Thomas Gingras is currently the Strength and Conditioning Coach for the University of Guelph Track & Field team and The Border City Athletics Club. He is also the co-host of the Speed Strength Show podcast, where he discusses various sports performance and training-related topics.
Since Thomas was in high school, he’s had aspirations of becoming a strength coach. In the past, he has worked with athletes from a variety of team sports at several Canadian universities. However, having competed in track during university, this has always been his primary sport of interest. During his masters, Thomas had the opportunity to blend his interests by working as a strength coach in track and field. Following that, he continued to pursue these interests by focusing on weight room development for track and field athletes and speed development for team sport athletes.
Freelap USA: As a sports performance coach with a huge passion for sprints and track & field, you work mainly with developmental and college athletes at Border City Athletics Club. How would you describe the differences between sports speed and track speed? What can sports performance coaches learn from track coaches and vice versa?
Thomas Gingras: I would describe “sport speed” as being primarily perceptually driven, while “track speed” is driven mainly by coordination. Of course, all sports have degrees of these elements. When we look at team sport as an example, “sport speed” refers to how quickly an athlete can perceive, recognize, and then move according to play (or opponents) in an unpredictable environment. On the track, in events like the 60m or 100m, “track speed” is about the maximal velocity an athlete can reach in a predictable environment. When we view it this way, we can begin to understand why these types of speed are indeed different skills.
Track athletes have the benefit of being able to truly reach maximal velocities because they train in environments with no outside factors to impede them. Maximal velocity sprinting is a skill of high-velocity coordination, as described by some, and that’s a skill that track athletes often get to practice. This is likely why some team sport athletes have difficulty when they first step on the track.
The lack of exposure to high-speed sprinting keeps them from developing the “track speed” those in the sport have. However, on the team sports side, athletes often compete in unpredictable environments. Rarely do non-track athletes reach maximal velocity in sports. This could be due to space constraints on the field of play, play calls or strategy dictating movement speed, changing direction, response to an opponent’s move—the list goes on.
This means that team sport athletes get much more exposure to practicing their movement abilities in response to what is happening around them. This is likely the reason we sometimes see athletes with “track speed” unable to use that ability in other sports. Their lack of exposure to unpredictable environments means they cannot process what’s happening around them as fast as others.
The positive is that both “sport speed” and “track speed” are skills. These abilities can be developed when practiced and coached. I think this is what sports performance coaches and track coaches can learn from one another. Each has a strong understanding of the demands and skills primarily found in their setting. This is likely of most use to coaches working with multisport athletes to ensure athletes have a healthy mix of both types of speed.
Freelap USA: What is your framework for developing acceleration ability in athletes? How do you progress velocity and posture demands in your training design?
Thomas Gingras: My framework for developing acceleration is to practice it year-round in our training. Acceleration is a skill requiring a smooth, rhythmical change on each step from the athlete. This means an athlete moves from a forward lean, gradually getting taller on each step, and those steps get faster and farther until they reach the desired speed. I tend to use constraints that reduce velocity or movement options to challenge and progress the acceleration ability of athletes.I tend to use constraints that reduce velocity or movement options to challenge and progress the acceleration ability of athletes. Later in training, we can remove the constraint or dial it back. Click To Tweet
These constraints could be sprint drills (wall drills, band drills, etc.), sleds, hills, other forms of resistance, surfaces, and sprint distance, to name a few. This framework moves from higher levels of constraints with less velocity output toward fewer constraints with higher velocities later in training. The key is that the intent or effort is always high with this training, even if the velocity output is not maximal.
The constraints ensure that the velocities are not too high early on in training and that the correct postures are achieved. As an example, early in training, we may accelerate a shorter distance (10–15 meters) on grass and resist the sprint through the use of a loaded sled or hill.
The distance and soft surface help ensure health early on by reducing velocity, but the big tool is resistance. The resistance requires the athlete to be in a forward-leaning posture and use proper push mechanics by extending the thigh through the hip. It also slows the rate at which the athlete rises from a forward lean to an upright posture, making it easier to feel the correct rhythmical rise in acceleration. Effectively, the constraint makes it more likely that the athlete will achieve the correct postures when they sprint.
Later in training, we can remove the constraint or dial it back. This could be by using lighter sleds, less steep hills, faster surfaces (such as a track), and longer sprint distances. This provides greater postural and velocity demand for the athlete because there are fewer (or zero) constraints to assist them. It will become harder to preserve the correct posture because there is no resistance to ensure proper push mechanics, and now the movement occurs at a much higher velocity. The goal, though, is that through the use of constraints, the athletes understand the correct ways to accelerate when the challenge is higher.
Freelap USA: I have seen that you incorporate curved treadmills into your programming. What do you use them for, and how can coaches implement this equipment into their training program? Who is it suitable for?
Thomas Gingras: The curved treadmills are definitely resources I use when I have access to them. I have primarily used them as a tool on recovery/tempo days. The shape of the treadmill usually allows athletes to achieve the proper upright postures we are looking for, in addition to putting less stress on the body, since the treadmill is a softer surface than hard ground. The other benefit is how easily the speed can be changed compared to a standard treadmill (a curve responds immediately to your speed change). This means that on recovery days, when we want athletes moving at 60%–70% velocity and achieving proper posture, the curved treadmills are a great option.
Coaches can absolutely use a curved treadmill for recovery runs. However, it can also be used for higher-velocity training. I have used it as an alternative for max velocity or speed endurance sessions when the weather is poor or track facilities are unavailable.
The curved treadmill has no speed or distance limit. This means you can have an athlete sprint as fast as they can for a short duration, as a max velocity session, or at a prescribed time interval for a speed endurance replacement. However, there is a bit of a learning period for the athlete to get comfortable sprinting at high speed on the curve.
Lastly, I have used it with athletes of high school age and up. Of course, there are some safety protocols to go over first, but I have found that the curve works well for high school-aged and older athletes.
Freelap USA: Border City Athletics Club has built a successful program for track and field athletes from recreational through international levels. Several athletes represented the club at the World Athletics Championships in Oregon this year, as well as the Olympics, Pan American Championships, and other international meets. The club has a big focus on community outreach and creating opportunities. What activities do you organize in the community, and what does community outreach mean for the development of the club?
Thomas Gingras: I can’t take any credit for these initiatives. BCAC does an absolutely incredible job engaging the community, finding ways to give back, and providing opportunities for lower-income families in the area. All the credit goes to the club as a whole, and I am very honored to help in every way I can.
BCAC hosts the annual Women Can Conference, which brings together, recognizes, and provides a platform for women in various sports professions to share their knowledge. There are the GirlsCan and BoysCan events, which are aimed at providing sports experience to those from lower-income families and removing barriers to sports participation. In addition, there are many one-off events the club members volunteer at to support other local charities or community initiatives.Having a positive presence in the community raises the chances that people will want to contribute to the club in some way. This could create opportunities for those in your organization. Click To Tweet
The community outreach by BCAC is one of the primary reasons the club has grown and had success in and out of sports. These types of initiatives invest in local people, which can have plenty of benefits in the future. You never know who will become the next high-level athlete or long-term member of the club or begin coaching or want to volunteer with the club. Having a positive presence in the local community maximizes the chances that people will want to participate or give back to the club in some way.
Freelap USA: Coaches’ education plays an important role at Border City Athletics Club, and you regularly organize internal educational events for all coaches at the club. How can a small sports organization like a club prioritize the professional development of its coaches and start initiatives for education?
Thomas Gingras: Some of this goes back to the previous question on community engagement. Doing those things to build up the community creates opportunities for those within your organization. This could be either through financial resources or connections in the community that help promote coach education.
At least here in Canada (and it’s likely similar elsewhere), there are growing requirements for individuals to coach, even in the youth and younger age categories. Coaching education is increasingly becoming a more significant time and financial commitment. Having a positive relationship with the community may result in local businesses supporting a young coach to pursue their coaching certification. This could also be a way to pay for event admission, speakers, etc., for your staff to learn from others.
Others outside your immediate community could be helpful too, so whenever your organization travels, attends events, or goes to competitions, this makes positive impressions and expands your network. You never know who may be able to help your organization in the future if you’re willing to ask.
The other aspect is to make it a priority, no matter if you are a big or small organization. Make coach education and professional development a staple in your group and put someone in charge of organizing this.I think professional development for our coaches is incredibly valuable to keep the club moving forward. Click To Tweet
BCAC values coach education and wanted to ensure it was not neglected. I was more than happy to be the one here to take the lead on this to ensure our coaches had access to professional development. I think it’s incredibly valuable to keep the club moving forward.
This could start as something internal, where coaches gather once a month to share what they’re learning, what’s working, or where they have questions, for example. It could be asking people you know from other sports or organizations to speak to your coaches. Maybe you set up a coaching conference. There are many ideas, big and small, that can achieve PD for coaches.
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