If you are reading this article, we probably have a lot in common—you are likely a high school track coach who is always looking for ways to improve. You love researching the sport but probably do not have a degree in biomechanics or human performance. So, instead of reading complicated articles with words and concepts that are difficult to comprehend, you search out like-minded coaches who can give you practical advice scaffolded with plenty of videos.
As the head boys track coach at Lake Forest High School (IL), I am constantly trying to figure out what works and what does not. We get 90–120 minutes a day with our athletes… so how can we maximize that time with the conditions we are given? Here are six elements we have added to our program and six we have removed.
What We Have Added
As you gain experience, you become a fan of activities and actions that give you the most bang for your buck. These items fit that bill.
1. Obstacle Course Relays
Having fun in a productive environment should be the goal of every program. Obstacle course relays are your chance to be creative and allow your athletes to get better in a competitive and exciting environment. Having fun is a huge objective, of course, but you can also pick activities in your obstacle course that stress aspects you are highlighting that week.
If you're not doing Obstacle Course Relays at track practice, I think you should start. Kids get hyped, especially when you let them draft teams. pic.twitter.com/hPCWXd3vdq
— LFHS Track & Field (@LFHStrack) February 15, 2022
Video 1: Early season obstacle course relays highlighting fast-twitch activities.
In the above video, you can see that the athletes basically have three obstacles to complete. First, they hop over a complex series of mini hurdles, then they need to accelerate into some curvilinear sprinting (see Video 4 for more), and then they finish with sprinting over 24-inch hurdles. Those are all early-season alactic skills we work on to introduce our concept of fast-twitch training.
Notice that the athletes were holding a stick above their heads. We complete the first rep without the stick, then introduce the stick on the second rep to emphasize their “lateral chain.”
Having all the athletes sprint over hurdles early in the season can show you which athletes have a natural ability for hurdling! You can approach the athletes who exhibited proper form and suggest they give the event a try. (I always have a hurdling technique day scheduled for the practice after this particular obstacle course day.) Hopefully, you will have a few athletes who enjoyed sprinting over those barriers and approach you about giving the hurdles a shot.Having athletes sprint over hurdles early in the season can show you which athletes have a natural ability. You can then approach the ones with proper form and suggest they give the event a try. Click To Tweet
Look how excited everybody was after the race! The two athletes competing at the end—Jahari Scott and Sebastian Obrzut—were both team captains who drafted their respective teams right before the race. Again, having fun in a competitive environment should be the goal.
Video 2 shows an obstacle course relay we did three weeks later when our focus for the week was “power.” Pushing the sled and jumping up over the mats were power activities but running while jumping rope and pushing themselves on the scooter were primarily added for fun. Notice how excited Sebastian Obrzut is when his team wins this time around!
On Monday we did Obstacle Course Relays more in tune with this week's theme (Power). Lots of fun! pic.twitter.com/9mK44VVU8c
— LFHS Track & Field (@LFHStrack) March 2, 2022
Video 2: Late indoor obstacle course relay highlighting power activities.
As we get outdoors and become more “serious,” we still use the concepts from the obstacle course relays in a competitive and fun environment with what we call “Fast Twitch Stations.” The possibilities for this are limitless, but we always include a locomotor station, followed by a static station, followed by another locomotor station. This enables the athletes to end up back at the starting line. We also complete these stations with partners of approximate speed to make it more competitive, and we always end with a race.
In the video below, you can see the two athletes start out performing a series of wickets. They recover by walking to the next station, where they must complete a series of hurdle hops. For their last station, on a coach’s command, they race by doing curvilinear sprinting.
Video 3: Jahari Scott and Sebastian Obrzut compete in “Fast Twitch Stations,” which stack fast-twitch skills in a competitive environment.
When an entire team performs these stations, there will be more recovery due to waiting in line for the next station. However, these stations are all completed using incomplete rest to “stack” the skills. Usually, we have the athletes complete 3–4 sets.
Feel free to switch up the stations to keep it fresh. Our static station is usually some version of hurdle hops, but we could also include repeated jumps (e.g., star jumps, tuck jumps, standing TJ for distance, etc.). For the locomotor activities, we always end with a race of some kind, and we often race on the first task as well. Other competitive locomotor activities could include a sled push, med ball into a sprint, push-up start, etc.
2. Curvilinear Running
Since we have already mentioned curvilinear sprinting twice in this article, we may as well address it on its own. Some coaches call this “serpentine sprinting,” if you are hoping to Google more information. Basically, with curvilinear sprinting, the athletes need to maneuver around specific barriers in a “snake” fashion while sprinting.
In the video below (and in all the examples you have seen so far in this article), the barriers are all placed in a straight line. Outdoors, I set them up on the high hurdle marks (10 yards apart). Here are some of the benefits of curvilinear sprinting:
- Break up the monotony of straight-line sprinting.
- Stress and strengthen the ankles.
- Emphasize aspects of field and ball sports.
- Reinforce the tilt needed for sprinting on curves.
Video 4: Curvilinear sprinting has lots of benefits.
The more you angle the curve, the more stress you will put on the ankles, and consequently, the slower the athlete will be able to sprint. High jumpers can use a much sharper curve to get them ready for the demands of their event. You can find lots more information on curvilinear sprinting in this article by Carl Valle.
3. Ankle Warm-Up
Billions of words have been written on what to do during a warm-up. I have coached track and field for 19 seasons and still struggle with how to properly perform an adequate warm-up. The best advice I can give you is that the warm-up cannot be stale. It cannot be the same thing every day, where athletes are just going through the motions. With that in mind, we added our “ankle warm-up” in the spring of 2021 during the pandemic when all the athletes had to be 6 feet apart.
Video 5: Ankle warm-ups are fun and creative, reinforce fast-twitch muscles, strengthen the shank, and can even be performed by recovering athletes.
When we perform our ankle warm-up as a group, we have the athletes spread themselves apart on the track lane lines. The athletes then use those lines as a reference for our various locomotor activities. As you can see, the possibilities are only limited by your imagination.
The athletes can be on one foot, two feet, or alternating their feet as they hop. They can stay in place or travel forward, backward, left, or right. They can take quick hops, fast hops, high hops, long hops, short hops, etc. We usually end with something fun, like the 360 degrees you see at the end of the video.Two benefits of the ankle warm-up stick out above the rest: They strengthen the leg shank and can help recovering athletes accomplish their goals at the end of the season, says @LFHStrack. Click To Tweet
What are the benefits of a warm-up like this? There are lots, but two stick out above the rest:
- They strengthen the shank: The “shank” of your leg is the section from your ankle to your knee. A strong, twitchy, rigid shank is absolutely essential for all the events in track & field and all sports in general. The ankle warm-up strengthens the shank’s tendons, ligaments, and muscles in all directions.
- Recovering athletes can still perform them: The tendency with injured or recovering athletes is to have them sit and do nothing. Why? If they are still planning to return to your team by the end of the season, then having them take a few weeks off in the middle of training can have a devastating, atrophic effect. Obviously, these athletes cannot perform their usual tasks, but just having them pedal on a stationary bike won’t do much. With few exceptions, they should be able to perform an ankle warm-up! This type of activity can help the athletes bridge the gap and accomplish their goals at the end of the season.
4. B Relays
This might sound obvious but hear me out. You need to give all of your potential varsity athletes a chance to run the sprint relays.
Our 4x100m relay practices gobble up a lot of time because we take those handoffs very seriously. For a long time, the only athletes who would practice 4x100m handoffs were the A varsity and A frosh/soph teams. Usually, these handoffs were done on a technique day, so I did not want to take the “B team” athletes away from their specialty (long jump, pole vault, hurdles, blocks, etc.) for an extended period.
Ideally, you would know which four athletes would be on your A 4x100m relay team going into the outdoor season and stick with those four all year. But when does that ever actually happen? In the 13 years that I have been the head coach at Lake Forest High School, we only had two years where our A 4x100m relay team at the first meet was the same as it was at our Sectional Championships. To ensure you have replacements ready, have the B team practice handoffs and run in the meets whenever possible.To ensure you have replacements ready, have the B 4x100m relay team practice handoffs and run in the meets whenever possible, says @LFHStrack. Click To Tweet
One of the benefits of our conference requiring us to compete in four dual meets during the outdoor season is the opportunity to race multiple teams in the relays. Our new standard is to have at least two varsity 4x100m relay teams competing at each dual meet. With very few exceptions, we also give all the varsity sprinters a shot at the 4x400m relay, even though many of them absolutely dread it. You never know when they might surprise themselves and either run a great split or really enjoy the experience.
5. Media Day
In this world of social media, you need to host a media day, even if all you do is take pictures. This year, the Lake Forest High School Art Department took amazing, professional photos of some of our varsity athletes (see Image 1). We are hoping to make this an annual event.
While we are on the subject, get a team Instagram account. Allllllllllll your athletes are on Instagram.
6. Extreme Isometrics
Our new end-of-practice tradition is extreme isometrics. This is becoming the new trend; thankfully, there is a ton of information on it. You can find great articles on isometrics from fellow SimpliFaster authors Rob Assise and Carl Valle.
What We Have Removed
Along the same lines as the section above, as you gain experience, you also learn the things that aren’t worth the time invested or have no underlying value. Many of these you do because they were things you did when you were an athlete or in your early days of coaching.
1. Hand Timing
Let’s be honest; hand times are awful and unreliable. The IHSA, rightfully, does not even allow hand times to be used as seeds for the Sectional Championships. I also coach swimming and diving, and every single swim meet has auto times (every school I have ever been to in my nine years as a swim coach has invested in its own timing system). We use a Freelap timing system at track practice, which is accurate to 0.02 seconds. Why would we use hand timing at meets, which, in the best-case scenario, is accurate to 0.24 seconds?
Thankfully, the standard here in Illinois is that all invitationals have fully automatic timing (F.A.T.). I would not even consider attending an invite that did not have F.A.T. But as previously mentioned, we also run four dual meets a year. Pre-COVID-19, we hand-timed those meets. In 2021, we used a timing app on an iPad that essentially let us hand-time each race with only one worker. But in 2022, we hired a timing company for both our girls’ and boys’ dual meets. It was well worth the investment!
The athletes deserve to know what time they ran. Invest in F.A.T. at all your meets, please.
2. Bad Meets
This seems obvious, but so many teams continue to compete at meets nobody likes. If you are not satisfied with a meet, there are so many other options! In most areas, track meets are a buyer’s market. Poll your coaches and athletes and find out how they feel about each of the meets on your schedule.If you aren’t satisfied with a meet, there are many other options. Poll your coaches and athletes and find out how they feel about each of the meets on your schedule, says @LFHStrack. Click To Tweet
That being said, you can also find ways to improve the meets you host. Our home invitational at Lake Forest follows the standard order of events, but over the years, we have added a Meet MVP trophy, switched from the 1600m to a true mile, added a huge scoreboard (courtesy of PT Timing) showing live results, and started competing a Weightman 4x100m relay that gives four boxes of donuts to the winners.
We had a functioning scoreboard showing live results at our 10-team Lake Forest Invitational this year. Run by @pttiming and Sean Gavigan. pic.twitter.com/VWOHD7Itqy
— LFHS Track & Field (@LFHStrack) May 22, 2022
Image 2: Make your home invitation stand out! Add cool and unique elements to your meets to make them memorable.
3. Team Meetings
COVID-19 is horrible (it still isn’t over), but it forced coaches to evolve. The new restrictions on athletics (limited practice times, staying 6 feet apart, etc.) meant that coaches really had to cut the fat out of their programs. The first thing we cut was our daily team meeting.
For my first 13 years as a head track and field coach, I started each practice by gathering all the athletes up in the same area for attendance and a quick meeting. Sometimes those meetings were not so short. With COVID-19, we had to spread out more, so in 2021 we separated our team into three groups (distance, throws, everybody else) and had them meet with their own coaches. No more big team meetings.
Many of the COVID-19 restrictions were lifted coming into the 2022 season. I talked to my distance coach and throws coach and asked them if they wanted to go back to meeting as one large group or keep meeting with only their event groups, as we did in 2021. They both were extremely enthusiastic about eliminating the pre-COVID-19 whole-team meetings.
Talk to your assistants more! I wish I had asked for their input on this 10 years ago.
4. Core Work
Blasphemy, I know! We used to do the standard “abs” back in the day: sit-ups, crunches, etc. Then we transitioned into doing mostly planks. Then we exclusively did planks with moving parts (i.e., holding a plank with three limbs while moving the fourth limb). Now we don’t do any specific core work at all.
Basically, every activity we do has an aspect of core strengthening to it, though, because the core is activated in almost every single movement. Instead of core work, we end each practice with extreme isometrics.
5. Bragging About How Good We Used to Be
Time for an ego check, coaches. None of your athletes care how good you used to be. If they did, they would ask. I remember in my 20s thinking I could impress my athletes by telling them how fast I currently was or what I accomplished back in high school and college. I did not possess enough self-awareness to see it then, but nobody cared.Time for an ego check, coaches. None of your athletes care how good you used to be. If they did, they would ask, says @LFHStrack. Click To Tweet
Think about your favorite high school coaches. Were they your favorites because of what they accomplished in high school? Almost certainly not. The best high school coach I have ever been around is Mark Johnson, whom I assisted in cross country at Eau Claire Memorial High School in 2003 and 2004. Nobody had a single clue what his athletic accomplishments were. In the nine seasons that I have coached swimming and diving under Cindy Dell, I have never heard her say anything to the athletes about how good she used to be…and she was a state champion!
6. Long-to-Short Sprint Training
I have written extensively about this topic before, but it bears repeating. In 2016, we switched from a Baylor-style long-to-short sprint model to a Tony Holler “Feed the Cats” short-to-long sprint model. I am never turning back. If you are reading this article, you almost certainly know what type of training I am talking about. Most Feed the Cats coaches love talking about it, so hit one of us up if you need more information.
What will you add and remove from your own program? I would be interested to find out, so please share this article and comment below! You can follow the Lake Forest Track & Field team on Twitter and Instagram.
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