Last summer, at Paavo Nurmi’s birth home in Turku, Finland, a small group of rising Finnish track and field athletes got to meet Olavi Suomalainen.
Suomalainen is the last Finn to win the Boston Marathon taking victory in 1972. He competed in an era when Finnish runners were making their comeback in distance running. After two decades of lackluster results, the 70s represented a time when Finns earned medals at European and global championships.
As the Finns began to break records and finishing tapes, opposing coaches and athletes began to wonder how they had become so good. Was it the wood chip trails? Maybe it was the reindeer milk? We like to think it was the shoes.
In the end, there were no Finnish running secrets, just hard work.
Veera Perälä sat down with Suomalainen to discuss and learn what it takes to be a champion. She hoped to learn why Finnish runners of a previous era were so successful.
Perälä is gifted runner in her own right, a 3-time winner of the Finnish Youth Championships at 400m.
She has ambitions to compete at the European Championships, but she understands being talented isn’t enough to achieve her dreams.
As soon as they meet, Perälä begins to ask Suomalainen questions in hopes of understanding more about the commitment to running, but ends up learning something about life. In the end, nothing comes easy.
“WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE IN TRAINING BETWEEN NOW AND THEN?”
Olavi: I don't really know what is it like today, but back then we were training very hard, really hard.
Veera: What did you do? Why was it so hard?
Olavi: We basically did hours of training, twice a day, seven days a week. We didn't have any days of rest.
Veera: Did you do any recovery sessions?
Olavi: Yes, the morning session was usually for recovery. We trained about 8 hours a day, so it became difficult when I started to study.
(Olavi went to one of the most prestigious universities, Aalto University of Technology, to pursue a degree in Mining Engineering. He would graduate with a Masters degree and eventually retire from competition to become an engineer).
Veera: What kind of workouts did you do? Sprints or long distance runs?
Olavi: Mostly long runs, but during the track season I also had speed training.
Veera: I do it a lot, too.
Veera: Why do you think Finnish people haven’t succeeded in track and field these days?
Olavi: Can I be honest?
Olavi: Too little training.
Veera: That's what they all say!
Olavi: Everybody says that?
Veera: Yes, everybody says that… and it's true.
Olavi: I don't know how much athletes train these days, though.
Veera: Well, I do 11 times a week.
Olavi: You're still young so that would be enough.
Veera: Maybe, but 400m is tough as a Finn. In the 800m, maybe there are more possibilities to succeed internationally.
Olavi: How old are you?
Olavi: So you are a junior.
Olavi: At your age, I trained only 7 times a week.
Veera: Oh ok.
Olavi: So you're doing even more than me!
Eetu: What's your recovery training pace?
Olavi: If I ran about 4 minute/km, that was my recovery pace in training.
Veera: Wow! That wouldn't be an easy pace for my recovery runs.So how many kilometers did you run a week?
Olavi: When I was around 24 years old, we did 70-100km in the mornings, 120-160km in the evenings each week. During the hardest years we did over a thousand kilometers (620 miles) a month, and over ten thousands kilometers a year.
Veera: Oh my god! Nobody does that much nowadays in Finland!
Olavi: I know!
Veera: What do you think about why people might get burnout when they run that much these days? Or, is it that they are already broken or burned out so they can't run that much? (laugh)
Olavi: Hmmm, I never got burnout.
Olavi: My longest rest from running was during the winter season when I would only ski for three months.
Veera: Maybe it was different to train…? In the “old days” people were outside more and did a lot of physical activities. Whereas today, the majority of people sit in front of the computer and runners only get out after all of the indoor hours.
Olavi: Yeah, I think we had an advantage when we were young… Playing outside all of the time and doing all kinds of physical stuff helped make us strong.
Veera: Like harvesting?
Olavi: Oh no no, not like that! (laugh) More like baseball, football, basketball, and ice hockey.
Veera: I also used to do those sports when I was young. I think it helped to build a good foundation to be a runner. I was one of those kids who were always outside and never inside. My mom would get angry when I didn’t come home in time (laugh).
Veera earned her 3rd consecutive Finnish Youth Championships at 400m in the summer of 2018.
Veera: Did you always know that you would run a marathon and become a champion?
Olavi: No, no. I was into orienteering. In fact, I was forced to run a cross-country championship by my club when I was 15. I won. So, since then I started to be interested in running, track and field, and long distances.
Leaving the visit with Olavi, Veera had a better appreciation, and more importantly, a better understanding of what it takes to become the best.
In order to become a champion, Veera knows she is on the right path, but she’ll need to continue to mature with her training regimen in order to achieve her goals.
Hard work, discipline and consistency aren’t Finnish secrets; they are the common link for victors.
Becoming great means she must dedicate hours to her sport, week after week, month after month. Whenever Veera needs a little inspiration, she will just need to remember how Olavi focused on individual training sessions and the cumulative effort transpired in victory.