Justin Rinaldi: 5 lessons from an elite 800 metre coach

Justin Rinaldi coaches Australia's fastest 800 metres runners, Peter Bol and Joseph Deng. We talked to him about all things track and training.
Justin Rinaldi (right) with his star athletes

Justin Rinaldi is a bank employee by day, a superstar athletics coach by night (and on the weekends). 

A former 800-metre runner (with a personal best of 1:47.62), Rinaldi competed at a high level in the US and Europe. He says he stumbled into coaching by accident. 

About a decade ago, he offered his services to a young and very promising runner named Alexander Rowe. The plan was to help Rowe until he could find a real coach, Rinaldi told RunCreature. 

Those few weeks eventually turned into several years. And under Rinaldi’s tutelage, Rowe became the 2013 Australian 800m champion. At a race in Monaco a year later, Rowe equalled the national record of 1:44.40 (now tied for second place all-time in the Australian rankings). 

Coach to Australia’s fastest 800 runners

Justin Rinaldi now coaches Peter Bol and Joseph Deng, the two fastest 800m runners getting around Australian ovals. He’s also the founder of the Fast 8 Track Club in Melbourne.

I caught up with Rinaldi in June for a feature story on Peter Bol. We spoke about Bol’s training regime, what it takes to be the best in the world, and the challenges of being a coach during the Covid-19 pandemic.

We also talked about how the Fast 8 Track Club is establishing a high-performance culture in Australia, with Bol and Deng at the helm. 

Rinaldi gave an insightful interview. He has a deep knowledge of the sport and its history, and cares about his athletes. I learned a lot from talking with him, and want to pass some of that knowledge along to you. 

Here are 5 things I learned from Coach Justin Rinaldi:

1. A vital part of the coach’s job is reining athletes in

Athletes can sometimes be like the drunk groomsman at a wedding, who ends up giving an ill-advised speech. They don’t know when to stop. And that can potentially end in disaster.

The coach is the person who has the sometimes tricky task of corralling the drunk groomsman away from the microphone, giving them some water, and passing along some sage advice: shut up.   

Okay, this is a somewhat flawed analogy. But it’s not too far off the mark. 

One of the main things I learned from Justin Rinaldi is that coaches sometimes have to rein their athletes in and set limits.

It’s a slightly counter intuitive notion, for we often think about coaches as instructors. They set the program, outline key tasks, and tell their athletes what they need to do to succeed. But according to Rinaldi, they also have to intervene and tell their athletes what not to do. 

Rinaldi describes a session with Bol and Deng early in 2020. After the first few reps it was clear that any benefit would be negligible.  

“We did a couple 200s, and they were doing them fast, in 22 seconds. They both looked really relaxed. Then they ran a 47 second 400. We had planned to do more, but I stopped them after those few intervals,” Rinaldi recalls. 

“This is when I have to do my job, because as an athlete you’re always ready to do more, but the coach has to hold you back,” he says.

“When they’re moving along so effortlessly, you can do more and maybe make a fraction of a gain, but you can also get injured. So it’s not worth taking the risk there.” 

2. The group dynamic is vital to a high-performance culture

Bol and Deng may be the most accomplished members of the Fast 8 Track Club, but every member has an important role to play. This is partly because you can’t be at your best every single day, says Rinaldi. 

If his star athletes are having an off-day, or if they’re tired, they can show-up and feed off the energy of their teammates. And on those days when they’re firing on all cylinders, it helps to have legitimate athletes filling-out the pack and pushing them along. 

The group is important to creating a relaxed atmosphere, while establishing and maintaining the team culture, says Rinaldi.

“They can joke around and have fun before and after sessions, but they all know, as soon as training starts, that’s when we switch on.

“And we work hard.” 

3. Unless you’re a freak, talent alone can’t win you a gold medal. You need to be all-in

This seems obvious but it’s worth repeating. If you want to win at the highest level of international athletics, you cannot rely solely on raw talent. Your life must revolve around your sport and your preparation.

For Rinaldi’s athletes, that includes on-track training, strength and conditioning work in the gym, stretching in the Pilates studio, as well as managing their nutrition and off-track activities (to avoid injury and needless fatigue). Increasingly, it’s also about studying the competition, looking for tendencies and weaknesses that can be exploited. 

“A high-performance culture is 24-7,” says Rinaldi. “You can have all the talent in the world, but unless you’re willing to apply yourself and be dedicated; unless you’re willing do all the things that aren’t training that add up… it’s pointless.” 

“I don’t believe you can be ranked in the top 10 in the world and not be 100 per cent fully committed.

“I think the top, maybe, 30 people in the world have equal talent, but it’s the people who work the hardest, who commit themselves the most. They’re the ones who’ll be at the top end.”  

4. Self-belief can turn an athlete from a contender into a champion

As an athlete, Rinaldi stood on the start line with world-class 800m runners. One difference that set them apart, he says, was their self-belief.

When those next-level athletes ran, they maintained a positive mindset, and told themselves they were the very best. They believed they were capable of winning every single race they ran. 

“I could do some of the training that they [Bol and Deng] are currently doing, when I was running,” says Rinaldi. “But I think it’s just having the right mental approach, too. Being able to switch on at the right times, and control your nerves.”

If the talent is there, and the little things have been taken care of, then self-belief is the difference maker, he says. It can turn a high-calibre athlete into a contender, and even a champion. 

From a physical performance perspective, there’s only fractions of a second separating Bol and Deng from the World Top 10.

With their continued progress, Rinaldi believes their self-belief will improve and help them make the leap into that next echelon. 

5. Australia is on the cusp of having two 800 metre runners in the World Top 10

As a fan of Australian running, this is the most exciting takeaway: the formidable potential of Deng and Bol.

According to World Athletics, Deng is currently ranked 69th globally in the 800m. But he has been ranked as high as 10th.

Bol is currently 36th in the world, but was once the 21st highest ranked 800m athlete.

Rinaldi, may be somewhat biased, but he’s sat front-row to see their evolution and dedication to improvement.

He believes his athletes are on the cusp of greatness. 

“I think Peter and Joseph have the ability to be ranked, consistently, in that top 8 in the world,” he says. 

And if they reach and sustain that level, Rinaldi believes an Olympic final, and possibly a podium finish, is certainly conceivable.

To find out more about Justin Rinaldi and his squad follow the Fast 8 Track Club on Twitter.

Check out more RunCreature interviews.

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