Lessons from an Olympic Runner

6 Lesson from an Olympian


Every time the Olympics roll around, I like to reflect on what it took for me to make an Olympic team (2008 Beijing) and what I learned from that process. What might surprise you is that the steps taken to make the team are the same steps every runner takes to reach their goals. I use these lessons in the training of my runners to help them edge closer to their goals and wanted to share them with you.


I was blessed to have coaches guide me through my training from year to year and incrementally increase my training load so that I could be a better athlete each year. There was a lot of communication between myself and my coaches so that they could learn how I felt after certain types of workouts and mileages. I also kept a detailed training log so that we could look at the historical data of my training and learn what worked for me and what didn’t.

When you report on training to your coach or yourself (in a training diary), communicate not only your times, but how you felt during the training. You can learn so much about yourself by looking over past training and race results. You’ll forget a lot of the intricacies of each run so having those details written down and learning from your past will allow you to have a smoother journey in your future running.


It’s also good to have help with your mental training as mental strength is a big part of our sport and regularly working on it can pay dividends come race day. I worked with a few sports psychologists throughout my training, but what helped the most was having coaches that reinforced strong beliefs into me about what I could achieve. One coach would do this through sarcasm, “What do you mean you can’t run faster?”, which I reacted well to as that fit my personality. Whereas Greg, who coached me to the Olympics, would constantly have positive feedback and reactions to my training even if it wasn’t my best day, “I’m not worried that you didn’t quite hit the paces, you finished the workout and put the work in. You’ll be stronger for this.”

If you’ve never done mental training, you can make big improvements instantly. One key for runners is to block negative thoughts by turning them into positive ones. For instance, here’s a thought that many runners have when the going gets tough, “I’m so tired. I don’t know how I’m going to keep going.” You can think that and then add on the end of that, “But this is what’s making me a better runner. Now is the time when I’m testing myself and I’ll be stronger for finishing the workout.” Negative into positive.


As the years closed in on the Olympic games that I aimed to compete in, I was realistic with my approach and I knew I was on target to make the team. My requirements were to run a certain time and place in the top 2 at the trials to make the team. I had won the British championships the year before and had run faster than the required time that year too so I was on track. If I was 30 seconds behind the standard and had never made it to the trials the year before then I would know that I wasn’t on track and would have to re-evaluate my position and have a more realistic goal.

If we set our goals too high then we may end up pushing our body too hard and miss the goal spectacularly. Your training will tell you where you are with your fitness so adjust appropriately. There is a great quote from the 7th century Greek poet Archilochus that sums this up perfectly, “We don’t rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.”


During the summer months that I was racing on the European circuit, I was also working a full time job in a hotel. I would do the early shift from 6am until 2pm. This meant that I got up at 4am to get my first run of the day in and then train again at 4pm before going to bed at 8pm and start all over again. I adjusted my day to make sure that I had all the time I needed to get my training in. It worked really well for me and I ran better than ever following this schedule.

My advice is to plan your runs as part of your day rather than trying to slot them into your schedule. MAKE time for it, don’t try to FIND time for it. You won’t regret getting out for your run, but you may regret not going out to train and getting a step closer to your goal.


One of the worst moments of my running career came at the Olympic trials. I made a tactical error and kicked with 600m to go instead of my usual 250m, which led to me getting pipped on the line and I came away with a 3rd place. I wasn’t guaranteed a spot on the team now and I was devastated. The only thing I could do was find another race to run fast in by the next Sunday. I got into a race in Paris and had one of my best runs ever. My disappointment from the week before allowed me to harness the pressure I had on me and I hit every split perfectly and finished with a new PR and I was 2 seconds under the qualifying time. I woke up the next morning with a call from the selectors saying that I would be on the Olympic team.

We all have bad races at some point. Instead of dwelling on what went wrong and how disappointed you are about the result, assess what you could have done better and take that forward to your next race. We all hate that feeling of having a bad race so make sure you take the right steps so that you can cross the finish line knowing you did your very best next time around.


Like a lot of athletes before a big event, I think I pushed myself too hard in the lead up to the Games. Representing your country is such an honor and a responsibility that I probably wasn’t as fresh as I should have been in the Olympics.

Over doing it is such an easy thing for us to do as a lot of us think that the more you run, the faster you run, that you will race faster. Instead, I recommend that you stick to the pattern of training that has gotten you to great fitness rather than trying to do even more and risk burning yourself out.


These lessons are all fairly easy to take on board and adapt to your own training. I’ve done a lot of great things in my running career, but I’ve also made a lot of mistakes, which has helped me to see these mistakes being made early by other athletes. Because of this, Greg once told me that I’m set up to be a better coach than I am an athlete. That’s great to hear from your boss, not so much from your coach!

The Olympics are an exciting spectacle to watch and the perfect event to get you motivated to perform to the best of your abilities. Allow yourself to take calculated risks and learn from your failures. Make time for your training and be mentally strong. Communicate and reach for those targets. Be the best you can be.

Next: 3 Great Marathon Predictor Workouts

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Written By Greg McMillan
Called “one of the best and smartest distance running coaches in America” by Runner’s World’s Amby Burfoot, Greg McMillan is renowned for his ability to combine the science of endurance performance with the art of real-world coaching. While getting his graduate degree in Exercise Science he created the ever-popular McMillan Running Calculator – called “The Best Running Calculator” by Outside Magazine. A National Champion runner himself, Greg coaches runners from beginners to Boston Qualifiers (15,000+ and counting!) to Olympians.

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