Alberto Salazar: Stay one step ahead in space race

Marathon legend of the 'old school' who keeps British runner Farah on his toes by using cutting edge technology. Simon Turnbull meets Alberto Salazar

Sunday 20 March 2011 01:00

For Mo Farah, the New York City Half Marathon this morning is little more than a minor skirmish. The major battle for the British athlete who has conquered all before him on the European front in the past two years lies beyond his first nibble at the 13.1-mile half-marathon distance on the streets of the Big Apple, intriguing though that promises to be. Make that the two major battles.

Britain's male athlete of the year intends to take on the world not once but twice at the London Olympics next year: in the 5,000m and 10,000m. In readiness for the challenge, the Somali refugee who settled in London at the age of eight has taken to the Oregon trail – to Portland, in the north-west of the United States – to be guided by the distance running guru who was described on the front page of The New Yorker in November last year as "a revolutionary running coach".

Alberto Salazar was born in Cuba in August 1958, in the latter stages of the revolution there, but was brought up as an American in Wayland, Massachusetts – the home town of Aerosmith front man Steven Tyler. In the early 1980s Salazar was the stellar man of the marathon, winning the New York race in 1980, '81 and '82. His time in 1981, two hours eight minutes 13 seconds, earned him the status of world record-holder, eclipsing the global mark of 2:08.33 established by Australian Derek Clayton in Antwerp in 1969.

In 1984 the New York course was remeasured and found to be 148m short, the equivalent of about 27 seconds. By then Salazar was wracked by injury and on the wane but he still entered marathon history as one of the all-time greats – and as an eccentric, given the lengths to which he ventured to legitimately maximise his talent.

While studying and training at the University of Oregon, he attempted to mimic the effects of training at altitude by rigging up a scuba-type mouthpiece that used chemical crystals to absorb oxygen. To help with muscle recovery, he experimented with dimethyl sulfoxide, a lotion used to reduce inflammation in thoroughbred horses. To ease tendinitis later in his career, he used a coffin-like hyperbaric chamber to saturate his muscles with oxygen.

"It's funny," Salazar says, giving a wry chuckle when asked what he feels about being renowned for his application of science, even more so these days as coach of the elite US distance runners Farah has joined at Nike's HQ. "I'm obviously someone who trained very hard as an athlete. A lot of people say I burned myself out. So I'm someone who's very old school in that regard; I know you have to train hard.

"Hopefully I've learned something from my mistakes, in terms of not repeating them with my athletes. But I am very old school with my athletes. I want them to run the maximum amount of miles that they can and stay healthy. There's nothing that replaces volume and running miles; no doubt about it. People should understand that we train very, very hard, doing the maximum amount of miles we can.

"I already know that Mo's high mileage maximum is somewhere around 120 a week. We're not going to change that. We're going to do more, but in a way that we don't get injured. We are going to look at other things, like weight training, and at maybe doing another 20 or 30 miles a week on a Hydroworx Treadmill, an under-water treadmill.

"When people talk about these things as gimmicks, I laugh. They have the Hydroworx treadmill all over the US now with professional sports teams. I was just the first one to start using it with a running group. It never replaced the running. It's just a way to get an extra. It's the same with the Alter-G Treadmill, the anti-gravity treadmill. Everybody said it was a gimmick when we started with that. UK Athletics are using it with their endurance athletes right now – and soccer teams and NFL, NBA teams. I bought the first four prototypes. Everybody laughed but now they're sold throughout the world."

Such space age technology, allied to good, old-fashioned hard graft, has helped Salazar's training group – known as the Oregon Project – make a global impact. Kara Goucher, who runs in the women's field in New York today, took the 10,000m bronze medal at the 2007 World Championships in Osaka. Dathan Ritzenhein finished third in the world half marathon championship race in Birmingham in 2009.

"Sure, we try things," Salazar says. "We've been experimenting with the Cryosauna, which is a form of cold therapy. That was referred to me by the number one NFL trainer in the country, a guy called Tom Shaw. He says his athletes are recovering so much faster with it, so we're checking it out. That's my philosophy. We are going to train as hard as anybody else, and then we're going to train more by adding things that don't get us injured. We're going to train smarter than anybody else.

"It's like in war. The soldier has to learn how to fight and do everything – be physically fit, be a one-man army. But you also try and equip him with every bit of top science – everything you can – to keep him alive. That's what we do. We use science every bit that we can, on top of old-school training."

It is fair to say he has been through the wars himself. In June 2007 he was felled by a sudden heart attack. He had no pulse for 14 minutes but survived to run another day – if not at the speed he maintained as a pacemaker for Lance Armstrong over the first 10 miles of the cycling legend's sub-three-hour marathon run in New York in 2006. "I jog about four miles a day; that's it," says Salazar, now 52. "Basically I just had two clogged arteries. It runs in my family. They put in stents and I get checked out every six months to a year. The doctor says I've got more chance of being hit by a bus than of having another heart problem. The heart itself is fine. The joke is that it's all in the plumbing."

As well as Farah, Salazar has also taken the leading lady of British distance running to his heart. Through the Oregon Project, Paula Radcliffe was directed to the strength training programme at the Michael Johnson Performance Centre in Dallas before falling pregnant with her second child at the start of last year.

"I never coached or advised Paula," Salazar says. "She went to Texas and got evaluated and came back to Portland and was put on a corrective exercise programme. She had a lot of weaknesses and imbalances from all of the years of hard training and injuries.

"But Paula's been training in Albuquerque and I saw her there two weeks ago. She'd been having a bit of soreness, so I brought down a special Shock Wave Therapy machine, which breaks down the adhesions and stuff. Within two or three days the soreness she'd been having for seven weeks had gone.

"So there," he says. "Another example of what you would call space age technology."

Follow the New York City Half Marathon from 11.15am today at

The curious world of Salazar: A glimpse into the future of human performance

Hydroworx Treadmill An underwater treadmill used for cardiovascular gain and also rehabilitation. Athletes benefit from the low-impact activity in a weightless environment. Burns more calories and builds more lean muscle tissue per mile than a land-based treadmill. Has been adopted by Manchester United and Chelsea.

Alter-G Treadmill Originally developed by Nasa to mimic the effect of walking on the moon. Uses an air-tight chamber to encase the lower body. Athletes can control how much of their weight they want to feel – down to 20 per cent, the same as what they would experience on the moon. Allows athletes to run much faster, up on their toes, with a longer stride, lessening the strain on the knees, hips and lower back.

Cryosauna More effective than an ice bath in speeding muscle recovery after hard training. Blasts liquid nitrogen into a neck-high "Space Cabin" cylinder. Freezes to minus 300 degrees fahrenheit. Takes just two and a half minutes.

Shock wave therapy Lithotripter machines, which were developed for the treatment of kidney stones, are used to help speed the healing of injuries such as tendinitis, shin splints and plantar fasciitis. High-energy sound waves are created and focused on the injury using a special pad, thereby breaking down scar tissue and building up new tissue.

Simon Turnbull

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments