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By the Numbers

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Andreas Behm

Andreas Behm

ALTIS Vice President, Performance

Coach Andreas Behm takes the mantle for this week’s staff blog-post, as he takes a journey through time to explore the realities of what this reveals and exposes in the world of Track & Field.

A few days ago I purposefully locked myself in my bathroom and sat fully clothed in my bath tub with the curtain drawn – for totally sane reasons of course. All for the sake of science! For the completely rational purpose of attempting time travel, or at least the attempt to slow down time and maybe steal some moments. I had been doing research for this blog-post in regards to the physics and philosophy of the entity we call time, and had my mind blown by a concept that needed further investigation…

There are a myriad of different ways to assess a track race: Execution, technique, distribution, tactics, placing, all are critical. However the unchallenged and undefeated measure remains time. It is indisputable and objective. It provides framework, perspective and context. Time ultimately determines an athlete’s excellence: Hundredths of seconds can mean the difference between glorious victory and agonizing defeat.

Time is undoubtedly an important contributor in assessing performance, serving as data for de-briefs, progressions and season reviews – as well as establishing goals. Many athletes have immense goals they want to achieve; this is awesome – I am generally a firm believer in thinking big. If you can’t see it coming true, chances are it won’t. However I am often shocked at the lack of underlying information athletes (and coaches) have as a foundation for their goals. You want to make the world team? You don’t say? That is fantastic – but do you have any idea how fast you have to run to have a shot? It is important to understand your event. Numbers help. Track is a numbers driven sport. Your lane, your execution, your earned time.

So I was sitting in my bathtub because … Humans have an inescapably interwoven connectedness with time and movement. We move through it during our lifespan, or does time move through us? Time has an extremely interesting relationship with motion. Everything that is moving around us helps provide context to how we perceive time: Shadows, wind, seasons, celestial objects, other people. Think about it – if hypothetically nothing, absolutely nothing around you moved, how would you perceive time? Would time stand still? Would you be frozen in time? A super interesting philosophical question. Hence the reason, I isolated myself in my bathroom, to create a motionless environment (my own personal sensory deprivation environment). Would time stand still if I could not perceive any motion? Hey, if you can’t see it coming true, chances are it won’t…

I find it fascinating that athletics revolves around motion and we assign a time to it. Essentially, athletics races are the expression of human movement over a designated distance quantified through time. Human’s reality with time has captivated philosophers, scientists and artists since forever. Rapper Mos Def has an amazingly powerful and beautifully poetic verse to describe our understanding of time:

I am the inescapable, the irresistible,

The unnegotiable, the unchallenged

I am time

I scroll in measurements, control the elements,

I hold the evidence, I tell the story

I am time

I know no prejudice, I bare no sentiments

For wealth or settlement, I move forward

I am time

You can’t recover me, conceal or smuggle me,

Retreat or run from me, crawl up or under me,

You can’t do much for me … besides serve

Me well and have good dividends returned to you

Or attempt to kill me off and have me murder you

Many have wasted me but now they are facing me,

Treated me unfaithfully and now endure me painfully

Plaintively, I wait to see what history will shape to be,

Who’s hearts will never die inside the sake of me

Angel’s scribe the page for me,

Keep a full account of all the names for me

And make a special mark for those who waited patiently

Mos Def

As I was patiently conducting my ‘experiment’ in my bathtub waiting for the earth to stand still and time to freeze, I realized there were two motions I simply could not avoid: breathing and my own heart beat. Those built in metronomes still helped give me feedback as to the context of chronology in my reality.

But I digress …

You are reading this blog post because both of our realities intersect through athletics. So in order to help shed some light on numbers and times in track and field, I have compiled various interesting examples – with the short hurdles as the event of choice. The examined levels range from NCAA to USA to World. The aim is to provide easy to duplicate and practical data. This is not about complicated statistical regression or hard to read charts. You don’t need to be John Forbes Nash Jr. with calculations drawn on windows and loads of sticky notes plastered all over your apartment to duplicate my efforts. Keep in mind these compiled examples could be done with any event in track and at any level. I encourage you to take these and come up with your own ideas of what to investigate.

Want to be Top 10 in the world?

Over the past ten years in order to be ranked top 10 in the world, one would on average have to hurdle at least 13.20 in the 110s and 12.65 in the 100 hurdles. Pretty steep numbers. Trends over 5 year periods show in order to be top ten as a male from 2006-2010, one had to run 13.23; while from 2011-2015, this number dropped to 13.17. The men’s race has definitely gotten deeper, and slightly more competitive it seems. For the women between 2006-2010, it took 12.65 to be ranked in the top 10; and this is holding steady – from 2011-2015, the average was nearly identical at 12.66.

Want to make a US team?

There have been 5 Major World Teams to make over the past seven years: 4 World Championships (2009, ’11, ’13 and ’15) and one Olympics (2012). Team USA is generally the hardest team to make on the planet. I realize there might be some wild cards, but in order to make Team USA outright, an athlete needs to finish in third place or better at USA Nationals. To secure third place at USAs in the 110 hurdles an athlete needs to run at least 13.16; while 12.63 is required in the 100 hurdles.

Want to make a final?

To advance to finals over the last 5 major championships (4 World Championships and 1 Olympics) an athlete would have required 13.40 and 12.80. To make finals at USA Championships over the last five years would take 13.43 and 12.77 to be the last qualifier in. Making NCAA finals is not quite as daunting – but still a formidable challenge. To be the last qualifier in for NCAA finals over the last 5 championships one would need to run 13.61 and 13.06 respectively.

The crazy number in all of this is that as a female hurdler one needs to run faster to make USA finals (12.77) than one needs to make a major international championship final (12.80). Hence the expectation that if an athlete survives USA trials, she should expect to secure a spot in the World-level finals by simply repeating the same performance as at nationals.

Consistency and sustainability

In order to reach a final at a Major Championship, an athlete not only needs to be fast, but also requires a measure of consistency. This allows for the athlete to repeat and recall a certain level of effort when needed. I have examined the finalists from each of the last two World Championships (Moscow 2013 & Beijing 2015) in regards to their overall season – (for the sake of brevity this section is limited to only the 110m hurdles). Before competing at Worlds, the average number of ‘A Standard’ performances each finalist ran that season was 7.25. A total of 116 ‘A Standard’ performances were run by the 16 finalist athletes before heading to World Champs. That shows a high level of consistent performance was generally displayed before even getting to the biggest meet of the year.

I also examined how long it took these 16 finalists to get sharp. After how many races did these athletes run their season best? Now we all know that there are many factors that go into racing – such as health, season plan, track & weather conditions, travel, competition etc. It is, however, interesting to note that – on average – it took these hurdlers 11.3 110m hurdle races to run their season’s best. What does this tell us? It seems it would take a hurdler quite a few races to get all the way sharp. So as a coach or young hurdler, if you are expecting to come storming out of the gate, you may need to keep everything in perspective and keep plugging away. The only major outlier among the 16 finalists to this is Pascal Martinot-Lagarde – he ran 13.06 in his first outdoor race of the year in 2015. A strong start to the season for sure – however this ended up being his season best; he was never able to build off of it!

It also becomes clear that elite short hurdlers race a lot. They are not ducking and dodging the competition like many of their 100m counterparts. They will line up against anyone at any time. I totalled up their indoor 60h races and outdoor 110h races and these guys line up an astounding amount of times: On average, these athletes would race 22.38 times per year. The average number of 110h races they would run in a season is 17.5!

So if an athlete runs 17.5 outdoor hurdle races, it takes 11.3 of those to reach maximum sharpness. That is roughly 65% into their total outdoor season. But remember, these guys hit 7.25 ‘A standards’ before the season highlight of World Champs – so in order to ramp up for max sharpness they were already hitting performances at a fairly high level.

Performance and season evaluation

So how does one determine if an athlete had a successful race from a statistical standpoint? I personally like to go off of an athlete’s all-time top ten performance list. I understand there can be many ways to deem a race a success or failure – but purely from a numbers standpoint, if you hit a top ten performance that is more than solid. One of my goals every season is for our athletes to produce as many top 10 performances as possible. We refer to this as performance clustering. It is a show of high level consistency in reference to the individual athlete’s previously demonstrated (and documented) capabilities. If an athlete is putting up top ten performances, they are also at the same time of course lowering their career top ten race average. My goal as a coach is to cluster as many top 10 performances in a season and lower that career average. If this is achieved, I know the athlete has a good shot at running a new personal best along the way.

I urge all coaches and athletes to track, and start building lists of performances. It is a very objective way to go back and look at a season. An example here is Mikel Thomas’ all-item top ten list prior to the 2014-15 season compared to after the season:

PRIOR TO 2014-15:

13.19 1.2 1 Montverde FL 8 Jun 2013
13.33 0.9 5 Lausanne 4 Jul 2013
13.39 0.9 2h1 Gainesville FL 20 Apr 2013
13.41 0.5 4h1 Moskva 11 Aug 2013
13.42 2.0 1 Clermont FL 26 Apr 2014
13.42 -0.1 1 Linz 14 Jul 2014
13.45 0.4 2 Port of Spain 21 Jun 2014
13.46 1.5 1 Port of Spain 3 May 2013
13.46 -0.6 4s1 Moskva 12 Aug 2013
13.47 -0.5 4 Luzern 17 Jul 2013

Average: 13.40

AFTER 2014-15:

13.17 0.8 2 Toronto 24 Jul 2015
13.19 1.2 1 Montverde FL 8 Jun 2013
13.23 1.5 1 San José 8 Aug 2015
13.32 1.8 2 Walnut CA 18 Apr 2015
13.33 0.9 5 Lausanne 4 Jul 2013
13.39 0.9 2h1 Gainesville FL 20 Apr 2013
13.39 0.0 1 Cerritos CA 6 Jun 2015
13.41 0.5 4h1 Moskva 11 Aug 2013
13.42 2.0 1 Clermont FL 26 Apr 2014
13.42 -0.1 1 Linz 14 Jul 2014

Average: 13.32

Mikel additionally had 4 more performances that were just outside his top 10 list (ranging from 13.44 – 13.47) all before his PR race in late July. So he was clustering a substantial amount of high quality races – showing a measure of consistency that allowed him to run 2 of the 3 fastest races he ever has in winning Silver at Pan Am Games and Gold at NACAC. As evidenced by the highlighted races in 2015, Mikel did major damage to his top ten list and lowered his top ten career average from 13.40 to 13.32: A very successful 2015 campaign.

Stay the course

Hurdling is a very rhythmical event, and – as probably any coach has – I have had hurdle athletes get ‘stuck’ in certain rhythms in various seasons. They will produce roughly the same time over and over (maybe even despite showing potential to run much faster in practice). It is important to understand, though, that as long as they are within striking distance of their top 10 list, a breakthrough is likely around the corner. Hurdler Donique’ Flemings is a great example of this. I had the pleasure of helping coach her while at Texas A&M. In 2013, Donnie got locked into a rhythm for meets at a time, producing similar performance after similar performance – clustering all within her personal top ten list. She was searching for the first sub-13 race of her career.

Donique’ Flemings:
13.21, 13.15, 13.08, 13.11, 13.13, 13.08 13.08, 12.95PB … 12.85PB

Similarly Aries Merritt was ‘stuck’ before his World Record breakthrough in 2012:

13.13, 13.01, 12.93, 13.14, 12.93, 12.93, 13.07, 12.94, 12.92, 12.95, 12.97 …12.80PB

So don’t lose hope. Rattling off similar, high level, performances can be a good thing – and a sign of even better things to come. Both Donnie and Aries finally broke through. Athletes need to stabilize at one level first – before being able to jump to the next one!

Further investigation…

Numbers don’t tell the whole story by any means, but they are honest. They are documented proof of performance be it good or bad. They help illuminate short term trends, as well as provide longitudinal data throughout the career of an athlete. Clearly I did not provide an exhaustive list of examples. The dimensions to investigate are solely limited by your imagination and the historical depths you are interested in. We only delved into race result stats in this post; the analysis of race splits would yield whole new layers of information. Field events would turn out a whole different set of metrics ranging from distances, number of attempts and fouls – just to name a few.

While I certainly have yet to perfect the art of making time stand still from my bath tub (I could only hold my breath for so long), I hope I was able to provide some interesting information in regards to athletics. May this lead you to launch your own investigation into the pertinent stats that tell the story of your event and performance. I hope all of you have to continue to revise your top 10 lists many times over. Perhaps even my tangent will lead some to explore fascinating philosophical ideas behind motion and time, which play such a big role in our sport. Happy number crunching … and hopefully none of you feel compelled to lock yourselves in your bathroom.

Andreas Behm
Andreas is on Twitter – give him a follow!
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