Many of us in the world of athletics have become so consumed with instant gratification and finding the “quick fix” that we sometimes forget how to be patient, be present, and be happy with fragments of improvement each day. When it comes to athletic performance and training the human body, the slow cooking or “Crock-Pot approach” is often the safest and most effective means for making positive physiological changes in the tissues that comprise the human body.
Another favorite analogy of mine is to think of training as venom: a highly toxic and potentially lethal substance when encountered or administered in large doses. When repeated small doses are administered over longer durations of time, however, the same venom can become a catalyst for growth, resiliency, and performance as the body adapts to the stress being applied. Conversely, the “Fryalator” approach, or too much stimulus all at once, can fry the athlete and their central nervous system, muscles, tendons, and ligaments, as well as their drive to train and compete. Don’t fry your results! Get the Crock-Pot out, turn it on low, and understand that greatness will take time to achieve.
‘How You Do Anything Is How You Do Everything’
This is a line we use quite often when athletes are training; in fact, it’s on the door when you walk into our facility. Be sure athletes carry this mindset with them from the time they first step foot in the gym to the last second they spend in their cool-down or recovery, and you will see measurable results. This summer we made a few changes to our athlete’s warm-up protocol that did just that.
Their warm-up is the one thing they do every day they train. As a result, we have the opportunity to make some awesome performance improvements when athletes are intentional and purposeful in their approach to their warm-up each day. We use the warm-up as an opportunity for success rather than something that has to be done before they can start training. We help athletes understand that the warm-up carries the same emphasis as the rest of their training each day and should not be taken lightly.
Making a Change
What did we change to help make our athletes faster this summer? Quite simply, we went outside, as this was a reasonable solution to our problem of needing more distance to run. Like many private sector performance facilities (or even some public gyms), we don’t have 100 yards to run on inside—or even half of that. This means we were spending zero time at top speed in our running mechanics work.
For the most part, our athletes don’t reach top speed until 20–25 yards, which is about the time they would run smack into the wall at the end of the turf. When preparing athletes for the speed of sport, this top end speed work is vital to developing tissue durability and actually getting faster. We recognized that we were not effectively covering this in their training, and we needed to, so we went outside to a designated strip of approximately 75 yards in the parking lot.When preparing athletes for the speed of sport, top end speed work is vital to developing tissue durability and actually getting faster. Click To Tweet
Athletes did half of their warm-up inside, consisting of dynamic flexibility, joint ROM, and tissue prep work, and then went outside to run. We kept it short and sweet, as it can be very easy to overdo it on volume of ground contacts on an asphalt surface if we are not careful. For some of the older athletes, this warm-up took place three days a week. Considering that it was our first year implementing the new protocol, it was important to closely monitor their feedback each week and gather intel on how they felt both during and after each warm-up. Here’s what we did.
Video 1. The athlete performs a straight leg run followed by a run out at “tech speed”—their fastest speed while maintaining perfect technique, proper focus, and intent—for the same distance.
- Straight Leg Run Outs– 2 x 20/20 yards – Straight leg run for 20 yards and then run out of it for 20 yards at a “tech speed.”
- Tech speed is the fastest speed they can attain at perfect technique while maintaining proper focus and intent on what they are doing. The “run out” was also focused on being more elastic with their posterior chain and really feeling how their feet strike the ground with every stride. These straight leg runs also provided some much-needed durability for the hamstring muscles and tendinous junctions in the posterior chain while at higher speeds. We feel strongly that in order to help decrease injuries to the posterior chain we must apply regular stress to these structures at high speeds as found in upright running drills or a straight leg run.
Video 2. Athletes use the parking lot to perform wicket run outs. Be sure to adjust the wickets based on athlete leg length and running experience, as well as when athletes aren’t obtaining the right flow through the hurdles.
- Wicket (Hurdle) Run Outs– 2 x 8–10/30 yards – Run through 8–10 wickets with a focus on upright posture and foot strike under the body. After exiting the wickets, maintain the same posture and mechanics for approximately 30 yards.
- We mostly utilized 6” wickets and a spacing of approximately 4’9” for the first three wickets with a 4–5 step run in, 5’ for the next three, and 5’3” for the last two wickets. Each day, our beginner high school athletes started at this spacing, and then, as the older high school and college athletes came in later in the afternoon, we adjusted by adding approximately 3” to each wicket. Leg length and running experience both play a role with wicket spacing, and a keen coach’s eye and experienced intuition will recognize when distances need to change. Do not be afraid to make changes if athletes are not obtaining the correct flow through the hurdles.
- New and veteran coaches alike should use video analysis as often as possible to help slow it down and start to develop that eye for posture and technique. The last thing you want is for athletes to feel uncomfortable and muscle the foot over the wicket or cast the lower leg out front as they move through them. In these situations, it may be helpful to use dowels or lay the wickets down to help athletes feel the correct positions without forcing or impacting the harmony of their movement.
- Technique Runs– 2 x 75 yards – Here we put it all together and have the athlete run at the highest speed they can for approximately 75 yards, then rest and repeat one more time. The speed is dictated by their technique, and because of this, speeds typically float somewhere around 90–95% of their true top speed due the cognitive nature of the drill.
- Even though we ask them to run at the highest speed they can, we also ask them to still think about their technique, such as foot contact, posture, bounce, etc. It was so cool to watch athletes improve over the summer and really begin to feel the changes and adaptations during the longer distance runs. Some reported that it felt like they were floating and not having to work as hard to move quickly. This feeling can sometimes be attributed to the foot striking the ground more effectively in relation to the athlete’s center of mass and, thus, improving their timing. It also can be attributed to a stronger, more reflexive posterior chain.
- When their timing improves and running becomes more elastic in nature, it becomes fun to feel the body gliding over the ground. It was not uncommon for us to stop athletes from taking extra reps later in the summer because they were having so much fun “feeling” and moving faster. There was also feedback from parents at the start of fall sports, as they could see their kids moving with more fluidity and bounce on the field.
Key Performance Indicators
When it’s all said and done, the athletes using this warm-up get approximately 250 yards of high speed upright running each day that is brief, intentional, and highly effective. For some of our college athletes, this approach added approximately 9,000 yards of upright running to their training this summer that they otherwise would not have been exposed to with our prior warm-up protocol. Our younger high school athletes saw closer to 5,000 yards by the end of their summer training.Utilizing the parking lot helped athletes safely add upright running volume to their summer training and impacted their conditioning and energy system development. Click To Tweet
We also believe this impacted their conditioning and energy system development, since they were able to safely add upright running volume to their summer training that they otherwise would not have implemented. A gradual ramp-up in running volume during the pre-season can help reduce soft tissue injuries when athletes move into competitive seasons.
Key performance indicators we observed were athletes learning how to bounce and use tendons in their running versus a more muscle-driven and tight running strategy. This bounce I keep talking about is what will lead to the “floating” sensation mentioned above. In my experience, muscle-driven running is sometimes found in athletes who spend too much time in the gym and not enough time actually running, as they do in sport. The gym can be helpful for athletes in many ways, but too much gym time or lifting weights can also have adverse effects on a highly coordinated skill, such as running, that should be very natural and fluid. Performance coaches also need to spend as much time as possible studying sprint mechanics and running technique so that they practice effective coaching strategies.
Another observation was the athletes utilizing their “front side” mechanics more effectively, which allowed for a more efficient forefoot strike to the ground underneath them instead of a heel strike too far out in front of their center of mass. Athletes also learned what it was like to have some “flow” and be more elastic in their running, which became fun and something they looked forward to doing with their new confidence and technique. This confidence in their technique is vital to opening up new doors in their speed development.Key performance indicators we observed were athletes learning how to bounce and use tendons in their running versus a more muscle-driven and tight running strategy. Click To Tweet
If an athlete truly believes they are getting faster and also believes in the process or program they are following, you have just empowered a lifetime of speed development. It is my opinion that drills such as running through wickets could provide the most bang for your buck in terms of long-term development when approached in this way. These drills just are tools, and you should use them as such when trying to enhance speed development. If you can use tools and provide drills that will help athletes “feel” it more often, you will be more effective as a coach.
‘Show Me and I Will Forget. Teach Me and I Will Remember. Involve Me and I Will Learn.’
We did not test longer distance times, as our facility has a parking lot that we share with four other businesses, so setting up timing gates would have been a nightmare amongst all the traffic. However, the changes were visible to our staff and observed and felt by all of the athletes we trained, which was valuable feedback for first year implementation even without test scores to back it up. College athletes have reported feeling faster than ever since being back on the field with their teams this fall, which is more great feedback.
Ten-yard acceleration times were faster for the entire population of athletes in post-testing at the end of the summer, which may or may not be directly linked to the upright running warm-up we implemented. The 10-yard test is descriptive of an athlete’s acceleration, and it is much more tissue-driven and powerful in nature than upright running. If any correlation exists between the warm-up and the athlete’s 10-yard acceleration, it would most likely be in their confidence in their running ability due to the added volume in their training over the 10–12 weeks of camp.
I will say that I recognized less compliance or squish at the foot and ankle upon impact with the ground in their acceleration phase of running. We viewed this with slow-motion video clips and made sure the athletes were able to see and understand it as well. These healthy improvements in stiffness could also play a role in the 10-yard testing improvements.Allowing the athletes to run at higher velocities each day is highly effective as an addition to their warm-up protocol and a means of potentiating the system prior to a gym-based workout. Click To Tweet
We also learned that allowing the athletes to run at higher velocities each day is a highly effective addition to their warm-up protocol. Athletes responded fantastically to this simple speed-enhancing approach, which requires nothing more than 8–10 short wickets or hurdles, three cones, and a length of parking lot, grass, or turf of 75–100 yards. It also acts as a highly effective means of potentiating the system prior to a gym-based workout.
You are hard-pressed to find a faster athletic movement than sprinting, and if you want to get an athlete’s nervous system firing on all cylinders prior to a workout, then go sprint! When it comes to preventing soft tissue injuries during high-speed running, you will also be hard-pressed to do this without actually spending time running at high speeds. Don’t let the four walls of your facility represent the limits of your athlete’s programs—there’s an opportunity for some really awesome results just outside those doors.
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