Dylan Hicks is the Founder and one of the lead coaches at Adelaide Athletic Development, a track & field specialist group. Dylan is in the final stages of his Ph.D. at Flinders University, where his thesis is focused on force-velocity profiling in team and individual sport athletes. Currently, Dylan is the Head of Health & Physical Education and High-Performance Academy Coordinator at Cardijn College in Adelaide. He is an Associate Level II ASCA coach, a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (NSCA), and a Level III Sprint Hurdles & Relays Coach (AA), and he has completed an MSc at Edith Cowan University (Strength & Conditioning). His area of specialty is coaching speed, and he currently has a small group of sprint athletes (100m–400m). Dylan has previously worked with athletes in team sports in the AFL, SANFL, A-League, and NBL1.
Freelap USA: In Australia, there’s the “gift” circuit, which consists of professional racing on grass. Can you explain the format of pro running and the cross-over it may have to traditional amateur athletics? Does the practice of sprinting on grass have any advantages or disadvantages when transferring to sprinting on a track?
Dylan Hicks: Professional running in Australia (SAAL, VAL) is a running league that allows athletes of all ages and abilities to compete in a fun and competitive environment. Briefly, each athlete is given a handicap based on their current (or former) ability, which, in turn, ideally gives them an equal opportunity to be successful or potentially win a “gift.” A gift is the traditional term for the main race at that meeting and is usually worth the most money. There is prize money allocated for finalists in each race, from $300 to $60,000, and a sash for every winner.
This type of running is very strong in South Australia (SAAL) and Victoria (VAL) and generally complements the traditional approach to track running at weekly interclub. Typically, these kinds of leagues do not attract the fastest athletes in the country to every meet. Instead, they may be made up of athletes who may not reach national-level performance but are still very engaged in the sport and want to pursue their own athletic excellence by pushing themselves in this environment.
At the bigger meets around the country, for example, the Stawell Gift (VIC), Burnie Gift (TAS), and Bay Sheffield (SA), national-level athletes such as Jack Hale, Jake Doran, Bree Masters, and Torrie Lewis have regularly competed, which provides a unique atmosphere for both their competitors and the spectators. During these events, athletes like Bree Masters may give her competitors up to a 10-meter head start over a 120-meter race, which creates a unique experience unmatched in other forms of the sport. My coaching colleague Gaby Philis and I encourage the junior and senior athletes in our group to compete in both grass and traditional track events.
Regarding training (or racing) on grass, it’s an interesting discussion and something many athletes in Australia “just do.” We are fortunate to have access to many well-maintained grass ovals or tracks within the local community and the school systems.
As we often see online, many Jamaican athletes appear to train on grass frequently, but I’m not sure this shows causation with performance. What I would say is that the advantages of training on grass may include aspects such as reduced mechanical cost compared to spending every session on rubber, which might lead to a greater accumulation of training during the preparation phases. This may lead to a lower incidence of common running injuries, such as lower limb “hot spots”/stress reactions or fractures.Some advantages of training on grass are reduced mechanical cost compared to spending every session on rubber, which might lead to greater accumulation of training during the preparation phases. Click To Tweet
The obvious disadvantage to consistently training on grass is the increase in contact time, which changes the impulse, therefore reducing overall sprint speed. Adaptations to improved sprint ability, particularly as the level of the athlete increases (i.e., national level), are velocity-specific—i.e., limb velocity coordination, vertical force application (< 100 m/s)—and these cannot be replicated by training on grass. A further disadvantage is that the surface may impact sprint kinematics (if too soft or uneven), potentially ingraining poor technical habits not conducive to sprinting. Overall, like many aspects of sport performance, a mix of both surfaces is likely the best approach, but the coach must determine the best way to distribute these across the season.
Videos 1 & 2. Training to race on grass and on the track.
Freelap USA: One of the debates that takes place amongst the sprint community is the balance of general training versus specific training. Are you able to give your thoughts on this topic? Are there any benefits to general training, and if so, how does this kind of training transfer to sprint performance?
Dylan Hicks: One of the major changes I made to my programming this past season was based around the periodization and specificity of sessions. Largely, it came about from discussions with some other notable Aussie coaches, Peter Fitzgerald and John Nicolosi, about the adaptation time to ingrain velocity-specific changes.
Compared to the previous season, 2021–22, when the group did have some strong results, we only had 4–6 weeks of what would be termed GPP before moving on to specific work. Getting back to the coaching discussions, Peter and I would often speak about some athletes who spent most of their winter training well below specific race velocities and magically expected results to appear during sessions just because they had transitioned into specific preparation and competition phases.
Too often, coaches religiously follow the periodization models set out in the Russian and East German texts without really knowing how they were implemented. I think this is a mistake (which I have also made). It takes a long time to develop speed, and wasting 12–16 weeks of preparation doing general work can be a disservice to your athletes. Additionally, in the unfortunate case that the athlete gets injured during this time, they are now even further along in the season, and it delays specific work for another month or so.In short, I think general training has limited benefit to improving sprint performance across a season, says @dylhicks. Click To Tweet
General training is just that—it’s a means to an end to prepare athletes for what’s to come. For younger athletes, this period is great for developing biomotor abilities, improving technical sprint characteristics, changing/learning (new) motor patterns, etc., but for the more advanced athlete, I would say it is more about preparing the muscle and connective tissues for the high-velocity movements that will follow in the upcoming months. The weight room is a significant part of the general preparation phase, which we continue to use across the whole season, but these exercises are largely general in nature compared to actually sprinting. In short, I think general training has limited benefit to improving sprint performance across a season.
This season in particular, where one of my athletes made a big jump in the 400m, we increased the specificity of sessions by placing a much greater emphasis on bend running. We also attempted to improve his ability to cope with the demands of running rounds. John Nicolosi had really encouraged me to move away from doing so much work on the straights and have my athletes improve their ability to run the bend, mainly from a technical point of view, but also to develop greater kinesthetic awareness at high velocity. Reflecting on the last 6–8 weeks leading into the Australian Nationals, we really only ran 3–4pt 30m efforts on the straight. Then the remainder of the sessions focused on race modeling the 400m, using aspects of running into or out of the bends at speed, which I know Mike Hurst also endorses. So, this was a very rewarding change to my program.
Freelap USA: You’re relatively unique in the coaching community in that you have an extremely academic background in sports performance and have authored papers in peer-reviewed journals. You also were an athlete yourself. How valuable do you think this combination of experiences has been to your coaching, and what tools have these experiences given you that you perhaps otherwise would have missed out on?
Dylan Hicks: My teaching and coaching experiences, along with my educational journey—physical education, exercise science (S&C), Ph.D. in biomechanics—have developed me into the coach I am today. Right now, I primarily reside in the coaching world rather than research, as this is not something I do daily. The mix of each of these educational programs with the “school of hard knocks” is becoming more valuable as I get older.
Perhaps like the coaches of yesteryear, who were trained as physical education teachers, I lean on a lot of educational pedagogy while coaching: i.e., the theory and practice of learning. Whether I am giving feedback to a senior athlete or coaching a junior athlete, the action or drill must be taught, and then learned, at the level of the learner/athlete (see John Wooden here).
This is an important consideration. Advanced concepts should probably not be taught to, and generally won’t be grasped by, athletes not at this level; or at least, it may lack some relevance to their current performance level. For example, in the weight room, developing athletes don’t need Westside training; they just need to turn up and follow progressive overload and then turn up again tomorrow. It’s the same on the track. Meet them where they are at.
I think my background and knowledge in S&C is also a great addition to how I design training programs. I often hear of huge disconnects when athletes work with private facility trainers, and there is minimal communication with the track coach about the design of the S&C session. This type of approach to training can really hamper progression and likely result in soreness and/or injury.
The gym must complement the track workouts; it can’t be a 50:50 split. What makes people fast??? Sprinting! And this is my mindset when planning the track season, i.e., what type of exercises complement specific training phases, sessions, or athlete types? You don’t need a formal education to learn this information, but I’ve found that it provides me with a balanced thinking process of where each piece of the puzzle “should” fit.
Regarding my Ph.D. (which I will hopefully complete in the coming months), other skills you are taught and must learn when performing research are to analyze and interpret data critically. While writing my thesis, I was overly critical of my own data analysis, so I now know what to look for when reading new research papers and attempting to interpret significant findings and whether this is useful to me as a coach.The findings may be significant in a research study, but so far from moving the needle in applied practice that it’s just not worth worrying about when writing programs, says @dylhicks. Click To Tweet
More and more research is coming out on aspects of sprinting—including acceleration, maximal velocity, and transfer of training—but is it all useful in practice? The findings may be significant in a research study, but so far from moving the needle in applied practice that it’s just not worth worrying about when writing programs. So, I guess my research background has given me insight into what may be useful in a lab and whether this can be put into practice on the track or in the gym.
Freelap USA: What key technical positions do you look for with your sprinters? What are some common cues or tools you use to help encourage your athletes to find these positions?
Dylan Hicks: The major focus I had across the past season was the athletes’ position at maximal velocity on both the straight and the bend, as there are nuances here. I do spend time working on acceleration mechanics, but I think I’ve shifted more recently to focusing a larger portion of my time on improving their position at maximal velocity.
A key technical characteristic I tried to address with a few of my athletes is their shoulder/head position in respect to where their hips are. Despite running reasonably well, we had issues in the past season where the shoulders/head were too far ahead of the hips after the acceleration phase, and they have not corrected back to a position where the shoulders are “stacked” on top of the hips. Failure to address this leads to early ground contact and excessive braking forces.
Video 3. Athletes performing hurdle hops.
Another thing I look for at top speed is the degree of knee flexion upon ground contact and during full stance; if there’s too much flexion, a few things may be happening because, ideally, we want this lever to be long and mostly extended. This is often a result of early ground contact, but ultimately it identifies that a closer inspection is needed. First, the impulse is suboptimal, and they are on the ground too long, the athlete’s eccentric and/or elastic qualities are poor, or there is a timing/coordination issue once at top speed.
Other common positions to look for are the “figure 4” position during ground contact and where the swing leg knee is during this momentary position; this is something many coaches identify as essential. Also, I really encourage a “long torso” to ensure athletes are not flexing at the hip, particularly on the bends. Then I look for a “big chest” to ensure their shoulders are down and back to limit rolling the shoulders and curvature of the thoracic spine.
Regarding the arms, I encourage my athletes to focus on stroking the arms from the “chin to past their pocket line.” I have used wickets, med balls overhead, dribbles, and various drills to correct and encourage better patterns, but ultimately, much of it comes through repetition, positive reinforcement, and when various strength levels increase (i.e., reactive strength, etc.).
Returning to the previous question, motor learning adaptations within a track and field setting (i.e., task/environment, stimulus, feedback, corrections/adjustments, task, etc.) are typically greater when the environment and motor pattern are performed at the desired speed. Even novice athletes can hit good angles coming off blocks or find the figure 4 position, yet can’t hit advanced split times—so cueing positions and doing drills at pedestrian velocities is limited. In my experience, technical or kinematic changes take longer to develop than biomechanical ones, despite being related, so it can be a slow burn.
Freelap USA: The athletes you coach, some recently representing Australia at the Oceania Relays (4x400m), are part-time. What kind of constraints does this place upon you and them and how you plan their training? What does a typical week of training look like for your athletes during the specific preparation phase and/or competition phase?
Dylan Hicks: Yes, that’s right. One of my athletes, Harrison Hunt (silver medal in the 400m at the Aust Nationals, PB 46.24), recently represented Australia at the Oceania Relays on the Gold Coast in the Men’s 4x400m and Mixed 4x400m. New squad member Aidan Murphy (200m PB, 20.41, formerly coached by Peter Fitzgerald) was also a part of this relay squad. Up until this point, I have only ever worked with part-time athletes (and I am a part-time coach), so I cannot compare to what full-time athletes or coaches experience. But briefly, it effectively moderates the load, intensity, and density of what can be achieved during the week (i.e., after work).
In my senior group, I currently coach two full-time carpenters (one of which is Harrison), an exercise scientist, two schoolteachers, and a university student, and therefore, they all come to training with a source of fatigue before starting the session. This is not uncommon and something most coaches at my level deal with. The main thing I have learned to do is get creative with planning based around good weather, track access, public holidays, and the weekends.The main thing I have learned to do training part-time athletes is getting creative with planning based around good weather, track access, public holidays, and the weekends, says @dylhicks. Click To Tweet
A major part of my programming is based upon doing their highest-intensity, or most important, sessions on the weekend. This is mainly because there are no time constraints on the session, and they come in relatively fresh, albeit likely training much earlier in the morning. During the week, we obviously do push the intensity, but it would often sit at the lower end of the high-intensity continuum, where I encourage the athlete to moderate their session based on how they feel after work or study. If the speed is not there after a full day of work, we just adjust the session.
Other factors I look at to maximize session outcomes are the weather and the calendar. Across the year, I constantly look at the two-week forecast, trying to determine when the next wave of warmer weather (especially in winter or spring) is coming so I can adjust sessions to maximize these days. I will change sessions pretty quickly if I know we can hit some high-intensity speed sessions in warm weather. This approach also assists in trying to avoid inclement weather, where if I know it will likely be raining on the weekend, we may swap the sessions around to ensure the key session on the weekend is instead done during the week.
Lastly, although the athletes don’t always like it, I try to maximize the use of public holidays by increasing the training density leading into this day or even using the day as an opportunity to have two moderate- to high-intensity sessions back to back. Much of the information above seems common sense (at least to me), but I have found them useful considerations when trying to navigate the constraints of part-time, semiprofessional athletes.
From a programming point of view, during the SPP and across most of the competition phase, we used a weekly structure, as detailed below. Session structure and content were often dictated by whether the athlete raced or not, but this was largely the focus for Harrison Hunt, leading to his success over 400 meters this season.
Acceleration work + hurdle mobility + plyos
2x (150, 120), fast-easy-fast, 3 minutes between reps, 8–10 minutes between sets. First set full bend; second set half bend.
(*We would typically do this whether they raced on Saturday or not.)
Weight room (total body session)
A1: Hex bar deadlift (3–5 x 3 ≥ 85% 1RM)
A2: Loaded chin-up (10%–20% BW)
B1: Hang clean (3–6 x 2-4 ≥ 60%–80%)
B2: Box jump (BW or vest)
C1: Seated calf raise (isometric or eccentric focus)
C2: Rotary hip flexion/extension (fast)
C3: Hanging leg raise (core)
Recovery, regeneration, physio/massage
Two types of sessions we typically use:
A. (non-race week)
Acceleration work + plyos
2 x 60m from the 400m start. 4 pt or blocks. 6 min rest between reps. 6 min rest before next rep.
1 x 90m off bend (45m build-up/45m maintenance), 10 min rest.
1 x 180m. Start at the 250m mark on the back straight and finish at the 70m mark on the home straight. 12 min rest.
1 x 150m. Half bend at 400m finishing speed or higher.
B. (race week)
Acceleration work + hurdle mobility + plyos
2 x flying 30m (30m build-up) / 60m, 5–6 mins between reps. 6 min rest before next rep.
1 x flying 60m (30m build-up) / 90m, 6–9 min rest before next rep.
2 x 150m race model. Rep 1 from the 400m start, 10 min rest, Rep 2 from the 250m mark on back straight.
Track (grass) or weight room (total body)
As per Sunday/Monday or similar focus.
As per Tuesday.
Saturday (typically Day 1 of microcycle)
A. Race day
Two types of sessions we typically use depending on what the athlete needs:
B. Track (grass or rubber)/anaerobic capacity focus
Acceleration work + hurdle mobility + plyos
5 x 150m (half bend), on a rolling 5-min cycle. Aiming to maintain consistency in time across all reps. Compare the average of reps week to week.
C. Track (grass or rubber)/anaerobic power focus
Acceleration work + hurdle mobility + plyos
2x (200 + 150), 90 seconds rest between reps, 12–15 minutes between sets. Rep 1 (200m) stationary start, aiming slightly faster than opening 400m speed. Rep 2 is a rolling 150m “high effort” run to simulate the “feeling” of the final segment of a 400m race.
Overall, moving to a microcycle following the above pattern (track/comp, grass, gym, off, track, grass/gym, off) during the CP seemed to provide a strong foundation for running multiple rounds at the Nationals.
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