By Ross Jeffs
In a 100m sprint, the fastest athlete wins. That is to say, the person with the highest maximum velocity almost always takes the gold. Hence it’s obvious to see why improving this quality is of prime interest to sprint coaches. But what is the best way coaches can squeeze out these improvements in their athletes?
We’ll often hear phrases such as:
- Train fast to be fast.
- Spend all your time running above 95% or below 75%.
- Train maximum speed all year round.
- Sprint as fast as you can, as often as you can, while staying as fresh as you can.
It seems pretty logical. If you want to get faster, you must frequently run at maximal velocities in training. This makes total sense, and I want to agree with it—but lately, I’m not sure I do.
Over the past year, I observed some interesting patterns with an athlete I coach. When I dug a bit deeper with further analysis, I realized many of my previous athletes matched these patterns. This article is effectively a presentation of my findings so far. While incomplete, the findings raise some salient points about how we approach speed as sprint and horizontal jumps coaches. So let’s call this the start of the conversation, a conversation I’m hoping other coaches will contribute to.
Typical Seasonal Observations
Below are the general observations I’ve made while collecting speed data over the past five years, explained in the context of my typical training setup.
Autumn and Winter General Preparation and Specific Preparation Phase. Athletes spend time running at submaximal velocities (80-95%), focusing on improving their technical model and building various physical capacities.
Spring Pre-Competition Phase. The natural increase in outdoor temperature means it’s now more sensible to do maximal speed work. We get out the Freelap timing system, and athletes run maximally in training. This typically means complete runs over distances of 40-80m or flying runs over 10-30m, with full recoveries.
Summer Competition Phase. Throughout this phase, we typically do maximal speed work 1-2 times per week. Looking back at all the Freelap data I accumulated, I found athletes appeared to fall into two distinct groups: those whose times steadily improved on average every 2-4 weeks and those whose times either plateaued or got slightly slower. Let’s refer to the former as racers and the latter as trainers (I’ll elaborate on these distinct groups later).
This pattern occurred with almost all post-pubertal sprinters and jumpers, who I trained within a consistent setup of 4-6 days per week. These are retrospective observations based on the speed data I collected, which was part of my normal record keeping process. I didn’t test different training modalities to see the results, which obviously would give a stronger evidence base for my assertions. What I do have, however, is an in-depth case study of an athlete who I currently work with.
I am in year two of working with an athlete who I’ll call Sophie. Sophie is a long jumper who fits into the trainer category—she ran fast training times in pre-competition phases, but failed to improve on these throughout the year following the maximal speed work. I performed this case study with a long jumper rather than a sprinter because I had the logistics to control what I needed to (indoor facility, stable technical modal, stable lifestyle factors, etc.).
Really, though, this doesn’t matter. The information works for sprinters: substitute an approach run for an acceleration run over 30-40m where the athlete reaches a maximum of about 95% of their peak velocity (more on this later) and all the same assertions apply. Our case study covers 14 weeks from October 18, 2018 through to January 23, 2019. Throughout this period, the only significant change in her program was from her sprint- and speed-based sessions. You can see her typical setup below.
This training week’s set up is designed specifically for Sophie as an individual. It is ultimately one of many setups I use for speed and power athletes. Explaining any further why certain components were selected would detract from the point of this article. Sophie’s case study provides a genuine attempt to reliably note one athlete’s response to different speed stimuli over 14 weeks.
Sophie’s sprint and speed session for the first seven weeks was an alactic short speed endurance (ASSE) session. To determine her speed capabilities, I chose to measure the velocity of her long jump approach run in training. Approach runs provided a great insight into her expression of speed capabilities without having to perform a stand-alone test regularly. And given how stable her technical model was during her approach runs, there was less likely to be noise in the numbers.
Sophie started training in a good place before this case study. Last season she had an approach velocity personal best (PB) time of 8.85 m/s, achieved during an outdoor session in August. We used an ATS II Stalker radar gun for this measurement and all of those performed in the case study. Data for Sophie’s approach velocity from weeks 1-7 is presented in the graph and table below.
Coaches who have used speed gun technology extensively have suggested to me that about 0.20-0.25 m/s was a meaningful change in velocity, which supports the assertion that an adaptation has taken place. Summarizing the data from Figure 2 and Table 1, Sophie improved around every 3-4 weeks, equalling her best from last season by week 4 and eclipsing it by week 7.
Transition to Speed
Sophie was running faster on the runway than ever before. With the indoor season approaching, we had a perfect opportunity to intensify the ASSE session to a maximal speed session. Remember, this was the only change in the programming—all other training components (exercises, intensity, and density) stayed relatively similar, with only micro changes in volume for fatigue management. The maximal speed session consisted of 6x50m with full recoveries, in line with typical maximal speed training prescriptions.
Weeks 7 to 10
In speed session 1, Sophie reached a maximal speed of 9.65 m/s in a 50m run. From research, we know that the maximal velocity value reached in a 100m race has a near perfect correlation with 100m time performance. We can calculate the time an athlete would likely hit in a 100m race if we know this maximum speed value using a formula supplied by PJ Vazel. Sophie’s maximal speed of 9.65 m/s translates to a 100m time of 11.92s.
In session 1 with no previous maximal speed work, it looked like she was in good shape given that her season best was 12.15 the previous year and her PB was 12.05. Not only was she faster on the runway, but her flat speed appeared to improve as well.
- On the Monday of week 8—5 days following speed session 1—there was a slight drop in approach run velocity to 8.90 m/s.
- This was accompanied by a slight decrease in velocity achieved on Thursday in speed session 2 (9.50 m/s).
- Neuromuscular fatigue measurements collected using MyJump countermovement jump data stayed consistent, suggesting Sophie had sufficient central nervous system (CNS) recovery and had plenty of the resources required to sprint fast.
- On the Monday of week 9, her approach run velocity (9.00 m/s) was again slightly below the pre-intervention value.
- Then on the Monday of week 10, her approach run velocity was the lowest it had been for six weeks (8.85 m/s), even following a recovery week, which in previous training cycles had resulted in a bump in velocity.
If maximal speed work is such a potent stimulus, why wasn’t it making her faster? Various periodization textbooks suggest maximal speed adaptations have a neural nature and that we should expect some change within 1-2 weeks upon initial implementation of this new stimulus. If this were the case, I should have seen a positive change by this point.
I deloaded volume in the recovery week between weeks 7-10 the same way I deloaded the ASSE component in weeks 1-7 since I had given her body a reasonable chance for supercompensation from the max speed stimulus. But by week 10, her approach run velocity was back to where we were six weeks earlier.
I can accept the argument that two weeks of dosage might not be enough to see a reasonable change. In previous seasons, however, we continued this speed phase for long periods—up to 3-4 months—and similarly saw no improvements. We just weren’t willing to risk the same thing happening this season, given that she previously did so well up to that point. Therefore, Sophie and I agreed that it was time to pull the plug on the max speed sessions.
On the Thursday of week 10, the ASSE session returned and replaced the maximal speed runs in the Thursday session. By week 11—5 days following the ASSE session—her approach run velocity again reached 9.10 m/s. This was the level it had reached before the maximal speed phase. Two weeks later in week 14, before Sophie started her competition cycle, she reached a new approach run velocity PB of 9.20 m/s.
Following this at the peak of her indoor competition season, she was measured in training at 9.30 m/s and in competition at 9.50 m/s by the national team biomechanist (Table 4). More importantly, Sophie achieved an indoor PB performance in the long jump, improving her best by 26cm. It appeared we had made the right call to stop the maximal speed sessions.
Some of you might think that the increase in velocity was due to supercompensation from the maximal speed training. I contend this was not the case because of the time period that elapsed between these points. It took 25 days following the last maximal speed stimulus before her approach run velocity returned to pre-speed phase levels (Thursday of week 8 to Monday of week 11) and 42 days before she had a worthwhile increase (Thursday of week 8 to Monday of week 14).
In the past, when I saw athletes respond in ways similar to Sophie after introducing maximal speed work, I asked myself a lot of questions:
- Did I do too much or too little volume?
- Were densities too high or too low?
- Should I have done flying runs or completion runs?
- Did their technical model deteriorate?
- Did they need more time to recover from races?
- Did they lose physical qualities they were reliant on like max strength, elasticity, and endurance?
Ultimately, there are so many variables that can influence sprint performance in a training program. Over a number of seasons, I tried addressing the questions above by playing with different variables. Over and over again I saw little change, which brought me back to one key question: Does every athlete need to run maximally in training to get faster?
Maximal Intensity vs. Maximal Effort: Not All Speed Is Created Equally
I’ve got some thoughts on why Sophie’s velocity data changed in the way it did.
If you ask an athlete to run at maximal effort in training, they’ll likely attain anywhere between 90-100% of their competition race velocity. This could occur in either a completion run of 40-70m or a flying run over 10-30m, off a 30m build up.
Some coaches claim sprinters will not hit within 5% of their highest race velocity in training, but that simply isn’t true. I’ve witnessed this happen at all levels. I even saw two very elite athletes who both ran 6.5 consistently during an indoor season and went head to head regularly in training where one hit multiple 0.84s splits while the other struggled to dip under 0.90s.
How close an athlete gets to their maximum will, of course, be affected by components such as the weather, the competitiveness of the environment, fatigue level, and whether timing devices are used, etc. It’s important to note that this maximum is also theoretical from race data and is ever changing.Some athletes can’t get above 95% of their race speed in #training no matter the stimuli, says @ross_jeffs. #racespeed Click To Tweet
This is a broad general overview, and we can take it further. My theory is that you can potentially divide sprinters into two groups based on an estimate of what percentage of max speed they can hit in training:
- Athletes who can’t normally get above 95% of their race speed in training no matter the stimuli they are given—the racers.
- Athletes who tend to be able to reach >95% and can attain race speeds relatively easily in training, provided they are fresh—the trainers.
Let me give you a typical example from my junior group this year. Two athletes I coach recently ran indoor 60m PBs of 7.22 (Athlete 1) and 7.20 (Athlete 2), respectively. Two weeks earlier, I’d used Freelap to time a 60m rep in a training session, and Athlete 1 ran a flying 30m split of 3.05s while Athlete 2 ran 3.21s.
Using Ken Jakalski’s sprint projection chart, which can reliably convert split times to race times and vice versa (Table 5), Athlete 1 was at the same pace in training as he was in racing. Meanwhile, Athlete 2 was off the mark and visibly slower in training. There was always a clear difference between the two in training. Undoubtedly, Athlete 1 was a trainer while Athlete 2 was a racer.
Some athletes should not run at maximal velocities in #training because they overstimulate their CNS, says @ross_jeffs. #maxvelocity Click To Tweet
I had played down how important this was previously, assuming certain athletes were lazy trainers. It was only when I started collecting detailed velocity data that the relevance of this hit home. It has helped me to explain the patterns I’d observed from previous years.
I believe the trainers are doing themselves a disservice by running at maximal velocities in training, as they stimulate their CNS beyond what is necessary for adaptation. Whereas racers are unintentionally training at a sweet spot of somewhere between 90-95% where adaptation can take place, preventing them from frying their CNS to the same extent as the trainers. It’s worth noting that since the race in question, I restricted how fast Athlete 1 ran in training, and he managed to take his time down further to 7.14s three weeks later.
The Why and the How: Insights from the Field
When I came to these realizations, I did some research looking for support for the idea that running at maximal velocities regularly in training can be detrimental to sprint performance. I struggled to find much available to support my theory. There are, however, a couple of quotes that I think are worth highlighting.
“One of the things we found to increase overall speed qualities was that maximal speed runs had to be done at least 88% maximal velocities, with better results around 92%.”—Dan Pfaff (conference video circa 2005/2006)
“It’s very costly to try to run at top speed (100% as in PB velocity) even once a week. Psychological fatigue and strain on CNS are too much. Maybe once in the pre-comp phase. But ideally, use the competition instead. The training effect of pure speed training is poor. It’s the icing on the cake in pre-comp phase.”—Paraphrased conversations with PJ Vazel.
It was very interesting that Dan made such specific prescriptions, which provided some support as to why Sophie was getting so much from the ASSE sessions. After hearing this, I went back and measured the velocity of one of these sessions with the radar gun, and most of the time she was hitting between 90-93% of her top speed. PJ’s comments echoed what I found when I introduced maximal speed work to Sophie and so many other athletes: it was an enormous strain on the CNS and exceeded what they required for adaptation.
It seems that doing regular maximal velocity sessions—where about 100% of an athlete’s PB speed is reached—can be overkill for the CNS. If any athlete (racer or trainer) did 4-6 60m races at PB speed in one day, how long do you think it would take them to bounce back from that? I used the analogy of maximal strength in a previous article. Do we ever lift maximal to get stronger? Rarely. Max sprinting is another form of maximal expression of the CNS, so why would it be very dissimilar?#Maximal speed training does not mean it's necessary to run at maximal speed, says @ross_jeffs. Click To Tweet
It’s not a case of whether you do maximal speed work, but rather how you do it and define it. Maximal speed training does not mean it is necessary to run at maximal speed. I am sure outliers exist, and for coaches out there who don’t like working in absolutes, I’m not suggesting you go and tell your athletes to run at 92% because how can they internalize that? Coaches can be intelligent about manipulating training variables.
- Lower the arousal levels in practice, keep them out of competitive runs, and don’t let them think they’re being timed or tested.
- If you decide to test, use very low volumes and implement a post-race recovery training strategy if they hit PB times.
- During completion runs of 40-70m, focus on mechanics, race modeling, rhythm, relaxation, fluidity, and implement incomplete recoveries as we used for Sophie in her ASSE runs.
- Try sprint-float-sprint or use Charlie Francis’ intensity limits with shortened acceleration zones of 10-30m or less to cap the top speed attainable in these runs.
I was able to draw a better conclusion on this topic only after collecting reliable data. As a community of athletics coaches, we have to do a better job of breaking through bias and assumptions to refine what actually makes athletes faster and what is noise. It’s the crossover lines on a Venn diagram between the art and science of coaching. It is easy to make assumptions based on the successful programs we see online. But are those programs made up of pre-pubertal high school athletes? Did the coach win the genetic lottery with all his athletes? Or, more worryingly, was it drug-fuelled in a world where CNS fatigue doesn’t exist?
I concluded that sprinting at actual (not perceived) maximal velocity is not necessary to get faster, and essentially, doing it regularly in training can be counterproductive. Train the underpinning qualities of velocity, chase the relevant speed numbers not the maximal ones, and don’t worry about those athletes who can’t ramp it up in training because come race day, they will show up.