By Ken Jakalski
When reading about the latest innovative approach to speed training, legendary Dutch coach Henk Kraaijenhof would often use the phrase “old wine in new bottles” to suggest that the concepts introduced had, in fact, been around in different forms for quite a long time. In other words, it may be that many of these groundbreaking methods and technologies reflect not so much a new school of thought, but rather a creative refinement of old concepts in a convenient way.
One of my favorite books is Rick Brunner’s Soviet Training and Recovery Methods: For Competitive Athletes co-authored with another track legend, Ben Tabachnik. What fascinates me about Brunner’s insights is how he uses a very creative analogy to establish his point using the popular film Rocky IV. The film highlights the difference between the Soviet and American systems of training.
For example, Rocky works out in a barn, strength training with crude pulleys and pressing wooden handles attached to a wagon loaded with his training crew. His Russian adversary, by contrast, is portrayed as having a body of scientists gathering all kinds of data from sophisticated computerized monitoring systems. It certainly fits our stereotype that the Soviet Union is way ahead of the rest of the world in terms of sports research and technical innovation.
Brunner, however, pointed out that the reality was just the opposite. “The Soviets are training in barns and basements,” Brunner said, “and the equipment is forged from old railroad car axles.” Soviet athletes thought snow running was a great form of resistance. And in terms of equipment and monitoring devices, Brunner explained that (at the time) “most Soviets have never seen a computer, let alone a computerized Cybex machine, a Lifecycle, or a Stairmaster.”
The kind of equipment they used was what American athletes might have used back in the 1950s. In fact, Soviet athletes had shortages of all kinds of things American athletes would have taken for granted—like running shoes, bicycles, weights, and even proper clothing.
“Soviet athletes,” Brunner noted, “would be happy just having a set of free weights and a good bar.”
Everything Old Is New Again
Over my 43-year coaching career, I’ve noticed things supporting Kraaijenhof’s suggestion that certain aspects of current training might simply be conventional concepts put in better bottles. What we do today, however, certainly improves on what we attempted to do in the past.
For example, the Freelap timing system has changed many things for coaches and athletes the world over, but is the concept all that different from what coaches tried to analyze years ago?
Our interest in assessing the capacities of our athletes is certainly not new. The best example of this is the concept used by the famous exercise physiologist AV Hill over 90 years ago. Hill measured the acceleration of sprinters by using large wire coils set up at intervals alongside a track while athletes wore magnets. Now think about what Freelap accomplishes by way of electromagnetic fields. I think Hill would be impressed.
Another example is the focus on qualities like hip flexor strength. Back in the 1980s, Leigh Kolka, an aerospace engineer interested in speed development, introduced me to his Thigh Trainers, which were basically cuffs that wrapped around the thighs and were harnessed to a waist belt with garter-like straps. Various pockets in the thigh wraps were designed for inserting small lead plates.
Thirty-five years later, we now have the Exogen compression shorts, a far more sophisticated version of Kolka’s concept. I showed Kolka’s Thigh Trainers to an old Czech Olympian several years ago. “Ah,” he said, “we had the same idea, but we used rolls of coins Duct-taped to our thighs.”
Video 1. We have great products for sophisticated resistance training like the Exxentric kBox, now used by coaches and athletes worldwide.
Some of the many benefits of kBox flywheel training are that it’s efficient, effective, and safe as it adjusts the resistance to each athlete’s intensity. I keep wondering if I’ll hear Kraaijenhof’s voice whispering his old wine refrain. And if it’s not Kraaijenhof I’m hearing, perhaps it’s the ghost of Mel Siff, reminding me about aqualand circuits—lifting weight against the resistance of water. And how can we forget that classic image of the famous Vasily Alekseyev, holder of 80 world records and winner of two Olympic gold medals, rising from the Volga River with a loaded barbell across his chest?
As Siff noted, “One of the advantages of exercise in water is that the resistance offered by water increases with the velocity of movement.” Sound familiar? Siff goes on to note that, “since the resistance to movement is also directly proportional to the area of the limb pushing against the water, resistance may simply be increased by closing the fingers or wearing paddles on the hands or feet.”
I began this post with Kraaijenhof’s “old wine in new bottles” analogy. Kraaijenhof, who has returned to coaching track after a 14-year absence, notes the following: “I am a fan of the no-school approach, a mixture of old ideas that stood the test of time, and new concepts that are the result of increased knowledge, experience, and technology.” He says that “old vs. new” is not the right way to describe the way many coaches view contemporary speed training concepts.
As a kid growing up in the 1950s, I loved reading Dick Tracy comic strips, and the highlight was always the opening frame of Tracy wearing his two-way wrist radio.” Eventually, that changed with the times, and Tracy began sporting a “two-way wrist TV.” That was even cooler, but not so for a generation of kids who have grown up with cell phones. In fact, most of the high school kids I taught never wore a watch, and those who did considered it jewelry rather than a timepiece.
When I started my teaching career in the mid-1970s, I was the first track coach in our league with an electronic stopwatch (probably because I was the youngest coach in the league). That Cronus watch had an LED display, and it required three AA batteries.
My considerably older colleagues teased me about that watch, believing that I didn’t know how to read or translate a thirty-second Swiss timer like the ones they were using. Maybe they weren’t far off in their analysis of younger people being confused by older technology.
In my years as a classroom teacher, when students would ask me what time I would be dismissing them for an afternoon assembly, I would tell them “when the big hand is on the twelve, and the little hand is on the two.” It always got a laugh. But just a year before I retired, one of my students, who had transferred to our district from another state, actually thanked me. It turns out, he couldn’t read an analog clock. In his old school, all the clocks were digital from first grade on. Though that seems unusual, many of us have seen video clips of kids who, when they’re presented with a rotary dial telephone and instructed to make a call, have no clue how to do it. They are certainly tech-savvy, but antique addled.
One thing was clear from my having that Cronus electronic stopwatch: I was able to save split times, and with later versions of that watch, I could capture—and recall—both cumulative and lap splits. With that ability, I began thinking about ways to capture 10 meter segment times (yards back then) for the sprinters on my team.
My technique was crude but effective. I put two hurdles on either side of a lane and taped a piece of finish line yarn from one hurdle gate to the next. I then draped a red bandana over the yarn. As athletes ran between the two hurdles and broke the finish yarn, the bandana would drop, and I would start my watch. I would do that for each segment, provided I had enough bandanas! Many years later, when I had two optical timing systems (Brower and Microgate), sprinters still had fun trying to set up that “old school” technique.Technologies allow us to explore new ideas—and sometimes they provide new ways to apply old ideas, says @Zoom1Ken. Click To Tweet
Technologies certainly allow us to explore new ideas—and sometimes they give us new ways to apply old ideas. Like Kraaijenhof, I’m glad I’m still around to experience the benefits of advanced technology that products like Freelap can provide.
Kraaijenhof, Henk. (2019 January 10). Helping the Best Get Better. Sprinting Mechanics: Old School New School…or No School (Blog Post).
Siff, Mel Cunningham. Supertraining: Strength Training for Sporting Excellence. Third ed., Strength Coach, Inc., 1997.