I am writing in the middle of the coronavirus shutdown, in a time when sports and athletics have effectively ground to a halt. Some tracks have been closed to the public, and track coaches everywhere are trying to supply their athletes with creative ways to get better.
This is merely an exercise in using the whole bag of tricks. A track is just a man-made oval pathway. Any surface can function as a track or training ground. I have always loved taking my athletes out of the structure that the oval provides while trying to get the right training effect.Any place is a good place to train if common sense prevails, says @grahamsprints. Click To Tweet
The purpose of this article is to outline some unique benefits to each surface compared to traditional tracks, without being redundant, as well as list some possible do’s and definite don’ts from my view. Track or no track, we can always get better.
1. Synthetic Tracks
I will start with tracks, since that is what we are most comfortable with. High school coaches no doubt feel the urge to get as specific as possible, as soon as possible. This means putting the spikes on and banging out some fly sprints. That urgency is not lost on me. Tracks are fast, but they are also kind of boring if overused. Everything is neatly marked out, the pits are great, and the bleachers offer an interesting place to train hops and plyos. We aren’t exactly blessed with time, so this boring, organized setup is a lifesaver.
Most of this, of course, is the highest neuromuscular load we can place on a young sprinter’s body. Spikes have plates that are very hard and change sprinting by making it faster and more maximal. This is undoubtedly a great thing.
One 2010 study showed that, “The GRF experienced during running is significantly increased in competitive footwear compared to regular running shoes. Differences are evident in the larger peak vertical impact force, loading rate, stiffness (in spikes), and peak braking force.” To me, this also means that wearing spikes all the time during general prep periods with athletes returning to season is a potential injury risk.
Massachusetts is pretty cold in the early spring, so I love when the sun is shining, and we are spiked more often mid- to late-season and times are fast. Early season, however, meet times are often slower, and some of my athletes get frustrated no matter how much I tell them the weather affects them.Perfect conditions are a great aspiration on paper, but they can be a performance killer, and one that promotes excuse-making on meet day, says @grahamsprints. Click To Tweet
Tracks are necessary to have your team running its best, but track, by and large, is centered around an obsessive blend of repetition and routine. If I can safely accumulate volume and speed while placing them in different environments sensibly, I think it makes athletes more resilient and not so reliant on perfect conditions. Perfect conditions are a great aspiration on paper, but they can be a performance killer, and one that promotes excuse-making on meet day:
“I didn’t have anywhere to warm up.”
“This track is slow. I never run well here.”
Variety can help athletes be ready for any circumstance. Tracks are fast, but in my experience, getting too specific too early with neophytes can be injurious mentally and physically. I usually like to wait a couple weeks before introducing multiple track sessions, with spikes. Developmental athletes just beginning track season can get sufficient stimulus on an abundance of alternative surfaces. We can show our athletes that speed training has variety and that track is more than just “running fast and turning left.”
2. Concrete or Asphalt
We have all probably heard about the hardness of concrete, and that it is something “10 times harder than asphalt.” This implies that there is a great risk to our athletes. After spending time looking for research on the dangers of sprinting or running on concrete or asphalt, I was honestly left with more questions than answers. Some people say sneakers with cushioning reduce the risk, and some say they don’t matter.
One study found that “ground reaction forces (how hard you hit the ground) have no correlation with stress fractures, and loading rates (how fast you hit the ground) are only slightly correlated.” It would make sense that there is a greater level of biomechanical stress and increased neuromuscular load because of the harder surface. I just don’t think that means that we can’t use these surfaces at all if we apply some common sense and smart training.
All I know is I have trained speed athletes periodically on concrete and asphalt without issues. The important thing is that you don’t overuse it, and you get them off their feet or on softer surfaces as well. My favorite concrete training modality is the short hill acceleration on a low gradient. I much prefer this over grass runs, which can have some bumps and divots and some residual slickness on a damp spring day.
Carl Valle recently wrote a more nuanced article on incline sprinting. Hill sprints are an opportunity to watch an athlete in action before any real external cues are offered up. Acceleration is a little more of a conscious and deliberate phase of sprinting than maximal velocity, but this doesn’t mean I want an athlete in their head when accelerating.
The internal cues of “give me some violence,” “rise with rhythm, every step,” and “run up the stairs” make a whole lot more sense with a slope in front of you. I read a study that used 3- and 4-degree inclines and saw good improvements with the athletes. I have never calculated gradients of the hills before, but I do know a suitable and sprintable hill when I see one. Using the “Map My Run” app, I can see two of the slopes I use regularly are between 2% and 4%.
If I introduce a freshman to a set of blocks on day 1 and load them up with a dose of external cues filled with talk of joint and shin angles, I may have already set them back. This stuff has its place, to be sure, but hill runs can get athletes comfortable with thinking fast and being fast. I believe it is a great first exposure to sprinting, creating torque to overcome inertia, and moving horizontally with power.
Any coach worried about hardness or injury should know that acceleration runs of 10-30 meters typically carry a low injury risk. We have all seen athletes over-push to achieve a contrived triple extension that looks great in a still photo. Often, they jump and land flat-footed in the first few steps on the track. I have always found that hills provide athletes with feedback on how best to contact the ground with their feet to prevent this braking and instead build with every concentric push. The longer ground contact times can teach developmental athletes exactly what propulsion means.Curbs and stairs function as nice low boxes and are everywhere in parking lots and on streets. This is a great way to teach athletes to use their feet to maximize the elastic pop. Click To Tweet
Curbs and stairs also function as nice low boxes and are everywhere in parking lots and on streets. This is a great way to teach athletes to use their feet to maximize the elastic pop. There are some excellent plyo options on steps and curbs. Their low height places the premium on stiffness and development of coordination before progressing to higher plyos. Railings allow an intuitive control of downward velocity while volume safely accumulates, and the athletes learn with a more extensive volume of work.
Whether the jumps are locomotive or in place, they are great options on hard surfaces.
3. Natural Grass
You can do it all on grass. There’s no reason speed work can’t be done on a nice patch of grass that isn’t too tall. Personally, I love doing grass runs of 40-50 seconds with trainers on. I like the intuitive effort I can maintain on a nice soft surface without the traditional track markings. If I trained my athletes in the fall, I would add some grass runs as tempo work. There is something nice about being in a different setting while performing the same work. However, I am going to switch it up here and avoid talking about sprinting and running because variety is the spice of life.
There is a big benefit to being barefoot on grass. I confess I don’t know much about progressing barefoot running for my athletes and usually avoid it, save for the occasional cooldown walk.
General strength circuits with an aerobic focus done barefoot are an excellent chance for your athletes to reap some potential benefits without adding training stress. I love them as an alternative to tempo work. I would use these a lot with athletes on the heavier side who need some aerobic work or otherwise don’t love running.
Grounding is something that piques my interest. The concept of “grounding” “refers to contact with the Earth’s surface electrons by walking barefoot outside or sitting, working.” This study also said that, “Emerging evidence shows that contact with the Earth—whether being outside barefoot or indoors connected to grounded conductive systems—may be a simple, natural, and yet profoundly effective environmental strategy against chronic stress, ANS dysfunction, inflammation, pain, poor sleep, disturbed HRV, hypercoagulable blood, and many common health disorders, including cardiovascular disease.”
I can’t say if all these claims are true, and there is not a lot of research to go on. I do know on a 75-degree day, when restoration is the focus and the sun is shining, my athletes love a short practice that leaves them feeling recharged. I just think if we know the benefits of sunshine, and if grass MAY enhance that, then I am going to consider it. We owe it to our athletes to work this surface in, especially if it has positive effects on mood and mental health.We owe it to our athletes to work a natural grass surface in, especially if it has positive effects on mood and mental health, says @grahamsprints. Click To Tweet
What would one of these circuits look like? I have always tried to avoid med ball work, jumps, and other overused modalities on restoration days. I also think keeping restoration days low-key helps prevent the speed and power days from becoming stale.
I usually love alternating upper-lower-core-movement or upper-lower-core with 40-meter easy skips between. I have borrowed bits of this from Latif Thomas and his circuits in the “Complete Speed Training Volume 2” program. Alternating it this way ensures everything is worked, but nothing is overworked. Exercises are simple, with the onus on the athletes to execute them well.
Workout Example A (40-yard loose skip between each exercise)
- 10-20 push-ups
- 10 reverse lunges each leg
- 5-10 deadbugs each side
- 10- to 20-second isometric push-up
- 10 side-lying hip raises each leg
- 30-second kick-though alternating legs
- Rest 2 minutes, repeat 1-2 more times
Workout Example B (continuous no-skip transition, rest as needed)
- 5 slow eccentric push-ups
- 5-10 oscillating split squats
- 20 shoulder tap planks
- 30 jumping jacks
- 5-10 tricep push-ups
- 5 slow eccentric glute bridges
- 5 birddogs each side
- 30-second banded bear crawl
- Rest 2-3 minutes, repeat 1-2 times
The simple exercises don’t matter as much as the desired effect. The goal is moving well under a little fatigue. It is a little support to weight room work with what I think they may need that we have not already done that week.
There is a bit of isometric work, which is great in the early season as an analgesic and to add some joint and tendon health. This is an easy way to get athletes on grass in season. This can develop just a little aerobic and strength capacity to handle more speed work and gym work. Using the grass this way can keep athletes happier and hungrier for the next speed day.
4. Trails and Wood Paths
The best features of a trail are the peaceful setting, nice surface, and long, flat spans. A trail lined with trees or other nature provides a nice opportunity for the athlete to focus on their rhythm and body position.
I have had 80% hearing loss since birth and wear two high-powered hearing aids. I have always appreciated the sound of the small crushed rock beneath my feet when running on a trail. To me, the sound is really unique and something you can’t get on a track, even in spikes at 20+ mph.
This increased sensory input has always enabled me to have a better body awareness and flow when on trails. If I had to guess, I would say that this has something to do with my vestibular system and inner ear getting something it otherwise lacks in noisy environments. Both tempo and special endurance-style 150-meter intervals are favorites of mine. They have a quick enough pace and long enough interval for an athlete to get lost in the running.
You can certainly work acceleration on surfaces like this, but I would advise drop-in style accelerations to ensure a foot contact that isn’t “slippy.”
There is a great opportunity to rehearse gaze and vision on trails as well. We know the head plays an important role in mechanics during acceleration and upright sprinting. Trails are a great way for athletes to understand the value of such concepts.
Jimson Lee has an excellent article that I always think about when sprinting longer distances on a trail. In it, he remarks that “when focusing or ‘fixating’ on a point much further away, you will find that you will run more easily and freely,” and “as you get closer to the finish line, it is better to focus beyond the finish line to elicit the best performance. Fixating your vision at the finish line may terminate your velocity prematurely.”
Indeed, I experience this myself and communicate it often to my athletes, especially for 400m runners in the middle of the home straightaway. Having this vision to go to as a constant in the late stages of a grueling race is a nice way for them to stay in control of technique and posture.No matter what type of training you do, trail running/sprinting allows for some rhythmic rehearsals that can lead to sensory and soft tissue benefits, says @grahamsprints. Click To Tweet
The opportunity to run intervals that are more than 100 meters in a straight line is also a great way to negate potentially harmful training effects that result from running counterclockwise on tracks, especially those distances 200 meters or smaller. Running in one direction has been shown to cause some asymmetries that can lead to injuries. The good news is that a nice, straight trail is something that athletes can use during general prep periods to build work capacity without as much wear and tear.
No matter what type of training you do, trail running/sprinting allows for some rhythmic rehearsals that can lead to sensory and soft tissue benefits.
5. Hallways and Indoors
Lots of coaches are forced to train inside in the hallways during the winter. Obviously, weather can catch any coach off-guard but having “sub plans” ready to go can make improvised training more organized. My sub plans in a hallway when we are starved for a speed session would be a rotating “series” complex of the basics.
One benefit of being inside is just how easy it is to organize a workout in close quarters. You get to see everything. If you have a set of hallways that make a “U,” you can run the main portion of the workout on the bottom part. On the adjacent hallways in the left and right arms of the “U,” you can have an area designated for plyometrics/in-place jumps and another for medicine ball work. Place a captain or leader you trust to get things done in each group, and you already create a nice culture.
Taking a cue from Latif Thomas, I make my kids time their own rest. I have to trust them to do that. I often write the entire workout on a wall or locker in dry erase marker, objective style. I find it easy to stride back and forth by the kids who are running Freelap sprints and monitor technique at the other stations and, if necessary, re-teach.
- Sprint work (ex: 30-meter three-point start, drop chip in plastic bag after finishing, record time on chart)
- Med ball work (ex: 5 mb slams and 5 chest passes against wall)
- Plyometric/in-place jump work (ex: choice of 10-second partner pogos/stair drops/line hops)
You can stagger the start so group #1 finishes the sprints before group #2 and group #3 go. Or you can start them at different stations and rotate through.
Lots of coaches who see my athletes working out in the hallways have reached out and asked if my athletes have shin issues. My response is always that we really subscribe to minimum effective dosing in hallways. To me, the biggest issue with running in the hallways has never been the hardness, but that I must remind the kids to decelerate safely.The biggest issue with running in the hallways has never been the hardness, but that I must remind the kids to decelerate safely, says @grahamsprints. Click To Tweet
If we run 20-yard accels, then they should “slow down gradually like a jumbo jet” at the 40-yard mark. They should lower their hips, control their movement, and let their kinetic energy safely dissipate. This can keep shins and soft tissue healthy without adding microtrauma. All those sudden stops just add more mechanical stress.
This is non-negotiable when in the hallways. I would throw in a 10-push-up penalty (gets the point across without killing them) or not let that athlete do as many sprints as everyone else. Perhaps this comes across as punishment to some coaches, but an injury—even a nagging one—in a 12-week season can seriously derail plans. Their health and consistency mean everything.
Lower your plyo heights and keep sprints in the acceleration range (10-30 meters), and high school athletes will have more than enough speed and power stimuli to bring about adaptations.
6. Fallen Snow
Let’s not kid ourselves that we get anything sprint mechanics-wise on these next two surfaces. You know what we could get? Fun.
I recall being about 10 years old and running high knees in a snowsuit and boots until exhaustion. Jumping out of deep snow as far as possible and back in felt like jumping out of a swimming pool. There are lots of LTAD opportunities here for parents to consider.
Imagine living in the Northeast, cooped up in the hallways for a couple of weeks due to the snow and frigid temps. The winter doldrums are hitting hard, and kids are starting to show signs of aches even though you have been careful not to overdo it. A good solution could be to get them outdoors after the tough stretch passes.
That is what Coach DJ Brock of Acton-Boxborough did this winter. He ran a 10×40 “400 the Hard Way” workout shuttle-style on a 40-degree day in the snow. When I first saw the video, it looked like the kids were having fun while working hard. He has helped build a great program that is among the most competitive in Massachusetts. A coach needs to balance caring and expectations to create buy-in not only with their knowledge, but also with their ability to inject some fun. Snow could be a fun twist on the usual stuff.
I can imagine drawing chalk targets on a wall and, on their rest periods, having the kids throw snowballs from a line. This could be a competition, and the winner of each round could get some sort of training reward such as picking an exercise or skipping a rep.
Kids play and dive in the snow all the time, so the occasional snow workout is not going to let all their prior neuroplasticity you have carefully laid go out the window. I think the best snow would be an inch deep and slightly crunchy to get traction and not be too fluffy or wet. As long as they are dressed appropriately, and there is not a layer of ice underneath, it is a better speed training option than sand.I have had thoughts about using extended warm-ups and jumps with my athletes in nearly knee-deep snow as a specific strength-type workout, says @grahamsprints. Click To Tweet
I have had thoughts about using extended warm-ups and jumps with my athletes in nearly knee-deep snow as a specific strength-type workout. Unfortunately, I have not explored this, as soaking a pair of expensive trainers would be a fast track to getting on parents’ bad sides.
7. Sand Training
I am not going to load my athletes on a bus in-season and take them to the beach a week out from league championships. Although Apollo Creed and Rocky Balboa took part in an iconic beach scene, the surface is far too soft and doesn’t translate well with speed and power. This doesn’t mean it is completely useless as a training ground, especially when beach volleyball is a sport. I am also not telling your athletes to go sprint and jump as if there is zero risk.
It is clear from Carl Valle’s sand training article that there is a lot to learn about the long-term effects of sand training. I do like several things about sand training when done in the summer and early fall (if athletes don’t play a fall sport). At the beach in the summer, many weekend warriors run around, playing football and tossing the frisbee without ACLs being blown out, so a healthy high school athlete should be fine.
I think just doing a sprint warm-up once a week on the beach in the summer would be a nice, harmless way for them to get something worthwhile in without being random. All our athletes have copies of the warm-up routines on their phones, and there is no reason they can’t pull those up so they have something with more structure.
Carl Valle has noted that much of the benefits derived from sand training are psychological. When we talk about developing our athletes long-term and fostering a love of athletics, giving them options to explore what different settings can offer seems invaluable. Working out on the beach in the sun, near the beautiful water, just sounds more appealing. The five benefits that Carl observed are:
- Time to learn
- Muscular efforts
- Natural feedback
As a 37-year-old wannabe athlete, I can say that these are spot-on. I have had a few injuries over the years that have put what I call a “governor chip” on my nervous system. It has taken me forever to get comfortable with expressing speed and power again in a flow state. After a single sand session, I can say that flat ground locomotion just felt easier after my brain experienced the changes that sand provides. The unique surface provided a mental break. My ankles and muscles were able to get something in without getting sore, which was a nice change from heavy lifting and acceleration work. Staying healthy to train another day is the most important thing, so finding new ways to do this is useful.After a single sand session, flat ground locomotion just felt easier after my brain experienced the changes that sand provides. The unique surface provided a mental break, says @grahamsprints. Click To Tweet
I don’t know enough about this surface to suggest rehab protocols here, but small doses of this can keep a healthy athlete interested and invested.
The World Is a Training Ground
Any place is a good place to train if common sense prevails. Grass offers some potentially unique health benefits. Concrete hills and curbs provide an opportunity for athletes to self-organize during acceleration and to prepare for more advanced plyos. The novelty of sand is priceless, even if it makes for poor speedwork grounds. The sensory input that the peace of a trail provides is a great benefit. Hallways allow coaches to become essentialists and place the premium on organization. Snow is perhaps a completely uncharted training territory, but it sure seems fun.
The “what” is just as important as the “when” as a coach considers training surfaces. My suggested uses are:
- Sand: drill sessions, summer 1x per week
- Grass: GS circuit, in-season; grass runs early season or fall; accel work during GPP
- Hallways: speed circuits, winter; include off-feet conditioning if using hallways
- Concrete: hills for acceleration base, early season; get them on softer surfaces or off feet
- Snow: coach’s best judgement, winter
- Trail: tempo work, summer/fall 1x per week
At the very least, during the off-season athletes should know they don’t have to just do more of the same. They can attack training in nontraditional ways in nontraditional places and embrace the long haul that is athletic development.
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