Out of the five key training principles—specificity, overload, individualization, variation, and reversibility—perhaps the one that I gave the most attention was specificity: Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands or SAID. This states that the body will adapt to better tolerate the specific stress placed on it. Very simply, this means that if you want to sprint faster, then you need to sprint in training.
The most specific exercise for a sprinter will be sprinting the race distance while fresh, as this most closely replicates the demands of the competitive exercise. This point was nicely emphasized in a recent tweet by Carl Valle, when he wrote “While a good array of drills can be helpful, eventually you have to run the 100 or 200m, not the 50m wicket or 30m hands up drill.” It is worth noting that Carl advocated that drills can be helpful and may have their place.
There is a difference between including general training in your training program and training exclusively with general means. I have been more present on social media since the pandemic began, and one of the things that has struck me is the lack of nuance in some of the opinions being shared, with the point often appearing to be that general training has no place in a sprint program. My view is that including general training means is not necessarily a problem, but excluding specific training is.My view is that including general training means is not necessarily a problem, but excluding specific training is, says @davidmaris958. Click To Tweet
With this in mind, I will discuss some general means of training and how they may be of benefit to a sprinter.
Cracking the Code of Tempo Running
Tempo running has become a divisive topic recently, yet I think it is a very vague label that can encompass a variety of activities. In the Key Concepts Elite publication from 2008 by Charlie Francis, he alluded to intensive tempo runs being those completed at 76%-94% intensity, and extensive tempo runs being those performed at 75% or less. Therefore, according to this definition, anything less than 95% of maximum is considered a tempo run.
As a side note, Brendan Thompson and I recently had a discussion about how intensity is defined either as a measure of effort or a measure of maximum pace. But for the purpose of this discussion, I will use the definition used by Francis in his literature. Therefore, if an athlete has a 100-meter personal best time of 11.0 seconds, 75% would be 11/0.75=14.67 seconds.
An additional issue with defining efforts in terms of intensity of maximal speed is that what is maximum speed on one day may not be maximum speed the next, so theoretically, what may be a tempo run one day may be speed work the next, or vice versa. I digress slightly, but this point emphasizes the need for nuance and clear definitions when discussing topics like this.
There are those who think all tempo is an absolute waste of time, but I believe it is naïve to think that no positive contributions can ever be made toward sprint performance by running at 94% intensity, but running at 95% will bring about positive adaptations. Of course, as a sprinter there are times when it is absolutely appropriate to run at 95% intensity or above. But, as I alluded to, just because these high-intensity efforts are essential to optimizing sprint performance, it does not mean that runs at below that threshold have no value.
A limitation of high-intensity sprinting is that not very much of it can be done before quality diminishes and injury risk increases. One benefit of tempo running is that a greater volume of work can be completed, and it therefore allows an athlete to practice a higher number of ground contacts. Motor learning requires repetition, and lower intensity running offers this opportunity.One benefit of tempo running is that a greater volume of work can be completed, and it therefore allows an athlete to practice a higher number of ground contacts, says @davidmaris958. Click To Tweet
One mechanism that may explain the learning effect from repetition is myelination. Myelin is a fatty sheath that surrounds neurons, and each time an action is performed, the neurons that have been activated to bring about that movement become insulated by ever so slightly more myelin. This allows, with the repetition of sound technique, the more optimal neural pathways to become the preferred pathways, therefore ingraining more optimal mechanics.
Ultimately, in sprint races, with the possible exception of 55- or 60-meter races, there is an element of fatigue that will impact the athlete, making it impossible to maintain peak velocity. By challenging the athlete to run under fatigue, we strengthen various mechanisms that may reduce the extent and rate by which the athlete’s velocity degrades. Repeated efforts using incomplete recoveries can facilitate having an athlete run in this fatigued state and therefore challenge these mechanisms.
Developing a greater resistance to this fatigue has the added positive effect of increasing an athlete’s work capacity. This means a sprinter’s fitness now allows them to perform a greater volume of high-intensity sprints before reaching a point where the intensity diminishes too much for the work to provide a specific stimulus. This then potentially allows for a greater training stimulus to be produced, which can therefore deliver a greater stress and adaptation.
A further potential mechanism by which tempo running may assist a sprinter, which Charlie Francis alluded to, is by increasing the capillary density within the muscle tissue, providing two potential benefits.
- The increased blood flow allows for fresh nutrients to be supplied to the tissue and for the removal of waste products, aiding in repair and regeneration.
- The increased blood flow to the area allows for the temperature of a muscle to be elevated for longer, therefore making it easier to warm up and to stay warm between efforts.
The elevated tissue temperature has a further benefit, in that it heats the motor neurons, which may lower electrical resistance. This therefore allows it to take on characteristics more like a white type II fiber, enabling neural signals to be transmitted more quickly.
A very simple benefit of tempo running is the opportunity to expend more calories, which can have an advantageous impact on body composition by lowering an athlete’s body fat. Very simply, body fat (beyond the low level required for health and physiological requirements) is nonfunctional mass, not assisting the sprinter in moving down the track, but acting as a dead weight. Newton’s second law states that force is a product of mass and acceleration; thus, if an athlete is lighter but able to produce and apply the same magnitude of force, they will accelerate more quickly.I think there is some merit in occasionally making the training environment more challenging than the competition environment, within reason, says @davidmaris958. Click To Tweet
Finally, although the term “mental toughness” gets a bad rap, I think there is some merit in occasionally making the training environment more challenging than the competition environment, within reason. Completing runs of race distance or longer, with incomplete recoveries, can be difficult. By comparison, completing the race distance for a single effort in competition can feel easier and less daunting, potentially placing the athlete in a more optimal psychological state when in the competitive environment.
Simple Bike Routines and Pool Use
In certain scenarios, athletes use a bike for intervals of different durations and intensities and/or use the pool to either swim or perform aqua jogging. Aqua jogging is essentially performing a running type action, often with a floatation device, which assists in keeping the head above water. Again, the intervals in the pool may vary in intensity and duration, although going too easy while aqua jogging does make it difficult to keep the head above the water.
The bike and pool offer many of the same benefits as tempo running, though not all. They provide the opportunity to work under fatigue, expend calories, and complete workouts that may feel more challenging than the competitive exercise. A potential advantage of using a bike or a pool to meet these objectives is that they can be targeted without the risk of compromised running mechanics, which could lead to poor motor patterning come race day.
I mentioned myelination earlier, and just as good mechanics can be reinforced via tempo running, so too can poor mechanics if sound technique is not maintained throughout the session. While good mechanics cannot be reinforced in a bike or pool workout, neither can suboptimal mechanics. Due to the fact that bike and pool workouts are removed from running and sprinting and because they are non-weight-bearing, they can be completed in many cases when an athlete is managing an injury that does not allow them to perform sprints. Therefore, certain aspects of fitness can be targeted and maintained, or even improved, while the athlete recovers from their injury.
Strength Training Is the Lifeblood of Durability
Perhaps one of the most commonly used general training means by sprinters away from the track is resistance training. The athlete can use either their own body weight—for example, push-ups and pull-ups—or an external load to create resistance, as is the case with Olympic lifts, squats, deadlifts, and bench press. They challenge their physiology in order to produce enough force to resist and/or overcome the load.
It’s not unusual to see in a sprinter’s training that the time spent in the weight room equals the time spent on the track. I believe that sometimes the importance of resistance training is overstated; however, it can serve some purpose for many athletes.
When a tissue is overloaded, it experiences microscopic tears that, when given appropriate nutrients and adequate recovery, repair slightly stronger than before, allowing it to tolerate higher forces. This can be of value to a sprinter in terms of ensuring tissues are resilient enough to withstand the forces placed upon them through sprinting; the caveat being that sprinting mechanics need to be within an optimal enough range that tissues are not overly compromised throughout the running action.
Jonas Tawiah Dodoo has a saying, “gym to jump,” which essentially means the nervous system is placed in a context where it needs to override inhibition in order to produce adequate force to complete an exercise, such as a heavy squat or deadlift. This allows those force-producing capacities to become available in more specific contexts, such as sprinting.
More force production capacity means either less time spent on the ground to achieve the force threshold required to get back off the ground—and therefore a shorter ground contact and an increased stride frequency—or greater impulse, a product of force multiplied and time, produced in the same time interval, leading to a greater displacement of the sprinter’s center of mass, and therefore a longer stride length. When considering that velocity is a product of stride length and stride frequency, it is easy to see how this may bring about a benefit to a sprinter’s performance. I think it is important to note that this is not the only means to improve the force production capabilities of an athlete while sprinting, and I will address other options later in the article.
Additionally, while not an area I’m particularly familiar with, many of Frans Bosch’s exercises use resistance training to challenge coordination. This may improve the capacity of an athlete to fire and relax the required motor units in the appropriate sequence, at the right time, thus leading to improved technical competency and more efficient sprinting.
Medicine Ball Training for Bridging the Gap
A medicine ball is a fairly versatile piece of equipment that allows for various exercises to be completed. Perhaps the two most common uses of the medicine ball in a sprinter’s training are to develop force application and strengthen the muscles around the athlete’s midsection.
With regard to force application, various exercises sit at different points along what is known as the force-velocity curve. At one end (force), there are movements such as deadlifts and squats, whereby a lot of force is produced to complete the movement, but they do so at a slow velocity. At the other end (velocity), there are exercises such as sprinting, where the absolute force produced by the athlete’s musculature may be less (though through the elasticity of the athlete’s tissues, forces of around five times body weight may be managed), but they’re done with greater velocity.Med ball exercises satisfy a point on the force-velocity continuum that is difficult to address with traditional weight room exercises, which are too slow, says @davidmaris958. Click To Tweet
The use of medicine balls to improve force application generally centers around throws, and there are various options that can be implemented in training, such as forward throws and backward overhead throws starting with the ball between the athletes’ legs. These are used to develop coordination and, to a degree, the expression of strength through forceful hip extension. These exercises satisfy a point on the continuum that is difficult to address with traditional weight room exercises, which are too slow, or by sprinting, which is further toward the velocity end of the spectrum.
As mentioned, medicine ball exercises can be used to strengthen the musculature around the center of the athlete’s body. These may assist in the maintenance of good posture and the avoidance of leakage of force while the athlete is performing the competitive exercise. Exercises that encourage the athletes to “brace their core,” such as marches or hurdle walkovers with a medicine ball held above the head or extended in front of the body, may be used to strengthen the athlete’s musculature in this area with the hope that it transfers to maximum effort sprinting.
Plyometrics – Jumping to Complement the Training Process
Jumps and plyometric activities are often parts of a sprinter’s training program, and they can serve several purposes. I think it is worth discussing the definition of plyometrics, since when created by Verkhoshansky, this “shock method” involved athletes landing and then taking off with a ground contact time in the range of 0.1-0.2 seconds. However, the American definition appears to categorize any kind of jumping as a plyometric.
There are various exercises within this category. Some are quite intense—such as hurdle bounds, skips for distance, and speed bounds—and some are less intense, like the low-level hops, jumps, and skips I have borrowed from Dan Pfaff’s multi-jump series called Rudiment. I often use Rudiment as the final part of my warm-up before I do a high-intensity sprint training session. It was also something I used throughout a recent return to sprinting after a calf issue.
My feeling is that the series of jumps was less stressful on the connective tissues around the foot, ankle, and lower leg than sprinting itself, yet it placed enough stress upon them to build some tolerance. From a technical perspective, I think this series assists in rehearsing a good ground contact position by emphasizing a flat landing with the foot landing underneath the hips. This can help a sprinter move more efficiently, benefitting performance directly, but also indirectly by decreasing the risk of injury, allowing for more consistent training, and therefore superior results.
As discussed with throws, there are various activities across a force-velocity continuum, and jumps tend to sit toward the velocity end, satisfying a point on the curve that resistance training may not be able to. Triple extension appears to be a contentious issue, but throughout sprinting there is extension of the joints at the hip, knee, and ankle to some extent. Jumps and plyometric activities can provide an environment to rehearse this movement under load and time constraints, with the more intense variety providing an opportunity to enhance force production capabilities.
It is worth noting that it can become easy to use jumps as a filler type of activity, but it is important to recognize that an exercise may be part of a series that can be progressed or regressed as appropriate for the athlete completing the training. Additionally, it may be worth considering that exercises may be categorized via vector bias. Some jumps may be more horizontal in nature and some may be more vertical.
Acceleration involves relatively more horizontal displacement compared to upright running, which involves relatively more vertical displacement. Therefore, when organizing training, it may be sensible to group horizontal plyometrics with acceleration activities and vertical plyometrics with upright running activities. For more information regarding the implementation of jumps in training, I recommend reading Brendan Thompson’s recent article on the topic.
Stretching Is Training – Don’t Forget!
As with many of the other general training categories, you can break stretching down into further subcategories. Static stretching, where the position is held for a specified duration, and dynamic stretching, where the joint is taken through a range of movement without a position ever being held still, are probably the most common. Proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation, or PNF stretching, is another technique in which the tissues are taken toward the end of their range of motion before they perform a contraction pushing against a resistance, which allows greater range to be achieved throughout the subsequent relaxation.
Most athletes at some point use stretching as a part of their training, which can assist the athlete via several proposed mechanisms. Primarily, stretching may lengthen the fascicles in the muscle. It may also improve the athlete’s circulation, which could bring about some of the benefits alluded to in the section about tempo running regarding nutrient supply and removal of waste products from a tissue, as well as maintenance of muscle temperature.At which point do we consider an activity to no longer be specific?, asks @davidmaris958. Click To Tweet
Another benefit is that stretching may adjust the perception the nervous system has of a range of motion. If tissues surrounding a joint are not taken through a large range of motion, then once they reach uncharted territory, the nervous system will bring about contractions in those tissues as an inhibitory defense mechanism in order to prevent the tissues being stretched further due to the perceived threat of damage. However, through a well-implemented flexibility program, the tissues can be taken through a greater range of motion, while the nervous system is re-educated to recognize that this poses less of a threat, therefore allowing for greater relaxation in the tissues and subsequently more flexibility. In the appropriate tissues, these ranges of motion may assist the sprinter’s performance, as discussed by Craig Pickering in his article “Training the Masters Sprinter,” where he mentions the evidence to suggest that greater hip flexion correlates to superior sprint performance.
Stretching, along with other modalities, may fall under the umbrella term of self-therapy. This may include foam rolling, the use of a ball for trigger pointing, voodoo flossing, and use of newer gadgets such as Normatec boots or massage guns. There are various mechanisms through which these activities may assist in optimizing tissue quality and relaxation, and many are popular with athletes today.
Parting Thoughts on General Training
As discussed, there are various nonspecific training means that coaches and athletes have used to produce successful results. Of course, there is always the argument that athletes may have been more successful if elements of their training program had been different. But this is something impossible to know the answer to, given the physiological, psychological, anatomical, or mechanical effects (a non-exhaustive list) that changing one variable could potentially have upon the athlete.
I debated including a section on resisted and assisted sprinting, as it is nonspecific in certain aspects—such as surface, if running on a hill, or the fact that a harness may be used—but I decided that these kinds of tasks were perhaps not general enough to warrant discussion in the scope of this article. It raised the question: At which point do we consider an activity to no longer be specific? Sprinting 101 meters is less specific than sprinting 100 meters for a 100-meter sprinter, but is it still specific? It’s a crude train of thought, but hopefully it highlights my point. Perhaps this threshold is something the community could do a better job of defining.I think we often focus on differences in approaches as opposed to common themes, and a common theme amongst all successful sprint programs is that the athletes sprint, says @davidmaris958. Click To Tweet
I mentioned in my article, “9 Lessons I Learned from Speed Experts,” that I felt sometimes we are too quick to point out the flaws in the approach others take as opposed to looking for what we may be able to learn from them. By the same token, I think we often focus on differences in approaches as opposed to common themes, and a common theme amongst all successful sprint programs is that the athletes sprint. Admittedly, the volumes and frequency at which they sprint may vary, sometimes greatly, but specific qualities are addressed. The specific training is often supplemented by more general means and should a needs analysis of an athlete determine there are areas that need to be addressed, hopefully this article can provide some insight into the various tools that may be appropriate to fill those gaps.
Since you’re here…
…we have a small favor to ask. More people are reading SimpliFaster than ever, and each week we bring you compelling content from coaches, sport scientists, and physiotherapists who are devoted to building better athletes. Please take a moment to share the articles on social media, engage the authors with questions and comments below, and link to articles when appropriate if you have a blog or participate on forums of related topics. — SF