The fastest man in America is taking it slow.
Tyson Gay, one of the most decorated U.S. sprinters of the last decade, has been preparing to compete for Olympic gold in the 100-meter dash, the crown jewel of events in the Summer Games. Throughout Gay's early career, winning races meant pushing himself to extremes during training. Like that of many young athletes, Gay's workout strategy was to go as hard as he could, for as long as he could, in the gym and on the track.
"I've always done that since I was young," says the soft-spoken Gay. "It took me a long time to learn that I don't have to always run fast at practice and kill my body to produce good times at the meet."
Gay's new outlook is part of his natural growth as a world-class athlete. But it's also due to a string of injuries that forced him to rework the pacing of his training. "This year, I'm taking it a lot slower, saving my body and picking and choosing my battles," he says.
He'd better be ready. Gay knows what's on the line this summer. He's 29 years old. He's never won an Olympic gold medal. And he knows this may be his last chance to do so.
Bit by the Injury Bug
Before Jamaican world-record holder Usain Bolt took track and field by storm, Gay was the dominant force in the sport's marquee events: the 100m and 200m.
At the 2007 World Championships in Osaka, Japan, Gay became only the second man in history to win titles in the 100m, 200m, and 4x100m relay. He outclassed then-favorite Asafa Powell in the 100m and Bolt in the 200m; and he teamed with countrymen Darvis Patton, Wallace Spearmon and Leroy Dixon in the relay to complete a clean sweep of the sprint events.
Gay seemed destined to reach his peak at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. The 2007 IIAF Male Athlete of the Year captured the 100m crown at the 2008 U.S. Olympic Team Trials, but then he suffered the first of many career injuries.
"I felt a little twinge in my hamstring," Gay says. "It didn't feel good, but I figured I could tough it out and finish the race. I told my coach, 'if I feel anything, I'm going to stop,' but basically it was too late. As soon as I felt something, my hamstring pulled. So I learned to be a lot smarter and to listen to my body."
The injury forced Gay to withdraw from the 200m race at the 2008 Olympics. Despite claims that he was fully recovered and prepared for the 100m event, he fell far short of expectations and failed to advance from the semifinals. That loss opened the door for Bolt, who upstaged Gay's title sweep in Osaka by claiming Olympic gold in the 100m, 200m, and 4x100m events in Beijing.
Gay never fully recovered from the hamstring injury, but he occasionally showed flashes of brilliance, most notably in 2010 at the DN Galan Stockholm Diamond League event. Racing in the lane next to Bolt, Gay shocked the track world with a commanding performance and upset victory, handing Bolt his second loss ever in a 100m event.
Less than a year after that defining victory, Gay experienced yet another setback. This time, he underwent a combination surgery to correct a hip impingement and repair a torn right labrum, the rim of cartilage that surrounds the hip joint. Doctors had to literally shave down his hip bone, smoothing out irregular shapes and rough edges to reduce friction caused by bone rubbing against soft tissue in the joint.
The operation put Gay on crutches for the first time in his life, and it kept him off the track until mid April of this year, a few months before the start of the Olympics. When he awoke after the brutal procedure, it was exactly 13 months to the day from th Olympic Finals in the 100m.
It's the only event he'll compete in this summer.
Your Coach Can't Run For You
To get himself from the hospital bed to the track, Gay had to rebuild his body from the ground up. That's a tough thing for any elite athlete to accept, but especially one who competes in an individual sport like sprinting. "I have to stay mentally strong through the recovery process to know that I can accomplish my goals, because it's not a team sport," Gay says. "There's no teammate there to pick you up when you're down. You have to do it yourself. It's all on you."
After four months away from the weight room, Gay was itching to get back. Once he was cleared to begin training, he started by performing basic bodyweight exercises to regain full-body strength and stability (see workout) and to prepare his muscles for more intense training.
After completing this tedious but necessary first phase, Gay was able to get back to lifting like an elite Olympic sprinter. To support his increased volume in the weight room, he incorporated Abbott's EAS 100% Certified products into his nutrition. They are guaranteed to contain no banned substances, a key point for any athlete, but especially one competing in the Olympics.
Getting his performance nutrition in order was essential to keeping his training on track. Gay knows how eating right and fueling properly can be the difference between winning and losing. He says, "My conscience is free knowing that I can take these products and be fine, and that's what you want going into an Olympic year." He also knows he's setting an example for a generation of sprinters. "I want to run that fast and do it the right way," he says, "so I can be an inspiration to other guys and let them know they can do it the right way just like I did."
The nutrition helped him make steady gains in the weight room. By week five of the power-building phase of his program, Gay was maxing out with 350 pounds on his Deadlift—not the rapid progress the 5'11", 165-pound powerhouse had grown accustomed to over his career, but a positive sign considering what his body had been through. "It's not a lot, but it's a lot for me only doing Deadlifts for power for five weeks," Gay says, adding, "It's hard not to overdo it with the training, but I'm learning how to be patient."
The Deadlift, Squat and RDL were Gay's primary lower-body lifts during his six-week power phase. On lower body days, he performed Hamstring Curls, Leg Extensions, and Calf Raises as auxiliary lifts to help him get faster. "It's pure power. I have to really hammer the weight room," he says.
From there, Gay transitioned to the explosive phase, using the same lifts as he did in the power phase. "It's not going to be many reps, but it's going to be explosive and quick," says the sprinter.
After nearly two months of long runs on grass and up hills—"The purpose of that is to keep the pounding off my body," he says—Gay returned to the track, performing real block starts for distances of 30 and 60 meters. The goal was to enhance pure speed and train his central nervous system to fire faster when running the 100m.
If everything works according to plan, Gay will peak this summer when he's ready to run for the gold.
It may be unfair to pin the Olympic hopes of an entire nation on one man, but if there's one sprinter who is capable of dethroning Bolt, it's Gay.
Adding to the suspense around the 2012 Games, Gay's triumph in 2010 stands as Bolt's most recent loss, and the Gay vs. Bolt competition stands at 1-1.
For America's fastest man, the golden opportunity in London is not as much about his showdown with Bolt as it is about pushing himself as hard as he can to see just how good he can be when it matters most. Gay knows that in order to achieve his goal of standing at the top of the podium this summer, he'll have to be at his absolute best.
"I want to be the best," says Gay. "I want to reach my full potential. I want to leave this sport knowing I laid it all on the line."
Tyson Gay's Workout
Injuries have ravaged Gay throughout the last few years of his competitive career, and to get his body back to world-class condition, he had to start from the ground up.
Here are some exercises he performed to get himself ready for another quest to compete at the Summer Olympics. High school athletes can use these movements as a starting point for their track training.
- Stand on flat side of BOSU with feet shoulder-width apart and arms extended forward
- Squat until legs are bent 90 degrees
- Drive up to start position; repeat for specified reps
Coaching Points: Keep eyes focused straight ahead // Fire glutes to explode up from Squat
Tyson Gay: "The glute muscles need to be strong for sprinting, and doing the BOSU Squat really fires the glutes up. It also helps me work the stabilizer muscles to strengthen those smaller areas that don't get worked when I'm doing machine exercises."
Physioball Ball Sit-Up
- Lie face up with lower back on ball and perform Sit-Up
- Return to start position; repeat for specified reps
Coaching Points: Engage core and perform in controlled manner // Stay balanced on ball
Gay: "This exercise helps me stay stable through my abdominal muscles. A strong core holds everything together, and it's the key to a good start and a strong finish to a race."
- Perform Push-Up with hands on flat side of BOSU
- Explode upward to return to start position; repeat for specified reps
Coaching Points: Keep back flat and core tight // Lower until chest is just above or touching BOSU
Gay: "The BOSU Push-Up works the upper body and also helps stabilize the core. The upper body is extremely important, especially the shoulders. That's where I get my power for the arm swing."
Dumbbell Arm Swings
- Assume staggered stance holding lightweight dumbbells at sides
- Drive arms forward and back in controlled manner, keeping arms bent at 90-degree angles
- Repeat for specified duration; alternate lead leg each set
Sets/Duration: 3x10-20 seconds
Coaching Points: Keep chest up // Maintain slight forward upperbody lean // Keep center of gravity underneath body
Gay: "This helps with the trajectory and force of my arms going back and driving forward. By pumping a weight for 20 seconds, my arms are going to be more open when I'm sprinting, which allows me to get a bigger step and cover more ground."
Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock