He always ran all out at practice in the belief that pushing his body in workouts would make races seem easy. That's how the sprinter became a triple world champion in 2007 and later set the American record in the 100 metres.
But after several years of being hampered by injuries, Gay knows he needs to hold back if he wants to stay healthy — even if he sometimes sounds as though he has a hard time changing his approach.
"I guess it's the right thing to do, because I want to be healthy and I want to take things slower this year," the 30-year-old Gay said last week during a visit to New York City. "It's the first full season I've had. I don't want to rush anything.
"But I almost feel like I'm cheating myself, because you have to train hard in practice in order to prepare for the meet. I'm training hard, but I'm just not pushing the envelope right now."
His new approach is looking smart.
Gay put up a fast time Saturday in his first competitive 100 of the season, winning in Jamaica in 9.86 seconds, the best mark in the world so far this year and an impressive one for early May.
"He's strong. He's healthy. He's fit," said his coach, Lance Brauman. "Those are all a good combination for a guy as talented as he is."
Gay used the example of running a 300 in practice to explain how he's dialed back. In the past, he would typically cover that distance in 31 or 32 seconds, which is close to meet pace; the world-best mark in that non-traditional event is a 30.85 by Michael Johnson.
Gay now eases to a 34- or 35-second 300.
"I'm just trying to use the races for races and use practice for practice, instead of racing in practice," he said.
He has found some benefits to the approach: At times in the past, he would run so hard he couldn't finish the workout. Now he gets everything in.
But it can get frustrating when practice doesn't give him a good feel for how fast he'll go in a race. Based on last weekend, the answer is quite fast.
Brauman said Tuesday he wasn't surprised by the time based on what he's seen in training. Gay, who has worked with both Brauman and Jon Drummond in the past, is currently training with just Brauman in Florida.
"Just like all of us, he's gotten older; he's learned his craft better," Brauman said. "That's all part of it."
Gay's American record in the 100 is 9.69, set in 2009. He concedes that seems like a very long time ago.
His goal is to set a new personal best. If he does that, he'll likely be competing for gold medals at the biggest meets given that Usain Bolt's world record is 9.58.
Gay is set to run the 100 on May 25 in New York City at the Adidas Grand Prix. It's an event that always seems to mark milestones in his career.
In 2008, he could only watch from behind as the track world was upended. Gay came into that race as the reigning world champion in the 100, 200 and 4x100 relay; Bolt was the intriguing up-and-comer. Then Bolt broke his first world record with Gay a distant second.
In 2009, Gay set a personal best in the 200 at the meet. Last year, he made his return to competition there in the "B'' 100 after major hip surgery.
His hip bothers him little in training these days, hurting more often in mundane activities such as driving.
"It just takes a toll on you mentally, because you want to feel 100 per cent healthy in everything you do," Gay said.
He said he thought about getting an MRI but is just weary of doctors and tests.
"I don't want one. I don't want to hear the news," he said. "I'm able to train. I just want to go with the flow."
After missing out on bronze by one-hundredth of a second at the 2012 Olympics, Gay's goal for this summer is a medal at the world championships in Moscow in August.
A friend pointed out recently that Gay hasn't run the 100-200 double since that world championship year of 2007. This year's worlds could be the last time he tries it. He misses the 200, and there's a chance his future will lie in specializing in the longer distance.
"I'm trying to see if these old legs still got it in the tank," Gay said. "If I'm going to do it, I might as well do it now. I'm not getting any younger."Suggest a correction