters are naturally fast. Naturally athletic, perhaps. Most could probably play any sport they wanted.

My life as an athlete began with basketball. I lived in a basketball household. My brother Pooh eventually played in the NBA. In ninth grade, my basketball coach suggested I go out for the track team, mostly just to stay in shape. I said, “Try out for the track team? I’m a baller!”

But I took his advice and ended up loving it. I loved the individualism, how you got all the credit. If you won, you won. If you lost, you lost. I loved that … and I won a lot.

That was the end of basketball for me.

That could make me sound like a “natural,” but it doesn’t tell the whole story.

In my early 20s, I realized that I could truly be good. I qualified for the 2004 Olympic trials but only made it to the first round. But I also knew that while running track at Cal-State Dominguez Hills, I honestly hadn’t given it my all. Simply making that first round convinced me I belonged. It’s like, Alright, Carmelita. These women are getting paid to do this and you’re able to at least compete against them. You have the talent to do this.

But talent isn’t enough. Your career as a sprinter is all about what you put into it, whether you want to be great or just be okay. This is an individual sport. If you’re an athlete who wants to be great, your focus needs to be dead on. I don’t care what physical blessings I may or may not have. Without putting the necessary drive behind them, I would never have earned the title of “Fastest Woman Alive” after hitting 10.64 at the Shanghai Golden Grand Prix in 2009. I’d have never won three Olympic medals and set a world record in 2012 … at age 32, no less.

That drive is why, as a 36-year-old, I’m going to make the team in 2016 at Rio.

And finally, can I clear up one last misunderstanding about sprinters? We actually do compete more than once every four years. People think we race only for the Olympics, and that’s untrue. We have World Championships. We race all the time, every year. That’s definitely something people should know. I’m constantly telling people, “No, I race all the time.” It doesn’t necessarily frustrate me, because you can’t get frustrated by what somebody doesn’t know. All you can do is let them know the truth.

But here’s what’s crazy: If everybody on the planet knew about every race and attended all of them, I wouldn’t know the difference. From the moment I walk onto the track, I’m completely zoning into what needs to be done. Most of the time, I can’t even hear the fans. I shut everybody off. It’s just me, myself and whatever lane I’m in. I can’t hear anything until I stop running — then it’s like someone suddenly turned the TV back on at full blast. I’m like, Wow! What’s going on?

In 2009, when I ran 10.64 at the Shanghai Golden Grand Prix and 10.67 at the World Championships, I cannot tell you a single thing about what happened during either race. I have no recollection.

That’s how much l let instinct, trust and feel take over.


Want to watch Carmelita and Blake Griffin in action on the track? Click here to watch the video on redbull.com.