What Does it Take to be an Elite Short-Distance Runner?

Every young athlete dreams of being the best at his or her game. Think back to your childhood days and envision yourself kicking a soccer ball in the backyard. Each tree is a suspect defender waiting for your signature juke. You can hear the crowd roar as you sprint past each victim and net the ball into the upper 90 with no time left. You whisper under your breath as the announcer in your head yells, “Goooooaaalll!” The game ends and you lie on the grass almost feeling yourself being lifted off the field by your teammates as the stadium chants your name.

Okay. Maybe this isn’t the exact scenario that played out in your head. But you’ve had a dream before too. Whatever it was, it was glorious to you. Dreaming is fun, and instantly rewarding. But do you have what it really takes to become a true elite athlete?

Enter Jake Wightman. Jake is a highly decorated short-distance runner who recently won the New Balance Fifth Avenue Mile in New York City. He also won gold at the 2013 European Junior Championships and has won bronze in both the Commonwealth Games and European Championships, all in the 1500-meter event. At the age of 24, Jake is just getting started. He is dedicated to his craft and reviewed with us what he has done to stay at the top of his game.

Putting in the Work: Physical Training

Once a dream becomes a goal, the real work begins. This can be both daunting and exciting. Jake’s success hasn’t happened on accident. He follows a rigorous training schedule, with concrete workouts every day of the week.

Here’s what a typical weekly workout looks like for Jake:


Fast run. 8 miles at a 5:40 pace. Yoga in the evening. 


Hill runs. 15 reps of 75 second near-sprints up and a jog back down. Strength conditioning for 2 hours in the evening. 


“Easy run.” 8 miles (or two 5s) at a 6 min pace. Evening stretches and light workout of calves, hamstrings. 


Another fast run. 5 miles at a 5:40 pace. Additional drills and sprints. 


Easy run or recovery day.


Time-based runs. Strength conditioning. 


Long run. Up to 17 miles, but comfortable. A pace you can have a conversation at.

SO, if all you have written out for your daily workout is “Run,” you might want to take a page out of Jake’s book.

Depending on your distance of choice, the best type of training routine for you could be drastically different. While an elite marathon runner logs 100-120 miles a week, someone like Jake puts in 65-75 miles. Elite athletes train hard, but they also train smart. Make sure you are doing what is good for YOUR body and your type of competition. 

Staying Mentally Tough

If you are reading this article, you probably already know that the majority of athletic success comes from mental toughness. Naturally gifted athletes with raw, physical abilities will not last long against persistent, mentally tough, run-of-the-mill competitors. 

For Jake, it’s all about embracing the opportunity of a competition, staying positive, and remembering to be human. After you have committed to putting in the training time, every competition can be treated as a reward, a time to show what all that hard work has accomplished. For those that get nervous or anxious as the competition gets closer, Jake says, “You’ve got to remember the work you’ve put in…the race should just be the icing on the cake.”

Speaking of cake, another task of being a great athlete is remaining human. “Although it seems like [great runners] live the strictest lives possible, we’re also human,” says Jake. He goes on to say that runners at every level need to have moderation in everything. Never allowing yourself to cheat and have your favorite dessert or beer once in a while can be more damaging than helpful. Mental toughness is also about being realistic with yourself. Be dedicated, but make sure to enjoy life at the same time.

Maintaining a Positive Image

Have you thought about what changes when you actually become an elite athlete?

It’s probably mostly a waste of time to think about what you will do once you become a superstar athlete. (It’s like dreaming what you will do when you win the lottery.) You ought to focus on the day-to-day and what will get you there. However, there are a few things to consider once you finally “make it.”

As you climb the ladder of success, more and more eyes will be on you. Young athletes especially will begin to pattern their clothes, pre-competition routines, and attitudes after you. Jake Wightman gives back to the running community by volunteering at training camps and giving advice to those hopeful athletes that are hoping to break through. Remember that you are representing your sport, your city or country, and your friends and family. Being a “Pollyanna” isn’t a requirement when you start to get a little success, but remember, it’s bigger than just you.

If you are a hopeful athlete yourself, Jake gives some of his best advice to those that are determined to make their dreams a reality. “It’s just a game of being patient,” Jake says, “I guarantee if you stay with it and don’t do anything stupid or lose your head or lose your love for the sport, you will get the success you deserve from all the hard work you put in.”

So, what are you waiting for? Go out there and work hard, be patient, and never stop loving your sport and you too will find the success you deserve.

Listen to the Running for Real Podcast here:

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Thank you to Bombas and Bodyhealth for sponsoring this episode of Running for Real.

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