I grew up in an idyllic coastal town in New England, playing football and lacrosse at a high school known for its academic and athletic excellence. I then played lacrosse in college and had a wonderful athletic experience filled with meaningful connections and great coaches. I remember powerful, defining moments that I cherish to this day. Throughout that time, however, what I don’t remember—ever—is any specific training designed to enhance my speed. One time, out on a rainy grass field, I remember running while a coach held a stopwatch in hand.
I never knew my time.
After college, I immediately began coaching high school football and lacrosse. I conditioned my teams hard. Running was usually long, slow, and submaximal. I often ran with the players. Our running was largely an attempt to build toughness, togetherness, and conditioning.Our running was largely an attempt to build toughness, togetherness, and conditioning… We were never focused on developing speed, says @ErikBecker42. Click To Tweet
We timed 40s once at the beginning of each season. I used the data to form position groupings and did not share it with the athletes. I viewed speed as something God-given rather than something that I had any influence over. I was very blessed to spend 15 years coaching at one of the best athletic programs in New England with a great tradition of excellence. Our teams were usually quite successful, but we were never focused on developing speed.
Man Makers for Making Men
In the fall of 2003, I read an influential article in Men’s Health magazine about sprint training. The article quoted noted speed coach Tom Shaw on the powerful benefits of sprint training and introduced me to a challenging workout that I began to do religiously on Sunday mornings. The workout, dubbed “Man Makers” in the article, was ten 100s, eight 80s, six 60s, and four 40s:
- The 100s were run in 15-18 seconds with 45 seconds of rest.
- The 80s were run in 12-15 seconds with 45 seconds of rest.
- The 60s were run in 6-8 seconds with 30 seconds of recovery.
- The 40s were run in 4-6 seconds with 15 seconds of recovery.
This entire workout took 23 minutes to complete. It was awesome: It left me gasping for breath, dog-tired, and at my absolute limit. Even in my early 20s, it took me days to recover.
I have always loved hard work. I loved pushing myself to my limit. I did the Man Maker workout every Sunday, year-round. In rain, in sleet, in sun, and in snow. In blistering heat and in frigid cold. During football season, I had my teams join me. I believed that if we could endure it together, we could endure anything. My deal with my players was that if a player beat me for all 28 sprints, I would buy them lunch.
It never happened.
I realize now that we never worked on our absolute speed. Our 40s came at the end of the workout, when our tanks were near empty. For our teams, Man Makers were a rite of passage designed to bond us through the endurance of mutual suffering. Completion of the workout was more about toughness and grit than maximum speed—we were not getting faster.
Interestingly, one of my first hints that the workout may have been making us slower came after attending the Tony Franklin System Seminar in 2007. He was teaching a high-tempo spread offense to high school coaches, and he said to do away with conditioning. Notably, in my next two seasons, we stopped doing Man Makers on Saturdays and went 19-1—the change in approach definitely made us fresher.
Over the years, I did Man Makers with various friends, in several different states, and in at least one other country. I always ran with a stopwatch and had a fairly good sense of what my times should be. I commonly ran on field turf, but occasionally ran on grass or beach sand when the field was covered in snow. When possible, I preferred to run barefoot and shirtless in the sun.
Peak 8 en Route to Feed the Cats
After about 10 years of running Man Makers every Sunday at 10 a.m., I shifted to a workout called “Peak 8.” This consisted of eight 30-second max effort sprints, followed by a 90-second walking recovery. The idea is to peak your heart rate eight times. The workout has a three-minute jog warm-up and cooldown.
Similarly, for almost 10 years, I did Peak 8 with religious regularity each and every Sunday morning at 10 a.m. No matter the weather, time of year, or location, I got it done. Occasionally, I was joined by friends, former players, or the teams I was coaching. I had a general sense of how far I should travel on each 30-second interval. Like Man Makers, I loved Peak 8 for bringing me right to my physical and mental edge in about 20 minutes.
When weather permitted, I preferred to run barefoot and shirtless in the sun. When snow covered our turf in the winter, I ran on the exposed sand at the beach.
Now, at this point I had taken over as the head coach of a struggling program. I was two years into building a program like the one I had come from. During our first two seasons, we were successful, but we had not reached the elite level of athleticism I was striving for.
Looking back, I realize that my training methods needed a serious update. We did not focus on speed. We ran the heck out of the athletes in summer and during the pre-season, all submaximal “old school conditioning.” What it did was reinforce poor running habits, tax their CNS, and wear out their legs. It did not benefit their speed at all.
Looking back, this hurt us, for sure. For example, during our mandated “Conditioning Week,” I took them through Man Makers and Peak 8 on consecutive days. Then we had a full speed, two-hour practice afterward. Talk about burning the steak!
This all changed two summers ago. I was happily mowing my lawn and listening to the “Run the Power” podcast. The guest was a chemistry teacher from Illinois: Tony Holler. He had a deep, gritty voice that sounded like he’d been around the block more than once. He sounded like he had earned his wisdom. He spoke like he knew what he was talking about and didn’t care if you believed him or not. He spoke with authenticity and ease. He was talking about the difference between the sprints I did at the end of high school football practice and real sprinting. He was talking about the value of absolute speed. He was talking about Feeding the Cats.
I liked him right away, and I was hooked.
Speaking like a heretic with nothing to prove, Holler said that conditioning makes you slow. He said that any fool could get another fool tired, and that tired is the enemy and not the goal. He challenged me, as a football coach, to wake up to what I didn’t know.For the first time, I realized that I had never actually been trained on how to run with maximum speed and effort. Consequently, I never trained my teams in a way that increased their speed. Click To Tweet
For the first time, I realized that I had never actually been trained on how to run with maximum speed and effort. Consequently, I never trained my teams in a way that increased their speed. In fact, I actually had trained them in ways that made them slower. (As I learned from Holler, speed is improved in 4- to 6-second max speed sprints with a full recovery.)
Over the next few weeks, I sought out every article Holler had written and listened to every podcast he appeared on. Through Holler and Feed the Cats, I became immersed in the work of Brian Kula, Cal Dietz, Brad Dixon, Jimmy Radcliffe, Chris Korfist, JL Holdsworth, JT Ayers, Douglas Heel, Barry Ross, Charlie Francis, and others. I took a deep dive into self-activation, reflexive performance reset (RPR), and mass specific force.
Video 1. Coach Becker sprinting on the track.
U of O’s Fast Break Tempo and Record, Rank, Publish
At this point, I began incorporating my new learning into training with my high school football team and in my own personal weekly sprint workouts. I got rid of anything that “made us slow” and started using a weekly practice model based on the collaboration between Chip Kelly and Jimmy Radcliffe at the University of Oregon. I began testing our players in max speed 40-yard sprints. Per Holler’s instructions, I recorded, ranked, and published the data.
During the first summer, we led our passing league in scoring and had great showings at 7v7 tournaments. People commented on how fast our team looked. During the season, we continued to use a practice plan based on the Radcliffe/Kelly method of sprint days and non-sprint days. We tried to find the minimum effective dose and sent the players home with gas in the tank. Tired is the enemy and not the goal.
For the first time in my tenure at my new school, students looked fast and fresh at practice. They were more motivated and focused. We got our work done faster and got off the field when we reached our objective. Our players were happier and healthier. We moved to a “less, but better” philosophy based on the book Essentialism. Kids always left practice with gas in the tank and there was a joy to the work that I had not seen in my first two seasons at this program.
We incorporated RPR before games. On a team with only three seniors, we won seven games (our best season in almost a decade) while starting nine sophomores. Our players were visibly faster and fresher. Best of all, I have data to prove it. I have two seasons full of data showing improving speed numbers. This correlated to more wins, more points scored, and fewer points allowed.
The speed on the field was evident in person and on film. This past season, we did not play games due to COVID-19, but we worked hard on speed. We tested 40s every Monday, and we recorded, ranked, and published all data. We had 24 players run faster than five seconds on the 40-yard dash.
On film, our guys just looked quicker, more explosive, and faster in action. Their legs looked fresher. They were sharper. Holler says that if they train at 100%, then playing at 80% feels comfortable. However, if you train at 60%, 80% feels unbearable. I attribute this totally to our Radcliffe/Kelly practice plan and our commitment to low-dose, max speed sprinting two days during the week leading up to game day (our third sprint day).
As far as toughness goes, after using physical conditioning to develop it earlier in my career, I now believe it is mostly a mental skill. I try to instill mental resilience more verbally now than situationally—we talk a lot about focus, determination, and perseverance. Coaching mindset has become a huge focus, and I believe that mental training is a safer way to help build toughness in young players.As far as toughness goes, after using physical conditioning to develop it earlier in my career, I now believe it is mostly a mental skill, says @ErikBecker42. Click To Tweet
All the while, our speed numbers continued to improve over the course of the season two years in a row. And, our injury rates were very low (we had one concussion, a sprained thumb, and a broken collarbone).
N of 1
On the personal side, my weekend sprints are still ongoing. I am approaching 900 consecutive weeks. Currently, my Sunday sprint workout looks like this:
- RPR and a short dynamic warm-up.
- Plyometrics to enhance my running form.
- One 40-yard build-up where I come slow off the line, hit max speed around the 20-yard mark, and decelerate to the 40-yard mark.
- Then I do one flying 10.
- I follow that with 3-5 max effort 40-yard sprints.
I run in track spikes on a rubber track. When possible, I run with the wind. I sit down for a full five-minute recovery between sprints. Usually, I run 3-5 40s. Occasionally, I add a 100 or 200.
Fascinatingly, and just like Holler has said, my 200 time after running my max speed 40s is as good as it was on my first interval of Peak 8. Raise the ceiling to raise the floor. I always try to low dose my speed workout and never burn the steak. Tired is the enemy not the goal. Everything is hand timed. (I am saving up for a Freelap.) Though I am not setting any speed records, recently a longtime Ivy League running back coach timed me at 4.7.
I supplement my sprinting during the week with low-dose, concentric-only hex bar deadlifts at 85% or more of my max to build mass-specific force. I add plyometrics and light power cleans or snatches. I prioritize sleep, rest, and recovery. I live clean and make my wellness a priority.
I have learned that speed is the ultimate difference-maker on any athletic field. It is the most prized commodity. Speed benefits every player, no matter the position or sport. It can be coached. It can be trained. It can be increased. It has become my passion. I will continue to work hard to learn everything I can about building the fastest teams possible. For the rest of my coaching career, I will prioritize the speed of my athletes above all else.For the rest of my coaching career, I will prioritize the speed of my athletes above all else, says @ErikBecker42. Click To Tweet
As I write this, I am looking ahead to my 894th consecutive Sunday morning sprint workout, and I am excited to run fast.
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