While not blessed with the genetics to excel at sprinting, I consider track and field to have treated me very well. To offer some perspective, I am a masters athlete, having recently turned 38 years old, and I have never broken 11 seconds for 100 meters or 23 seconds for 200 meters, and at this point I assume I never will. I have spent four years coaching youth athletes in Dubai, and although I’m not currently coaching, it is something I see myself returning to in the future. However, largely due to being in the right place at the right time, I have been extremely fortunate to cross paths with some of the world’s leading sprinters, coaches, and authorities in speed development.
This is not something I have taken lightly, and I am under no illusion that my athletic capabilities warrant the input from some of the great minds that have offered me help and advice over the past 20 years. With this in mind, I have counted my blessings and endeavored to learn something from each encounter and tried to apply any lesson where appropriate as I progressed through my involvement in the sport.
In no particular order, I have decided to offer a lesson learned from some of the athletes and coaches I have interacted with. Some of the knowledge was imparted by extremely prominent names, other wisdom was derived from lesser-known sources, and there are many more names I could add to this list. Some of the lessons I have learned along the way have been fairly specific, but I have tried to reflect upon and share some of the broader concepts I have picked up on. This is due in part to the fact that I think in recent years the speed development community has become prone to consumption by minutiae, and I feel stepping back, considering the big picture, and being more holistic in the development of sprinters could be a positive thing.
1. Craig Pickering – Keep the Big Picture in Mind and Think Critically
When I first joined what was then Milton Keynes Athletics Club, an athlete four years younger than me named Craig Pickering had also recently joined. Many readers will be familiar with his name, as he has written fairly extensively for SimpliFaster and now has a role in high-performance sport with Athletics Australia.
At 14 years old, Craig won the national Under-15 100m title and went on to have a strong senior career, finishing with personal best times of 10.14 over 100 meters and 6.55 over 60 meters. He made the Olympic team in the 100 meters in 2008 and qualified for the 2014 Winter Olympics as part of the British bobsled team, before injury forced him to retire prematurely from international sport. In my opinion, Craig has an excellent understanding of the details related to training and athlete development.
Craig and I still speak regularly, and what continues to impress me is his ability to process new information, take a step back, see where it fits, and apply it, without getting drawn down rabbit holes. Prior to his role in Athletics Australia, Craig worked for a company involved in genetic research and testing, and he introduced me to the ACTN3 gene. The ACTN3 gene is also known as the “sprint gene,” and it relates to the body’s ability to produce type IIx muscle fibers, with an individual’s genotype offering clues as to how they may most appropriately be trained to develop speed and power qualities.
Whereas I went down that proverbial rabbit hole, Craig was able to reflect on this and consider that, while there may be some merit in applying some of this information to training programs, a sprinter still needed to be able to clear the blocks effectively, accelerate efficiently, and reach a high maximum velocity that they could also maintain well. Therefore, regardless of an athlete’s ACTN3 status, these qualities required regular development in training.When I am now faced with some new information, instead of mindlessly attempting to apply it, I try to consider how Craig Pickering may interpret it. Where does this information fit? Click To Tweet
When I am now faced with some new information, instead of mindlessly attempting to apply it, I try to consider how Craig may interpret it. Where does this information fit? Is my context suitable for the application of this information? Ultimately, this has led to a more holistic thought process with regard to my sprint training.
2. Greg Rutherford – Listen to Your Body, and Rest Is Underrated
At around the same time I met Craig, there was another athlete there who was also four years younger than me named Greg Rutherford. When I introduced this article stating that luck was involved in the paths I crossed, part of that luck was joining a club when it was on the brink of becoming a national hotbed for youth athletics talent. Greg was prodigious and won his first European medal—long jump silver—at 19 years old, before going through a golden spell in his career that saw him become Olympic, World, European, and Commonwealth Champion, as well as British record holder in the event with 8.51 meters. Additionally, he was a useful sprinter with personal best times of 10.26 over 100 meters and 6.68 over 60 meters.
One of the key influences (in my opinion, and likely in Greg’s as well) that led to Greg’s golden spell was a reduction in training volume and frequency. At the time, I recall (arrogantly) thinking Greg was lazy. There were times when we were due to train together, and Greg would cancel because he had taken his dogs for a long walk or had been installing windows in his new house, and I recall thinking “Imagine how good he could be if he devoted himself.” Upon reflection, however, I now think Greg was exceptionally in tune with his body and knew when he needed to back off in order to deliver the required intensity and effort when he did train. The reduction in training frequency and volume saw a reduction in injuries, and the rest, as they say, is history.
As I have gotten (a lot) older, I now try to consider this lesson when faced with a training session. Am I ready to deliver the appropriate intensity? If not, is it a better idea to back off and live to fight another day? My circumstances are fairly busy, and around a full-time teaching job and a 3-year-old daughter, my recovery is often not optimal, so it’s become paramount to think carefully about when I can “go hard” or whether I should “go home.”
3. Dave Lease – Train Speed Year-Round
In 2003, I moved to Cardiff to study sport and exercise science at its university, and one of the reasons I chose the institution was its sports facilities. They had an indoor, banked 200-meter track, which was unheard of in those days in the U.K. Those facilities meant that there were elite athletes who made that venue their training hub, and this enabled me to witness high-level sprinters and sprint coaches operating on a daily basis. Dave Lease was known for coaching Jason Gardener to a world indoor bronze medal over 60 meters in 1999 (behind Maurice Greene and Tim Harden) and for helping him to run 6.46 over 60 meters and 9.98 over 100 meters.
Dave was perhaps the equivalent for me of Charlie Francis for many people. In my first year at university, Dave delivered a lecture for my course, and one point that stood out was that he tried to coach Jason as though they were based in Southern California year-round as opposed to an outdoor track in Bath, England. Dave had staple year-round sessions for Jason, such as 3×30 meter fly runs with six minutes’ recovery between the repetitions, or block sessions consisting of runs over anywhere from 1-6 steps.
These kinds of workouts were almost unheard of to me, and up until that point my training had typically consisted of far higher volume. With maximal sprinting, the overall volumes an athlete can achieve within a session are quite limited, and in order to replicate maximal intensity, the recovery intervals need to be extended. Otherwise, you are no longer sprinting maximally, and the stimulus and therefore the adaptation are impacted. Jason had appeared to thrive with this type of training incorporated into his program, and the times mentioned above remained his personal bests for the rest of his career.Having seen the way Dave Lease constructed his training programs, I have always incorporated some form of maximal intent sprinting throughout the year, and not just in season. Click To Tweet
It stands to reason that if you want to sprint maximally in competition, at some point in practice you will also need to sprint maximally and probably reasonably regularly. Doing so helps develop the body’s physiological capabilities to reach and operate at higher velocities. Having seen the way Dave constructed his training programs, I have always incorporated some form of maximal intent sprinting throughout the year, and not just in season.
4. Linford Christie & Darren Campbell – Not All Short Sprints Need to Be Carried Out with Maximal Intent
Linford Christie is perhaps Great Britain’s most famous track and field athlete after he won the Olympic 100-meter title in 1992 and the following year posted the still-standing British record of 9.87 to win the World Championships. In the winter of 2005, Darren Campbell allowed me, with an (at that time) 100-meter personal best of 11.8 seconds, to join in with his training group. In 2004, Darren had been a member of the Olympic gold winning 4×100 meter relay team, and in 2000 he had won an Olympic silver medal over 200 meters. I was fairly starstruck and ready to soak up knowledge and apply myself in order to improve as an athlete. While Linford was not based in Cardiff, he came down from London fairly regularly to oversee training sessions and set many of the workouts.
One of the concepts that stood out to me from the training sessions was that a lot of the runs were completed as either “good pace,” which was essentially a submaximal effort that felt pretty comfortable, or build-up runs, in which the repetition distance was split into thirds, and each section got faster. Often these formats of runs were all incorporated into one workout, alongside maximal intent sprints, and the distances of the runs containing submaximal sections were as short as 30 meters.
The purpose of these runs was not initially obvious to me, but they were an integral part of the training that year. I beat my old personal best times by nearly three-tenths in the 60 meters and by four-tenths in both the 100 meters and 200 meters, so it was clear that whatever I was doing in training was having a positive impact on my performance, even if I didn’t understand why. Fairly recently, I have had conversations on social media with PJ Vazel and Jonas Tawiah-Dodoo, and both have suggested that motor learning occurs more optimally at submaximal intensities, thus providing an explanation for a potential mechanism behind this type of work.Although the fact that something works should be enough of a reason to incorporate it, an understanding behind the methodology helps to increase buy-in of an idea, says @SprintFasterDXB. Click To Tweet
This is a lesson I have not done a great job of applying over the years. I think there are two possible reasons for this. First, I did not understand why something could help me. Although the fact that something works should be enough of a reason to incorporate it, an understanding behind the methodology helps to increase buy-in of an idea. Secondly, I think on a basic level it is quite counterintuitive to think that slower running can help an athlete to ultimately run faster. My target has recently been, and will continue to be, to incorporate more submaximal efforts where the foci are rhythm, timing, and coordination.
5. Simon Duberley – One Technical Fix Can Bring About Other Technical Fixes
Simon Duberley is perhaps a name that will not be familiar to a lot of the readers in the U.S. In his day job, Simon works for a company that manufactures ejector seats for military aircraft, and he coaches athletes in the evenings and on weekends. Simon has produced some very successful athletes, including two under-20 athletes: Rion Pierre, who ran 21.23 indoors over 200 meters, and Deji Tobais, who ran 10.30.
While I had considered the importance of technique throughout my early involvement in sprinting, Simon took that understanding to a new level. Based upon his understanding of physics developed through his job, Simon was able to break down the running stride and consider the importance of various biomechanical indicators. I learned that altering one biomechanical aspect can have a knock-on effect and impact other positions.
For example, a dorsiflexed position allows the gastrocnemius to relax, which subsequently allows it to assist in knee flexion throughout swing leg recovery. This, in combination with the fact that the center of mass of the lower segment of the leg is shifted closer to the knee, allows the knee to angle to close more tightly throughout the leg recovery, due to the fact a short lever is a faster lever. The same concept is then applied around the hip. With tighter knee flexion, the center of mass of the leg shifts closer to the hip, which allows the thigh to swing through more rapidly and therefore get into a good position for ground preparation earlier in the stride, thus setting up a more optimal subsequent ground contact, which sets up the following stride, and the cycle continues.
Whenever I analyze sprint mechanics and notice a technical issue, I now aim to consider what happens prior in the gait, and how that may influence what I am seeing. By the same token, I consider what impact the issue may have upon technical aspects later in the cycle. Ultimately, the body is built up of many interrelated systems and effecting a change on one variable will impact many other variables. It is therefore important to understand what other factors you risk changing by making a technical alteration, and the same can be said with regard to programming.
6. Terrence Burke – Coaching Is Teaching
Terrence Burke may also not be a name familiar to some readers. Terrence coached in the Bay Area for many years at the high school and collegiate levels, across various event groups. It is perhaps due in part to his more general background that one of the cornerstones in his philosophy is teaching. I met Terrence more than 10 years ago on the old Charlie Francis forum, and since then he has always shared his wealth of knowledge on programming and the history of the sport with me.
For years, I tended to lean toward effective programming and exercise prescription being the key elements in producing successful results on the track. Terrence often spoke to me about the importance of teaching, and as I am a classroom practitioner, one of the concepts that received a great deal of focus during my professional development was understanding via which method the student is best able to access learning. Some learn simply by being told, others learn using visual props, and some learn through guided discovery.
I believe that placing athletes in scenarios where they are best able to learn makes improvements more meaningful and more likely to withstand the pressure faced in a competitive environment. Many years ago, Terrence first introduced me to the concepts of Vince Anderson, who many readers will know, and who was perhaps the first coach to regularly use “wickets.” I bring this up because I see this as a great example of placing a constraint upon an athlete that brings about a technical change.
In this case, the athlete will not want to step on the mini hurdle (wicket), so the barrier directs where the foot will contact the ground. Many times, this is used to prevent overstriding, and it encourages the foot to contact the ground closer to a point directly under the athlete’s center of mass. As would happen in a classroom, the process can progress as the learner becomes more comfortable and needs to extend. For example, some of the hurdles could be removed from the lane either at the end or, perhaps for extra challenge, in the middle of the run, and it can be assessed as to whether the athlete is maintaining the desired stride length and location of ground contact relative to their center of mass.
It’s worth noting that perhaps the concept of teaching is more relevant the earlier the athlete is in their development. Once they have reached elite status, there will likely be fewer opportunities for an athlete to take learning points away from workouts.
While coaching in Dubai, I worked with youth athletes. I challenged myself to deliver learning points to the athletes I worked with, so that they left as many sessions as possible with an improved understanding of sprinting, or a related activity, in the hope it would ultimately lead to them becoming a better athlete.
7. Michael Khmel – Volume Can Work
In late 2008, Tim Abeyie, a good friend of mine, made a coaching change to Michael Khmel, introducing me to him and his training group in Loughborough. Michael has a list of very successful athletes on his coaching resume, with Joel Fearon, Matt Shirvington, Harry Aikines-Aryeetey, James Dasaolu, Craig Pickering, and Leon Baptiste as some of the names that readers may recognize. Very kindly, Michael allowed me to join in with some workouts, as well as observe him and the group and offer input on occasion.
The first workout I did with the group was two sets of four repetitions of 200 meters with a couple of minutes of recovery between each run. First, I had to negotiate the warm-up, which felt like an entire workout in itself based upon any training I had done prior to that. I was generally pretty good at tempo-type workouts and could hold my own with athletes who were far faster sprinters (which is a lesson in itself), and by the eighth 200-meter repetition, only Leon Baptiste and I remained in the workout. The target time for the runs was 28 seconds, and I vividly remember giving it everything I had on the last effort and managing 28.5. Meanwhile, I watched Leon stride way off into the distance and clock 24 seconds. For the next two years, Leon completed these kinds of sessions and improved his 100- and 200-meter times, culminating in a victory and gold medal over 200 meters at the 2010 Commonwealth Games.
Around this period, I posted regularly on Charlie Francis’ forum, reading posts and information that training runs in the 75-95% intensity ranges should not be incorporated into a sprinter’s training, and I was very much about the concept of keeping track work as specific as possible. If a run was not near-maximal, then I could not see the benefit. However, here was Leon excelling off a program that had plenty of volume of submaximal efforts in the intensity range that I believed was too slow to be specific, yet fast enough to bring about more prolonged fatigue. To provoke more thought, Harry Aikines-Aryeetey ran his lifetime personal best time of 6.55 over 60 meters in 2010 as well.I do not believe it is the optimal strategy for everyone…but I have seen many athletes who seem to improve when they have more training volume, says @SprintFasterDXB. Click To Tweet
This was another lesson I did not learn right away, but as I reflected upon my experience with Michael over the following years, it became apparent that some athletes responded well to a more volume-based approach. I do not believe it is the optimal strategy for everyone, and I still could not give you a detailed explanation of the mechanisms involved, but I have seen many athletes who seem to improve when they have more training volume, and regress when approaching training with a higher-intensity, lower-volume style of programming. This example, combined with similar others, makes it impossible for me to disregard a higher volume approach as being “wrong”; I simply think you need to be aware of the type of work the athlete responds best to.
8. Tim Abeyie – Maximum Strength Can Have Diminishing Returns
In 2005, I began training with Tim Abeyie, as he was one of Linford Christie’s athletes at the time. Over the next year, Tim improved his 60-, 100-, and 200-meter times to 6.64, 10.22, and 20.66 respectively, earning himself a spot on the British team for the 200 meters at the European Championships.
Around this period, I was under the impression that the power clean was an essential lift for any sprinter, and common questions amongst the British sprint community were “What can you clean?” and “What’s your body weight?”, therefore enabling a ratio to be calculated. I felt the unspoken belief was that, as that ratio improved, your sprint time would improve.
Over the next four years, Tim continued to get stronger, and he was ultimately able to power clean 155 kilograms, more than 20 kilograms heavier than in 2006, with very little change to his body weight. That year he ran 6.74, 10.43, and 20.75. Ultimately, sprint performance is multifaceted, and many variables were at play that meant Tim did not run as fast as he had four years earlier. However, if maximum strength is such a strong predictor of sprint performance, I would not have expected to see significant strength gains coincide with a decrease in sprint performance.
Strength training is one aspect of sprint performance that I understand less than others. My feelings are that for most people, a “baseline” level of strength development is beneficial, but past a certain point, chasing numbers in the gym can be futile for some. I think that all things being equal, the stronger athlete is perhaps the faster athlete, but as I mentioned earlier, sprinting is multifaceted, and a change in one variable impacts many others. As with the volume and intensity spectrum on the track, I imagine the role weight training plays in an athlete’s training varies between individuals, and the qualities that make an athlete successful perhaps determine how important that role is.My feelings are that for most people, a ‘baseline’ level of strength development is beneficial, but past a certain point, chasing numbers in the gym can be futile for some, says @SprintFasterDXB. Click To Tweet
As a younger athlete, I relentlessly attempted to pursue new personal best lifts in the weight room, under the pretense it would almost guarantee better performance on the track. I would try and lift heavy if my back or my knees were not feeling great, and occasionally I got injured. More recently, I have taken a step back from the gym and view it simply as a means to an end, while keeping the primary goal, times on the track, at the forefront of my mind.
I had no access to a weight room throughout lockdown, and my body seems to be feeling better with fewer aches and pains. This allows for greater intent in track workouts and potentially a decreased injury risk, thus possibly allowing for more consistency, and therefore a better chance of improved performance.
9. Dan Pfaff – Athletes Are Individuals
Dan Pfaff likely needs no introduction to the readers of SimpliFaster, as the coach of Donovan Bailey and countless other elite sprinters and track and field athletes across various speed and power events. Greg Rutherford introduced me to Dan in late 2009, when he moved to England in the lead-up to the home Olympics.
Greg split his training between Lee Valley’s indoor 200-meter track in North London and a couple of venues around his home, some 40 miles north of London, and he regularly trained on a long hill near his home. In a conversation with Greg early on in his partnership with Dan, he explained that Dan had not seen the hill yet, but he was happy for Greg to complete his Saturday workouts on it. Initially I found this strange, as I was not sure how Dan could make this decision without seeing the surface and the gradient of the hill clearly.
I was perhaps getting lost in the minutiae again, and as I grew to understand Dan and his methods better, it struck me that perhaps he was focused on keeping his athletes happy and feeling good. A confident athlete heading into a competition period is likely going to perform well, and it was obvious that Dan did a great job of managing this with Greg, who did not want to move to London, away from his home. Dan saw how important it was that his athletes were in a positive and happy environment and facilitated that within the parameters of his programming.Dan Pfaff saw how important it was that his athletes were in a positive and happy environment and facilitated that within the parameters of his programming, says @SprintFasterDXB. Click To Tweet
As the athletes I coached in Dubai matured and I got to know them better, I encouraged them to take more ownership of their training. It was possible to guide this within certain parameters by providing them with options and ranges, something I had also learned from Dan. For example, I may have them set between four and six repetitions over 150 meters, so that if they’re tired, they can stop after four, or if they feel great, they can complete six. I believe this empowered the athletes, kept them happy, and as an added bonus, contributed to their learning.
Find Your Own Path and Reflect Wisely
These are some of the lessons I have learned from some of the people I have met in my track and field journey over the last 20 years or so. Some I learned through my interaction with them, and others I learned after some reflection. The whole experience has taught me that there are very few occasions when it is not possible to gain knowledge that can shape future practice.The whole experience has taught me that there are very few occasions when it is not possible to gain knowledge that can shape future practice, says @SprintFasterDXB. Click To Tweet
More recently, it has come to me that perhaps we are too quick to point out what we see as the flaws in the practice of others who may not agree with our philosophy, as opposed to considering aspects that may be able to help us develop as a practitioner. Finally, it taught me that context is key, and some lessons were applicable in the setting in which I observed them, but perhaps would not be appropriate in different circumstances. I think that this is the art of coaching—knowing when to apply which scientific principle.
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