Is Sir Mo Farah ‘The greatest distance runner of all time’?

Ahead of Sir Mo’s last high profile track race (5,000m on 12th August 2017) at the World Championships in London can he now be recognised in Brendan Foster’s[1] words as ‘The greatest distance runner of all time’?

How has Mo achieved this accolade and how can we as recreational runners learn from the master?

Defining ‘greatest’

Mo is amongst a handful of athletes to achieve the ‘double –double’ where both the 5,000m and 10,000m titles are retained at successive Olympic Games. Farah joins the ‘Flying Finn’, Lasi Virren and Kenenisa Bekele (Ethiopia) as the only men to do this, Lasi in the 1970’s,  Kenenisa in the 2000’s and Farah in 2012 and 2016.

Now Mo seeks to complete an unprecedented fifth double in the 5,000m and 10,000m, having won both titles at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics, as well as at the 2013 and 2015 World Championships.

Mo isn’t only an expert when it comes to the 5,000 and 10,000m – in the words of Neil Black, British Athletics Performance Director, ‘He’s internationally competitive at everything from 1,500m to marathon – which is such a unique spread of events’.

Whilst other male athletes may hold one or two British Records – (Linford Christie – 100yards and 100m, Seb Coe 800m and 1,000m) Mo is the only one to hold records in five different distances –  1,500m, 3,000m, 2 miles, 5,000m and 10,000m.

However, Mo doesn’t hold any World Records and for a minority of the global running community this is means he can’t be considered one of the world’s greatest. Ethiopian, Kenenisa Bekele holds World Records in both the 5,000 and 10,000m (2004 and 2005). In each case over 20 seconds on both Mo’s current times.

Another notable global great – Haile Gebrselassie has thrown down the gauntlet to say that Mo needs to achieve World Records in order to seal his place amongst the greats. Mo’s response is, “It would be nice to get closer to the record and the great athlete Bekele has both, but I haven’t tried too much. I’ve just been concentrating on the World Championships and winning medals for my country[2].

Steve Cram (1,500m World Champion 1983) offered one of the more nuanced opinions “Is he an all-time great? Yes, he is. If you win double gold at the world champs and the Olympics you are right up there. But can you compare it to Daley Thompson winning two Olympic golds, a world title and breaking the world record? I don’t know.” Cram also made another valid point – that “stacking up gold medals these days is a bit easier than it used to be because the world champs only started in 1983 and it used to be every four years”.[3]

For the majority, Mo’s proliferation of medals is enough to write him into the history books. So what can we learn from his blend of training, tactics and technique?

Training

Mo runs a whopping 120 miles a week, that’s more than a half marathon every day and he has no rest days. His gym training is both functional (think dynamic body weight exercises and equipment like medicine balls) and strength based (free weights and resistance machines). Functional training improves running biomechanics and strength work gives the power needed for mid race surges and the sprint in the final lap. A reminder for many of us that running gains are made in the gym as well as on the road, track and trail.

Mo is entirely focus on achieving his dreams, which takes him away from his family for six months of the year; a sacrifice which he finds incredibly hard. His early childhood experience of poverty in Somalia has contributed to his unfaltering work ethic.

 

Tactics

Mo’s proliferation of medals (as opposed to World Records) is due to the fact that he thrives off the tactical aspects of racing, as opposed to running for speed alone. He orchestrates and controls races. Hi gold in the 10,000m World Champs 2017 demonstrated his mastery where runners from three African nations (Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia) led attack after attack in attempts to take the title from him. Despite being on the edge of retirement Mo took a superb win and ran only three seconds off his personal best. That famous fall in the 10,000m at Rio Olympics could have been hard to recover from mentally, but he slotted straight back in and won the race.

Mid race

Mo controlling the race even from the back of the pack (far left athlete) during the 10,000m in the London 2017 World Championships

Technique

Mo clearly has a formidable endurance engine and he puts the miles in to maintain that, however in the last decade it has been his focus on technique which separates him from the rest.

Dr Jessica Leitch, Biomechanics expert, analysed footage of Farah’s running style for the Telegraph[4] to see what elements might be helping to make him so fast.

  • Midfoot running style – which reduces impact on the ground and reduces forces at the knee and hip thus decreasing the likelihood of injury.
  • Lands over his centre of mass – his shin is vertical and he doesn’t overstride.
  • Arm drive is powerful and helps him with that final lap speed he is famed for.
  • Spends more time in the air – therefore he doesn’t lose energy into the ground.
  • Level hips and shoulders driving forwards – no unnecessary twisting or side ways movements.
  • Strong forward propulsion – means he spends less time bouncing up and down instead his power drives him forward.
  • High cadence or stride rate – which enables him to pull away from rivals in the closing 600m.
1 On track with family

Mo celebrating with his four children after his gold at the 10,000m London 2017 World Championships

Whilst Mo will be sorely missed from the track, his next step is to turn to road racing. He reveals he wants to improve on his 2014 London Marathon performance, when he finished eighth.  It’s hard to believe given his talents that there won’t be more unquestionably great performances from Sir Mo for years to come.

[1] Foster has 40 years of commentating on BBC and is a winner of World Championship 10,000m medals in the 1970’s. Quoted in https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2017/jul/29/brendan-foster-farewell-athletics-backs-mo-farah-double-gold-world-championships.
[2] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/othersports/athletics/10249231/Mo-Farah-sets-his-sights-on-Bekeles-world-records-after-securing-double-double-at-Moscow-World-Championships.html
[3] https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2013/aug/16/mo-farah-world-championships-gold
[4] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/olympics/athletics/10309714/The-secrets-of-Mo-Farahs-success.html