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By Derek Hansen
While coaches often spend a great deal of time and effort deconstructing and making sense of research, theory, and movement biomechanics, they often don’t have good information on how to plan and implement a basic speed session, let alone plan for a week, month, or year. They may have a few drills they like to use, along with some general ideas on the total volume of work. But they’re less prepared to integrate each element in an organized way that gets the most out of their athletes.
Unfortunately, efficacious sprint programming is not taught in a university exercise science program or—on the other side of the spectrum—YouTube videos. Even coaching certification courses offer generic examples for program planning. Rarely do coaching instructors spend hours and hours looking at every possible scenario, combination, and permutation of circumstances and identify appropriate progressions.
And, let’s be honest, many coaches fall back on what they did as an athlete. They don’t actually plan for the individuals under their charge. They simply regurgitate workouts and cross their fingers hoping that natural selection or dumb luck will make them successful. And this process perpetuates the disorganization and randomness of training.
I had the fortune of learning under some masterful coaches like Charlie Francis and Al Vermeil—wise individuals who had well-thought-out reasons for every rep they prescribed and every minute of recovery that separated individual runs. While it’s difficult to document the mastery of coaching in one article, we can describe some basic premises around planning an individual sprint training session for coaches.
In our Running Mechanics Professional courses, which I’ve been delivering over the past year, we spend a great deal of time outlining this process. The comprehensive courses explore running mechanics, sprint training, return-to-play protocols, and integration of running programming for various sports and are directed at coaches, strength and conditioning specialists, and physical therapists.
For those who have not had the luxury of attending these sessions, this post summarizes some of the key issues for implementing sprint workouts.
Identifying Your Audience
Just like a good stand-up comedian, you have to know your audience and plan your routine for the best responses. Your jokes may be a hit in one city, but if they start missing the mark on a college campus, you have to adjust and improvise on the spot to avoid being heckled into irrelevancy.
As a coach, you rarely work with just one athlete over an extended period of time. Hence, your coaching instruction must be adaptable to fit with varying group sizes and athlete types. Every athlete needs your attention. And it’s your choice on how to allocate that attention in terms of when, what, how much, and how frequently.
If you spread yourself too thin over every athlete in your group, no one person will get enough attention for appropriate feedback and prescriptive advice to allow for significant and sustainable results. If you focus too much on one or two athletes, everyone else will suffer from a lack of coaching. Knowing how to manage the individuals in your group is imperative for sustained success.
One-on-one sessions. If you’re working with just one athlete, you can take much more time to explain technical details, field feedback from the athlete, and use rep-to-rep video review to document progress and solidify prescriptions. The downside is that it becomes very easy to fill the silence with too much information and grow fond of the sound of your own voice.
In these situations, it’s extremely valuable to give the athlete space between sets and reps to digest the work they’re doing and the cues offered to them. While there is a desire to maximize the “density” of the interaction in one-on-one scenarios, focusing on one quality or message usually goes a long way to realizing success over an accumulation of individual sessions. Periodic one-on-one sessions with athletes within your group can be very valuable to highlight technical issues or build a stronger connection with a specific athlete who may need a little more focused attention.Periodic one-on-one sessions with athletes highlight technical issues and build a stronger connection with specific athletes, says @DerekMHansen. Click To Tweet
With team sport athletes, I’ve had success conducting “maintenance” or “refinement” sessions once per week in a one-on-one format—both during the in-season and off-season periods—to both maintain and build qualities. In today’s age of raging specialization, there is neither the time nor energy to hold more than one 60-minute session per week without blowing the minds of the load management gurus in the industry.
It is, however, just enough volume and frequency to accomplish some goals that carry over into the competition realm and minimize injury caused by inefficient movement and poor coordination at higher speeds. Knowing how much and how hard is the key to hitting the sweet spot for these athletes without putting them over the top.
Small group 2-4. Small group sessions with enough athletes to make the time socially stimulating and extremely productive can be had with a handful of participants. These numbers allow for appropriate recovery periods while one athlete per rep is being completed. Feedback is provided in much smaller doses than in the one-on-one sessions but still ensures enough constructive information for athletes to maintain steady progress. Athletes get the opportunity to watch each other’s repetitions and gain some insight into cues and lessons that may also apply to them.
Medium group 4-10. Moderately sized groups—often what I found myself dealing with as a track and field sprint coach—still can offer a great deal of value and high-density coaching if set up correctly. These arrangements can work well in a track and field setting because athletes have a good understanding of the dynamics involved and have developed a degree of independence and self-sufficiency during a training session.
Team sport athletes, in my experience, tend to expect instruction on what to do all the time: where to stand, when to start, when to listen, and when to be quiet. The coach puts much more effort into multi-tasking with different flights of athletes performing their repetitions than in the smaller group arrangements. Athletes can do starts all at once or subdivided into groups.
Video review might occur as a group with everyone looking at their own repetition, and the coach making comments only when they need to correct specific errors. But individualization becomes more difficult, as time is a factor and athletes need to complete repetitions in rapid succession.
Large group 11 or more. These sessions typically involve an entire team performing the work en masse with coaches only offering corrections when individuals make egregious errors. Drills, workout goals, and technical recommendations tend to be more basic and simplified in implementation to ensure everyone understands what the coach expects of them.
Although video analysis is much more difficult, it can be done by assistant coaches or interns and reviewed at a later date. We don’t advise showing athletes individual video clips during the session because this can be distracting and disruptive and ruin the flow of the workout.
Having the entire group perform technical drills or repetitions can be difficult for a coach because there are so many bodies to monitor. Creating waves or rows of 3-4 athletes per repetition is easier to manage and allows athletes to recover adequately before their next attempt. Waves also make it easier to monitor run times, whether you’re using a handheld stopwatch or an electric timing system. The one-on-one and small group scenarios obviously lend themselves to easier performance monitoring by timing during daily workouts that have not been set up as milestone testing sessions.
In any case, it’s necessary to lower your expectations of how much you can accomplish with larger groups to minimize coaching burnout and prevent you from losing your voice. Scaling your efforts reduces your stress and makes it easier for athletes to process the work you’ve prescribed. Goal setting introductions before the workout and debrief sessions following training help educate the athletes on the items they performed well and the areas that need work, without interrupting the rhythm and flow of the session while it’s happening.
Group size is only one major variable relating to planning and implementing your sessions. Once you scale your coaching delivery, you can focus on other key areas of instruction. Some significant factors that can influence how you carry out your sprint sessions may include:
- Court sports involve shorter sprint distances than field sports.
- Larger athletes (football, basketball, rugby) may only require or tolerate shorter distance sprints.
- Surface types that athletes are accustomed to may dictate your choice of training surface.
- Athletes that compete on or in other mediums (ice hockey, cycling, swimming) may benefit from sprinting on a hard surface.
- Younger athletes may require more general fitness training than developed, mature athletes.
- Older, veteran athletes require or tolerate much less overall high-intensity volume than younger developed or developing athletes.
- Younger athletes may lose focus much quicker than more mature athletes, thus requiring shorter bouts of technical instruction.
- Athletes with a younger training age may require more technical instruction despite their chronological age.
- Athletes with an older training age may require relatively low volumes of speed work to maintain or improve speed qualities.
- Strength athletes need instruction on how to relax, think of technique over effort, and take advantage of their elastic qualities.
- Endurance athletes need to be taught that quality over quantity can have significant benefits.
- A training population with a more significant injury history may require a more gradual progression and lower overall volume initially.
- Athletes with a history of soft-tissue injuries from running in their sport may not have accumulated enough sprinting volume in the off-season to sustain their movement requirements for their sport.
Goals and Objectives
Once you know the nature and size of your training audience, it’s easier to formulate goals and objectives for the sessions. Every session can have both general and specific goals, varying from athlete to athlete and group to group. Some goals are philosophical while others are purely and specifically mechanical.
In all cases, having explicit goals and objectives that lead to tangible results is critical for every coach and performance professional. Goals such as team-building and mental toughness only distract you from achieving significant physiological and technical gains through deliberate practice and careful execution of movement skills.
Every sprint and speed coach has a technical model in mind for how they want an athlete to look during different phases of a sprint. We can characterize this as a general template or model for sprint mechanics that all athletes under their charge are aware of when entering a training season.
Once a coach understands the strengths and weaknesses of the athletes involved in the sessions, more specific technical prescriptions may be required from session to session to realize improvements in execution. Every coach should have an idea of what needs to be improved from session to session with all their athletes so they will progress over the long run.
Some common areas of technique refinement to highlight in a session are start mechanics, arm carriage, head position, step over height, and general relaxation as it relates to effort. Coaches often rotate their emphasis over several training sessions so as not to grind the athletes with the same feedback repeatedly.
The individual distances covered in a sprint workout are determined by many factors, including sport, event, time of year, facility constraints, weather, athlete size, and the coach’s training approach.
Shorter distances may be associated with an emphasis on explosive starts or working with heavy linemen in American football. Longer sprint distances may be required specifically for 400-meter sprinters in track and field. Intermediate sprint distances may be appropriate for team sport athletes who must perform upright sprinting at high speeds several times throughout a game or match.It's better not to combine a broad array of distances in the same session with your athletes, particularly with larger groups, says @DerekMHansen. Click To Tweet
In most cases, it’s not advisable to combine a broad array of distances with athletes, particularly with larger groups. If you decide to work on starts and shorter accelerations, the bulk of the session should involve repetitions in that range of distance. In a maximum velocity session, which should be a separate session, you can precede maximum velocity sprinting with some shorter accelerations—but not so much that energy is drained early in the workout. This would negatively impact the session’s main objective.
Track and field athletes may be more focused and experienced to handle a broader range of distances within one session. These training sessions tend to be longer in duration, though, and require longer recovery periods than may be possible with team sport athletes. It’s very easy to want to accomplish many goals within one session. However, simplifying your efforts, setting the “bar” an appropriate height, and identifying achievable results are always more productive in the end.
“Fake-sport-specialization” has led to a trend toward making all locomotion activities multi-directional and agility-laden. Apparently, straight lines or even slightly curved arcs do not exist in high-level sports—as though the shortest distance between two points remains elusive.
Simply watching a sporting activity, particularly at the higher levels, will yield some movement truths. Multi-direction work is certainly required to prepare an athlete for many sports, but at volumes that are far lower than what is done currently by many sport coaches, strength and conditioning professionals, and even do-it-yourself parents.Let's not forget that much of the sport-specific work gets done in the sporting practice sessions, says @DerekMHansen. #SprintTraining Click To Tweet
Hence, coaches must be organized and deliberate in their prescription and implementation of multi-directional work. Let us not forget that much of the sport-specific work gets done in the sporting practice sessions, and too much of a good thing can yield nagging overuse injuries.
One of the most valuable means of determining the length of a training session is examining the constraints over which you have no control. You may only have a facility for 60 minutes, your athletes have classes to attend, or a sporting body only allows a certain amount of training time for your team. Much of our training is determined by conventions that have nothing to do with optimal training methods. For thousands of years, the days of the week have dictated microcycles, not physiological parameters or accurately determined circadian rhythms.
Once you have determined your time allotment for a given session, you begin to examine the amount of time required for equipment setup, warm-ups, individual repetitions, and the recovery times needed for maximal effort and adaptation. Time and recovery determine the work, not some magical physiological formula or coaching intuition. Understanding that leaving some work on the table is not only necessary but also keeps a coach from overdoing it in most cases.
The job of the typical track and field coach is a little more flexible when planning loads. The track facility is rarely booked by numerous sports and groups that share time and fight over start and finish times. Even good track coaches, however, typically impose minimum and maximum times on the track to ensure their athletes have energy and motivation to fight another day. Understanding that athletes have a finite capacity for many tasks and qualities will yield better performances and more durable athletes.
Many coaches struggle over ordering the types of work in their sessions. Some are still wildly mesmerized by ridiculous concepts such as muscle confusion and planned variability, rarely understanding the necessity for repetition, redundancy, accumulation of quality, and well-thought-out work. As Bruce Lee stated, “I do not fear the man who has learned 10,000 different kicks, but more the man who has mastered one kick 10,000 times.”
In general, it’s always advisable to carry out the more energy demanding and complex tasks earlier in the session. Starts require more energy to set the body explosively into motion and also involve significant technical requirements. While one can argue that maximum velocity sprinting is more demanding from both a central and peripheral perspective, it involves more of a “flow-state” with cyclical execution and lower brain involvement.A short-to-long approach to a #SprintSession yields positive results and also presents a logical progression to the athletes, says @DerekMHansen. Click To Tweet
Starts can create greater anxiety and overall muscle tension—particularly with the anticipation of each repetition—and are best to address at the outset of the workout before tackling the longer efforts. Hence, a short-to-long approach to an overall workout session can yield positive results. It also presents a logical progression to the athlete as the distances build over time and we add more segments to the individual runs. Working in the reverse order is less intuitive and can also negatively impact technical execution.Ancillary training activities like plyometrics, throws, and weightlifting work better after sprint training, says @DerekMHansen. #SprintTraining Click To Tweet
It’s also advisable to follow your sprint work with ancillary training activities such as plyometrics, throws, and weightlifting. These noncyclical activities work better after the athletes complete the cyclical, high-speed work. Sometimes, coaches include medicine ball throws and plyometrics—in very manageable doses—before sprint training to try to facilitate a higher level of activation for starts or accelerations. The key is to use these modalities sparingly so as not to steal energy—both physical and psychological—from the main goal: speed!
The training and competition warm-up protocols used by today’s coaches and athletes are some of the most overthought and under-evaluated aspects of physical preparation. Once again, we hear terms such as movement variability, activation and potentiation, functional, and sports-specific used in an ad nauseam fashion to justify ill-conceived approaches.
The whole point of the warm-up is to prepare athletes for the reality and intensity of what will take place in training and competition. If you expect athletes to accelerate and run fast in training, you had better include a progression of work that covers these qualities.
In its simplest form, a warm-up should include activities that physically increase heat and circulation throughout the entire body. The warm-up also must progressively simulate the activities and intensities the athletes will experience in training and competition. I’ve always said that the easiest way to warm up is to use a short-to-long sprint approach that gradually dials up intensity while moving from shorter sprints to longer sprints. Acceleration involves muscles that play a lesser role in upright sprinting, and vice versa.A short-to-long warm-up gradually introduces all of the required muscles & increases velocity & overall muscle recruitment as part of the progression. Click To Tweet
A short-to-long approach gradually introduces all of the required muscles and increases velocity and overall muscle recruitment as part of the progression. Drills can emphasize posture, limb movements, and specific qualities (hip range of motion, elastic ground contacts, rapid arm movements, etc.), but we don’t need to use them extensively. We can also intersperse flexibility and range-of-motion exercises throughout the process, often as a check of muscle status and general readiness.
With a large group of athletes, often a highly structured warm-up approach limiting degrees of freedom works best. Determine how much time you can dedicate to the warm-up and then fill in the blanks. With smaller groups of high-performance athletes, you may want to give a bit more independence over how they prepare to take into consideration their individual preferences.
With younger athletes, you’ll have to overstructure the warm-up to make sure they hit all of the key movements and intensities. In all cases, having a plan, identifying objectives, and sticking to a timeline must be part of the approach to ensure you don’t waste time and your athletes are ready to go.
While it may not be within the scope of your work to carry out physical therapy techniques on your athletes, it’s always good to know what is possible so you can seek out a practitioner to help you with your athletes. Talking-the-talk may be vital in getting someone else to walk-the-walk for you.
Although most therapeutic interventions take place away from the training venue, many operations now have integrated facilities where athletes can train and receive treatment for injuries under the same roof. Other programs have physical therapy staff on-site during training sessions. Regardless, it’s good to discuss with your team of professionals how to work with athletes during a training session. Having athletes spontaneously and randomly drop out of repetitions to get “tuned up” can be risky if not done properly.
It’s very important to provide an assessment period at the beginning of the session to address issues and communicate information. Access to therapeutic professionals at training sessions is a luxury, and we must treat them as such to avoid the “distraction effect” from hijacking the main purpose of the session: training!
Application of Drills
All coaches use drills in their training progressions to break down larger, more complicated skills. Often, however, the drills become business-as-usual, and both athletes and coaches forget the primary reason the drills were introduced. Apathy takes hold of the exercises, and technique degrades very quickly. Drills also get thrown into a warm-up routine where focus is in short supply and movements become sloppy. While drills can be valuable and certainly have their place in a training session, coaches must be very careful with their application. Drills should be used strategically, precisely, and consistently over time to accrue the true and full benefits.
Drills are helpful in the early portions of a training session—following a general warm-up routine—to reinforce proper movement patterns and activate the muscles required for the tasks ahead. Many drills involve specific strengthening characteristics that assist with the proper execution of full movements in sports.
While terms such as activation and potentiation are often used to prepare an athlete for maximal efforts in training and competition, drills also serve this purpose. When moved to the end of a training session, drills can reinforce the movement patterns practiced in the primary training session. Coaches must be careful to monitor technique and fatigue closely to avoid reinforcing poor movement patterns.
Monitoring and Evaluation
Qualities that are difficult to measure by objective means often play a significant role in the coaching process. Detecting muscle tension, relaxation, movement efficiency, or perception of pain and effort should all be discussed with the athlete, albeit in small doses and only when warranted. We can then correlate these subjective measures with the objective data collected from session to session.
Even video review interventions can involve a conversation around the question, “How did you feel on this repetition, and does it look as though you thought it would?” Often, athletes have very poor perception and awareness of what they’re trying to affect in a sprint effort and what they demonstrate on video. While your job is not to make your athlete feel embarrassed or uncomfortable about their performances, you should work with them to affect their best biomechanical efforts and resulting outputs. This is certainly the goal of the coaching process.
Run times. Data collection for monitoring, feedback, and overall tracking of progress are critical in any performance domain. There are many ways to collect athlete efforts over various distances, and most track and field coaches use a conventional stopwatch. The stopwatch is portable, relatively inexpensive, and very convenient, but its accuracy is highly variable, depending on who is conducting the timing.
The stopwatch—particularly in the hands of those collecting 40-yard dash times—often enhances or diminishes a performance depending on the motives of the timer. Some experienced coaches have found the stopwatch quite useful for tracking progress daily, particularly over longer sprint distances where minute deviations in start and stop reflexes don’t make a difference.Valid and consistent timing results over short sprint distances (less than 200 meters) require electronic timing says @DerekMHansen. #SprintTraining Click To Tweet
Those of us who need valid and consistent timing results over shorter sprint distances (i.e., less than 200 meters) require some form of electronic timing. Accurate times can be had to the hundredth of a second by infrared beam systems, radio frequency chips, and high-speed video applications and cameras. The choice of direction depends on the budget, personal preference, athlete group size, frequency of use, and manual labor resources available to the coach.
While the scope of this article does not cover the intricacies of electronic and fully automatic timing systems, numerous options are available and have been discussed and reviewed online. Any serious performance professional should look at implementing at least one of these systems to verify athlete improvements accurately.
Ground contact times. Ground contact time data has become more and more relevant to performance evaluations, as research has shown that shorter, more forceful contacts correlate with faster running. Although it’s not as easy or economical to collect as sprint times, ground contact data can be caught using a variety of methods.
Anyone with a modern smartphone should have the capability to collect high-definition video at 120 frames per second, which offers accurate times up to a hundredth of a second. While some coaches and analysts resort to manually counting frames of video to calculate ground contact durations, you can import video footage into video analysis applications that do the work for you. Dartfish Express, for example, allows you to tag the initial contact frame and the moment at toe-off to calculate the duration of ground contact for the stance phase during a sprint.
Those who have access to in-ground force-plate technology can also scrape ground contact data. But this can be much more expensive, time costly, much less portable, and generally more complex to set up and implement with a large group of athletes. In-shoe force transducer technology may soon allow us to collect this type of information for groups of athletes at a reasonable price point. In the interim, video footage may serve as the most practical option.
Limb angles. The video analysis applications discussed above often can measure postural and limb angles. It’s imperative to compare apples to apples and not oranges in this case. You must take time and care to capture video from the same distances, angles, and, preferably, the same device. Different cameras, lenses, and smartphones have varying fields of view, depths of field, and even a degree of distortion at the outer edges of the frame. Keeping this in mind, exercise due diligence and create standard operating procedures around your video collection practices.
Velocities. Some video analysis applications can measure velocities, but short of having an expensive instantaneous velocity laser device on hand, it may not be that important to track this information if you can capture interval times over 5 and 10 meters using more conventional electronic timers. You can obtain average velocities using split times, and these may be enough to determine notable increases or decreases in velocity at various stages of a sprint effort.
Stride frequency and stride length. While many world-class biomechanical analyses involve measures of stride frequency and stride length, it may not be as imperative to capture exceptionally accurate data on these qualities, at least not regularly. Counting strides over a given 20-meter window—achieved with a flying start—is an easier way to estimate average stride length and frequency at maximum velocity. In most cases, it’s not advisable to let the athletes know you’re trying to capture this data, as they may alter their normal mechanics to try achieve a better score and corrupt the data. Even worse, they may hurt themselves.
Clearly, we could discuss this topic over tens of thousands of words in multiple volumes and a companion video series. I want to get coaches thinking about the key considerations when planning their sessions. During many years competing as an athlete, coaching athletes, and now educating coaches and rehabilitation professionals, I’ve seen and heard many things.
Much of the information has been good, but much has been illogical and egregious. While it’s easy to point the finger from afar and judge coaches for their actions—even questioning their motives and character—it may be more appropriate to produce resources to guide coaches and make them think about their philosophy and procedures. As my good friend Mark Uyeyama often states, “Most people don’t even know what they don’t know.”
Not many people have had the opportunities I’ve had to learn from some pretty special coaches and human beings. Some of it was sheer luck, but it also involved seeking out the best and learning firsthand the techniques they used to produce champions. It allowed me to get into their heads and truly understand why they did what they did at any given time.
I followed this with a good deal of trial-and-error to experiment with their formulations and philosophies. And while much of what they told me worked, I was forced to come up with some new concepts and techniques on my own. Necessity is the mother of invention, and putting yourself in a situation where you have to deliver often yields positive outcomes and growth. So take this article with a grain of salt, put it in the back of your mind, and get out there and coach to the best of your ability.
I look forward to hearing about your successes and failures; we’ll continue to grow together. For more information on the Running Mechanics Professional courses on this subject and many more other areas related to performance and rehabilitation, please visit Running Mechanics Professional.