By Eli Sunquist
The decathlon and heptathlon are not for the weak of heart. These events take years to master, and are usually undertaken by the athletes who are the most dedicated. You cannot be great at the combined events if you don’t have the hunger to be the best, or the time to dedicate to learning and working at all of the events.You cannot be great at the combined events if you don’t have the hunger to be the best. Click To Tweet
There is so much beauty in trying to become the best at multiple events… but it requires a lot of work, and can be extremely challenging at times. A high school sprinter or thrower might get frustrated trying to correct a bad habit, or feel like training is sometimes too mundane. A decathlete or heptathlete has to deal with that tenfold, as they are always trying to not just learn new skills (as a beginner), but also refine their skills across all disciplines.
To address this, here are five essential considerations when training athletes to succeed in multiple events.
1. Athlete Selection: Attitude, Commitment, and Heart
The ideal combined events athlete always strives to get better in each event, but at the same time understands the big picture. It is a long process and, as mentioned, it can be very frustrating at times. The adage, “jack of all trades, master of none,” has been said about decathletes for years, and it couldn’t be truer. Every aspiring decathlete and heptathlete should always strive to improve, yet understand they might never be the star on their team in just one event. The ideal decathlete or heptathlete should love the challenge of getting better, be there each day to work on their craft, and be quick to bounce back from a bad event or training session.
2. Designate Who Is in Charge
“Look at me. Look at me. I am the Capitan now.”– Abduwali Muse
There are many moving parts and things to consider when putting together the training for high school decathletes and heptathletes. At the high school level, your program might have one coach, or 10 coaches. I always advocate for one coach to put together the training for the combined event athlete. Different coaches can help the athletes out in different events, but there needs to be one coach or “director” who organizes the training. This ensures clear communication and expectations for the athlete.I recommend just one coach—not many—to put together training for the combined events athlete. Click To Tweet
When we train our combined event athletes (even during the high school season), we try to hit each event (or commonalities of those events) twice a week. This can be done in a two-hour practice, as long as it is planned out. “Go hurdle today” or “just go with the jumpers” will not suffice, as the athlete will most likely spend too much time on one event, and not come close to the balance of training that a combined event athlete needs.
The main thing to understand is that training for the combined events should be a planned-out process, and not something you just guess at. That is a true recipe for disaster. With proper planning and organization, the high school combined event athlete will be light years ahead of their competition.
3. Priorities: Speed and the Beginner
“I feel the need… the need for speed!” – Peter “Maverick” Mitchell
If you look at the events in the heptathlon or decathlon, they are all speed/power events except for the last one (800m or 1500m). Therefore, your training for the combined events must reflect the demands of the event as a whole. You should target most of your training for speed and power gains. The faster an athlete becomes and more powerful they are, the better they will be across the board. A faster athlete can sprint faster, hurdle faster, jump higher (and farther), and have more speed in the throws, which should lead to farther throws.Your training for the combined events should target speed and power gains. Click To Tweet
The neat thing about it is that the more you train for acceleration, speed, power, strength, etc., the more your endurance qualities will also improve. Proper training for all of the events helps out in the long run, for the long run. I have found that good tempo run training—as well as proper placement of “pacing runs” for the final event—helps tremendously in decreasing time, as well as increasing confidence heading into the last event. I always want my athletes to look forward to that last event: It becomes yet another opportunity to PR and score more points.
Every beginner combined events athlete comes to the table with strengths and weaknesses. Some athletes are stronger in the sprints, some in the field events, and some might even have a very strong endurance background. In terms of “strengths and weaknesses,” I try to work hard at the athlete’s strengths, and even harder at their weaknesses!
It may sound cliché, but there should be no event that gets a pass because the athlete is already proficient in it. You should always be striving to improve! As a high school athlete, this should be no problem for them at all.There should be no event that gets a pass because the athlete is already proficient in it. Click To Tweet
For the very beginning decathlete, we prioritize learning and development in the hurdles, pole vault, and javelin. For the very beginning heptathlete, we prioritize learning and development in the hurdles, javelin, and high jump.
4. Balance Your Training Plan
Cliff Rovelto, the extremely successful combined events coach at Kansas State, talks about the “3 C’s” in combined event training (commonality, complementary, and compatible). When you train for the combined events, your training needs to look at common parts across the events (e.g., takeoff drills that work across events, acceleration drills, medicine ball throwing drills, etc.). The training on one day needs to complement that of the next, and the types of modalities that you use in one training session need to be compatible with one another.When you train for combined events, your training needs to look at common parts across the events. Click To Tweet
I have found the best way to do this is through “high/low” type training. Many successful sprint and hurdle programs have used this method, most notably that of the late Canadian sprint coach Charlie Francis. We do something of very high neural demand one day (speed/power), and then very low/general the next. The two extremes provide clear signals to the brain as to what we are trying to accomplish each day, and this type of training allows the body to super-compensate after a workout, not just reach homeostasis (stability/normal resting point). We always take a day off each week (Sunday).
5. Know How to Manage Your Athletes During the Competitive High School Season
It is quite difficult for a good decathlete or heptathlete to make everyone happy during the high school season. Your typical combined event athlete will be good at multiple events, and a lot of times the high school coach will only want the kids to compete in their best events. In my opinion, if you have a kid who really wants to be a combined event athlete, you need to let them compete in all of their events (except for the javelin or 800m/1500m) at some point during the high school season.
They should most definitely do their strong events to help the team at the big invitational and/or district meets; however, they should be able to use the smaller meets/dual meets to compete in some of their weaker events. The competitive experience is very beneficial for them. Promising combined event athletes should not do the same four events every single meet of the season.
I always find it beneficial to have them do a sprint, a jump, a relay, and a throw every few meets. Sometimes this isn’t possible due to the meet schedule (or location of the throws area in relation to the track), but it’s a good guide. For instance, if you have a heptathlete competing in a lower-key meet, it would be a good idea for her to do the 100mH, LJ, SP, and run on the 4×4. For a decathlete who is a very good vaulter, it would be a good idea for him to do the 110mH, HJ or LJ, DT, and 4×4. He can save his PV for the upcoming invitational.Promising combined event athletes shouldn’t do the same four events every single meet. Click To Tweet
I like having my combined event athletes run on the 4×4, as it is a great “gut check” race, as well as a great training session hidden in competition. Finally, it is at the end of the meet!
The main thing to stress when it comes to planning for meets/season management is that you must keep the big picture in mind. If you understand that the little meets aren’t that important, and that you should use some meets as nothing more than glorified practice sessions, then you can go into the meets looking to always improve on the weaker events, and allow the athletes to gain that valuable competitive experience in those events.
I have provided an example of what you could do with a decathlete whose stronger events are the hurdles, PV, and LJ. In this example, the athlete has a small dual meet on Wednesday, and a very important invitational on Saturday.
Sample Week in Competition Season: 1 Lower-Key Meet, 1 Invitational
Mon: Block starts – 4 x 20m, 4 x 30m (some over hurdles), LJ technique, MB throws.
Tues: PV, 6 x 200m tempo runs.
Wed: Dual meet – 100m, HJ, DT, 4 x 400m relay.
Thurs: PV drills, JT drills, 6 x 200m or general strength circuits or strides in grass (depends on how athlete feels after meet) – i.e., easier recovery day.
Fri: Block starts over hurdles, shot put power throws (brief quality session).
Sat: Invitational – 110mH, PV, 4 x 400m relay.
Always Keep the Big Picture in Mind
If you can find the right athlete—dedicated to working hard with a goal of becoming the best—coaching the combined events is a lot of fun at the high school level. With proper planning, organization, and communication, the high school decathlete and heptathlete can be a huge asset to any high school program.
When you train your decathletes and heptathletes to become better overall athletes, make speed and power gains the biggest priority and they will have a lot of success over the years. If you keep the big picture in mind, which is helping them become great decathletes and heptathletes at the next level, you will see each practice and meet as just a step in that direction. A bad meet, bad throw, no height—you can see them all as just learning experiences on the way to years of success in the combined events!
Addendum: Sample Microcycles Throughout the Year
Skeleton Training Format (I keep this format the same throughout the training year, from September to August.)
Monday: Acceleration development (from stand, blocks, crouch, etc.), jumps (bounds or technical work), throws (medicine ball or shot put).
Tuesday: Throw or vault technique (JT for heps, PV for decs), tempo runs (runs of lower intensities, with shorter rests), general strength circuits.
Wednesday: Hurdles, LJ approaches, LJ work, speed endurance.
Thursday: Same as Tuesday.
Friday: Acceleration development/speed development, jumps, throws (medicine ball or shot put).
Saturday: Throw technique (DT and JT), tempo running.
Sample Week in General Prep
Mon: Acceleration development – 4 x 20m, 3 x 30m, 2 x 20m (2-3 minutes between runs, 4 minutes between sets). Bounds – (SLJ, STJ, RR-LL, standing 5 bounds) x 4. Throws – power MB throws – 4 exercises x 5.
Tues: Low-intensity technique drills – jav work w/MB and PV walking drills, as well as jump fundamental drills (skips, posture work, etc.); tempo runs to follow – 8 x 200m w/2 minutes rest @ 70%.
Wed: Hurdle drills, then 10 x 10 hurdles, low and close w/3 steps between. Bleacher bounds to follow.
Thurs: Drills as on Tuesday, then general strength circuits x 3 (30 seconds on, 20 seconds off). Extended cool-down to follow.
Fri: Sled pulls over 30-40m or hill sprints of 40-50m. Bounds and throws as on Monday.
Sat: Easy throws technical day, 10 x 100m tempo runs w/2 minutes rest @ 70%.
Sample Week in Pre-Competition
Mon: 4 x 20m, 4 x 30m, 2 x 40m. HJ technical work, SP to follow.
Tues: Heps – JT; Decs – PV. Tempo to follow (8 x 200m w/2 minutes rest). Cool down w/circuits.
Wed: Hurdle work (fast!), then LJ approaches on track x 6, 3 x 120m to follow w/long rest between.
Thurs: Same as Tuesday.
Fri: Similar to Monday, w/sprints, HJ, and SP.
Sat: Throw (JT and DT), 1500m/800m pacing runs.
Sample Week in Competition
Mon: 4 x 20m, 3 x 30m, 2 x 40m from blocks. HJ technical work, SP to follow.
Tues: Heps – JT, Decs – PV. Tempo to follow (8 x 200m w/2 minutes rest).
Wed: Hurdle work (fast!), then LJ approaches on track x 6, 3 x 120m to follow.
Thurs: As on Tuesday, some DT before tempo runs.
Fri: Block starts over 3H, hurdle hops 4 x 4, OHB x 4.
Sat: Competition – 110mH, PV, SP, 4 x 400m relay.