How Josh Kerr Trained His Body and Mind to Win an Unexpected Olympic Bronze
1500m Olympic medalist Josh Kerr and his Coach Danny Mackey on the training, psychology and key workouts that led to him to become one of the best middle distance runners in the world.
Outside's long reads email newsletter features our strongest writing, most ambitious reporting, and award-winning storytelling about the outdoors. Sign up today.
What Josh Kerr wanted, quite frankly, was to win the Olympic 1500m.
But the bronze medal, to fans of the sport not yet familiar with the 23-year-old Brooks Beast, was spectacularly unexpected and, even Kerr acknowledges, a very big deal. Competing for Team Great Britain, Kerr’s 3:29.05 performance in the 1500m final in Tokyo was the first medal for the elite Brooks group headed by coach Danny Mackey.
“I have very lofty goals, and I’ll continue to in my career,” Kerr says. “For me, it was like, ‘I’m at the Olympics, I think I’m one of the best, someone has to win this thing, so why not me?’”
To a close observer of Kerr’s career trajectory, the performance shouldn’t have been shocking. Since graduating from college at the University of New Mexico, Kerr has been on a steep but steady incline to the top of elite running circles, dropping his times by a substantial margin season after season.
At age 19, he represented Great Britain in the 2017 World Championships where he failed to reach the semifinal round. He was back at the 2019 World Championships in Doha where he placed 6th in the final. Back in college at the NCAA level, his best 800m time was 1:48; this year that dropped to a 1:45. Within three years he has gradually improved his 1500m PR by 6 seconds — he ran 3:35 in college and brought that down to a 3:29 in the Olympic final. Earlier this year he quietly broke Sebastian Coe’s world record for the fastest 1500m ever run on American Soil.
Still, it goes without saying that the Olympics are next-level cutthroat competition and a medal at his first Games was a stunning surprise. Even if it wasn’t the color he would have preferred it certainly has glitzed his name in running circles.
Kerr, though, is already looking onto the next thing.
“It’s kind of like a monkey at your back getting your first medal,” says Kerr. “And so I’m really excited to get that and just kind of excited to get back to work. We have such a big year next year, with Worlds here in Oregon.”
Finding Fast Success with Brooks
Kerr’s group, Brooks Beasts, is based in Seattle, but he bounces back and forth between there and Albuquerque — where he went to school. (Originally from Edinburgh, Scotland, he opted for the opposite climate when choosing a university.)
After graduating in 2018, Kerr found quick success after signing professionally with Brooks and joining Brooks Beasts Track Club, led by coach Danny Mackey. Kerr notes that despite the distractions signing brings (often moving cities and learning how to work with a new coach) he meshed well with Mackey who has coached the group since it was founded in 2013 and has guided many athletes through the transfer.
“We were kind of a match made in heaven a little bit,” says Kerr of his coach. “I think we’re very similar in the way that we want to get to places — we want to work extremely hard, but we want to also just have massive goals.”
Kerr also believes that the trust the two have in each other has helped to foster an open, two-way communication channel in which Kerr feels he has control over his races, season goals, and ultimately general career.
“He kind of allows me to lead that conversation,” says Kerr. “He just kind of just pushes me and nudges me in the right direction when I’m making decisions. And so everything feels like my decision… For me and Danny and Brooks it’s like, let’s go and do what’s best for my career and how to get medals and, and, you know, show off the Brooks brand.”
Mackey thinks that the reason Kerr’s swift climb to the top has gone largely unnoticed may be due to the way the Beasts train.
“We do things a specific way that are really health-based first and we follow all the rules,” explains Mackey. “It’s really hard to get somebody to be in 3:29 shape all year if you’re doing that. So we had to really slowly build things up.”
For example, Kerr clocked a 3:35.78 1500m back in March. Not exactly the kind of time that would have had anyone eyeballing him as a competitor for an Olympic medal, or even a finalist. Three months later, though, he ran a 3:31.55. Kerr’s youth has kept Mackey from over-racing him, so every time he does race it appears to be a huge leap in performance.
Sure those times were getting pretty fast. But an Olympic bronze medal in one of track and fields most competitive events? “Things were leading in that direction, in my mind,” says Mackey, whose over rationality and meticulously scientific training perspective may have given him a clearer set of eyes when evaluating his athlete’s capability.
Training Keys to Continuous Improvement and a 1500m Bronze Medal
Even so, things can be “heading in the right direction” and still go off the rails. And they did to some degree with the COVID-19 pandemic and consequential postponement of the Olympic Games. Balancing exercise science, subjective art, positive psychology, and the power of community, Kerr and Mackey employed several training and racing strategies that kept Kerr on a progressive trajectory that eventually catapulted him to a bronze medal performance in his very first Olympic Games.
Set Controllable Goals
Kerr admits that he and Mackey began to lose some focus on their lofty goals when the Games were pushed back. Rather than setting their sights on a race-centric goal, Mackey decided that the new goal would be to run sub-3:30.
“He’s like, well, let’s just do it on the 7th of August, regardless if that’s the Olympic final day or if that’s just a random day that we’ve set a race for,” Kerr says. “That’s just been a goal for us for about two years. We just kind of set up the race to make sure that mentally, physically I was ready to run sub-3:30 on the 7th of August and that ended up being good enough for third.” And, not to mention, under the former Olympic 1500m record.
Balance Variability and Specificity
Mackey’s training employs a balance of variability (training different energy systems) and specificity (focusing on specific racing scenarios).
“Depending on the day or week or space we’re in you might think we were an endurance like volume program,” says Mackey. “Another week you might think it might be more speed-oriented.”
For the 1500m, this works particularly well, as the demands for that distance are predominantly aerobic, while also requiring power and speed, explains Mackey. “About 84 to 88% of his metabolism is aerobic metabolism. So we need to train for that, but a 1500 meter athlete’s got to be able to sprint fairly quickly.”
In Tokyo, Mackey says, Kerr didn’t necessarily need that in the final, but he did average a 55-second pace per quarter.
Mackey kept to his key training principles in Kerr’s training regime: variability, long tempo runs, and pure sprint work, while progressively working toward the specific race demands.
In the buildup to Tokyo Mackey used “key performance indicators” — business lexicon that Mackey believes is good language for professional athletes who have targets they are trying to hit. For example, from a general fitness perspective, Mackey thought that Kerr would need to be in 3:27 1500m shape in order to have a shot at medaling, and the ability to close in 1:46 — the split the leaders hit in the final 800m of the 2000 Olympic 1500m. Mackey had Kerr do a workout in L.A. in which he cut down and ran a 1:46 for the last 800m interval.
Don’t Change What Works
Mackey says that outside of those hyper-specific workouts he was prescribing to get Kerr ready for a championship race, most of his key workouts between the Team Great Britain Olympic Trials and first round of the Olympics were something that they would have been doing back in May.
“We didn’t really change that much,” says Mackey.
It’s this consistency that Kerr points to as a key to his long-term improvement under Mackey over the past few years.
“I think that the best way to just keep continuing to get better is to accept what went well and don’t do drastic changes,” says Kerr, noting that a better strategy for him has been to simply change the little things along the way while keeping the cornerstone aspects the same, like a mileage sweet spot. (Kerr runs between 65 and 70 miles a week.)
“Then from there, it’s like, ‘all right, what can we change?’ You just got to be excited about little bits of change here and there,” he says.
Pay Attention to How You Feel, and Take it Seriously
Before Kerr boarded the flight to Tokyo, Mackey says he was on a sensory upswing in workouts. In other words, he was feeling subjectively better in his training.
“The challenge is being aware enough, but the brain’s a better gauge of how you’re doing hormonally, nervous system-wise than any blood tests,” explains Mackey. “If he’s really motivated and he’s feeling really good, and if we did a blood test on him or some sort of objective test, he would test really well, probably.”
Key to keeping track of how Kerr is feeling, says Mackey, is making sure that his mind is in a calm spot so that he can openly communicate and athlete and coach can get the tasks done each day. For instance, a workout might appear like it has gone great on paper, i.e. impeccably hit splits, but if Kerr didn’t feel the way he was supposed to feel, an adjustment must be made.
This mindful approach is helpful in the racing context too, Mackey says. In the Olympic prelims, for example, Kerr didn’t feel good. Because they are always working toward the next competition, and practiced in evaluating what is causing his mind to send signals, they were able to identify what didn’t feel good, bounce back quickly and recalibrate for the semifinals.
The combination of objective sports psychology and “artsy subjective stuff” undergirds much of Mackey’s coaching philosophy, including telling stories.
Write Your Own Story
Kerr credits part of his leap in performances to an enhanced focus on the psychological aspects of running this season.
“I would say I worked a lot more on my mind, because it’s such a high pressure environment with the Olympic Games,” says Kerr.“I think it’s such an interesting sport and being able to work on your mind a little bit and being able to have those stories that you can tell yourself as your mind wanders. Especially when you’re nervous, they become a little bit more negative and they find little connections. So for me, it was like finding positive stories to tell myself.”
Mackey focussed on the idea of self-narrative storytelling leading up to the Olympic Games.
“We all do it, we have this kind of vision of ourselves of ‘how do we want to look in the world?’” explains Mackey, pointing out that for pro athletes that hyper awareness of public perception gets magnified.
Mackey asked Kerr who he wanted to be, what archetypal character he wanted to take on, within the context of the story they were imagining.
“He wants to be a championship racer,” says Mackey. “That’s what motivates him.”
Someone who wants to take on the championship racer archetype, explains Mackey, puts all his or her eggs in one basket taking on an all-or-nothing approach to racing. Either they are a champion or they are not. In Kerr’s case, that meant all his energy was put into the goal of medaling in the Games rather than focusing on performing well in Diamond League races so that he could have a holistically good season if things didn’t pan out with the Olympics.
Stay Open to Losing and Learning
Mackey encouraged Kerr to pursue his story, but not to the point where it would overload him and compromise his performance.
“I just was reminding him [before the Olympics], this is a story that you want, and so it’s going to put some pressure on you,” says Mackey. “I try to relieve a little bit of that, because we’re not a ‘win at all costs’ team, but we’re really competitive. Those might not sound like they go hand in hand, but I think they do. I think that a true competitor can handle losing.”
This, he hoped, would put Kerr in a position of both confidently aware that he was just as likely to win as anyone else, while also ready to accept that he could still lose.
“I wanted him to be really accepting of the result, because I thought that would put him in more of a flow state, and people tend to perform their best when they’re in that state.”
Kerr’s progress and success can be attributed to a set of characteristics — awareness, humbleness, and open mindedness — that he actively works on trying to better. Mackey acknowledges that, sure, those may be platitudes superimposed on inspirational posters and memes, but, he says, “they really matter in terms of athleticism” because they allow him to be malleable to learning how to get better and making the appropriate adjustments to do so.
“Those mental aspects of just knowing what you don’t know and being willing to have a trial-and-effect attitude are not as important as probably his VO2 Max or his power, but he does not medal without them,” says Mackey.
“God willing, if he can just stay healthy and I don’t mess him up, he’s going to win a title. And that will be why.”
Find Community and Run Happy
The less obvious X factor that has contributed to Kerr’s Olympic success is that the Brooks Beasts are on a competitive ramp, adding a synergetic boost to Kerr’s training.
“He has the advantage of getting these kind of looks [at practice] — if you’re thinking like fighter lingo,” says Mackey. “He’s got these looks at practice from teammates that are world-class. And that, I think, is a big thing for him because he can see he’s getting pushed and he’s in an environment where they’re trying to be the best as well.”
And they are all tasting success. This year, the Beasts had 12 domestic invitational victories.
Besides being pushed by a team that keeps getting better, Kerr also credits his success to his love for the communal aspects of running and openness to the help of others in lifting him up in his career.
“I have to be in an environment where I’m happy, I’m happy around my team, I’m happy around my family, and if I’m happy, I run really, really well. You just gotta run happy,” Kerr laughs, cracking up at himself having just spewed the Brooks motto.
Happy doesn’t necessarily mean content. Kerr has an obvious competitive hunger that is not satisfied.
“I didn’t sign up to this sport and work hard every day with my team and with my brand to be third,” says Kerr. “It’s really exciting to be able to take that back to Brooks and the team and say, look, you know, this is a start, let’s get hungry and let’s go after more.”
Kerr’s Top Two Pre-Olympic Workouts
Here are two specificity-minded workouts that Mackey prescribed to Kerr within four weeks of heading to Tokyo to prepare him for the Olympic 1500m, the first designed to build up his aerobic strength, the second, a combo of long and short intervals to hone aerobic speed.
Five-mile tempo cut-down
4 miles @ tempo + 1 mile at 10K race pace.
This cut-down tempo run starts with the first 4 miles at a true tempo pace as calculated by the Jack Daniels formula. Then run the last mile hard, down to a VO2 Max effort pace.
To progress the workout, Mackey says, Kerr will sometimes do six miles, with the first five at a true tempo pace and the last mile at VO2 Max effort.
Long intervals: 500s and 200s
A set of 500s with 75-second rests, followed by a set of 200s with 30 second rests.
Kerr ran this at altitude like this:
- 5 x 500 @ goal race pace (Kerr went through the 400s at about 56-second pace) with 75-second recovery
- 800 meter jog recovery after the set
- 5 x 200 @ 1-2 seconds faster than 1500m race-pace (usually 27 seconds for Kerr) with 30-second recovery
“That’s a pretty big volume workout, and it’s a very good specific session because you can’t fake it.”