Give me just a brief moment to brag – I have a strong finishing kick. That is not to say I’m the fastest athlete on the course, as that is almost never the case. It merely highlights that I have learned how to recruit my muscles and pick up the pace in the last minute or two of a race. There is plenty of science behind the finishing kick and many stellar articles about what happens physiologically, but I was never taught that as a young athlete. Nor do I think that knowledge alone will teach my athletes how to improve their finishing kick. Let me tell you a story from my high school years that might help.
Growing up I swam for Mount Lebanon Aqua Club, and later for the high school team under coach Tom Burchill. At the beginning of each season, Tom would have us cross-train (running and lifting) and start a swim journal for the year. From what I recall, most days would start with us sitting in the small wrestling room with blue mats covering every wall. One day we turned off the lights and watched the movie Without Limits about Steve Prefontaine. Another day, we ran hill repeats on Hollycrest Drive. I remember that day because I puked at the top of the hill. But there is one specific day I want to share with you and it has nothing to do with me. The story stars two of my classmates, Ellen and Ryan.
The afternoon began with us filing into the wrestling room after school with our swim journals in hand. Tom talked with us about “breaking through the wall.” I believe our assignment for that night would be to write a page in our journals about how we could “break through the walls” in our swimming. But first he sent us out to run our standard 3-ish mile loop. Ryan, however, was going to run a different, longer loop. He was a senior, and captain of the team, who was looking to get into one of the military academies and was trying to ace his physical fitness exam. So when we all set out for our run, we quickly lost sight of Ryan’s skinny runner frame.
Tom was strict. One rule that we all knew to follow was to run all the way until we tapped the high school doors to the pool. On this particular day, Ellen came running around the arts department of the high school and down the hill at the same time that Ryan was finishing up his loop. Ellen was petite, which made her seem a bit mousy, and she did not have a natural runner’s build. However, she was tough and had no intention of letting Ryan run past her. At the bottom of the hill they made a 90-degree turn to the right towards the high school entrance. Several of us, having just finished ourselves, were loitering nearby when Ryan and Ellen appeared, each trying to outsprint the other within the last 100 feet to the door. There was no time to stop. No place to decelerate.
In Ellen’s attempt to outrun Ryan, she sprinted full-speed straight into the thick, full-glass door, putting her hands out in front of her chest to stop herself. The industrial glass couldn’t withstand the impact when she slammed into it. When Ellen backed away, we could all see her handprints shattered into the glass, with cracks splintering to all edges of the glass. Ellen had quite literally “broken through the wall,” as Tom had spoken about in the wrestling room not an hour prior.
Ellen panicked that she would get in trouble (I don’t think she did); the rest of the team joked that she wouldn’t have to write the swim journal assignment that night. Tom instructed us that our new finish line for future runs would be the sidewalk crack 50 feet before the doors.
What does that mean for you?
- You can’t expect to have a finishing kick on race day if you don’t practice it regularly. Ellen was a distance swimmer, not a runner but that didn’t matter. She wasn’t training her muscles by outsprinting Ryan, she was training her brain.
- You can train your brain even when you aren’t working out. Journal about how you plan to finish strong, daydream about it, or talk about it. There are plenty of times when I use the clock as my competitor even when I don’t have a competitor next to me.
- Look past your finish line. Tom didn’t instruct us to write in our journals about how we were going to touch the wall. He asked us to think how we were going to break through it, which requires that you give all your force going into it.
- A strong finishing kick can make an underdog a serious threat at the end of the race.
By the way, Ellen won that sprint to the door.