I was born in 1991, one year after Charlie Francis published Speed Trap, three years after he coached Ben Johnson to another 100m world record in Seoul, 14 years after Francis became a part-time coach at Scarborough Optimist Track Club, and 24 years after he competed for Stanford University track and field. When Francis began coaching, he was 28 years old, and he had dozens of leftover, unanswered questions about training from his college days.
- How does the central nervous system influence performance?
- When is high-volume appropriate for sprint training?
- How much recovery is necessary for high-intensity repetitions within a practice session?
I am also 28, but these questions do not keep me up at night: Francis—and other valuable coaches in our sport—answered them for us. In the 1970s, our modern training glossary existed only disparately in the minds of a few coaches whom Francis would one day seek out and learn from. These coaches included Percy Duncan, Gerard Mach, Horst Hille, and Bishop Dolegiewicz, whose methods Francis learned, refined, and integrated into his own widely respected national sprints program.
Today, we know more about training because of Charlie Francis. Almost 30 years after its publication, Speed Trap remains one of our fundamental texts for coaching and developing sprinters.
High School High: Intensity + Volume
I’m not sure whether to be disappointed or mad. While Francis innovated and elevated sprinting, I still observe track coaches relying on the same high-volume training methods Francis rejected. Somehow, my high school track coach never got the memo about his own antiquated, injury-inducing methods. I suffered through the same high-volume, moderate-intensity prescriptive training that Francis experienced in college, which left me speedless and depleted.
Although I earned some medals and my name continues to carry weight at my alma mater, I now know to attribute my success to my supportive parents and earlier athletic experiences. In Speed Trap, Francis’s reflections urged him to advocate for longer rest intervals between repetitions and more recovery days between high-intensity workouts.
For me, this same training philosophy came from my parents, who always felt they were fighting my misinformed understanding about recovery. I didn’t understand how much recovery I needed to overcome my coach’s developmentally inappropriate workouts.I didn’t understand how much recovery I needed to overcome my coach’s developmentally inappropriate workouts. Click To Tweet
Both high-intensity and high-volume track workouts necessitate a certain prerequisite strength, which depends on the athlete’s physical development and their training age. When applied and periodized correctly, either type of workout will improve an athlete’s speed and prevent injury.
In my freshman year of high school, I was slightly better off than some of my teammates because I had a more advanced training age. I had played club soccer for many years before running track and had a wonderful soccer coach who emphasized age-appropriate strength and conditioning. I wasn’t immune to the wear and tear of high-volume sprint workouts, but I certainly didn’t suffer from shin splints as often as my teammates did.
In my sophomore year, I missed an entire week of practice and competition after a single track practice that included high-intensity, high-volume sprints, five reps of prisoner jumps down a 40m hallway, and a few jelly-leg sprints to close out the workout. The next day, it hurt to walk. I was too sore to jog. My quads were tender to the touch for a week straight. No bragging rights earned for completing the workout were worth the training time I lost in the week afterward.
Walking On to Run
Looking back, those four seasons of high school track were remarkably similar to Charlie Francis’s description of collegiate track in the 1960s. In Speed Trap, Francis contextualized his abysmal performances by explaining that in the American “haphazard system…only a few would thrive” because “development was a matter of chance.” He was a good athlete who became a great athlete after he left college because Percy Duncan taught him to have patience with his training.
Similar to Francis, I was a good athlete and a product of that same “haphazard system.” But I never became a great athlete because I never found a coach like Duncan until after my window of opportunity had closed. The difference between the two of us is that Francis was no more than a product of the accepted training systems of his time while I’m a product of the system more than a decade after it had been rejected.
When I barely walked onto my college track team in the Fall of 2009, I finally saw a sprints group that practiced low-volume workouts. Not all workouts were high-intensity, but low-volume training was a beneficial step in the right direction for me. Unfortunately, the workouts were periodized poorly with our strength training, and we were overloaded.
In Speed Trap, Francis acknowledged that his sprinters required substantial recovery from the highest intensity sprint workouts before they could reproduce similar performances. He also discovered that all training factors cumulatively affected the central nervous system (CNS). For example, a max effort strength workout on Day 1 would reduce an athlete’s ability to sprint at race pace on Day 2, and vice-versa. The CNS requires holistic recovery from any biomotor skills that fry it.
Although I couldn’t see it at the time, I now understand that CNS fatigue obstructed my success in college and high school. And it wasn’t just me. Many athletes never lived up to their personal best performances from high school, or they were consistently nursing injuries. It was my second experience observing programmatic problems in track and field.
I stopped competing after my freshman year in college because I wasn’t good enough to continue. Like Francis at the end of his collegiate experience, I had many lingering questions about training. At the time, I didn’t realize that I also was sowing the seeds of coaching my sport years before I would consider the profession.
The More Things Change
In 2016, when I began coaching high school track in New York City, I observed “old school” all over again. Many teams still relied on high-volume training methods. While Francis wrote “precision matters more than effort” back in 1990, here I was in 2016 watching effort alone as hundreds of track athletes jogged, ran, hobbled, or bounced by me.
As I coached my jumpers and throwers, I watched athletes from other teams zip past on the track as they strained to finish repeat 300m or 400m reps with minimal rest. I didn’t have to know the kid or their coach to realize how they were training. If sprinting called for precision—”constant adjustments and interconnected variables”—then this was not sprinting. This was fatiguing, and it was exhausting to watch. Then, I started reading about it.
I became a voracious consumer of sports science research and coaching education. I sought new mentors who helped me realize that training for speed and power had shifted away from high-volume and increasingly toward high-intensity and low-volume, with ever more consideration for the CNS. I found myself reading SimpliFaster articles on the subway commute to and from work every day. I was looking for my coaching compass, and Charlie Francis helped me find it.
Polished Methods and Tarnished Medals
For anyone familiar with Francis’s coaching—or track and field history—you may remember how performance-enhancing drugs tarnished Francis’ professional record. At the 1988 Seoul Olympics, Canadian sprinter and former world record holder Ben Johnson tested positive for stanozolol. He was stripped of the gold medal in the 100m dash, which implicated Francis for his use of steroids with the rest of the Canadian sprint team. In Speed Trap, Francis offers his perspective on this episode, which begins with his personal athletic story and builds to the heartbreaking climax of the 1988 100m final.
Francis signaled what lies ahead and acknowledged the irresolute state of drug use in professional athletics worldwide. To his credit, this has been excruciatingly accurate. When we balance this against the evidence of corruption he presented in various agencies, like the International Olympic Committee (IOC), World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), World Athletics (formerly IAAF), and Athletics Canada, his solutions to the steroid epidemic seem reasonable and relevant today.
If Charlie Francis is anything, he is honest.
The Francis Legacy
Speed Trap is more than a darkened truth—it’s an instruction manual for training. Whether they realize it or not, modern sprint coaches use similar methods to those Francis developed in the 80s with athletes like Ben Johnson, Angela Issajenko, Desai Williams, and Tony Sharpe. Francis’ athletes and mentors compounded his understanding of technique, fitness, and periodization until his coaching became synergistically independent.
The result was athlete-centered sprint programming, periodized with an Eastern Bloc model for strength training and recovery. In Speed Trap, Francis described his methods plainly and offered justification for each aspect of his sprints program with personal anecdotes from the mentors who supported him. Today, these training philosophies remain vibrantly alive in programs like Feed the Cats, developed by Tony Holler, or Complete Track & Field, by Latif Thomas. Both USATF and USTFCCCA emphasize low-volume sprint training in their respective coaching courses.
I wonder now if coaches who haven’t adopted better methods have done so because they are too lazy to change their systems. Or have they demonized Francis and never entertained that his methods were superior regardless of his association with performance-enhancing drugs? I think you can guess what I believe.
I have no problem admitting that my personal account offers a mere sliver of the vast number of track and field programs that exist nationwide. There are, without a doubt, great coaches and teams in the United States who are training the next generation of world-class athletes.
Francis made a sizeable dent in our global understanding of sprint training. But we still have a long way to go until his methods are widely accepted and practiced. If your only takeaway from Speed Trap is that it’s time to forget those 4x300m or 10x200m workouts, sprint training will move in the right direction.Speed Trap defines the generational shift necessary for coaches to improve sprint training & fix the unveiled culture of performance-enhancing drugs. Click To Tweet
Speed Trap illuminates the generational shift necessary for coaches to improve sprint training and fix the unveiled culture of performance-enhancing drugs in track and field. To date, it remains a worthy read for any coach (novice or expert) in the sport. I would rather learn from a great coach who advanced our sport than demonize him for practices that remain widespread.
I’m a better coach for asking questions, for challenging the status quo, and for reading Speed Trap. Thank you, Charlie.
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