Freelap Friday Five with Shane McCormack
Shane McCormack is an IAAF Level IV qualified sprints and hurdles coach who has been coaching for the last 20 years. He was an athlete from ages 7-19, competing across all sprint events, but focused primarily on 110m hurdles, and winning underage and junior national titles. McCormack had a relatively early entry into coaching after he graduated from the University of Limerick with a degree in software engineering. His early years focused initially on athletes based in his local club in Wexford, Ireland. He then progressed to sprints/hurdles coach for Waterford Institute of Technology, where he coaches on a part-time basis and serves as athletic development officer. McCormack graduated from Waterford with a master’s degree in telecommunications/software engineering and, in his day job, he serves as Director of IT Software Development for Sun Life U.S.
Freelap USA: Recently, you had an athlete who experienced a freak fracture of the foot away from training and competition. How did you keep the athlete confident with a return to form so close to the outdoor season?
Shane McCormack: Yes. Phil Healy, who I have coached for the last six years, and who is the current Irish female record holder for the 100m and 200m events, was the athlete in question. Last year, Phil ran 11.28 and 22.99 to break the long-standing Irish records in both events, and in indoor she has a 52.08 to her name. Phil opened her 2019 outdoor season with a 23.04 clocking in the Irish Universities championships on April 6, which was just .05 off her personal best, and things looked very promising.
At a training camp in Malta a few weeks later (April 18), after what was by far her best speed endurance session ever (I had her in 22.7 shape based on it), she twisted her ankle on a step in the city of Valetta and straightaway we knew we were in trouble. Fast forward a few hours, and an X-ray confirmed an avulsion fracture of the fifth metatarsal. I was immediately onto Emma Gallivan back in Dublin, who has been Phil’s physio since she was a junior, and she immediately got us feedback from one of Ireland’s top surgeons. He said that it was a clean break, from what he could see, and that recovery time would be at the normal end of things for such a fracture. The fifth metatarsal is notoriously difficult to heal given a lack of blood supply, but thankfully, where Phil broke hers was not in that area, otherwise she would have needed pins and recovery would have been much longer. However, without 100% confirmation, we still had doubts until returning back to Ireland for a full medical review.
Phil’s main aim for 2019 was the World University Championships’ 200m in Napoli mid-July. Phil was seventh in 2017 and, given her form up until the injury, a medal was a very realistic chance. This was April 18, so we knew if it took six weeks to heal a bone, we still had an outside shot at making the date. With her 23.04 time in the bag and qualification for Doha via quota, it was and still is a realistic target. Doha obviously gives us a lot longer to prepare for as a plan B than 12 weeks to Napoli, but we needed a short-term goal to maintain focus and a positive mentality. We immediately went to work on a rehab plan, which started two days after the fracture.
Over the years, I think coaches read articles and papers and remember stories about injuries and what was done to recover from them. Dina Asher’s return from a navicular fracture in 2017 to take fourth in the 200m and silver in the 4×100 relay is one such story that stands out, and it was what inspired us to put our heads down and work hard. Via some sort of coaching literature osmosis, we build up this knowledge base with memories of these situations and anecdotes from situations that others have experienced, and we take little nuggets of the success stories and what led to them.
Having a plan and keeping Phil occupied was part of the short-term goal; having her return to performing at the same level was the long-term plan. One is easier than the other. We had a date to work to, and in the initial four weeks, I knew I could throw the kitchen sink at her from all angles—energy system work, max strength, strength endurance, mental imagery, etc.—via any modality available to us that didn’t involve running, obviously.
We trained 2-3 times a day, rotating the focus areas. Sessions included general conditioning circuits, boxing, bike on a single leg, rowing on a single leg, half kneeling squats, old-school machine weights, swimming, etc., eventually progressing after two weeks when she came out of the boot to two-feet cycling and lifting, etc. I was also lucky enough to be able to draw on the experience of Stephen Maguire, Director of Performance & Coaching at Scottish Athletics and formerly Head of Performance at British Athletics, to bounce ideas off and get input on cross-training modalities.Anything I can do to elicit energy system improvements where athletes don’t have to run is a plus in my book with regard to injury prevention around volume, says @mcwexford. Click To Tweet
I am also lucky to have the input of a brilliant physiologist named Stephen Barrett who works with us from time to time and also works with the pro French cycling team AG2R La Mondiale. Over the last two years, as we’ve pushed Phil’s 400m capabilities, we have done a lot of work on the watt bike. Through HR and lactate testing, we found some wonderful adaptions at a very low physical cost as compared to general and intensive tempo running sessions. Anything I can do to elicit energy system improvements where athletes don’t have to run is a plus in my book with regard to injury prevention around volume. Granted, there’s a fine line for a sport that involves actual running, but I think there are many ways to get to Rome.
Injuries always force a mindset shift in our thinking and expand our coaching arsenal. Our watt bike finding also happened accidentally two years ago, as we were offloading Phil due to a knee niggle. As we peeled the onion and started conversing with Stephen, we really found a lot of very powerful adaptations. Ultimately, he played a big part in her 2018 indoor season, when she finished 11th in the World Indoor 400m in her first real 400m season. That season, she opened with a world-leading 52.08 in Vienna and went on to beat Natasha Hastings and Justyna Święty in Karlsruhe on the World Indoor Tour.
Two weeks post fracture, we started back on the watt bike in earnest, and we fully adapted all our track sessions to the watt bike. We replicated distances and times in ratios we already knew worked based on the data we had built up. We also went to a very dark place with some watt bike sessions mixed with blood flow restricted squatting. I wouldn’t recommend these too often, but they definitely had a big impact on creating a massive strength endurance adaptation.
Week 4 post fracture, we had a deadlift max, so we knew strength was in a good area. This was all base preparation for when we were told we could begin impact after week 6/7, but it also ticked a massive psychological box. Phil felt she was working harder than she ever did, even as a short sprinter who had done a 400m winter.
After three anti-gravity sessions in the Irish Institute of Sport under the watchful eye of physio Paul Carragher, we got back to some impact drills/strides roughly six weeks out from the World University Games. The dream was still alive, but we were not prepared for the massive regression in neural pattern and coordination Phil initially felt upon return to basic drills and strides. Despite best efforts to mimic the cyclical motion of sprinting, it cannot be replicated in a pool or off the feet with no ground contact to disturb gait and enforce this contact pattern.
We had five weeks left, so we kept working on the plan. That was what kept Phil focused and motivated, and we accepted that wherever we ended up was a plus. We were back running, and it was also just the start of a long season. Thankfully, things came together just in time, and her character shone through from the day she fractured her foot to the day she competed in the final, running 23.44. In the process, she ran 23.4 in both heats and semis. Given the work she did in rehab, I was not surprised she managed three rounds in the same time with no drop-off.
One of the things I noticed as soon as she found running form was that Phil’s speed maintenance capabilities had drastically improved, while her max velocity took a hit due to the nature of the injury and time spent off her feet. We know this will come back. Her RSI values are still rising, so we know things are moving in the right direction.We learned how much we underappreciate the benefits of technical running and the capabilities of a determined athlete when they apply themselves in the face of adversity, says @mcwexford. Click To Tweet
A final in 23.4 was more than we hoped given the possibility of not even competing. We had a very specific plan that worked. Another time it may not have, but it was the plan and belief we both had in each other that kept the focus and kept the confidence there. We knew off the back of a 23.04 that she couldn’t regress that much if we kept her fit and strong, which are the two key cornerstones to my programming. Some of the most valuable lessons coming out of it are how much we underappreciate the benefits of technical running and the capabilities of a driven and determined athlete when they apply themselves in the face of adversity.
Freelap USA: Ireland is a great country with a lot of talent, and it is starting to grow its sprinting program. What is the key for the country to get on the sprinting map?
Shane McCormack: There has been a lot of underage success in the last few years, culminating in a silver medal for the women’s junior 4x100m team at the World Juniors in 2018. I think it’s important to note that there are no paid “professional” track coaches per se in Ireland—everything is done on a voluntary or part-time basis. Athletics Ireland has made good strides in the last year, bringing in some powerful minds from the world of track and field with a coach mentoring program being installed under the guidance of our new sprints coordinator, Daniel Kilgallon. Coaches had the opportunity to attend several weekend workshops with Jacques Borlee and Ralph Mouchbahani, along with exposure to some of Ireland’s best minds in the area of injury prevention, nutrition, sports psychology, S&C, and testing.
I do, however, think the most realistic formula for coaches like myself to continue learning and growing is with the 70/20/10 rule (job-related experience/interactions/formal education). Also, Ireland being a small island with a relatively small population, the more coaches can come together both formally and informally, the more it will help the system grow as a whole. Some more experienced coaches can help others navigate what is a very rocky path from junior to senior athletics, especially on an international stage. I think we have the raw ingredients, but still lack the ability to tie it all together into a clinical system in the manner that Germany, Britain, France, Poland, etc., have done recently.
Freelap USA: You work with an array of athletes with different schedules and life responsibilities. How do you manage to keep those athletes focused when so much is happening away from training?
Shane McCormack: This is a common issue for all coaches, for sure. I think all you can do is take each athlete as an individual, as you would their training program, and help them navigate the problems that life throws at them. With Phil, who is studying for a part-time master’s degree, she has the time to train and recover. I also have athletes who have full-time jobs and are students and do not have this luxury.
Sessions need adapting and extra rest is required. The group has athletes of different levels and abilities, but we all have the common goal of improvement no matter the level. We are also a very close-knit group with everyone supporting and helping each other on and off the track. In the past, I have made the mistake of spreading myself too thin, both from taking on too many athletes and also helping other coaches. That diluted the time and focus I could give to the athletes who were dedicated to me and my group.Not a season goes by where coaches stop learning, adapting, and thinking on your feet to help others, says @mcwexford. Click To Tweet
With 20 years of experience, I always think I have seen everything life can throw at people, but not a season goes by where you stop learning, adapting, and thinking on your feet to help others. It definitely helps if you are a relationship-based coach, as they are the ones who connect individually with their athletes. I definitely see myself as this type of coach, with boundaries and expectations around behaviors and respect being paramount.
Freelap USA: Having an independent training philosophy, what influences do you have among past coaches? Who has made an impact on you with regard to coaching? Can you share how you have evolved over the last 10 years?
Shane McCormack: Like most coaches at the beginning, you beg, borrow, and steal without really understanding the what, how, and why. This is fine and a natural starting point, and I think everyone needs to start there to end up at a point where they develop their own philosophy. I think some of my early philosophies stemmed from my club and university coaches. I learned the importance of general conditioning from Michael McKeon and the importance of speed endurance from Drew and Hayley Harrison (coaches to Olympian 400m hurdler Tommy Barr).
I have now done a full 360 on some of those concepts I took from my early days, chasing what I believed were single magic bullets for different concepts like short to long, long to short, max strength, VBT, force-velocity profiling, etc. I was fascinated, as most coaches probably were, with Mike Hurst’s invaluable insight into his 400m philosophy on the Charlie Francis forums some years back. It was my first insight into a concurrent training setup, which I had, upon reflection, already morphed my philosophy into over recent years, taking little bits of all my experiences along the way.I have now done a full 360 on some of the theories I took from my early days, chasing what I believed were single magic bullets for different concepts, says @mcwexford. Click To Tweet
Strong influences in more recent years have been the technical genius mind of Ralph Mouchbahani, who I was lucky to study my IAAF Level IV under. Gabe Sanders, who I met in Boston while travelling for work and was at the time head coach of Boston University track and field (now Stanford), has been another fantastic resource and help over the years. More recently, James Hillier, who coaches Leon Reid (Commonwealth bronze 200m), has come to Ireland to deliver workshops with a small group of coaches we set up as a peer-to-peer group with my coaching sparring partner, Jeremy Lyons, who follows a similar philosophical path as myself. We all need sounding boards, and Jeremy is one of the best in Ireland.
One of the things I am glad I invested heavily in for myself is a practical knowledge and understanding of the execution of strength and conditioning programming and various different templates. Joe Kenn and his literature heavily influenced where I am currently. As an athlete, I was lucky to be trained technically in the gym by Sean Whitney, who was a former shot putter and coach to the Munster rugby team.
I have always been fascinated by the transfer of strength and power to speed, and it’s something I’m always chasing knowledge on. I upskill where I can, specifically around force-velocity profiling and how to program differently for pushers versus what I call bouncers. For example, I have built up a six-year database on jump data with some of my athletes, specifically Phil, and we are able to use indicators like RSI and CMJ to determine state of readiness, impact on volume, etc. I elicit basic things that are daily tools used by sport scientists and elite high-performance coaches with a simple cost-effective Chronojump mat. Using my ever-regressing IT skills, I’ve built some useful custom dashboards that give some nice immediate feedback and help us track progress over time.
Given the move toward technology in sport, I do find my career in IT and sport crossing over more and more. However, I still think you can’t beat the coach’s eye and inherent understanding of each athlete. Specifically, as we were prepping in the final weeks before the World University Games, I threw away my program and used these two things as my guide. The combination of relationship coaching, experience with an athlete’s physical and mental state, and an inherent sixth sense of when to push and pull back with them can bring a lot of magic when the timing is right. As Jacques Borlee recently told us, paraphrasing Walt Disney; “If you can dream it, you can do it.”
I think you need to truly believe and dream at all levels, and one of the biggest things I try to bring to my coaching is the belief and positivity that anything is possible. Given all that, I think simplicity is key once you adhere to the cornerstones of physiological training. Nothing has changed greatly in the last 100 years. Technology has made huge advancements, but, ultimately, once an athlete is prepared correctly and is happy, they will be fast relative to their capabilities.
Freelap USA: Every coach has seen their athlete stagnate and hit a wall from time to time with speed development. How do you communicate the realities of an athlete’s slowing improvement as they get faster? How much of this is psychological versus actual genetic ceilings?
Shane McCormack: I think this is where it’s important for the coach to be several years ahead of the athlete with regard to knowledge and ability to bring them to the next level or to resolve stagnation in performance. Based on experience, I have learned to do two things:
- Return to and review the fundamental pillars of coaching and physiology. Determine if I have neglected any of them recently and if they can be enhanced to elicit an improvement in physically or psychologically (very important!).
- Change focus of events/training. I have found, with Phil and some other athletes who are so-called short sprinters, that a focused macrocycle on 400m or elements of 400m training can elicit some adaptions in the short term that lend themselves to increases in max velocity and power.
Another important facet of this is the weather we have to deal with in Ireland. Our winters don’t lend themselves to fast running unless you live near an indoor track or have funds to spend time outside the country. Ultimately, there’s an end point everyone reaches where, based on the hand they’re dealt, they can no longer facilitate improvements, whether from genetics, injury, coach ability, etc.Personal bests don’t always happen every day or season, so the underlying emotion needs to be enjoyment, says @mcwexford. Click To Tweet
I think it’s important to psychologically prepare the athlete to be able to compete at their given best at a point in time. Personal bests don’t always happen every day or season, so the underlying emotion needs to be enjoyment. This is not always possible at the highest levels, but the closer we get to enjoyment, the easier it is to remain competitive.