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  • Writer's pictureJack Mullaney

Sir Alex Ferguson as a Distance Coach

Don't let the title deceive you. After winning 48 trophies managing Aberdeen and Manchester United, and being known as one of the greatest football (soccer) managers of all time, Sir Alex Ferguson definitely picked the right sport.

But the beauty of great coaches is that they leave breadcrumbs of tactical advice that can be applied in other competitive arenas.

As I read Ferguson's self-titled autobiography, I paused on a paragraph about how winning the possession battle - having control of the ball more often than the opponent - simply wasn't enough. "Possession without penetration is a waste of time," Ferguson quipped.

Simply controlling the ball, without pushing it up the field, was meaningless. If anything, it was counterproductive, as it allowed the opponent to get organized while the offense stalled. Only when the offense went on the attack, attempting to put the ball in the net, did having possession mean anything.

The same is true when taking the lead in a distance race. Taking the lead is like taking the ball in soccer. If you do nothing with it and continue to run the pace the pack was going, it's a waste of time. That's "possession without penetration," and allows those behind you to get organized and plot their attack. Too often, this is what happens in a distance race, and it has led to a fear of being in the lead amongst athletes and coaches alike.

Instead, runners would be better served to heed Ferguson's advice. Take the lead to launch an attack. Make the competition uncomfortable, and force them to decide if they want to go with the pace change (faster or slower, depending on what plays to the leader's strengths). Use the lead as a tool to play offense. That's possession with penetration, which is no waste of time.


To see this at play, watch Laura Muir in the 1500m final at the European Championships in 2018. After a pedestrian first 400m, the video shows Muir and compatriot Laura Weightman side by side at the front (4:30 mark in video), and begins to pan back to the rest of the field. As the camera is moving, it's evident the pack has been forced to make a decision, as some frantically scramble for the front. When the shot returns to Muir (4:50 mark), she has already gapped the field.

Granted, as one of the best in the world, Muir is one of the few (perhaps only) in this race who could employ that tactic successfully. That said, it's one thing to have it, and quite another to put it to action. Rather than leave it up to a kick, where everyone would still be in it, Muir took possession of the lead and attacked, negating any path for her competition to win.

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