By Carl Valle
I would venture to guess that, if you asked all of the best sprint coaches in the world to name the most effective workout for developing speed, you would get a bunch of different answers. If you asked the same coaches about floating sprints, many of them would probably change their minds and agree that floating sprints may be the winning ticket.No other workout as popular as floating sprints is a bigger mystery in speed training. Click To Tweet
No other workout as popular as floating sprints is a bigger mystery in speed training, and perhaps we are now ready to really take advantage of “training on Monday” better than ever before. I used the workout at times for more than 20 years and was unable to unlock its greatness; however, after a summer of experimentation, I am now convinced it may be the best workout you can do for speed development.
What Is a Sprint Float Sprint?
If you are not familiar with the “sprint float sprint” workout, don’t be alarmed—the average performance coach may not know about this specific track technique. Also called “ins and outs” by some coaches, this sprint workout is popular and timeless in the sprinting community. I mentioned the workout in passing years ago, as I knew something was there but struggled to unleash it. I couldn’t really figure out the necessary nuances until recently.
The workout is simply a hard acceleration into a maximal sprint for an allotted distance, then the athlete relaxes and sprints for 10-20 meters, and then sprints again. Most of the acceleration distances tend to be 30 meters, as the maximal velocity work is in the neighborhood of 20 meters. That’s followed by another 20 meters of relaxed “floating” sprinting, then usually another 20 meters of hard sprinting before slowing down. At this point, that is pretty much the best way to describe what a floating sprint is. The total distance can range from 50-90 meters with conventional floating sprints, depending on the segment lengths of each sprint phase and the acceleration build-up.
Some coaches have extended the floating sprints to longer distances for 400m runners, using segments of 50 meters or similar. Other clever coaches have repeated the alternate speed phases beyond the 90 meters in an attempt to really challenge athletes and break speed stereotypes. The number of options I have seen or heard about is amazing, and after talking to Kebba Tolbert again, it was clear that an article was necessary because coaches need to share their underground information. The vast amount of workout options is nearly endless, but the explanations of what they do exactly isn’t known, as it appears the gap between art and science is very wide with this workout.
Video 1. Visually, floating sprints should be barely noticeable, as the velocities should be close enough that the coach can clearly see the differences but only with a trained eye. You should do additional evaluation with measurements such as lasers and video.
It’s important to know that the floating sprint is not the same as its endurance counterpart, Fartlek running. Technically, the alternating of speed in a workout with cross country training or similar is a different animal—they are more interval conditioning workouts. Sure, a distance runner can break into a sprint after a whistle is blown, but the precision of floating sprints is far more demanding and particular to the nervous system.Floating sprints are great volitional sprints to develop max speed & technique at higher velocities. Click To Tweet
The Science of Velocities and Distances of Floating Sprints
Before going into setting up cones, deciding on the distances to use, and even when to place the sprints in a training program, we must first cover the science. While I can’t get into neurophysiology and biochemical aspects because we simply don’t know, I can use some high school physics and math to ensure we are all on the same page. Floating sprints have traditionally been about segments of speed, similar to splits. For the sake of clarity, I will still use those terms and rough ideas, but the truth is that floating sprints are more about velocity curves than strict periods of speed.
In the past, the construct was that athletes would build up speed and learn to conserve as much as possible by running with less effort from being relaxed. The later sprint session was always seen as a training period where an athlete would be able to use the preceding skill or motor skill phenomenon with a higher effort and speed. Timing gates are not effective enough to determine exactly how the athlete is performing. Also, while EMG is wireless, how do we know that recruitment is more efficient during a sprint when the neuromuscular adaptations are difficult to observe in the field?
Instead of utilizing the zone or segment approach, we will use more granularity and more instantaneous speed information. The overarching concern is comparing the first speed burst to the last one acutely to determine if the athlete is getting a benefit from the relaxed period of sprinting. Running with more relaxation sounds great on paper, but relaxation or rhythm work only makes a difference if someone can race with better speed.Relaxation or rhythm work only makes a difference if someone can race with better speed. Click To Tweet
Chronically, the float period of sprinting may help all sprinting velocities down the road, but most research studies are intervention experiments with a period of months, not seasons. Since most maximal speed work is done for short periods during the year, having floating sprints as only one option means the influence of the workouts will not be as high. Similar to overspeed, the frequency of very high velocity or very specific sessions is low.
People also ask about the benefit of the surge after the floating period and whether the rapid acceleration with a vertical posture does anything scientifically. From a neuromuscular perspective, additional acceleration during sprints at high speed may do something, and the number of steps is a spike that doesn’t create a rise in speed but may feel like it does. Many athletes increase their frequency in an attempt to sprint faster, but unfortunately, there is little likelihood that a strategy outside of adding more effort will be effective.
Beyond the velocities, coaches will focus on energy systems and biomechanical considerations of what is theoretically going on, but it is only wishful thinking this is occurring unless those using the workout are doing extensive analysis with high-speed video and physical evaluation techniques. Even lactate testing may not be able to show a difference with 90-meter float sprints, so we need to have other novel ways to figure out what is happening.
Before You Start Floating or Programming ‘Ins and Outs’
Sprinting with contrasting velocities—even subtle nuances such as the differences in speed between a relaxed run and a sprint—is still fast and requires some preparation to safely administer. I believe that floating sprints are not dangerous per se, but they require some responsibility to ensure they don’t become a problem if introduced too quickly. It’s hard to say when is a good time to start performing the workout, but if you have not done a few flying sprints first, or repeated 60-meter sprints, the workout is too taxing.If you haven’t done flying sprints or repeated 60m sprints first, floating sprints may be too tough. Click To Tweet
Some modifications and throttling down of the workout can be done to ensure the sprint session is both effective and not overly demanding, but the maximal velocity is the cornerstone to the workout. While a relaxed sprint is the goal of the workout, it must be fast enough; otherwise, it’s just short reps of running fast versus sprinting. I don’t have a checklist of requirements before the workout, but I recommend playing it safe and only including them later in the preparation phase rather than too early.
Common Floating Sprint Workouts and How to Perform Them
I have warned before that skipping to the workouts without understanding the science first is lazy coaching, so I made sure I took my time on this section. I have only used the bread-and-butter workout of a 30m acceleration with 20-meter segments of sprinting, floating, and sprinting again. I did not use other variations, such as additional periods of floating, because the physical and technical demands were not appropriate for developing athletes or sprinters. I had never used a floating sprint workout for team sport athletes until this summer, but I have used relaxed sprinting methods for years. Controlling tension and speed is more of a dark art than science, but just using logic and reason is enough to make progress without going down a rabbit hole of sport science.
The list of workouts below is just an outline to start experimenting. I have only used three of the five workouts and hope that you explore more than just the ones listed. Stick with the main traditional workouts here before experimenting with the fancier options.
Smooth Deceleration: Before performing any floating sprints between maximal sprints, it’s a great skill to learn to shift into neutral after a maximal fly and step-over. Learning to decelerate in sprinting is nearly as important in team sports, because it helps prime for reacceleration later.
Bread and Butter: The most common approach is to use a 30m acceleration period with 10- to 20-meter zones of sprinting maximally and floating. With laser technology (I’ll explain in more detail later), the distances used are prescribed with personalized precision.
Assisted Sprints: By using motorized towing, the quality and velocity can be increased, as the speed is higher and the technical floating even more emphasized. In the future, I believe programming of the devices to enhance the float zone by reducing assistance will be popular with coaches who have access to this technology.
Long Repetitions: Long sprinters tend to have more experience with work zones and float periods that are 40-50 meters in length. Coaches have been known to go longer on the floating and work zones and, theoretically, the float periods can be used to learn to run with high lactate levels or to reduce lactate by controlling any unnecessary muscular recruitment.
Extended Repeats: Some coaches have extended the sprints and floats to 200 meters and, based on my discussions, this approach looks promising for those with issues managing tension during sprints. I don’t have any experience with this, but it seems very effective on paper.
Obviously, there are more workouts than these five, and I have heard of sessions that include small hurdles and I have seen sled workouts that were ultra-light. For the most part, however, keeping it clean and clear is much better than being cute or too innovative. The heart and soul of ins and outs are natural running motions with small throttling up and down. Performing the sprints with smooth form and enough speed should be sufficient to make progress, and I encourage you to read my velocity bands article to really understand the dynamics of the load and ways to manage improvement.
How to Use the Ergotest Laser as a Coaching Assistant
Technology is often a part of my articles, and the use of the Ergotest laser is perhaps the cleverest way to help develop a quantum leap forward with floating sprints. In fact, if it was not for the equipment, I would have simply had to place the workout into the “nice to do” category next to the “must do” bin. I talked about Muscle Lab equipment briefly in another article, and if I were to write it again I would make sure the top use is the laser and floating sprints. I am not embarrassed about the oversight as I am human, but like many workouts, sometimes what comes up first isn’t what works best.The Ergotest laser may be the cleverest way to take a quantum leap forward with floating sprints. Click To Tweet
The use of lasers in sport isn’t new, as they’ve been applied in sport for close to 30 years now. I was familiarized with some of the horizontal jumps in the research through the changes in velocity that were described using the instruments from Germany. In the late 2000s, the Usain Bolt research charts really made me rethink sprinting analysis because each step technically had its own acceleration profile. Moving from line charts with sprints to an instantaneous form that shows the rise and fall of velocity at every step, and even within the step, is a major advancement. What I thought was a training luxury might be the most important tool in a coach’s inventory.
The fact it reports data immediately makes the laser indispensable. While radar guns are nice, most of them report maximal velocity, not the continuous and instantaneous speed of a laser. Simply put, the laser is not only perfect for jumping events, it is the ideal solution for floating sprints as well. After a few rounds of performing the workout, the repetitions just need a quick eyeball to see if the session is going as planned. When using the laser, all you want to do is make sure you capture the sprint and know if the sprint is hitting the goals of the workout.
Coaches will likely spend most of their time using the software with video, and they can also use a contact grid if needed. It is possible to export the data and perform high-level analysis, but the goal of the equipment is to help ensure the workouts are effective, not just be a deep dive for sport scientists and researchers. EMG and other sensors, such as IMUs, can be integrated, but for now the laser is enough to make a world of difference.
Start Floating to Start Improving Speed
No matter what you call it—floating sprints, ins and outs, or contrast sprinting—the workout is a valuable weapon for a coach. Now that you have the details locked down and extra knowledge from using the right tools, you have all the necessary supporting resources.Whatever you call it—floating sprints, ins and outs, or contrast sprinting—the workout is valuable. Click To Tweet
Down the road, it will be nice to see more research on the subject and more coaching techniques that make the workout better, but for now we have a solid foundation for the training method. It’s up to the community to keep pushing the envelope. I found that this subject matter really challenged me to rethink ideas and experiences with a fresh and open mind, and I hope you try the workouts and discover what works for you.