Impressions of the 3rd World Javelin Conference

A British coach gives the Finnflier™ a try. He liked it.

A British coach gives the Finnflier™ a try. He liked it.

A series of fortunate events this year made possible for me a terrific opportunity – to be a speaker at this wonderful conference in the heart of javelin country. I’d heard about the other World Javelin Conferences and dearly wanted to go, but like so many, it was out of my budget.

 

 

Sport Hotel room in Kuortane, Finland.

My awesome room in the Sport Hotel. It had a complete kitchen and its own sauna.

But I was invited to speak at a weekend clinic in England just before the Finnish conference, so it made sense to piggyback the two trips. I felt very lucky indeed.

The conference took place at the Finnish Olympic Training Center in Kuortane (QUAR-ton-hey) Finland, about 3 hours by fast train north of Helsinki. It’s a somewhat rural setting with perhaps two dozen buildings ranging from huge indoor track/sporthall setups to smaller, specialized buildings for things like spa-type therapy. In the hydrotherapy building, they have a cold-dip pool. It’s cold – the water is about 40 degrees. Makes you tough.

 

Our highly organized lead organizer, Teemu Rauhala. Biomechanics expert Dr. Frank Lehmann is on the right.

Our highly organized lead organizer, Teemu Rauhala. Biomechanics expert Dr. Frank Lehmann is on the right.

Most of the presentations were made in a very nice, modern lecture hall, with seating for perhaps 100+. This was attached to the Sport  Hotel complex, so for me it was a 3 minute walk from my beautiful room to the lecture hall.

The organization was perfectly fine, with the organizers working tirelessly but always seeming to be relaxed and approachable for any questions that might come up. They were as accommodating as you could ever hope for.

 

As the time came for the first speaker, the distinguished Dr. Frank Lehmann of Germany, I got to get my first look at the conference attendees. A big group of javelin enthusiasts! Many nationalities and experience levels were represented. Many coaches had been sent to the conference by their home sport federation, but more than a few paid their own fares. Some very dedicated people, to be sure.

The conference language was English, which meant it was time to be impressed again with Europeans and their amazing language skills. Dr. Lehmann began by apologizing for his English, which was excellent, but he said it wasn’t so good because it was his 3rd language, after German and Russian. He was able to express complex ideas in English about javelin that are hard for native English speakers. Quite impressive.

Much of his presentation (the first of two) included technical discussions of javelin biomechanics. What they measure, how they measure, and what it all means were discussed in enough detail to tell the story but not so much that it bogged down. He talked fast to get it all in.

Dr. Lehmann famous javelin biomechanist.

Dr. Lehmann answers a question.

He was meticulously prepared and had tons of information. For such complicated subjects as this, you have to study the printed summary of his presentation. I’ve worked in the biomechanics world, and it was part of my undergraduate degree, but he lost me a few times… nonetheless,  of course it’s interesting and valuable to see what’s being studied and what’s being left out.

Duncan Atwood talking about javelin in Kuortane, Finland.

Here, I’m showing how a javelin flies.

My presentation on Javelin Flight was next. It was focussed on methods to help throwers learn how to make accurate flights with javelins and so avoid the trap of working hard to generate a lot of power only to give away meters to the competition by having an inefficient flight. After Dr. Lehmann’s talk, I felt like mine was a little on the light side, but feedback I got afterwards included comments that the audience appreciated the practical aspects of learning good flights. It was great to have my talk out of the way so I could just soak in everything else.

The other presentations included:

Olympic Champ Korjus and World Champions Pitkamaki, Parviainen and Kinnunen giving "Tanks" to Dr. Tulikoura.

Olympic Champ Korjus and World Champions Pitkamaki, Parviainen and Kinnunen giving “Tanks” to Dr. Tulikoura.

Medical Aspects of Training for Javelin – Dr. Ilkka Tulikoura, surgeon to the top throwers in Finland. He presented a discussion of the various medical issues for throwers. Lots of stories of big injuries and how they recovered. All the top throwers love this guy for saving their careers.  There was a big show of appreciation from some of Finland’s javelin “royalty”.

Aki showing the highly developed flexibility of this 84m thrower.

Aki showing the highly developed flexibility of this 84m thrower.

Technical and Training Discussion with World Champion Aki Parvianen. Aki doesn’t speak so much English, so his points were translated, but we still got a look into how he trains his European Champion, Anntti Ruuskanen. I noticed that not everything seemed to match – it seemed that Aki was saying one thing but the films show Ruuskanen doing something else. Maybe it was lost in the translation, maybe it doesn’t matter, maybe…

Technical Demonstration. We all walked down to the indoor track, to the javelin area at the end of the second turn. Aki explained (via translator) various technique points while the demonstrator athletes were warming up. I observed the athletes, well off to the side of the main area, undergoing a very complete and impressive series of upper body and torso stretches before throwing, like we used to do back when I was throwing in the 70’s and 80’s. Surprisingly, no mention was made of this.

My guess is that it’s assumed by the Finns that everyone knows how to do this, like tying one’s shoes. But there is a trend now, at least in the US, to do only a dynamic warmup and no stretching before throwing. My opinion is that the studies that say stretching is detrimental to performance are missing it when it comes to the big ranges of motion needed for javelin, and that eventually there will be a return to attaining that range (we used to call it “stretching out”), like the Finns do, before throwing as part of a javelin warmup.

Former World Junior Champion David Parker looks good with the Finnflier™.

Former World Junior Champion David Parker looks good with the Finnflier™.

The audience was diligently videotaping nearly everything, including each other videotaping each other. Lots and lots of posing for pictures, lots of postings to all kinds of social media, lots of discussions about those postings. One of the best aspects of this conference was how small groups of coaches and athletes would form to discuss some part of what we just saw, with lots of arms making throwing motions and sideways twisting to be seen everywhere. Javelin people doing their thing. I enjoyed wandering around trying to eavesdrop on what was being  said. But many of the groups were conducting their discussions in their native languages, probably trying to sort out what they’d just heard.

That was it for the first day. An hour later at dinner, groups of coaches would hang together, and a few were alone. By the second evening, there was more mixing and it seemed that the camaraderie was first class.

The next day, superstar Dr. Lehmann went over how all this measuring they do actually gets worked into the system of coaching they have in Germany. I was surprised to learn that, just like in the US, there are coaches who don’t like being told what to do by the biomechanists! But mostly, their system involves the athletes and scientists getting together to see how the progress (if any) is going. Dr. Lehmann said there is a big problem in Germany with injuries among top javelin throwers – something like 6 of the top 10 have significant problems. His conclusions included the need to keep injury avoidance as a top priority.

A few of the coaches there remarked that this information was interesting but it couldn’t help them much because they had no sport institutes with dedicated throwing biomechanists measuring trends in the training of their throwers. For example, in France, they have a sport institute with biomechanists, but all the work is dedicated to the pole vaulters, because the French lead the world in that event. In the US, lots of work is done with the sprinters. In the end, it seems to be a question of resources.

The next presentation was on…hammer throwing! Interesting, well presented, and possibly useful to some of the coaches there, but I thought it was an odd inclusion to the program. We watched some good demonstrations and heard a fine commentary and perspective by Olli-Pekka Karjalainen, Finland’s top hammer thrower for many years.

HiBarWipers1

Javelin thrower building core strength kipping on high bar.

87m thrower Teemu Wirkkila shows his gymnastic moves.

87m thrower Teemu Wirkkila shows his gymnastic moves.

We then walked to the Gymnastics hall for a fantastic demonstration of gymnastics for javelin. The demonstrators included 87m thrower Teemu Wirkkila. He and an 84m+ guy, guided by a former top Finnish female gymnast, put on quite a show of floor exercises and apparatus moves that showed top level skills and strengths. Everyone thought this was a highlight of the conference – useful, well-thought out exercises that could be adapted to athletes of many levels. The only hitch was that not many fully-equipped gyms are available, which is why the excellent floor routine was so useful – it can be done on any  reasonably soft surface.

Back to the lecture hall for a statistical analysis of the history of javelin results from major competitions around the world. Interesting patterns were revealed, such as nearly all the medallists in the Olympic Games were in the top 10 in the world the year before, and of course it was pointed out how the Finns have done very well internationally.

Our history expert Mirko Jalava in his Babar shirt.

Our history expert Mirko Jalava in his Babar shirt.

Our last presentation told the story of Julius Yego, the amazing Kenyan who taught himself to throw using YouTube in Kenya, where javelin  throwing is very poorly supported by their national federation. Julius achieved an incredible 4th place finish at the 2013 World Championships in Moscow.  I saw pictures of Julius in the year before finally meeting him, and thought he was a much bigger guy than he really is. This makes his achievements even more impressive. He’s also a very kind and thoughtful person – a pleasure to be around. He stood to have his picture taken with different coaches many, many times.

Fifth from the left, it's Julius Yego of Kenya and a few of his many fans.

Fifth from the left, it’s Julius Yego of Kenya and a few of his many fans.

The conference wrapped up with the 1988 Olympic Gold Medallist Tapio Korjus leading a discussion about improving the globalization of javelin throwing. This meant sharing information, organizing training  opportunities, and trying to find ways to get young athletes interested in the event. Like some of the other discussions, the big stumbling block was resources, but it got everyone thinking about ways to improve the javelin around the world.

If you love javelin, and want to be surrounded by other who feel the same way, this is a unique chance to immerse yourself in a very cool section of the global javelin family. Even the topmost performers and coaches are very approachable and willing to discuss everything javelin. And there was great wisdom to be gotten by simply listening to discussions of the average attendees going over the information of the day. The organizers did a first-class job, the facilities were as good as they can get, and I came away from Kourtane recharged about javelin in a way I wasn’t expecting. Highly recommended.

Developing a Javelin Run-up

Developing the run-up in the javelin can be a struggle. Done well, the run-up can add up to 80 feet to a throw. Done poorly, a full run can subtract distance from a 3 or 5 step approach. Many coaches and athletes deal with it by throwing from a short run most of the time then hoping it solves itself when the season arrives. Sometimes it does, usually it doesn’t.

We can think of the javelin run-up as being an amped-up version of the run-up used to kick a ball for distance. Both runs accelerate, both require a predictable number of steps so as to arrive at the ball or scratch line without overstepping, both have a rhythm with a final leap into the plant, both add power to the kick or throw, and both result in a follow-through. This comparison is useful because most athletes and coaches have enough experience with kicking to get the idea. Few have seen many good javelin run-ups, and even fewer have done it themselves.

Many styles exist for making the run effective. To allow for this, a system for developing the run should include “athlete determined” aspects of the run, such as the number of steps, rhythm pattern, and overall length of the run. As with the ball kick, the javelin run needs to be automatic enough to allow the athlete to hold the sense of the throw in mind during the run-up rather than, for example, watching for the scratch line. The athlete must have confidence that the run will truly contribute to the throw or bad things can happen at meets.

Here’s how to start:

  1. Select an unmarked grass field. In the beginning, extra steps are necessary and a grass field eliminates scratch line apprehension and worries about distance. Make sure the spikes are long enough. After a good warm up and stretch, have the athlete stand with the javelin already withdrawn and mark the spot.
  2. Have the athlete run up and throw. The run-up should be a build-up like that of a ball kick or long jump. They’ll usually ease into something like a final crossover. If necessary, acquaint them with the basics – upper body sideways for a few steps, with the lower body working to a final crossover and plant. DO NOT throw hard!! Mark the spot where they come to a stop after the throw. This is their temporary scratch line. Also mark the landing point of the javelin. This is not to later measure the best throw but to provide feedback about how effective the run-ups are relative to each other. Move the mark to the farthest throw of the day. It can be exciting for an athlete to experience easy throws going farther than hard ones. If possible, set it up so that there is no objective knowledge of the distance so experimentation is easier.

It is worth repeating that the run-up should power the throw; the idea is to get throws that increase in distance because of increasing the speed of the run-up, as the athlete continues to report very little throwing effort. A quality flight is also important, as is the plant. Those are big topics in themselves but sometimes they happen naturally if the run-up is in order.

Briefly, the javelin should fly at about 30 – 35 degrees and the plant needs to hit heel first with the leg at about a 50 degree angle. A slight knee bend is OK, a major bend is not. Post up and over the plant into the follow-through.

The path of the throwing arm is much discussed but is almost completely a function of the run-up. Most arm problems, in both mechanical-efficiency and injury areas, can be traced to the run-up.

  1. Repeat 2 as many times as it takes for the athlete to become consistent with the number of steps taken. Keep the start point the same but move the scratch line as necessary. The javelin landing point mark should be moved each time as well. This helps the athlete gain a sense of what’s working and what isn’t. The throws should be very light with the emphasis on smoothness, continuity of the run into the throw, and ease of throwing effort.
  2. Once the steps are consistent, the coach needs to count them, noting how many crossovers have been chosen. Most throwing coaches don’t have much experience counting steps and so don’t value this element of coaching, but it’s critical. The javelin is a runway event first and a throw second. You can be sure that in the other runway events very careful attention to step counting is basic.
  3. The next throwing session picks up where the last one left off. It is a big mistake to allow random run-ups to the scratch line, guessing at the start point and blowing over the line by 10 feet. Still on the unmarked field, the athlete needs to establish the “rhythm of the day” (hopefully not too different from the previous session, but it can vary widely in the beginning), establish a start point and stick to it, and repeat Step 3, striving for consistency while keeping a smooth, building run-up.
  4. After perhaps 5 sessions of starting with the javelin already withdrawn and some consistency has been reliably established with the number of steps to the throw, try establishing an initial start point about 20 – 25 feet back from the original start point. The athlete should now begin the run facing forward, throwing hand roughly by the head and javelin flat, to see if a drawback at the old start point can be established. This may require several sessions to reestablish the steps. Now that there is speed into what was a static start point, the scratch line will probably have to be moved, perhaps up to 10 feet further down the field.
  5. Other elements to vary are speed and rhythm. Speed changes need to be very incremental – if the changes are too large, it’s too hard to sort out what’s going on. Add speed until the control suffers; back off in tiny amounts until control returns. Then add speed in small amounts again until control is a struggle, then back off again. Repeating this process helps the athlete learn how the run-up speed influences the throw. Rhythm changes can occur spontaneously. This spring I had an athlete say that he felt like he needed to add a small, quick step before going into his final crossover. He was able to test it effectively because his steps were consistent. It worked for him by giving him a better sense of the timing of the throw. A coach can suggest a change such as this but knowing what’s going to work is trial and mostly error.
  6. Don’t forget the follow-through! As the run-up speed improves, the follow-through should lengthen. Allow this; in fact, if the follow-through is short after a long, fast run, it’s a sign of slowing down during the throw. The throw takes place during a RUN, not during a STOP. The follow-through can be two or even three steps long.
  7. Practice, practice, practice. In maybe 10 to 15 sessions, the athlete should begin to establish a decent run-up that can be tinkered with without having to start over. As throwers improve, their stride length will increase so the same number of steps doesn’t fit on the runway. Just move the check points back. I’ve seen throwers be uncertain about moving their steps back as much as two javelin lengths in a meet when they’re psyched and blowing over the line. Move the start point back three lengths if necessary.

To back up this development, javelin throwers need to R-U-N. I try to get my athletes to build up to 5 – 10x 60m of crossovers with the javelin. They need 10m to get going,15m to have a few bad ones, another 15m to figure it out (or I yell at them what to fix), then maybe 20m to have a good series before tiring. They need to learn to run FAST with floating steps while holding the javelin BACK and STEADY. It’s harder than most coaches and athletes realize, but it does respond well to actually practicing it. Add a backward lean and it really is a special skill. All the top javelin throwers make it look easy, which it is if you practice but not if you don’t.

The running crossovers also go a long way to strengthening the adductor (groin) muscles which are easily strained in javelin throwers. Additional specific strength is gained in holding the arms up and becoming stronger running with a torso twist. These are strengths vital to a comfortable run-up that don’t come from the weight room.

A few other ideas:

1.Hurdling. Set up four intermediate height (or lower if needed) hurdles down the backstretch. Have the thrower run over them, counting their steps. Maybe they’ll take 15 if they are runners, maybe they’ll take 21 if they aren’t. No matter – it’s great for conditioning and to learn how to count steps. The leap over the hurdle is like a crossover in the effort made to spring off the ground, and landing running is like the landing after the crossover – the athlete must keep moving into the throw. Javelin throwers should learn to hurdle alternating the lead leg; this creates a skilled, flexible, dynamic lower body so often lacking in javelin throwers. Make it easy at first!

2. Skipping. In Finland, children (most of whom are already familiar with skipping) are taught the run-up by skipping with the javelin and trying to put the skip into the throw. Like a crow hop in baseball, but with more momentum, skipping into the throw is an easy way for beginners to feel how to put a hop (the precursor to the crossover) into the throw. It is essential that any throw include a follow-through. Again, the kick analogy shows up. The final leap the kicker makes into the kick is like the skip or crossover into the throw, and a good long kick always has a natural follow-through.

Start with continuous sideways skipping holding the javelin in a drawn back position. Use the non-throwing arm to help balance and amplify the skip. It may take a few practices to get control of the point while skipping. Make sure it is done while leaning back along the shaft of the javelin. Then add a short toss as the athlete is landing from a skip. Make sure that the throw is virtually no effort and that the javelin flies through the point. After that is consistent (30+ good flights), the thrower can move to running into the skip with an easy toss. The run can be facing forward, crossovers, or in between – it’s the skip and timing of the throw that counts.

3. Exaggerating the rhythm. Add moments of hang time, quick bursts of legwork, and anything you can think of to get the athlete to add rhythm to the throw. The best run-ups have noticeable breaks in the continuity of the run worked into an overall smoothness.

4. Don’t forget the left arm! (Or right arm for you lefties) By being active, the non-throwing arm can really help to balance and smooth things out.

5. The javelin starts flying as soon as the thrower starts down the runway. Each step of the run-up needs to contribute to the smooth flight of the javelin. When this is done well, throwers report that all they did was run up and let it go. It’s usually the farthest throw of the day.

By training the run-up the way the other runway events do, that is, by having consistent start, check and finish points, the javelin thrower can add huge distance and improve consistency. When a thrower is confident that they won’t run out of room at the line, they can attack the throw, follow through, and then wait for the big number to come up on the board.

Hose/Sled Dragging for Javelin

The old time method was to drag a 50′ garden hose, and as you got better, add sand to the hose. It was stable, not too heavy, and the dragging length acted as a bit of a guide. Tom Petranoff did many many many of these, 5 x 50m-100m. Be sure to hold the arm high and don’t lean forward. Reach with the feet in front.

Others have used an overturned frisbee with a hole punched in the rim for a 20′-30′ rope, and weights (5-25 lbs) are duct-taped to the frisbee. Not as stable/guiding as the hose but ok.

The surface available obviously makes a big difference. You’ll want enough friction/resistance to hold your arm back but not so much that it forces you to lean forward.

Holding the arm up is a big deal – the rope/hose tends to drag it down.

Most track surfaces are highly abrasive and even frisbees will wear out quickly. The hose is the first choice.

Some coaches will run along with the athlete, holding a rope or bungee cord at the correct angle and providing just the right resistance. This also allows the coach to make form suggestions as they run along. Added benefit – the coach gets in shape!

This is best done after a throwing workout or on a day for drills only. If the thrower is new to dragging, it should be done as a warmup for a throwing session – but only 2 or 3x 50m.

A lot of progress in both speed and load can be attained with this drill, but it takes time. For college training, it should be part of the Fall workouts, 3x week, starting with just a few but working up to 5 x 80m by December. Once this capacity has been established, a maintenance program for the rest of the year will do. Twice a week, 4 x 60 – 80m is usually not too hard but keeps up the skill and training.

High school throwers have less time. Twice a week, 3 x 50m is about all that can be expected. It’s still enough to make a difference.