Winter Storm Walda and 'The Zatopek Effect'

Winter Storm Walda and ‘The Zatopek Effect’

Springs storms can bring forth some unintended and perhaps even surprising results.

Parents find a new appreciation for schools and teachers.  “Man, after eight hours in the same room, my kids are truly annoying me. God Bless their teachers.”

Kids, bored to the gills in their stuck inside their homes, discover free and appropriate public education isn’t that bad after all.  Biology sounds fantastic compared to re-runs of Ashish Mafia and Teen Mom.

As for high school track and field, a crazy thing can happen after storms wipe out practices and meets: there are typically some big-time performances in the week following the storm.

That’s right, winter storm, Walda- you might not be as bad as everyone claims. 

Walda just gave South Dakota track and field athletes a nice mid-season break to heal microscopic injuries, refresh the mind and rev the inner engine in preparation for the second half of the season. 

South Dakota track fans take necessary preparation in your schedules: you could see some explosive marks when meets resume.

But what’s the cause for these breakout performances typically seen after extensive layoffs?      

Enter: ‘The Zatopek Effect’.

Track and Field historians know “The Zatopek Effect” as a sort of unintentional peaking phenomena that can produce great performances after an extended or unplanned break from training.

And who is this ‘Zatopek’ you speak of?

Emil Zatopek was a Czechoslovakian beast-of-a-distance-runner.  There was no comparable human at that time in history.   

He trained with more intensity and volume than anyone in the world during the 1950’s.  It’s well documented that he would do brutal interval sessions of 30 or 40x400m and the like. 

When the weather was too harsh to train outdoors, Zatopek would fill his bathtub with dirty clothes and water and run on top of the clothes to slip in some extra training.  He experimented running in combat boots, with his wife strapped to his back and even with a gas mask to make breathing difficult.  It’s apparent that Zatopek worked hard and that he was doing everything in his power to run fast and win races.

Zatopek knew no short-cuts and was notorious for punishing his body more than normal humans could even fathom.  

And the training worked.

Zatopek won the 5,000 and 10,000 meters at the Helsinki Games in 1952, setting Olympic records in both events. 

Last minute, before the final Olympic event (the Marathon), the Czech governing body said, “Hey Zatopek, run the marathon.”

He did.

He won.

He set another Olympic Record. 

Like most distance runners (or any driven track and field athlete), Zatopek wanted nothing more than to out-work the tar out of everyone else.  More work, at a faster pace, more often than his competition.  The red badge of courage of training.

In 1950 (before his Olympic exploits, actually), Zatopek became very sick before the European Games- the peak event for European track and field athletes. 

The doctors finally release him from the hospital just two days before the Games are to start. 

What happens next will forever be known as ‘The Zatopek Effect’.

With literally no running what-so-ever in the previous ten days before the European Games, Zatopek goes on a rampage, crushing the rest of Europe in the 5,000 and 10,000 meter events. 

He won the 5,000 meters by 23 seconds and he lapped THE FIELD in the 10,000 meters.  His performances for the 5,000 and 10,000 meters were the second fastest ever recorded.

What became of the absolutely stunning; and surprising performances is known as the Zatopek Effect- the human body achieving super-compensation from a psychotic workload and performing at a new, extremely-elevated level.

How’s that for a peaking plan?  

Spring storms, like Ms. Walda, can bring upon ‘The Zatopek’ effect for track and field athletes.

We’ve all had or seen athletes perform big when we didn’t expect it after an extended layoff.


If you’re a driven athlete, there’s a decent chance that you’re probably red-lining it.  You probably do a little more than you should.  And you’re probably doing it faster than needed.


The message to be taken from ‘The Zatopek Effect’ isn’t that you sit around all day eating Cheetos and end up blasting a new Personal Best.  That’s not really how it works.  But hammering yourself into the ground every day isn’t effective either.


The message behind the story is that, regardless of what you think, a couple of days off won’t ruin your track season. 


Maybe you were like Zatopek and went a little too far into the deep end of your training this season.  Maybe you needed the correct mixture of stress and rest, and Mother Nature stepped in and put a fix on your mix.  


So, if you set a few new PR’s in the next couple of weeks, thank Walda. 


And don’t forget about Zatopek, either.




Editor’s Note:

Emil Zatopek died in 2000.  Here is a great story from the Sports Illustrated Vault telling of Zatopek’s life and conquests.