Post-activation potentiation (PAP) has potential to improve sprint performance and is commonly used in practice and research. It’s especially helpful for athletes who require a little variation in session structure or those who need further transfer from the gym to the track or pitch. This article summarizes what we know about PAP and sprinting, how we can improve PAP’s effectiveness our own sessions, and how we can use PAP for more than a physical response.
PAP is a phenomenon where a maximal, or near-maximal, activity increases the performance of a subsequent activity. We expect the performance of the subsequent activity to be greater than if it were performed without the PAP stimulus.
For example, an athlete performs a vertical jump, reaching a height of 50 cm. Next, the athlete performs a 2×2 back squat @ 87% 1RM followed by a 10-minute rest. Then the athlete repeats the vertical jump and hits 51.5 cm (3% improvement).
When using PAP, fatigue and potentiation coexist; typically these are opposing factors to athletic performance.1 Seitz, Haff2 have detailed the balance between potentiation and fatigue, explaining that muscle performance may improve if potentiation dominates and fatigue is reduced. Muscle performance will remain unchanged or even decrease, however, if fatigue is equal to, or greater than, respectively, the potentiating effect.2
How to Apply PAP Stimulus to Your Training Group
A myriad of studies have investigated the PAP response and are superbly summarized and critiqued in various reviews.1-4 Example exercise pairings include:
- Very heavy 1-3RM back squat followed by a body weight vertical jump
- Very heavy 1-3RM bench press followed by a lighter medicine ball throw
- Bounding-type plyometric activity followed by a sprint
- Resisted sprint activity followed by a sprint
In this article, I will focus on the fourth pair—resisted sprints and unresisted sprints.
Because of the precarious balance between potentiation and fatigue, PAP stimulus is confounded by many variables and depends on the athlete and the specific exercise pairing. Athletes respond differently to varying potentiating exercises, intensities, and rest periods. I advise you to not apply the same PAP stimulus and rest interval to all athletes within a training group.Do not apply the same PAP stimulus and rest interval to all athletes within a training group. Click To Tweet
A more effective, albeit time-consuming, option is to perform a mini-research study with your athletes. The chart below displays a simple protocol. Your investigation will allow you to individualize PAP stimuli and rest periods for each athlete. This process takes up session time, but I like to think of this as training, not just testing.
Resisted Sprinting: The PAP Effect for Sprinting
Five peer-reviewed studies have looked at the potentiating effect of resisted sprinting on subsequent unresisted sprint performance.5-9 The results are mixed. Three studies found a potentiating effect6-8 while two did not.5, 9 However, we can’t compare the studies due to the variety of methods and populations used.
A common problem with resisted sprint PAP literature is the method of load prescription. I covered this subject previously in this article on resisted sprint training. The five RSS studies used an absolute load or a load related to body mass. As we know, neither method accounts for individual variation in physical qualities such as maximum strength, peak power, rate of force development, or sprint speed.
Non-individual load prescription may be the reason why we’re not close to understanding whether an effective PAP stimulus is present from resisted sprints.
If we prescribe a potentiating load of 30% body mass, athlete A (a weaker athlete) may experience a force-dominant stimulus, while athlete B (a stronger athlete) may experience a velocity-dominant stimulus. How can we expect consistent results when our methods are inconsistent?
How to Individualize Load Prescription
Thankfully, Jack Walsh sought to learn from what was done before and improve upon the practice. In the process, he found some interesting results. Jack conducted a PAP study with a group of male, professional field sport players at resisted sprint loads of 0% (unresisted), 30%, and 60% velocity decrement (Vdec) from their fastest unresisted 10m sprint time.
To find their best sprint time (baseline measure), each player performed 3x10m sprints at 0%, 30%, or 60% Vdec following 3x10m unresisted sprints. After performing the resisted sprints, they ran unresisted sprints at 2, 4, 6, 8, and 10 minutes.
The results are graphed in the chart below. We can see that both the 30% and 60% conditions provided a moderate to large PAP response 10 minutes after the resisted sprints. As individuals, however, the players’ 10m sprint performance peaked at times ranging from 6 to 10 minutes. Jack now knows how long after three resisted sprint efforts each of his players should perform their unresisted sprints.
By constantly potentiating his players to achieve supramaximal sprint speeds above their daily baseline, he found this could induce greater adaptations to acceleration performance than without the potentiating stimulus. Is this worth the small hassle of two hours’ testing? I think so.
All may not be so simple, however. A key reviewer of Walsh’s study, Dr. Eamonn Flanagan, made important points. Given the individual nature of training response and the variability of testing results from a single testing session, how variable is the response time to a given PAP stimulus? Optimal PAP response time is affected by a variety of factors including an athlete’s conditioning on the day of testing, psychological approach, activity within the rest period, and given effort.
With these limitations in mind, coaches must don their critical-thinking hat and decide on the frequency of their PAP testing sessions and the control and motivation they provide within each session. What works for you? How confident are you in your testing control?
I also recommend looking at the resisted sprint PAP work by Maria Monahan of University College Dublin.
The 1080 Motion: An Excellent Opportunity for PAP
The 1080 Sprint can play a significant role for resisted sprint PAP sessions. The device measures an athlete’s baseline sprint time with a minimal load of 1 kg. Upon completion of a sprint maximum, average speed, force, power, and time are quantified at 5-metre intervals of a sprint, both graphically and numerically.
Since the 1080 Sprint can increase load at 1 kg intervals, it’s ideal for providing resistance for the % Vdec resisted sprints. Following the sprints, the 1080 Motion provides measurements for the subsequent potentiated unresisted sprints, again giving measurements of sprint, force, speed, and power performance.
Can Resisted Sprinting Provide a Learning Effect Beyond a Physiological Potentiation?
The underpinning physical mechanisms behind PAP are well reviewed1 and do not require discussion here. The potentiation effect of resisted to unresisted sprints, however, may involve not only an internal physiological effect but also an additional acute learning potentiation, or acute learning effect.PAP may provide acute learning effects in addition to the known physiological effects. Click To Tweet
With his world class sprint group, Sprint coach Jonas Dodoo of Speedworks uses Exer-genie resisted sprints as part of a warm-up to block starts and acceleration work.
“Prior to the main drills, resisted sprints let the athletes not only create force, but project force so they push forwards. Heavy resisted sprints allow my athletes to practise the first 4 metres of a free acceleration, whilst medium and light loads teach the respective positions required for 2nd level acceleration and transition strength. During each resisted sprint, the athletes get to understand how it feels to create and project high amounts of horizontal force whilst having to switch limbs, something of which we want to coach during our acceleration work. Resisted sprints take away that fear of falling forwards which can cause lateral and vertical force leakage. Following the resistance runs, I encourage my athletes to trust the new ‘forwards’ they have unlocked. It may feel scary and require better switching, but the power will be through the roof so all they have to do is catch the new angles.” — Coach Jonas Dodoo
Coach Dodoo’s reasons for pre-sprint resisted sprint work are compelling. I’d like to see more written about acute learning effects and the different exercise pairings used by sprint, throws, and strength and conditioning coaches.
Example Session for a Resisted Sprint PAP Effect
I’ve used the following session plan with field hockey and rugby players. The guideline will not suit everyone’s needs or session plans, so please take from it what you will.
A typical problem with classic PAP protocols is filling the time between the heavy and light loads. Trying to inspire fifteen athletes to sit nice and still for 12 minutes halfway through a gym session is not attractive to the athletes or the coaches.
Instead, fill this time with light technique drills to assist focus on acceleration. In my experience, light drills add to PAP’s learning effect while the sub-maximal nature does not seem to affect the physical potentiation. Finally, the light drills maintain key muscle temperature, which will aid session sprint performance.Fill the time between heavy & light loads with light acceleration drills, upper body strength work. Click To Tweet
Alternatively, I’ve used the time for upper body strength work with those athletes who need it. I’m confident the upper body work has no negative outcomes on the resisted sprint potentiation and it’s likely to maintain core temperature. Conversely, will heavy upper body strength work decrease neural drive for the free sprints?
Unfortunately, there is little knowledge as to the longitudinal effects of PAP training. Yes, acute improvements in sprint performance have been noted, but do these improvements provide a long-term training effect? Are the longitudinal benefits greater than those when structuring your resisted sprint program in a more traditional manner?
Finally, the PAP effect generally requires quite a heavy load before the lighter load. Are our athletes robust enough to experience this heavy load for, say, 2x sessions per week for eight weeks? Does this type of loading match the periodized plan? Once again, there are no answers here, just questions for the critically-thinking coach.
Resisted sprinting at heavier loads can improve acute unresisted sprint performance. However, load and rest interval must be individual to the athlete. The coach must understand the limitations of resisted sprint PAP, including the practicality of running a resisted sprint PAP testing session before a block of work and the variability of individual PAP testing results.
Please feel free to contact me with any queries or criticisms. I’m always looking to connect and learn from scientists and coaches around the world.
Many thanks to Jonas Dodoo for providing excellent commentary on his use of resisted sprint PAP work. Also, a big thank you to Dr. Eamonn Flanagan for his critique and advice.
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