Rick Mitchell is a 3-time Olympic hall of fame Australian 400m running legend (1976 Montreal Olympic Games, 1980 Moscow Olympic Games, 1984 LA Olympic Games)
The former 400m Australian record holder (and Commonwealth record holder) and 2 x Australian Olympic Team Captain was renowned for producing good performances when it mattered most.
- In Ricks Olympic Debut (Montreal 1976) he finished 6th in the 400m Olympic final as a youngster.
- 2 years later he won a GOLD medal for Australia in the 400m at the 1978 Edmonton Commonwealth Games
- 2 years later Rick was elected Australian team captain for the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow, where he won a SILVER medal in his 400m Olympic final, lowering his own national record from 45.26 to 44.84 which at the time was the 12th fastest ALL TIME in world history, and Australian/Commonwealth record.
- 4 years later Rick broke the Australian 4x400m record at the 1984 LA Olympic Games, teaming up with fellow Australian record holder Darren Clark to become the first (and only) Australians to have ever broken the 3 minute barrier – running 2.59.70 seconds. This record has stood for 37 years and still remains today.
Tommy Connolly recently asked Rick the following question:
“How were you able to peak at the right time when you were competing?
If you could give your best advice to our current sprinters on how to produce good performances at major championships, what would that be?”
Rick has prepared this document on “How Rick Mitchell Prepared For Major Meets” for all coaches & particularly 400m runners. This document includes details of:
- Rick’s training times & days
- His Winter training
- His Pre-Season & Early Season training
- His Racing Season training
- His favourite workouts
- His thoughts on training
- His thoughts on “Getting it right at the Olympics”
- How his workouts compared later in his career
Thank you Rick for contributing to this group and providing enormous value for the younger generation. You are indeed a legend.
How Rick Mitchell Trains
The following article appeared in Modern Athlete and Coach (May 1976). Given our great history in the 400 metre event, I thought I would approach ‘Mitch’ to comment on the way he trained early in his career to progress to the 80’s where he ran his personal best. This article explains Rick’s early developmental years in the mid 70’s.
For those unaware of Rick’s history, this is what I recall. “Rick missed most of 1979 due to injury but came back strongly in November and produced a great domestic season, culminating in another Australian title in a fast 45.35 national record in Sydney. He was selected for the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow. He was in excellent form, qualifying easily in his heat in 46.63 before winning his quarter final in 45.73 and claiming second in 45.48 in his semi.
The final saw Rick well back in the field as they came off the home turn. He produced his characteristic strong finish to pass all but one of his opponents and just fail to catch the Soviet Viktor Markin who ran 44.60 to Rick’s in 44.84. This was his personal best. At that time, it was number 12 on the world all-time list. He successfully achieved his aim of winning an international medal (silver in Moscow).
Jess Jarver’s Article – 1976
Richard Charles Mitchell, a trainee chemist in Melbourne, is 1.83cm tall and weighs 71kgs. He is 21 years old, competes in the colours of St Stephens Harriers, and is coached by his club’s coach Norm Osborne. Mitchell’s best marks at this stage are:
100 metres – 10.80 (10.60 windy)
200 metres – 21.0
400 metres – 45.9
800 metres – 1.54.5 mins
As we went to print, Mitchell’s immediate ambition was to gain selection for the 1976 Montreal Games, and, if selected to get through as many rounds as possible. His long term aim is to win a medal in a major international competition. Mitchell intends to continue to compete until he no longer enjoys it. So far his progress has been as follows (born in 1955):
Mitchell usually trains with a group of athletes, including Brett Weinberg and Victorian 400 metres champions of the past. Neil Fairly, Bruce Moore and Don Hanly. His average training sessions start at 5.30pm and last about 1 ½ hours. It should be noted that 1975 was the first year Mitchell was able to train throughout the winter. The two previous winters in his career were lost due to glandular fever.
Mitchell starts his winter training in June and generally works out four nights a week and Sunday mornings. The sessions include approximately five kilometres cross country running, 12 – 20 minutes of fartlek or 6-8 repetitions of hill running over distances varying from 200 to 600 metres with walk back recoveries.
After a month of conditioning Mitchell adds track workouts to his training. There are no typical weeks in his training as it is varied to break monotony, depends on weather conditions, and is adjusted according to progress made. The following examples are taken from his training diary and represent work done in July.
Monday: Weight training. (This is included only once a week because Mitchell, a part time student, lacks time for more).
Tuesday: Warm up, 4 x 100m, 3 x 600m (98 to 100 sec with walk back recoveries), 2 x 150m. 2 x 100 (all with walk back recoveries).
Wednesday: About 12 minutes of Fartlek 4 x 100m on tan track, 2 x 200m hill runs (30 secs), 4 x 300m (45 sec), 4 x 120.
Thursday: Warm up, 4 x running up ramps of a railway bridge, 4 x 100, 1 x 500m (70 secs), 2 x 400m (58 secs), 2 x 200m (26 secs) – all with 200m walk recoveries.
Friday: Saturday: Rest or game of tennis or squash.
Sunday: Warm up, 2 sets of 100 + 150 + 180m (90% effort).
Pre-season and Early Season Training
Mitchell’s pre-season training follows the pattern of his winter work but the speed of repetitions is gradually increased and occasional time trials over 300 and 500 metres included. In the early parts of the competitive season, the 22nd week of his 1976 diary recorded the following:
Sunday: Warm up, 6 x 100m (90% efforts)
Monday: Warm up, 4 x 100m, 1 x 600m, 2 x 500m, 4 x 150m – all with 400m walk recoveries.
Tuesday: Warm up, 4 x 100m, 4 x 400m (56 sec with 200m walk recoveries), 4 x 200m (27 secs).
Wednesday: Warm up, 4 x 100m, 5 starts without the gun, 4 x 150m (fast).
Thursday: Competition (400m 46.5 secs)
Saturday: Competition (200m 21.7 secs, 800m 1.54.5 mins)
Racing Season Training
This consists mainly of fast repetitions of 500m, up and down scale workouts and accelerations runs up to 250m. In addition, Mitchell emphasises starting practice as he considers his start to be a weak point.
Mitchell’s warm up before a race begins with a four lap jog an hour before the start. Mobility exercises (15 – 20 mins) and four run throughs follow. Finally, he performs two or three runs around the bend at racing speed before a quiet rest and mental preparation for the race. His racing tactics are to run a fast first 200 metres, keep going and then to accelerate out of the last curve into the straight. “
My Comments in 2018 – revisited 2021
When I read the above, I remembered having the discussion with Jess Jarver about this article. The work outs highlighted in the piece seemed hard at the time because they were at that stage of my development. That winter build up was my first full winter after entering the sport in 1972 ‘to get fit for the next rugby season’ in Melbourne, so while there were times when the reps were very challenging but compared with the level I was working at before the Moscow Games in ’80, they seem incredibly easy now.
I joined the St Stephen’s Harriers squad under Norm Osborne in January 1974 with a PB of 49.2 from a third placing at The National All Schools in Brisbane in 1973. That was the start of intensive training (compared to what I had been doing) and within 10 weeks I had placed second in the National 400 final in 47.7 when 5 days too old to run junior.
That certainly motivated me to focus full time on Athletics, but the combination of serious training, full time work (20kms from where I trained) and studying chemistry caught up with me. A bout of glandular fever meant that I missed the complete 1974 off season.
Thoughts on Training
When I use the “We”, I am usually referring to Norm Osborne and I collectively. The two weekly examples of training provided in the article only speak of distances and times without touching on the other things we focused on or emphasised during the reps, and there were certainly harder sessions during both the winter program and that season.
As I got to better understand Norm’s approach, I overcame being confronted by sessions of higher quality as and when they were introduced. Initially, I would think ‘God, how am I going to get through this?’ until I realised that Norm NEVER gave us a workout he didn’t believe we could complete well.
That quickly turned being confronted into the positive of knowing that we (meaning the squad) and I were moving on to a higher level of training and therefore a higher level of performance.
However, I found that every 6 weeks or so, I seemed to have a week where every workout felt like a real struggle, even though the tempo set was the same that I had handled well in the preceding weeks. For example, if a set of 400m reps over a block of work had been, say, a 54 sec average and I had coped well, they suddenly felt harder than I expected. But after a while I noticed that when a week like that occurred Norm would give us time-trials, sometimes unannounced, on the next Sunday morning session.
Depending on the time of year they might, for example, be time-trials of 1 x 600m. Other options were one of 2x500m 20 mins apart, 2 x 400 20 mins apart, 2 x 300 20 mins apart, 3x200m 20 mins apart), or a two run combo (e.g. 1 x 400m and 1 x 300m) – I’ve run them with the 400m first and/or the other way around.
Invariably after those efforts we would train the next week and find that while Norm had adjusted the program to a quicker tempo, the workouts felt easier than the ‘difficult’ session from the previous week at a slower tempo.
That experience of the earlier session feeling more difficult than the newly introduced level occurred because I (my body )had absorbed the previous phase and was actually physically ready to go to the next level both in terms of fitness and rhythm. So I had been fighting with myself to run the slower tempo when my body was actually ready to go up a cog and Norm was reading this.
While Norm roughly worked to 6-week phases, he would happily cut a week from a phase if he sensed we were ready to go up a level sooner than expected, or add an extra week or two if he felt that we were still to reach that ‘fighting for rhythm’ stage.
Norm’s intuitive ability around that concept meant that while we definitely trained at higher volume than every other sprint squad in Victoria at the time, we were as a squad relatively injury free by comparison. So much for the current view I hear expressed that a couple of 300m reps will ‘cook’ an athlete. I laugh when I hear that and can’t help feeling that some of the current coaches need to be reminded that even a souffle must to go into the oven before it can rise to a dining occasion!
For more information on the “300 meter workout”, check out the previous articles:
The other great benefit we had was that the majority of our training took place on the old grass track at Yarra Park just a little way Swan St from Olympic Park.. We only went to synthetic surfaces to compete, time trial, to do dedicated speed development work or when adverse weathered made Yarra Park too wet.
It is interesting to note, that my only international preparation affected by injury was the last – the build up to the LA Olympics of ’84 when I had achilles tendonitis. Because of severe drought conditions the previous summer of 1983, Yarra Park was being re-laid and was unavailable for use during the winter of ’83 as well. As a result, more work was undertaken at Olympic Park and I am certain to this day that had Yarra Park been available as usual, I would have had another injury free Olympic preparation!
Thoughts on Getting It Right at the Olympics
When it came to preparation for peak Olympic Games performance our approach was very simple. While there was constant talk about the difficulty of double periodisation for major international meets from an Australian southern hemisphere base, our approach was only to peak once in the build-up for the build up for the major Championship of the year and if we got it right for example, it meant in the Olympic final! The question I have always asked when double periodisation is raised, is why is everyone trying to peak twice?
Re-reading Jess’s article I was especially pleased to read in the interview piece that my stated goal in 1976 was not to make the team, but to get through as many rounds at the Olympics as possible. My philosophy was that if I could run say, 45.80 in Australia with a crowd of 8-10,000 spectators at the Nationals, then with the stimulus of the biggest meet of the year (e.g. The Olympics), competing in front of the biggest crowd of the year, against the best quality competition I had ever faced, it was ILLOGICAL that I should produce a performance less than the one that earned my team selection as a bare minimum. I believed that even if I finished last I would be dragged through to my best performance of the year.
When I watch the Australian performances at the Games (or World Championships these days), I am saddened by the overall level of performance produced by our teams! For example, consider the results produced at the 2017 IAAF World Championships. The outstanding performances of Sally Pearson and Dani Stephens aside (in both cases yet again!), how is it that Australia had 59 event entries, yet produced only six performances that were season bests or personal best bests at their ‘When it Matters Most’ meeting of the year?
I think the answer to that question lies in attitude! When I see Australian athletes interviewed these days at selection trials and they say post event – ‘I am just happy to make the team!’ – I think to myself ‘job done – early elimination at the “When it Matters Most’ meet.
From day one for each of my Olympic preparations EVERY piece of work I did was focused on reaching the Olympic Final final and being competitive. Norm and I set the average time for all athletes from the previous Olympic final (rounded down) as our target.
For example, the average time for all athletes in the men’s 1972 Olympic final was 45.07, so rounded down, 45.00 became the target we trained for. We didn’t broadcast it to everyone – we just did the work and built race hardness. I didn’t run that time in Montreal, but nonetheless made the final on debut and improved the national record to 45.40 with a then lifetime best in the race.
For the Moscow Games. the target dictated by the Montreal 400m final averages was again 45.00 and this time we figured that time would again be thereabouts in a final, the combination of my greater international experience, coupled with the ability to rise to the occasion as a competitor would deliver the extra percentage or two needed to become medal competitive. I had absolutely no intention of doing that mountain of work just to duplicate the Montreal outcome without, as a minimum tick, running faster than ever before!
When you set the training bar and season focus to that level, rather than focusing on the qualifying standard to make the team, it is possible to run multiple qualifying times without peaking. So instead of focusing on the Olympic qualifying standard, which I think was 45.70 or so at the time (there was a B standard of 46.40 in existence as well), qualifying for the Games, and the selection trials simply became a means to an end because our thinking, planning and training were based on a 45.0 performance which was much higher that that needed ‘to make the team’.
However, in order to do so, an athlete has to be prepared to practice the components they are working on each week during the season under racing conditions in the domestic season. That is something few Australian representatives seem to do these days. As part of the build up to the Moscow Games, I raced 65 times between the start of the 1979/80 domestic Club season and the 400m first round at the Moscow Games themselves. That volume of races did not ‘cook’ me – those races made me! They were not all 400 metre races. There were 100m, 200m and a couple of early season 800m runs at interclub for strength, both mental – being taken out of my comfort zone – and physical. I used to enter the Vic 100 yards title each for fun and speed play. I even placed second in the race one year. Every relay counted as a race and they were great for practising the fast relaxed running that is essential for a 400m runner.
Each race, irrespective of the standard of competition, requires an athlete to ‘go through the process’ of preparing to lay it on the line. One has to switch on differently to the warmups that are done with the traing group where there is an element of fun, jokes get told etc.
For a quarter miler, 100m races represent an easy way of getting speed into the legs irrespective of the phase of championship preparation you are going through. The 4×100 relay later in the day (and I always ran the back straight for my club), became a perfect situation for replicating running fast and relaxed as is necessary in the first half of a 400m race. Then the 400m race at the end of the day allowed me to put into practice race phases we had been working on through training – for example attacking at a different part of the race, or learning to run from an extreme inside, or outside lane. It was same on 200m day where two great opportunities were available each week to develop leg speed and racing rhythm too. At the risk of labouring a point, every competitive effort had a specific purpose, even if St Stephens were against a club whose quarter milers were 49 second runners! That was the type of race where I would take the inside lane and aim to round up the outside runner at a certain point – e.g. 220m from home.
While athletes learn about competing at major international games, they learn the basics of event at home by deconstructing it during competition and putting into practice the key elements they are looking to deliver for the time When It Matters Most’. Athletes who think they ‘learn’ their event at the Games are like students who pick up the text books and try to swat a year’s work over a week. Typically, those students under perform because they have set their personal bar so low. Fun runners go running- but preparation for international competition is another thing all together.
Equally, athletes who believe there is little to be gained from running club meets because the opposition is ‘non existent’, not only deny a dedicated club athlete or emerging athlete a chance to race against someone they look up to, but in my view, they actually insult the other athlete and the sport in general. To paraphrase JFK, maybe we should be asking not ‘what athletics can give to me?’ but rather, ‘what can I give to athletics?’
The outcomes of those 65 races were not as important as the benefit they delivered. Being medal competitive in the Olympic final was all that mattered and each race was a step in that road.
Of course, I raced to win every time I competed, but I always took the view that if I performed to my best ‘When It Mattered Most’, people will quickly forget any lesser race where an opponent might have beaten me.
For example, recently one of my old rivals reminded me that he defeated me over 400m at interclub one afternoon. I remember the race well. I knew beforehand that the chance it could happen was very real. While the outcome surprised people at the time, what no one except Norm and I knew was that our target that day was to cap off what we called a ‘doubling up’ week.
Why? Because doubling up is what you have do internationally and preparing for that was far more important than winning an interclub 400m race. At the Olympics in those days, there were four rounds of competition for the 400m. If you couldn’t double-up you were gone. Conversely, if you doubled-up well, you then had to treble-up … and, then quadruple-up to make the final with each subsequent round faster than the previous one.
It was the same at Commonwealth Games level too. At Edmonton in 1978, we ran four rounds of 400m races in 30 hours – and as crazy as it may sound, in each round the one lap runners were running into 4-7 metre/sec headwinds up the back straight – that can be backed up by official data. The men’s 100m final that year had somewhere in the order of 5.8 metres assisting wind and the 400m final was about half an hour later! It was a very tough 400m series that was always going to be won by the last man standing!
But I digress from that interclub defeat. During the week before that race, I had done 2x400m time trials (circa low 47’s 20 minutes apart) on both the Wednesday and Thursday evenings, rested on the Friday and then ran the full interclub program on the Saturday – i.e. 100m, 4x100m and 400m. So, that 400 metre race was my fifth in 4 days. Norm and I got the outcome we prepared for– which was to practice doubling up. The result was what it was – a means to an end, but a planned part of our preparation for the Games. That rival and I both made the Comm Games in 1978. He was eliminated the second round, while I won the final.
Another benefit though was that from the race I was also able to sense what my rival had left to offer in the event that it was a title race and knew that in that situation I definitely had his measure. So, all in all it was a race that he remembers for one reason and I remember for another, namely, ticking off another building block in what proved to be an international medal winning season! That interclub race played its part in helping me to perform to my best “When it Matters Most’!
Ten Years of Experience – or – One Year Ten Times?
I have no doubt that the decision Norm and I made to bypass the World Cup in 1979 and complete an extended off season build up for the 1980 Olympic Games was a major factor in my Olympic medal result and I firmly believe every Australian athlete should do a home winter build up at least once in every 4-year period and ideally in the pre Olympic year.
After all, the majority of major international games are held in the northern hemisphere as are the biggest European meets. If the northern hemisphere athletes finish in Europe by mid-August each year and then have a break until say the beginning of October they have six to seven month window to prepare for the next northern hemisphere season which will run from May to early September.
Every year a southern hemisphere athlete travels away the take up to half of their off season build up and throw it into the bin by comparison. With a then limited domestic track season, our athletes are going away trying to defeat opponents to whom they have gifted a huge, if not unassailable advantage!
It’s a well worn cliché that to succeed at international level in sport, sacrifice is required, but to me sacrifice suggests loss! Why not choose to substitute weeks of tiresome travel, competing (more often than not) on the B circuit, sleeping in different beds every few days, carting luggage, finding places to eat etc, with the INVESTMENT IN SELF that an extended off season can bring every few years?
Without that investment, there is no time to build on an athlete’s annual cycle and performances will plateau. What price an international medal to define a career over a few more passport stamps and annual elimination in first rounds of qualifying at the ‘When it Matters Most’ meet?
I realise there is pressure from SSI’s and other bodies to maintain rankings, but they need to realise that with that attitude, the funding bodies are creating plateau performance and asking athletes to have one year ten times! If you want my help arguing that case, Athletics Australia has my number! Don’t hesitate to call!
How Workouts Compared Later in My Career
Overall the approach that Norm used for the build up to the 1976 Olympics was adopted, and adapted over time for the build up to Moscow. There was far more volume and much higher intensity, both of which were the result of me being a more seasoned and mature athlete, but without staying in Australia during the winter on 1979, the Moscow outcome would definitely not have eventuated. I had eked three international summers out of that Montreal build up and there was very little left upon which to build another ambitious Olympic campaign. Once again, club competition played a huge part in the journey!
Norm’s final words to me before competition were ‘you know what to do!’ And because every element of training was geared to specific elements of racing I did! He only suggested new things when it was time to use club competition to try new things we had discussed.
Favourite “Magic” Workouts
One of my favourite sets was also one of the hardest we would do. The purpose was to build speed endurance and at the same time practice running at fast 400m tempo with good form when under something akin to racing stress. The session comprised 7 reps, all of which started at the 350m mark (i.e. halfway around the first bend of a 400m race).
The reps were, in order, over 60m, 90m, 120m, 150m, 180m, 210m and 250m.
The idea was that the first half of each rep was taken to build up to true racing tempo, with the second half to be at that racing tempo to the end. The first 4 reps had a walk back recovery and after each of the last three the walk recovery was around the track and back to the start. That meant that as the last three reps got longer, the recovery became shorter!
What this workout did was create excellent replication of serious racing tempo for 400m with each rep building on the previous one to create a series which duplicated the feeling of racing from just before the back straight to the top of the home straight – the mid race phase of a 400m race if you like! I can assure you once the session was well under way, it felt very much like real 400m racing. When we did this in earlier years there were four or five reps only and much longer recovery.
Finally, you have to really want be there, in that marshalling room with all that entails – the pressure, the nerves, the toughness of competition and be able to keep doubling up through the Games. With race hardening under your belt the task is much easier. Two individual Olympic finals, each run in a lifetime best when it mattered most is proof enough for me that it worked!
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