Sports Science Monthly – October 2021

Every month we take a deep dive into the latest research in sports science. Continuing on from this site’s analysis of the Tokyo Olympics, our first research summary looks at sprint pacing strategies and distribution of effort across the rounds of championship. We then continue to look at new research on creating a high performance environment, mental health in elite coaches, the effectiveness of mentors, and much more.

As always, the full Sports Science Monthly is available exclusively to HMMR Plus Members. You can browse the past topics on our archive page. The first topic below is free to everyone, but sign up now to read about all the latest research. To get an idea of what Sports Science Monthly is all about, the April 2016 edition is available in its entirety for free.

This Month’s Topics

Meso-pacing in elite sprint events

Quick Summary – Meso-pacing refers to the distribution of effort across the rounds of championship. This paper, which analyses the performance in sprint events at major championships from 2012 to 2019, suggests that the better athletes do indeed adjust their efforts across the rounds. The majority of medalists in these events got faster with each round, whilst also winning their heat and semi-final. This has implications for the tactics of athletes, as well as informing between-round recovery and nutrition strategies.

Performing on the day of competition is crucial for athletes at all levels, but none more so than elite athletes who are trying to win an Olympic or World Championship medal; it doesn’t matter how fast you’ve run at the competitions leading into the event, all that matters is how you perform on the day. This means that having strategies and tactics around optimizing performance on the day of competition is crucial, and this can take multiple forms across various time frames. For example, the overall training year, and its associated periodization and peaking techniques, has a large factor on how the athlete performs at their major competition; do they arrive in peak condition, under-done, or burnt out? At the competition itself, athletes have to contend with rounds; in the short sprint events, these are often heats on day 1, followed by semi-finals and finals on day 2. Coaches and athletes need to consider whether—and how—they will distribute their effort across races. In making this decision, they need to consider their overall relative ability compared to their competitors (athletes of lower ability will likely have to run at maximum effort in the early rounds just to qualify), as well as their ability to recover between rounds (athletes who can better recover are able to produce higher levels of effort in earlier rounds, if required).

In endurance events, we know that pacing and tactical behavior is important, with athletes jostling for position throughout the race to either nullify an opponent’s strengths, or exploit their weaknesses. In sprints and hurdles, however, the picture is less clear; as these events are entirely run in lanes, there is less interaction between competitors. However, either deliberately or subconsciously, tactical behavior likely does happen in these events. There is a perceived advantage from being in the middle lanes; in events on the straight, this is where the action is, and in events with a bend, the middle lanes avoid the unnecessary tightness found in the inside lanes, whilst still providing competitors in the line of sight, something which is lost in the outer lanes. As a result, athletes generally want to finish in positions which allow them favorable lane draws in the subsequent race—usually first or second. In addition, athletes generally want to win earlier races as a way of supporting their ego and confidence, whilst also wanting to balance any fatigue they might experience—they want to try hard, but not too hard. Just how—or, indeed, whether—athletes distribute their effort across rounds in sprint events hasn’t been scientifically studied until earlier this year, when Brian Hanley from Leeds Beckett and Florentina Hettinga from Northumbria University published a paper in the Journal of Sports Sciences. In their paper, Hanley and Hettinga explored meso-pacing—distribution of effort across multiple rounds within the same competition—in the sprints and hurdles events at the Olympics and World Championships.

To do this, Hanley and Hettinga looked at performances from the 2012 and 2016 Olympics, and 2013, 2015, 2017, and 2019 World Championships, in both the sprints (100m, 200m, and 400m) and hurdles (100m Hurdles, 110m Hurdles, and 400m Hurdles) events. The performances of athletes in the heats, semi-finals, and finals were collected and logged, with athletes who progressed through each respective round classified as automatic qualifiers or fastest losers. Athletes in the final were classified as medalists, non-medalists placing 4th to 6th, and those who finished 7th or 8th. A total of 474 athletes were included in the analysis.

The results make for interesting reading. Across all events, 78% of gold medalists, 67% of silver medalists, and 38% of bronze medalists won both their qualifying heat and semi-final. In all events expect the men’s 400m hurdles, finishing time and ranking in the semi-final correlated with the position in the final, and 98% of finalists were automatic qualifiers from the heats. Just under 6% of medalists qualified for the final as a fastest-loser in the semi-final. Medalists were also the only group to run progressively faster in each round in the sprint events; however, in the sprint hurdles, medalists were faster than the 4th to 6th and 7th or 8th group in both the semi-finals and finals, and did not run faster in the final. Aside from the sprint hurdles, the overall pattern was that medalists improved round on round, those in the 4th to 6th group maintained their semi-final performance in the final, and those in the 7th or 8th group were generally slower in the final than in the semi-final. In fact, for those athletes in the 7th or 8th group, 53% actually ran slower in the final than they did in the heat.

There are some key take homes from this paper. Firstly, medal winning athletes in the sprints and long hurdles events do appear to modify their performance across the heats, running progressively faster, although whether this is a deliberate energy conservation tactic, or a function of not needing to run at maximum effort (or, perhaps, just trying to look good) is unclear. In the sprint hurdles, medalists don’t get faster from semi- to final; this is likely due to the importance of rhythm and stride pattern to these athletes, were sustained, controlled performance is important. For those in the 7th or 8th group, their reduction in performance from semi- to final is potentially a result of a couple of aspects; perhaps they had to perform a personal best performance in the semi-final in order to qualify, which could not be sustained; perhaps their goal was just to make the final, making their semi-final their true “final”; or maybe they knew they couldn’t win, and, as a result, were demotivated. When preparing athletes for major competitions, for those hoping to win a medal in the final, attempting to win both the heat and the semi-final is a viable strategy (although I will add that, when I won the European Under-20 Championships, I didn’t win the semi-final, and I recall other situations where athletes who did not win their semi-final won the final) – but athletes should at least be prepared to expand the effort required to win their respective heats. This is particularly true for events which include bends, where the lane draw is of increased importance. Finally, in the sprint hurdles, athletes should be prepared to deliver their best performances in both the semi- and final, meaning they need to be psychologically prepared to do so; in addition, considering recovery between rounds, and, in particular, between the semi- and final, is of increased importance as a means on maintaining performance. Overall, thinking about how to approach each successive round, and the performances required for success, is an area where we could potentially become a little bit more strategic in our thinking—and, hopefully, reap the performance benefits as a result.

Join Now to Keep Reading

This is just the beginning. To continue reading this article you must be a HMMR Plus member. Join now to get access to this and more content. Learn more and sign up here. If you are already a member, log in here.