Track Coach

The Decathlon

By Harry Marra

From the archives. This valuable piece by Harry Marra, longtime coach of Ashton Eaton and Brianne Theissen, is a good follow-up to the Frank Zarnowski interview. The article first appeared in Track & Field Quarterly Review Vol. 86, #2, Summer 1986.


This paper will try to highlight, in very simplistic form, all of the basic elements that need to be understood and put into practice in order to have success in the decathlon. When looking at the order of events, one would have the tendency to look at the event in a very complicated way:


  • 100m Dash
  • Long Jump
  • Shot Put
  • High Jump
  • 400m Dash


  • 110m High Hurdles
  • Discus Throw
  • Pole Vault
  • Javelin Throw
  • 1500m Run

However, a closer look will indicate that the order of events in the decathlon are really not that complicated. All of the throws, (shot put, discus and javelin) have some very basic similarities. The same holds true with the jumps (high jump, long jump and pole vault). A thorough look at the event as a whole indicates the decathlon is comprised of a series of events that require short, explosive bursts of energy. To be successful as either a decathlete or coach of the decathlon, these similarities must be the starting point for training. The last Olympic Champion produced in the USA was former World Record-holder Bruce Jenner during the 1976 Montreal Games.*

The 1984 Olympic Trials found 55 United States decathletes having met the 7625 (FAT) standard. It is very clear that we have better depth in the event than ever before; but, none of this “cream has risen to the top.” We in the USA need more commitment by decathlete, coach and administrator if we are going to once again produce an Olympic Decathlon Champion.

Harry Marra and Ashton Eaton

Athletic Qualities

Today a world class (8350+) decathlete is, and must be, a superior jumper, sprinter and thrower all in one. No longer is there room to have a weak event or two along the way. In fact, the newly approved

decathlon scoring tables “penalize” the decathlete who has a weakness. History has shown that the very best decathletes have been very fast, agile athletes with tremendous explosive power who had the willpower, persistence and competitiveness to survive in the face of all obstacles. Obviously, the first half of my last statement is a must if any decathlete is to find elite level success. But, just as important, is the second half of the statement that speaks to “desire.” Bob Mathias, a 17-year-old Olympic Champion in 1948, succeeded in the games despite many, many obstacles (15-hour days, rainy, cool weather and a pulled muscle). The same holds true for both Bill Toomey (1968) and Bruce Jenner (1976). The later two decathletes were probably the most “competitive” in United States history. All things being equal, the decathlete who “wants” it the most and is willing to commit himself toward this goal, will be the best.

Mental toughness and mental training are important for developing the successful decathlete.

Basic Training Concepts

Concentrated Training. Plan the training for the future. Once an athlete makes a commitment toward the decathlon, his final goals should be centered perhaps 4-6 years down the road. It is unrealistic to believe one can master the ten events in a shorter period of time. Spend the initial years selecting one or two of the decathlete’s weak events and center the training around them. For example, it is important for an 11-foot pole vaulter to master the event so heights of 15’6” and above become possible. Of course, once these “weak” events are brought up to respectable levels they must be developed further over the years. During this “focused training” time, the events that do not have priority must not be completely neglected. The young decathlete must train as a decathlete and not simply as a specialist in one event. Events like the pole vault, hurdles and sprints should be given this priority early in the training years. While at the same time filling in practice hours with the other events. As the decathlete becomes more advanced he can focus on 3 or 4 events, as he should be in better physical condition and have more experience than the beginner. The West German decathletes and coaches have used this approach with outstanding results.

Sequence Training. Development of the ability to achieve best results within the framework of the decathlon should be another target of both athlete and coach. We are all well aware of the concept of “specificity of training.” That is, try to simulate the final performance of the skill in all lead-up situations. The same would hold true in the decathlon. Throwing the discus in the decathlon, after first running the 110 high hurdles, is certainly different than throwing the discus while fresh. The legs have been fatigued from not only the prior event, but also from the five events of the previous day. These same relationships and others also exist within the decathlon events. A sample day of training using the sequence method might be as follows:

  • Warm-up Period
  • Long Jump Runway Approach and Pop-ups
  • Shot Put Drills
  • 400m Training
  • Warm-down Period

There are many, many possibilities here. Sequence training should be a very important part in the training of all young, inexperienced decathletes. The 1972 Olympic champion and then world record-holder, Nikolay Avilov, trained for years using the sequence system. An exact routine may be followed or another imaginative one can be designed. For example, decathletes can throw the discus later in the week in training (perhaps on Wednesday, Thursday or Friday), as usually their legs are fatigued at that time of the week.

Improving Condition

Running Conditioning. As indicated earlier the decathlete should not train according to the plans and methods of specialists in individual event groups. Hence, the decathlete should design a program to improve his athletic conditioning in order that all 10 events benefit. The decathlon is an event that uses short spurts of explosive speed in nearly all of the events. Speed training should be of utmost concern to the coach and decathlete. Again, do not overlook aerobic conditioning early in the decathlete’s career and then again early each season. This is important for maturing physically as a decathlete. Proper sprint mechanics, along with movements that can help develop sprinter’s speed and explosiveness should be used quite often in decathlon training. A coach can design programs whereby a decathlete is developing his speed and running form without his being aware of it. For example, long jump approach work is an excellent way to reinforce both sprint mechanics and speed work while working on another event.

As a matter of adaptation, decathletes can do two or three of their warm-up accelerations on the long jump runway as they prepare for the 400 event later in the decathlon competition. Not only do they get loose, but they also get a “feel” for the approach in the second event.

The pole vault event is another good way for a young decathlete to develop some speed work while working on another event. Of course, as coaches, it is imperative that we do not overlook mechanical efficiency of the runners as we work on speed development. The hurdles event is another example of this.

It is important to understand that speed is one thing, speed endurance (400 events) is another. The 400 event should be looked upon as a “key”:

  • The decathlete who is in good shape physically for this event will be well on his way to being in good physical shape for the total decathlon.
  • There is a tremendous “mental lift” at the end of the first day when a decathlete finishes the 400 with a strong performance.

We need look no further than Bill Toomey’s 45.6 at Mexico City in 1968 or Bruce Jenner’s 47.5 at Montreal in 1972. Not only did their outstanding times set them up for a strong performance on the second day, but they had a tremendous amount of psychological damage on opponents when they finished on such a strong note. High school and university coaches should encourage their decathletes to run a leg on the 4 x 400 relay at the end of each meet, not only to develop conditioning for the event but also to develop a feel for how to run the event correctly. Workouts which emphasize the 400 training program can be planned three times a week (usually at the end of the training session).

The 1500! So much has been written and theorized about how to go about developing success here that it is mind boggling. In sorting everything out, some very basic principles come to the forefront:

• Do not try to develop an outstanding 1500 runner in the decathlon at the expense of the other nine explosive events. This could be disastrous.

• Take a long term approach to the event. Do not expect a young, 4:55/1500 decathlete to run 4:10 the next season. That may be a realistic goal in 4 or 5 years.

The words “commitment” and “will-power” always come up in preparing for this event. More 1500 runs are done poorly in a decathlon, simply because of a lack of the aforementioned qualities. That is not to say that desire alone will get you down to 4:10. Take a logical approach to this event. A decathlete cannot be expected to put in 75-80 miles a week as some of our better 1500 men do. Instead, develop a solid, broad-based aerobic foundation in your decathlete and then train him specifically for the event. Example: At the end of the regular Monday, Wednesday and Friday training sessions, place emphasis on the 400 event.

Thursday can be reserved for specific 1500 work:

  • Run an 800@ 75-75 (2:30).
  • TaKe a 20-second rest and run a 400 @ 75.
  • Jog across the infield and blast a 300 all-out.

The acute fatigue that builds up here is tremendous. The decathletes may be totally spent. However, within 75 minutes they should be feeling fine. Two goals are accomplished:

1. The decathlete’s legs are not “heavy and flat” from excessive LSD work, which does Iittle if anything to aid the 1500 anyway.

2. The decathlete is able to experience first hand the sense of how a 1500 will feel in a regular decathlon.

Remember, it is Thursday and they are generally tired at that time of the week; however, encourage them to finish fast in that last 300. This prepares them physically and psychologically for that portion of the event. Many 4:40-1500 decathlete has improved to the mid-4:20’s with this type of training. Periodically you can use fartlek training and different types of intervals for this.