There may be no bigger blessing or curse than social media. It allows us to cultivate a circle of influence to access information, but in our search for confirmation bias, we often narrow the scope of information. I regularly find myself auditing those I follow, trying to ensure that I include some who may have different viewpoints that can assist in my development. At the same time, I attempt to find balance with not getting involved with too much dialogue regarding items I do not agree with.
I am certainly far from perfect in this regard, and there is no question that engaging in bickering on social media has wasted time that I could have better spent elsewhere. I feel that one of the primary issues of social media debate is conversations take place at a very superficial level. Trying to communicate complex ideas in 280 characters is a wonderful cognitive activity. However, it is a battle that can never be won, as there are always exceptions, and we ALL are quick to pounce on a post where we can point one out!
One social media debate that I have engaged in over time has been the utilization of tempo running within sprint training. Most of the time, I leave the debate feeling that nothing has been accomplished. All parties involved end up frustrated and bewildered, causing the ditches between parties to become canyons, when the athletes we serve would probably benefit if we put more effort into building bridges.
This article is an attempted deep dive into my own journey with tempo running. One problem I see in coaching—and one I am, of course, guilty of myself—is passing judgment on a program or system without having a true understanding of the situation that the coaches involved are dealing with. Here, I will go into the why behind the decisions I have made over time based on the realities I faced. I think this will provide a unique perspective, as it covers an area that is probably underrepresented in the information that is distributed.Too often we pass judgment on a program or system without having a true understanding of the situation that the coaches involved are dealing with, says @HFJumps. Click To Tweet
While we all love seeing “new” exercises and their variations, a key part of coaching remains understanding the “why” behind everything in your program. Often the arrival of the “why” occurs through the process of solving a problem. I intend to lay out my thought process in this piece, and the bonus will be having a resource I can refer people to in the future so I will not have to get into any social media wars regarding tempo running!
Narrowing the Scope
I think that one of the reasons debates get extremely heated when tempo is the topic is that the topic is not specific enough. I’ve seen tempo described as anything from 60% to 90% of race pace, which is a very wide range when referring to any specific distance but gets quite a bit broader when basing the percentage off different distances. For example, 70% of an 11-second 100m is approximately 15.7 seconds. If the same runner had a personal best of 50 seconds in the 400 meters, 70% of 50 seconds would average approximately 17.9 seconds per 100 meters. Anyone who has taken part in a tempo session knows this 2+ seconds is quite a big difference in pace.I think that one of the reasons debates get extremely heated when tempo is the topic is that the topic is not specific enough, says @HFJumps. Click To Tweet
While many adaptations take place within a tempo session, what distance the target pace is based off of, the distance being run within the rep, and the percentage all combine to form a hierarchy of adaptations. I think bickering on social media regarding tempo training would be quite a bit less heated if we were more specific about these items, which can be traced back to the following non-exhaustive list of desired adaptations.
To the “stress is stress” crowd: I hear where you are coming from, but I do think there is good stress and bad stress. In general, I think the stress of 20-30 minutes (or beyond) of a heart rate of 120-140 beats per minute is good for anyone who has a heart that beats, and it can be restorative for those whose target is improving speed and power. Of course, the activity or activities being performed are EXTREMELY important, and the lines of energy systems being utilized are blurred, but if we zoom out and identify our target (ATP-PC, lactic acid, aerobic), we can create workouts that complement each other and lead to greater adaptations.
We all are familiar with the idea that slowing down to enhance our ability to perform a skill is a sound method. It is commonly used in playing a piece of music (regardless of the instrument) and in sports such as golf. So, can reducing intensity be a viable way to improve technique in sprinting? I think the answer to this question is “absolutely.”
When athletes are challenged to showcase an optimal performance in sprinting (such as a timed flying sprint), I prefer for them to have as little thought running through their head as possible, but when they are operating at a submaximal level, they have a better chance to think about what they are doing or, more importantly, feel what they are doing. When utilizing submaximal sprinting to improve technique, I like to use Joel Smith’s terminology of “rhythm sessions” as opposed to tempo. I feel that “rhythm” better describes what I am often looking for—a synchronization of body parts to produce efficient movement down the track.
Ability to Buffer Lactic Acid
When rest times are crunched and/or higher intensities are addressed in the sub-maximum spectrum (usually 80% and above), athletes begin to get acidic. Like anything else in training, appropriate exposure to this stimulus will help athletes improve their ability to process lactic acid, and tempo training is one way to get there.
Most of the information I put out has to deal with the benefits of sprinting at maximum velocity. This is by design, as I believe it to be the most underutilized training modality, particularly in youth through high school settings. I bang on the maximum velocity drum in the hopes that more people will hear my sweet beats and begin to utilize it within their programming.
Since I am so pro-maximum velocity, people often extrapolate into thinking that I am anti-submaximal work, which is simply not true. When it comes to training, I am not opposed to any stimulus. However, I am opposed to the improper use of stimuli, and I feel tempo training is one of the most misused modalities in program design. In short, if you refuse to leave the middle, you do not get the perks of the penthouse or the basement.Since I’m so pro-maximum velocity, people often extrapolate into thinking that I’m anti-submaximal work, which is simply not true… I’m opposed to the improper use of stimuli, says @HFJumps. Click To Tweet
Many have stated that tempo is too slow to be specific and too fast to be restorative. While I think there is truth there, I also think it is an oversimplification. The truth is, in order for tempo work to be most effective, a coach must be extremely skilled. I abused tempo for years, and part of my eventual choice to scale back its use was the realization that I was not skilled enough to navigate the deceiving waters of the middle.
My personal experience in track and field involved quite a bit of tempo running. In my high school, 12 x 200m was a Monday tradition, and despite not much exposure to true sprinting, I did get faster. College was the first time in my life where I was exposed to true speed sessions, and in a well-balanced program that also included extensive tempo (ET), intensive tempo (IT), glycolytic short speed endurance (GSSE), alactic short speed endurance (ASSE), speed endurance (SE), long speed endurance (LSE), and special endurance (SE1/SE2), I continued to improve my speed and overall explosiveness.
Like many, when I transitioned into coaching, I used programming similar to what I was exposed to. The problem was that my understanding of the programming was faulty, as I viewed volume as the primary driver of enhancing performance. It took quite a bit of time for me to understand that the best programmers are able to conduct training volume, intensity, and density like a symphony, and the appropriate amount of each together elicits results that are superior to each as a standalone.
I began my track coaching career at Homewood-Flossmoor with the girl’s program, which had been very successful, but recently had quite a bit of turnover in the staff. Because of that, I was given full control of the training of sprinters, hurdlers, and high jumpers. Our season was 18 weeks long, beginning in January and ending in May. Because we were in a southern suburb of Chicago, the ability to train outside regularly was not a reality until April. Fortunately, we had an indoor 160-meter track which we shared with our boy’s program.
As I mentioned, volume was the driver in the programming, and below is a week taken from the very beginning of our outdoor season (week 11). It is important to note that dual meets for us in the mid-2000s were a big deal. We had wonderful rivalries with the schools in our conference, and we typically placed all of our athletes in three or four events.
Monday – Intensive Tempo
- 100/200: 2 x 100, 150, 200, 250 @ 80% of best 200
- Rest 2 minutes/rep, 4 minutes/set
- Add 1 second for 250 target time
- 400: 2 x 300, 400, 500 @ 80% of best 400
- Rest 3.5 minutes/rep, 5 minutes/set
- Add 2-3 seconds for 500 target time
- Weight room
Tuesday – Speed
- ALL: Plyos
- ALL: 3 x 40 meters (rest 4 minutes)
- Relay Athletes – exchanges
- Non-Relay Athletes – additional 3 x 40 meters
Wednesday – Dual Meet
Thursday – Extensive Tempo
- ALL: 5 x Diagonals @ 70%
- Run diagonal of football field, walk the width, and run the other diagonal = 1 rep
- Weight room
Friday – Meet Prep
- Blocks, handoffs, approaches
Saturday – Invite
While it would be exhaustive to outline the programming for the entire 18-week season, I can give some key points that, in combination with the specific week above, will help you understand my reflections.
- We ran a double peak, targeting peaks in weeks 9/10 and weeks 17/18.
- Indoor (weeks 1-10)
- Speed was present throughout.
- ET built volume from weeks 1 through 5, then decreased and was utilized as needed.
- IT built volume from weeks 2 through 7, then decreased and was utilized as needed.
- GSSE and/or ASSE were present from weeks 3 through 7.
- SE/LSE was primarily addressed in competition, besides an SE/LSE workout in weeks 8 and 9.
- Outdoor (weeks 11-18)
- Speed was present throughout.
- ET was used as a recovery modality.
- IT was reintroduced from weeks 11 to 13, and then utilized as needed.
- SE/LSE was once again present in competition and addressed during workouts in weeks 14 through 18, competition dependent.
- SE1 and SE2 were utilized with special athletes.
Observations and Alterations
We dealt with repetitive use injuries (primarily shin splints) from day 3 through the end of the season. Having dealt with shin splints myself, my initial reaction was, “Shin splints are part of track and field.” In a life full of stupid statements, this may reign supreme. Our program really became survival of the most durable. We were fighting a war of attrition that was self-created. However, we did try to incorporate the following remedies:
- Preventive maintenance exercises – think of any lower leg exercise. I bet we tried it and gave it a fair chance.
- We did not notice any improvement.
- Foam rolling, massaging, etc.
- We did not notice any improvement.
- Making athletes ice their lower legs after every practice.
- We did not notice any improvement.
- Running tempo workouts clockwise and counterclockwise.
- We did not notice any improvement.
The highest volume in our season came during the indoor portion of our season, and remember that due to the weather, we were almost always confined inside. While our 160-meter track was certainly better than being in hallways, the surface was still hard and slick, and the turns were tight. It took me years to realize that this did not mesh well with high volume. The primary reasons for this were the bias of my own grind mentality that I had when I was an athlete and the fact that we were having quite a bit of success. This included a state championship in the 4×400 meters in 3:50.50 in 2005.
The shin splint epidemic was not enough to steer me away from high-volume tempo workouts, but something else occurred near the end of the decade that resulted in programming changes. We acquired a greater number of athletes who were true sprinters. My definition of this was potential state finalists in the 100 meters and/or 200 meters.
While our top athletes in the past could handle long tempo reps, these athletes truly struggled. There were many intensive tempo workouts that did not end well. Despite my best efforts to motivate, for a handful of our top athletes, anything more than 200 meters would eventually have reps that ended in a death march. We made the following interventions over the next couple of years:
- Cut overall running volume by up to 50%. We tended to do bodyweight and medicine ball circuits with multiple movements prior to the tempo workouts. The thought was that lactate levels would rise during the circuit and heart rates would fluctuate in the 120-160 beats per minute range, giving us the general fitness adaptation that we were after. We could then use tempo and stay in that range or increase the intensity and challenge anaerobic threshold.
- Try to minimize the reps done on the curve. We began using wickets on the straightaway on a regular basis.
- Split reps into smaller segments. Instead of 4 x 300 @ 80% with four minutes of rest, we would do four sets of 2 x 150 @ 80% with one-minute rest between reps and three-minutes rest between sets. The quality of movement increased substantially. The death march became much less common.
- Eventually, extensive tempo workouts were replaced almost entirely with bodyweight circuits, medicine ball exercises, and weight room activities.
Finally, shin splints became much less common. In fact, the only athletes who continued to have them were those with excessive plantar flexion upon ground contact. The resulting extreme forefoot contact followed by the heel slamming into the ground remains a shin killer!
For those who followed our program during that time, our performance in the 4×400 and the longer sprints did regress, but it was mainly from allocating our resources to the shorter sprints, jumps, and hurdles. This was dictated by our athletes’ strengths and the order of events in Illinois. With the 4×400 immediately following the 200-meter dash, there were times we did not have the depth to handle having our top two sprinters in the 200 and still field a state finalist 4×400 team. I do not think the reason for this had to do with how our approach to training evolved. Of course, the programming was not perfect for everyone, but athletes program-wide still improved from year to year, and the repetitive use injuries were way down.
Around the same period, another situation occurred that once again took me too long to realize and develop a solution for. We had an indoor meet on Tuesday, and the following day, our boys team had a meet. Because of what we had going on later in the week, I wanted to get a quick 75% tempo workout in prior to the boys’ meet.
We warmed up, and afterward one of our top athletes came up to me and told me her legs felt like “stones.” She had run three events the previous day: the 55-meter hurdles, 4 x 160-meter relay, and 300-meter dash. I told her that the workout should help her feel better. We were doing 160-meter repeats, and their individual target time was based off 75% of their 160-meter time (established four weeks prior).
The first two reps did not look good, as she was clearly straining to keep up with her training group. We talked, and because she was very dedicated, she wanted to continue. Despite the red flag raised while watching the reps, I allowed it, and I remember thinking in my head that we have never had anyone get seriously injured from the thousands of tempo reps we had run. On the third rep, she pulled her hamstring. Fortunately, the injury occurred early enough in the season where she was able to compete during the last half of the outdoor season, but the detour she had to take could have been avoided if I had been better.
I remember thinking that this was a complete anomaly, but years later, I realized it was not. While assigning target times based on percentages of performance makes us feel as if we are having athletes hitting a desired training target, it is far from a perfect system. This is because a certain effort needed to hit a 75% target time one day may feel like 75%, but the following week it may feel like 90%.Assigning target times based on percentages of performance is far from a perfect system because a certain effort needed to hit a 75% target time one day may feel like 90% next week, says @HFJumps. Click To Tweet
It probably felt like 95% for this athlete. The diet and sleep habits—as well as the stress from friends, family, and school—are far from predictable for high school athletes. It must be stated that daily communication (face-to-face and/or surveys) and observation during warm-up are imperative so situations like this do not slip through the cracks. Furthermore, having quality plan B options in place can help hit certain training objectives, along with keeping the hard-working athlete’s mindset in a good state, as they do not want to feel like they are missing out on training stimuli.
In 2016, I made the shift to primarily coaching jumpers for our boy’s program. While I had a desire to have jumpers who could successfully navigate any race from 60 meters to 400 meters, I recognized that some of the training that would lead to greater success in the 400 meters could be detrimental to the athlete’s performance in the jumps (especially long jump and high jump). Nevertheless, we had athletes who had strengths in both the longer sprints and the jumps, and surfing the wave of addressing both in training remains a challenge. Many of the jumpers I coached were what I would classify as “elastic,” meaning they had the ability to recycle energy well. That elasticity was also why the longer sprints were a strength for them.
During a standard week in our indoor season, our weekly schedule looked like this:
- Acceleration and/or maximum velocity (workout specifics can be found here)
- Event technique, lactate
- Acceleration and/or maximum velocity
- Event technique, meet prep, individual potentiation
Keep in mind that there are numerous factors that went into the construction of this schedule. We all have our own facility scheduling restrictions and equipment access issues to deal with. In the high school setting, we have to be okay with simply providing the best structure we can, not what would be ideal.
Within this structure, you could address tempo type activities on Tuesday and/or Wednesday. Our Wednesdays tend to consist of restorative activities that do not involve running. If the use of extensive tempo is desired, I have suggestions in this article, such as diagonals and segment runs.
With Tuesday both including event technique and providing a stimulus to raise lactate levels, it took me a season to realize that it would be most efficient with my group of 15-20 jumpers to create circuits to help with the flow of practice. Having an athlete wait 10 minutes between short approach jumps was not a great use of time. I go into further detail in the evolution of this thought process and circuits I’ve used in a previous piece, but I will share a new circuit here.
The following would occur after our 25-minute Tuesday program warm-up, which includes multi-planar movement and multi-planar submaximal plyometrics.
- Short approach jumps x 2-3
- 4-10 steps
- Push to vertical posture in one-third of the step number
- Resisted sprint (band or Exer-Genie): 1-2 x 10-20 meters
- Any acceleration drill can be used here
- Wicket run x 2 (approximately 50 meters in length)
- Crouch or rolling start
- Push to vertical posture in six steps
- Enter wickets at step 8
- Exit wickets and maintain technique for 20 meters
- If possible, have a board to steer to between 15 and 20 meters after the wickets.
- If the athlete will “pop” off the board, I’d encourage them to land in sand or on a mat.
- Note : On this day, I instruct athletes to run the wickets submaximally ~90%.
- Hip circles x 10-20 (clockwise and counterclockwise)
- Towel curl to press x 10-20 (until intensity drops)
- Jump drill on the curve x 1 (clockwise and counterclockwise)
- Submaximal skipping, galloping, or run-run-jumps
- Shoulder drops or rebounds x 10-20 (until intensity drops)
- Extreme isometric lunge x 30 seconds (each leg)
- Repeat 2-4 cycles
Video 1. Towels and 1- to 3-pound weights (or water bottles or bean bags) are cheap ways to bring speed-strength to any practice field.
The beauty of this circuit is that it addresses all three of the tempo adaptations mentioned earlier (recovery, technique, and buffering lactate). My guess is that athletes’ lactate levels rise as they work through it. I have not had the ability to measure lactate levels, but I do know that their heart rates are between 120 and 160 beats per minute.
If we seek to create a bigger spike of lactate levels, we will close out the workout with submaximal runs that can range from 80%-99% perceived effort. The percentage addressed will often come from a conversation with the athlete to determine what they feel they need to be prepared. There are many roads that lead to booty lock, and while I have my preferences, I find that the athlete’s mental state is more important than my bias.
Volume is dictated by the percentage and by watching the repetitions. If the rep does not look like sprinting, we cut the workout. Our most common pace is what I refer to as “runway speed,” which I generalize to be 90% of an athlete’s top speed. (There is definitely a range as to what percentage athletes show on the runway.) While I have used “runway speed” for years during these types of workouts because they have passed my eye test, a recent study shared by Derek Hansen gives us a little more to think about when assigning percentages.Another benefit I have found of assigning reps at 90% or higher is that athletes are more likely to communicate with me if something bothers them… The higher intensity acts as another athlete screen. Click To Tweet
Another benefit I have found of assigning reps at 90% or higher is I feel that athletes are more likely to communicate with me if something is bothering them. This is of course anecdotal, but I think athletes feel they can “grind” through workouts at lower percentages. This opens up the possibility of the pulled hamstring story I shared earlier. The higher intensity acts as another athlete screen.
To Tempo or Not to Tempo
I hate the answer “it depends,” but it does. I think I would use tempo more often if:
- I had a fall season to work with track athletes.
- I had the ability to be outside on grass during our indoor season.
- I had access to a quality hill close to campus.
However, none of these are a reality. I know my journey with tempo is far from over, and I am sure the debate will continue forever, but hopefully the future contains more bridge building and less ditch digging.
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