Series18 Sep 2017

My greatest challenge – Allen Johnson


US sprint hurdler Allen Johnson (© AFP / Getty Images)

Four-time world champion Allen Johnson is one of the all-time hurdling greats. But the 1996 Olympic champion says that jetlag was one of the toughest barriers he had to overcome during his career.

Another place, another time

“The biggest problem I tried to overcome in my career was jet lag and trying to adjust to the European time zone, which I never did. So, to combat that I just used to stay on the East Coast time zone for the entire European summer. I would often go to bed between 4am and 6am and wake up in the afternoon. I typically didn’t run until between 8-10pm, which was about 2-4pm East Coast time.

“It was probably on my second or third year competing on the European circuit I made the decision to stay on East Coast time. I was always tired and then one day I said to myself, ‘why is it so important I go to bed almost 24 hours before my race and wake up 12 hours before my race? What is the benefit of that? As long as I get my eight hours sleep and I am awake when my race starts then that is fine’.

“Some people would see me up at 3am and would then comment, ‘do you know how late it is? You know you are running tomorrow?’ Yet many athletes would be awake for 17 or 18 hours before they raced. To me, being awake six or so hours before I raced was no big deal.

“To make sure I got enough sleep, all I did was put the ‘do not disturb’ sign on my door and turn the phone off. If I ever had to travel on a morning, I would take a nap.

“I would watch TV during the early hours, but also spend a lot of time down in the bar with the agents. It gave me a good insight into the sport and how they deal with athletes. They would also ask me my opinion and I would offer an athlete’s perspective while they would give a manager’s perspective.

“I have learned that people have a hard time wrapping their head around the concept (of my European sleep patterns) because they are thinking about the clock rather than the hours in relation to when they run. Yet this is what I did during much of my 15-year career.”

Steve Landells for the IAAF