In 2011, I was coaching at a high school spring invitational in New York State that required athletes to advance through three rounds of the 200m to make the six-man final in one day. We had four athletes capable of making the final, so I gave them specific instructions for the first two rounds to advance while conserving energy.
- Round 1: Sprint the turn and “float” the straight.
- Round 2: Sprint the first 80 meters, “float” through the exchange zone, push for 50 meters, and “float” through the finish line.
- Round 3 (finals): Race.
In rounds 1 and 2, I noticed their best limb velocity was in the portion of the race in which they were coached to “float.” Looking back, I wish I gave them a more direct plan to execute in the finals rather than to just “race.” Why? Their final performance was strained and stiff, lacking the limb velocity seen in trials and semis.
I was previously aware of the power of relaxation during a full-speed sprint or competitive race, but this visual experience proved to me that relaxation while sprinting needs to be consistently coached and executed by the athletes in practice for optimal performance.This visual experience proved to me that relaxation while sprinting needs to be consistently coached and executed by the athletes in practice for optimal performance, says @AthWestchester. Click To Tweet
Fast forward to today: Lessons learned. Two high school athletes (400m and 400 hurdler), both with excellent strength and power, came across my training group, Athletics Westchester. Each developed excellent 10-meter fly times, but as we extended their fly to 30 meters and beyond, they would begin to strain and lose the limb velocity shown over 10 meters. The solution? Floats.
What Is the “Float”?
At Athletics Westchester, we define “floating” as sprint segments of 90-93% speed for a determined distance while focusing on relaxation. These segments can be as short as 10 meters and as long as 50 meters during practice sessions. To arrive at the float, we usually accelerate (step on the gas) for a distance of 20-30 meters to build quality momentum before floating (cruise control).
Video 1. Thirty-meter sprint/20-meter float: After the acceleration, the 20-meter float allows the athlete to practice in rhythmic sprinting and emphasize quality mechanics.
In order for athletes to truly know and feel the float, it is important to time them for immediate feedback. One athlete’s internal 93% might turn out to be 88%, while another athlete’s internal 93% could turn out to be 97%. Consistency of the float helps to provide athletes with a true sense of the necessary effort combined with relaxation to hit the target percentages during workouts. We use Freelap to measure and video analysis to coach this critical skill.Consistency of the float helps to provide athletes with a true sense of the necessary effort combined with relaxation to hit the target percentages during workouts, says @AthWestchester. Click To Tweet
Although the distance, intensity, number of reps, and rest are important (I will discuss them later), the coaching points of relaxation while moving fast are perhaps the most important place to begin. In other words, if your athletes are not being coached/reminded how to relax, you will become the coach that “barks RELAX at their athletes, which did little more than tie them up like an iron deer on the front lawn.” (Bud Winter, So You Want to Be a Sprinter)
First, as coaches, we have to identify areas of the body to target, whether or not relaxation exists, and provide feedback/instruction on how to improve it when we see strain. Below is our checklist:
- Jaw: loose = relaxed, while clenched = strain
- Some important cues/strategies that have worked for our athletes to keep their jaw loose:
- “Sprint with space between your teeth.” (Maintain space between your upper and lower molars.)
- “Sprint while gently placing your tongue on the roof of your mouth.” (This helps prevent teeth from touching.)
- When practicing floats in a team setting, encourage your athletes to “talk to each other” while running fast (think Bolt).
- A relaxed jaw leads to a relaxed neck. If you see strain in the neck in some of your athletes, use the strategies for a relaxed jaw (1) or shoulders (3).
- Shoulders: low = relaxed, while high = strain
- Some important cues/strategies that have worked for our athletes to keep their shoulders low:
- “Hands travel below your waist on the downward stroke of each arm action.”
- “Emphasize the downward action of the arms and let the swing forward happen naturally.”
- Forearms: loose = relaxed, while flexed = strain
- Some important cues/strategies that have worked for our athletes to keep their forearms loose:
- “Maintain space between your fingers and palm.”
- “Lightly maintain contact with your index finger, middle finger, and thumb.”
Once you have established an expectation with your athletes that relaxation is highly valued and will be coached, it is time to incorporate “floating sprints” into your practice.
Video 2. This slow-motion capture of a floating sprint shows relaxation of the jaws, neck, and shoulders.
An Emphasis on Floating Sprints
Back to the athletes mentioned earlier. The 400m runner established a baseline indoor performance in October 2020 at the Armory Trials with a 51.18, while his February 2021 indoor performance was 48.93 at the Adidas Indoor Nationals. On May 8, 2021, he opened his outdoor season with a 48.40 at the Loucks Games.
The 400 hurdler last ran the event in June 2019, running 55.93. On May 8, 2021, he opened his outdoor season with a 54.26 at the Loucks Games. Both emphasized “floating sprints” during their training and eventually improved their float to a speed equal to their previous best time in the fly. Below are some sample workouts used by both athletes that placed a major emphasis on floating.
- 20-meter acceleration followed by a 30-meter float (90-93%); 5-6 reps with 4- to 6-minutes’ rest.
- 30-meter acceleration followed by a 20-meter float (90-93%); 5-6 reps with 4- to 6-minutes’ rest.
- 30-meter acceleration followed by a 50-meter float (90-93%), last 30 meter over wickets; 3-4 reps with 6- to 8-minutes’ rest b/t.
- 50-meter acceleration followed by a 50-meter float (90-93%); 4-5 reps with 6-8 minutes’ rest.
- 50-meter acceleration followed by a 50-meter float (90-93%) followed by a 50-meter fly; 3-4 reps with 8- to 10-minutes’ rest.
**On occasion, in late April/early May, the 400 hurdler would race model to H1, H2, or H3 and continue to float for 20-30 meters after touchdown.**
How did these athletes know if they were floating fast enough? We used their best 30-meter fly time and took 90-93% of that.
For example, with a best 30-meter fly of 3.00:
- 90% = 3.33
- 93% = 3.26
20-meter float target range was 2.17-2.22.
30-meter float target range was 3.26-3.33.
50-meter float target range was 5.43-5.55.
These ranges allowed each athlete to run FAST AND RELAXED, so they could emphasize high-quality sprinting mechanics over a longer period of time. Floats also allowed them to slightly increase their volume versus a maximum-effort fly. The additional reps increased their work capacity and limited unnecessary practice injuries.
Video 3. In this 30-meter sprint/20-meter float/20-meter fly, we can see the athlete relaxed during the float with relaxed jaws, neck, and shoulders. In the fly portion, however, we can see the athlete begin to strain as he feels he needs to “try harder” to move faster. Recording, acknowledging, and applying strategies to move fast in a relaxed state can help reduce this tension so the fly is as relaxed as the float.
As floats are emphasized in a training program, your athletes will begin to see their “float” time decrease. This means that their 90-93% speed is improving. It is a major confidence boost when times that used to require “max effort” are now achieved with a slightly “submaximal effort” in practice. From my experience, when the “float” speed improves, and you know through your coach’s eye and/or video that they are truly floating, personal bests in competition are coming soon.From my experience, when the ‘float’ speed improves, and you know through your coach’s eye and/or video that they are truly floating, personal bests in competition are coming soon. Click To Tweet
With this knowledge, understanding, and experience of floating, the athletes you coach can develop a good feeling of exactly how fast and far they can run the “floating” segments of the 200m, 400m, and 400 hurdles as well as the relaxation necessary to achieve the necessary limb velocity for the 100m.
What happens to the extra 7-10% that might be missing from practice by emphasizing floats instead of maximum effort sprints? The 7-10% missing in practice is reserved for the meets! By practicing in a SLIGHTLY lower gear in practice, you allow your athletes to develop some “reserve speed” that comes out in the most highly competitive environments…which is what ultimately matters the most.
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