By Carl Valle
Recently I had the great privilege of listening to Boo Schexnayder, one of the godfathers of modern track and field. Most coaches are aware of Boo’s impressive results at Louisiana State University, and of his great educational treats at conferences. One of my favorite documents is his PDF on strength and power construction, as he was a top jumps and multi coach at LSU. If I had to count on one hand the coaches who have influenced me the most, Boo is on that list. I have known him since 1998, and it’s amazing to see that his is craft even better 17 years later.
To say this was the best workshop I have attended in the last decade is an understatement. It’s one of the best of my life—period. What I learned was a major life milestone as every word resonated with me. All his statements were enlightening and rich in both clarity and value. If you have not attended one of Boo’s presentations, go to his website—after reading this review, of course. If you coach a college or professional team, bring him in for a day and have your brain explode.
Boo’s strength is his ability to take very complicated and even unknown phenomena in sport and make them clear without dumbing down. This presentation was packed with straightforward information and supplemented with real stories illustrating concepts that matter. I sometimes attend presentations with a lot of crap and nonsense, loaded with stock photos of abstract images. We need less exotic and “cool-sounding” trendy theories and more concrete, results-proven principles. I embrace the idea of thinking outside the box and general reading to become well-rounded, but most of the rubbish I am seeing is clickbait content to get attention rather than to enlighten. Many high-level coaches use the latest “book of the month” to distract readers in order to hide. Listening to Boo is revitalizing, as many coaches have become used to smelling BS for so long that the fresh outdoors is an unknown scent.
I will share what popped into my head and bet the farm that everyone in speed and power sports will find both some awesome information they can use “on Monday” and major principles they can use for the rest of their careers. The following four key concepts are enough to satisfy anyone who wasn’t present at the workshop. He covered other important elements, but I prefer to get into more depth rather than play around at the surface level.
Treating Speed as a Priority
Boo began with what must frustrate him—people want to get faster but when it comes to committing to change they don’t put their money where their mouth is. One of the great parts about the LSU scoring table—a series of benchmarks in speed and power—is that while numbers are not everything, objective improvement has a lot of merit. Not measuring important changes is putting your head in the sand and hoping for things to work out.
Speed development is a daily street fight, as every session is a constant battle to get what helps improve an athlete done. Anything will work at early levels—even getting older in high school—but as athletes have a few years under their belts genetics become stubborn. Boo recounted how people ask for help, and he shares his wisdom, but they veer off the path and fail to improve because the priority is lost. My concern with GPS use is the lack of understanding of speed development rather than looking for fatigue. If athletes are losing speed globally and generally, coaches often yield to the temptation to rest instead of making the program smarter.
In 2003, a debate between Tom Tellez’s work and vertical integration emerged. The terminology S2L (short to long) and L2S (long to short) was all the rage. Since I was part of the christening of the content (read the Forum Review), I am to blame for some of the confusion. The idea of doing short sprints and building out length is 100 years old. The refinement started in the 1960s and 1970s with Gerard Mach and other great coaches. Focusing on short sprints and extending the distance over time is a poor summary of a training program and I was wrong several times.Reducing a running or sprinting program to distance-only is misleading. Click To Tweet
Nobody does a pure program, and reducing a running or sprinting program to distance-only is misleading. Progressions in distance are interesting, but many L2S programs do block work that is fast early in the season—and categorize it as technical work! Just because one is focusing on changing one part of a quality doesn’t mean other qualities are not improving or interfering with a development process. I have been burnt since the 1990s thinking that getting copies of workouts and visiting coaches was enough to decode training programs. I am now 38, far removed from the 22-year-old wanting to see what made Mo Greene great. Beyond hunches, I still don’t know why some of my athletes fail to improve or break school records.
- In addition to the taxonomy of training challenges, non-visual changes to the body from underlying neuromuscular systems are a factor. An example is programs that work on strength and power in the weight room while doing general conditioning runs coupled with plyometrics. A running program that stays the same and slowly speeds up is not S2L, but the plyometric program and weights still affect acceleration abilities.
- A good perspective is thinking about how acceleration is always included in any running program. A slow tempo session using fast acceleration may not achieve fast top-end velocities. The first 15-30m at 90% effort before striding out at 16-second 100s isn’t about length; it’s about what happens in the distance. I think as we start looking at what people actually do from a body velocity perspective per repetition, we can discern more. Otherwise, it’s a labeling problem we will continue to suffer.
- I like the simplicity of P.J. Vazel’s 2008 presentation on his training of African 100m record-holder Olusoji Fasuba. He urged coaches to focus on tallying what people do regarding themes and type of work, rather than on periodization or training theory. When training theory takes over the conversation, people tend to forget it’s not about secondary relationships rather than the primary influences of the work done.
- Most coaches know the value of short sprinting reducing risks to soft tissue, specifically the hamstrings. I like Boo’s suggestion that three-point or crouch starts help fold the hip joint and encourage an unfolding action to preserve the knee joint. I do more standing starts as I find them to be beneficial to testing though I may throttle down with soccer next year.
- Multi-throws encourage unfolding but only if coached correctly. Countless people perform medicine ball throws, but the timing sequence is very difficult to pick up with the naked eye. Only 1 of 100 coaches is blessed with great vision to see this, and usually, the other 99% have egos that make them unaware they are not gifted. I have done EMG, motion capture, force plates, and embedded sensor medicine balls. Many athletes don’t create a summation of forces correctly. It takes time and many either don’t do enough reps or spend a lot of time doing junk reps of the wrong stuff.
It makes sense to count the speed sessions of actual sprinting and ask, did one devote time and effort to getting faster? Conditioning is often neglected and I understand how just being fit matters, but Boo calls junk running without being prepared “piling on overuse rather than contrasting.” Coaches doing tempo running are not idiots, but they must be careful not to do too much. Boo suggests general circuit-style training to improve fitness by distributing the stress in non-specific forms rather than orthopedically overloading the body with movement stereotypes.
The Need to Contrast Training
A recurring theme is long competitive phases and short preparation periods. The problem with modern sport is the cultural and economic challenge of facing the plight of over-competing and underpreparing. A good solution and valuable principle are to factor in what the athlete is getting from competition and see what can be contrasted with training. Two primary challenges exist: the need to support competition with intensity, and the lack of time to do it. What usually happens—especially in the NBA—is a focus on recovery and regeneration when the problem is that athletes are not contrasting. Maybe the GMs should hire the players’ moms to help with recovery. That way, athletes can be spoon-fed the right nutrition and get tucked in at night. While “parental guardians” is a bad joke by some NBA coaches, the real challenge smart coaches face is getting athletes to train hard before and during the season in the weight room.
At the USATF Level 2 School in 1998, Boo suggested doing more vegetative work with circuit-style wellness routines. Recently Dr. Mike Stone brought up on Twitter that circuit training was only for adult fitness or sissies. He is right because circuit training is not a primary stimulus. It plays more of a supportive role. Vegetative work can be thought of as parasympathetic-type activity, and circuit-style training elicits a rhythmic pulse to the body. Circuits are old methods of organizing fitness, and Boo has suggested them as a way to replace the need for tempo training or repeat grass running.
My point of contention is that while many talented athletes run gracefully, others don’t have their stride fall into place by just doing speed work. I am a middle-ground guy who feels it’s good to do tempo running once a week during the season and doesn’t cut it out unless athletes have a good stride. Pure sprinters don’t need to worry about running fitness, but 400m runners need it as no sub-44 man has come from a diet of circuits only. Soccer and longer endurance sports shouldn’t learn from sprint programs that remove running, as it’s not translatable.
Boo explained that to increase the intensity of work, one has to reduce the number of quality sessions so the power or speed can rise from resting enough. In addition, increasing lower-intensity sessions similar to the CFTS theory makes sense, since the absolute quality forces coaches to be more patient when deciding to go hard again.
Back to the earlier statement about standing versus crouched or three-point starts—big hip ranges and large amplitudes can help contrast shorter specific work. I still think multi-throws are excellent vehicles for range of motion, but due to the ballistic contractions, I don’t see how they coordinate the “rebooting” characteristics discussed in some circles. Doing explosive work on recovery or lower intensity days is possible, but only so many elite athletes have the capacity to do other people’s workouts as their “easy” day.
Squatting and Olympic lifting (which Boo calls “harmonizing agents”) percentages are very touchy, and it was interesting to see the number of repetitions and the loading Boo utilizes. I think Boo’s idea of summarizing training as types of tension work is important. Lifting after high intensity sprinting and plyometrics may work with lesser loading once an athlete has achieved the 180–200-kilo squatting milestone (75-85 kilo-size athlete).
In 2006, Gary Winckler presented an amazing finding on effective ways to increase the impact of training programs by listing contrasting ideas to increase the penetration of a stimulus. I have used his groupings and found the results were stronger in the long run than potentiation work, as entire seasons of great training are better than a few sessions of specialized weight or speed work.
Lactate Training Design
In the 1980s, the ASCA world books highlighted some awesome concepts on lactate, and recently some coaches have taken a strange stance on the interpretation of Martin Gibala’s studies with acidosis and fatigue. Since about 2006, several blogs and online and print articles have promoted “cargo cult” science nonsense and delayed the evolution of conditioning. Additional questionable sources of information on the aerobic system have caused coaches to attempt workouts that no human being, not even the elite, can successfully improve from.
Lactate conjures up a lot of misinformation. Some people think it’s a near-potent biochemical response while others seem like they think blood is going to melt one’s muscles like the movie Alien if the workouts are too hard. Of all Boo’s concepts, this one needs some contextual background and an understanding of the endocrine system beyond basic physiology books.Lactate is not good or evil; it’s just a KPI of response to training. Click To Tweet
Many coaches don’t know how to condition the explosive athlete, as conferences often bring endurance gurus and hope the Ironman expert will somehow find a way to connect his or her experiences with fourth quarter fatigue in the NFL or NCAA football. All of the crap out there is based on nearly useless information unless one understands the continuum and figures a way to extract the good grain from the chaff. Most adaptations are invisible to the naked eye and must be taken with a grain of salt. But just because the adaptations are invisible doesn’t mean they are not happening. Because they are not observable, that creates space for guru nonsense. Here are some less-explored areas talked about on social media. When publicly asked to elaborate, the pundits escape or suddenly become busy:
- Ventricle hypertrophy
- Enzyme induction development
- Mitochondrial biogenesis
- Capillary density of muscle fiber
I vigorously chanted these concepts in 2002. After spending a small fortune to see if they occurred in team and speed athletes with conventional training, I found they didn’t! Sure, an elite tour cyclist will increase hemoglobin mass, but sometimes even they do not. Expecting an EPL soccer player to be the next Miguel Indurain is just wishful thinking. The constraints of the calendar dictate meaningful, worthwhile changes, not Eastern Bloc periodization models.
- The size and strength of the heart are mainly based on time and effort, and it has taken me years to see structural changes. It’s humbling and crushes the ego when 36 weeks of work may move the needle a millimeter in wall thickness. When I hear 8-week offseason phases with 3 “blocks” are building elephant hearts, I get annoyed. It requires very strong legs and 80-120 aerobic workouts to push the envelope over years, not weeks or even months.
- Enzymes are interesting but with seasons changing, the moving targets of enzymes are a hard goal. Enzymes are simple chemical compounds that break down substrates and materials. That is all. Often “catalyst” is used to show that enzymes speed up reactions, but in sports training, they help do the job the coach is stressing on the body. Like nearly all components of training, it’s a case of use it or lose it.
- Dudes on Twitter need to calm down on mitochondrial adaptations, specifically how HIIT increases new organelles in the body. Like any quality, it’s hard to maximize it without making it a priority, and I have not seen anything that shows actual biopsy changes. Muscle sampling to gauge changes is not expensive but highly invasive. Hopefully bright guys like Landon Evans can find non-invasive ways to estimate where the contributions in adaptation are occurring.
- Capillary changes in explosive athletes are elusive since Type I fiber volume decreases as the athlete becomes more genetically gifted. Finding a way to condition athletes without increasing overall fatigue is challenging since genetically gifted athletes have less cell space for morphological changes. Coaches with blessed talents must be even more conservative and patient without babying the athletes. When in doubt think “work the heart and lungs” while “resting the nerves and joints.”
Boo explained that the progression and need of slow cooking the tolerance to pH disruption workouts are vital to speed development. I agree. When blood pH drops from acidosis, this is a dramatic change to body homeostasis and must be carefully ramped up, or the body rejects the input. Having an athlete throw up is not something to be proud of. Boo explicitly warned that the neuromuscular system isn’t a fan of lactate workouts and labeled the stimulus an irritant.
I am not sure if the utopian high-performance model has changed with regards to lactate from saturation approaches. A good model is time and manipulating density. I have found the approach of “produce, reduce, and use” to be a good outline. High lactate levels should not be indicators of effort, just like a slob having a high heart rate because he is out of shape and doing something marginal. Lactate clearance is also an incomplete picture since low speeds and low mmols show a specific adaptation. The milestone “use” is when enzymatic function is high enough that the body is more successful in force production (cross-bridges) and toughness.
The more time an athlete is producing high-power output, the rise of lactate (from a drop in blood pH) will create very unique adaptations to the body. Coaches can reduce rest slightly or do more and cheat (read “fool the body”) into eliciting higher acidosis levels without dropping power output. A slight dip in rest times still creates a window in which athletes can continue to hammer out speed and make possible morphological changes. When Dan Pfaff shared his Texas data on lactate, I thought either he was mistaken or onto something. I bought a new meter, and he was right. Lactate is not good or evil; it’s just a KPI of response to training.
Boo shared important endocrine and myokine information about how simple things like bodybuilding rep schemes create unique responses that coaches can leverage, especially during heavy training and competition phases. Most people assume that because gene activation models and satellite cells are in vogue, acute and transient endocrine changes are a temporary response.
For example, lasting mood changes from the endorphin response of a good pump are not just for Mr. Universe. It may be an ethical way to handle heavy loading and deal with eccentric overload. Remember that IGF-1 and the other markers in its family can increase basally if sufficient calories are consumed, but excessive eccentric work makes glycogen restoring difficult. Circuits can help do more than keeping people lean. The benefits of getting higher repetition work remove staleness and the long-term adaptations can be seen on HRV monitoring data.
Overall, the appreciation that lactate response is a simple element that can be periodized over time must be factored into training. The duration and intensity will influence the lactate effect of the session, and the time in the season will dictate how those responses affect the body as well. Lactate is a signal to the body analogous to wind—it can make you sail faster or capsize you. Acidosis is not an advantage, though, and new schools of thought are dismissing what happens to biochemical reactions of low blood pH. If used properly, lactate responses with and without running can improve the adaptation rate in training.
General Neuromuscular Adaptations
Without sounding negative, my fear is that many coaches are interested in sports medicine areas out of their role and not reading fundamental texts like Strength and Power in Sport (Paavo Komi) or something contemporary as Multiple Movement Systems: Biomechanics and Movement Organization (Jack Winters and Savio Woo). Some misinterpretation is also a problem when young coaches fail to comprehend the materials properly, so it’s better to read the foundational materials multiple times rather than tweet photos of books one does not properly understand.
Boo hinted that a solid approach is to think about tension on tissue and what changes are happening at the cellular and system levels. My concern is that the “movement quality” peanut gallery is vocal but vague with adaptations and what changes from real training. One can cue all they want, but if the horsepower and transmission aren’t there, a leather steering wheel isn’t going to help much. Coaches may want to brew a pot of coffee, read Roger Enoka’s Neuromechanics of Human Movement, and ease up on the motivational speaking books.
Neuromuscular adaptations are not going to change when the endocrine system is shot and too little absolute training is performed. Boo was emphatic about windows and thresholds of work that must be done to drive or augment the qualities that improve coordinative changes. What was interesting is the stark difference in classic training inventory of jumping, throwing, lifting, and sprinting modalities still used, and some schools have moved to “functional training.” I am not sure how elite athletes are going to rise from the primordial goo of single-leg cleaning up stairs and running with barbells above their heads, but I will trust 40 years of podium performers.
Inter- and Intra-muscular Adaptation – Firing routines in the body can improve when enough skilled repetitions are completed. Boo focused on the need and the necessary removal of remedial exercises based on the needs of a season. Many coaches including myself do a lot of remedial work in fear that athletes might lose their motor skills. Boo covered the essential neurophysiology of how muscle groups coordinate and how motor units align with regards to timing. His training inventory—a classic menu of indispensable tried and true exercises—should be a staple. It is a great overview of what many coaches have found to work.
High Threshold Motor Units – Absolute work is needed, and this is one of the reasons team sports get injured. I had a debate with a “movement screen” proponent, who argued that strength training doesn’t work because the NFL is full of strong athletes and yet injuries are not decreasing. I responded that those with a particular approach to athlete appraisal in function are not demonstrating any statistical impact on health, and their promoted NFL team always was in the bottom of the non-contact injury rankings. Hamstring research has shown that weakness is a bigger risk than asymmetry, as the body coordinates and harmonizes what it has rather than being lost without power.
Coordination and power are not mutually exclusive, but doing silly weight exercises with medium speeds and low loads is a compromised modality that leaves us with neither adaptation. Improving the recruitment of more explosive fiber will show up in technique as many errors are not technique, just an absence of power. Both control and raw horsepower can help the elderly, so seniors should do dancing and ballistic power training to stay healthy and young.
Coordination with Summation of Forces – Summation of forces involves using as many joints as possible to create maximal output. Some timeframes and motions are limited, but the goal is leveraging total body motions to drive neuromuscular adaptations. Boo shared how athletes working with coach Gayle Hatch in Louisiana made big improvements in all power indices by adding high RFD stimulants like plyometrics to their programs, and their lifts went up even further. Summation of force principles is especially useful for coaches wanting to change neuromuscular adaptations and add a safety buffer by protecting connective tissue.
Possible Brain Adaptations and Neurochemical Shifts – I have looked at the neurochemistry of athletes, and it’s freaking expensive. My heart and personal wallet took a hit when I wanted to see changes to the body. The blood-brain barrier is more complicated than I expected, so like most people I refer to specialists. At the NSCA conference in 2000, I asked Dr. Bill Kraemer about theoretical changes at the neuroendocrine level. Being more of a plumber myself, I wanted to know how more “current” was shifting at the chemical and structural levels. Not wanting to get stuck with citations of hummingbird motor neurons and salamander muscle experiments, I think we need to see more of David Bishop’s RSA data that looks at interactions from the brain down to the organelles. I think the cytokine CNS fatigue model is relevant and has some merit, but currently, no model is complete in explaining how people fatigue and adapt with neurochemical status.
In summary, the general training to tissue has a lot of absolute benefit to the body and a capacity to improve specific needs if both ends are trained. Practices are getting the main conversions and transfer stimulants and coaches need to remember to contrast what the athlete is getting too much of instead of piling on more work that will be redundant.
Boo’s Education and Resources – Getting Informed
For nearly two decades, Boo has always been patient when I ask repeated or common questions. Most of my biggest achievements in coaching—state records, All-American performances, and sending people to the Olympics—are a result of USATF education and Boo. He is an especially great resource for all coaches wanting to get results and learning timeless information.
Boo’s website is SAC Speed.
- Read and watch everything he has written and shared. Period. Don’t be cheap. Make his educational resources a priority, just like making speed a key principle.
- Attend a presentation in person. He is open and generous with his time but don’t abuse it. I strongly suggest taking the man out for food!
- Finally, if you are a professional or college team, don’t fly your staff to a lame conference with “speed experts.” Instead, invest in flying Boo in. I don’t know his cost, but it’s worth every penny.