When should track athletes lift?
Is it before practice, when the work is performed without fatigue from sports practice impeding the quality of the lift? Or is it after practice, so athletes can train without fatigue from the weight room interfering with practice quality?
A seemingly simple question, this topic nonetheless remains a source of perennial battles between coaches and athletes, as well as strength and sport coaches.
The Current Rage
There are many great coaches—both strength and conditioning and sport coaches—who insist on exclusively lifting after practice; or, in team field/court sports, after the strength coach has conducted a speed or acceleration session. According to these coaches, the proper order is for the fastest movements always to come first. While this method works fine for team and court sports, it can be problematic when applied in a track setting for sprinters and jumpers.My experience having participated in and coached every combination of training orders has framed what I view to be the best setup for sprint and jump athletes: SPLIT THE LIFT INTO TWO PARTS. Click To Tweet
For full disclosure, I’ve been on every side of this debate. As a collegiate athlete, we lifted as a team after practice for my entire career. After college, I had to train around graduate school and work, often needing to lift in the morning before practice. As a coach, I’ve trained groups both before and after practice. My experience having participated in and coached every combination of training orders has framed what I view to be the best setup for sprint and jump athletes: split the lift into two parts.
To understand why, it is helpful to first look at the major stressors induced by training that can impact decision-making, as well as what types of activities are most likely to create them.
- Muscular fatigue. Local muscle fatigue resulting from blood acidosis is well known to impair muscle contraction. This is the burning sensation after a hard interval session or higher-rep weight training, especially if taken to failure. While this work can be neurologically taxing, it is always done at submaximal intensities—so the limiting factor in performance is how the body is able to prevent and clear the accumulation of acid in the blood and restore muscle glycogen.
- Structural damage. Damage, or microtrauma, to soft tissues is a potent stimulus for growth. Over the long term, this can be a good thing when growth or hypertrophy is the goal. In the short term, though, microtrauma can lead to injuries when combined with high-intensity activities that further stress the already-damaged tissue.
- Nervous system fatigue. All types of training ultimately stress the nervous system in some capacity. But true top speed and heavy strength training doesn’t create the same blood acidosis as the methods that create muscle fatigue (if it does, you’re probably doing it wrong), so the limiting factor leading to neurological fatigue isn’t depleted energy stores or acid in the blood. Neurological fatigue impairs the signals sent from the brain to the working muscles, which lowers the force and speed of muscle contraction. This is sometimes thought of as feeling “flat.”
- Psychological fatigue. Psychological fatigue destroys focus and motivation, especially when intense training is reserved for the evening after a full day of class and practice. Attending class for 3–6 hours, then having a two-hour sports practice, and then going to the weight room is psychologically draining.
All these stressors can be created to varying degrees with different types of training. While these sources of fatigue and damage have different origins, all can lead to impaired motor control, throwing off movement quality as well as the weight and speed at which it can be performed.
Fears with Lifting Before Practice
With these stressors in mind, let’s look at the fears they inspire that lead many coaches to avoid lifting before practice.
- Inducing injury. This fear is easily the most significant one, and it is a valid concern—particularly with hamstrings. Ask most sprinters or jumpers at the college level and beyond, and you’ll likely find an athlete who has experienced some degree of hamstring injury. This fear is usually centered on performing hamstring-intensive movements like RDLs before practice on high-speed or jump days. This can create enough microtrauma in the muscle tissue that the muscle can’t maintain structural integrity while sprinting or jumping, resulting in hamstring injuries.
- Interfering with technical execution. I’ve seen this also referred to as a “tension-filled training session.” Essentially, lifting heavy weights creates a pump sensation and/or sustained muscle tension that throws off the contract-relax cycle necessary for efficient sprint mechanics. This lowers the quality of the session and has the potential to ingrain poor habits that can be hard to break.
- Loss of motor control can also lead to degraded sprint mechanics. This, in turn, can increase demand on the hamstrings in a lengthened position while sprinting, creating another route for the dreaded hamstring pull.
- Being unable to hit top speeds. This is influenced by the first two fears. The idea is that to improve top speed, athletes need to be fresh enough in practice to actually hit top speed. This process doesn’t work if only submaximal speeds can be achieved. The worry is that muscular or neurological fatigue from pre-practice lifting prevents this from happening and stunts speed development.
For sprinters and jumpers, many training days are not short bouts of 10–30-meter flys and block starts that can “prime” the lift immediately after. Some are, but there are also fatiguing speed endurance and special endurance intervals, race models, and extensive jump and plyometric sessions that aren’t present in many field and court sports. A set schedule of lifting after practice often means lifting after these taxing sessions.
To the coaches who insist on training after practice to mitigate risk, your fears aren’t invalid. But performing high-intensity/technical movements in the weight room after practice isn’t risk-free either. The main problem when lifting after practice is that most of the time, lifting occurs immediately after finishing track work while muscular, neurological, or psychological fatigue still lingers.The main problem when lifting AFTER practice is that most of the time, lifting occurs immediately after finishing track work while muscular, neurological, or psychological fatigue still lingers. Click To Tweet
Pre-practice lifting, on the other hand, generally occurs in the morning. Especially at the high school and college levels, lifting before practice means having to plan around class schedules. This typically means there is a break of several hours from the end of lifting until the onset of sports practice, while athletes attend class and eat lunch.
In other words, there is time to recover after lifting in the morning that isn’t there in the afternoon. The same fatigue that coaches are trying to avoid by lifting before practice happens in reverse by having track practice before lifting. Only this time, there is very little time before getting under a bar.
Problems with Lifting After Practice
- Sloppy technique. The risk of injury directly from the weight room skyrockets by creating an environment where sloppy technique is almost unavoidable. Poor motor control + heavy/fast movements = high risk. We’ve seen horror stories on social media of athletes breaking bones, tearing tendons, herniating disks, or giving themselves concussions from poor execution of heavy lifts.
- Chronic undertraining. The logical response to being exhausted is to accommodate the debilitating fatigue by reducing load and/or the speed of the movements in the weight room. This isn’t ideal either, though, as it leads to chronic undertraining. If this happens on occasion, it may not be a big deal, but stack enough of those training sessions in a row, and it shouldn’t be a surprise when strength and power are significantly reduced.
- Increased session cost. Long, drawn-out training sessions spanning three consecutive hours, aside from being tiring in the moment, can extend the amount of time it takes to recover compared to if there is a break between them.
Solving the Paradox
Here’s what we’re left with: we don’t want fatigue from lifting to ruin the quality of speed and interval training at practice or tissue damage to cause acute muscle and tendon injuries from microtrauma induced in the weight room. We also don’t want to hurt, chronically undertrain, or impede recovery by forcing athletes to perform heavy and technically demanding strength and power movements in the weight room after track work that is muscularly, neurologically, and psychologically debilitating.
So, what’s the solution? Split the lift into two parts.
Optimizing Training: Split the Lift
First, I want to make clear that splitting the lift means just that—taking what you would typically do in one training session and breaking it into two parts. It is NOT two-a-day with two full training sessions.
Here are a few recommendations to make this approach work:
1. Keep low-volume, high-intensity, compound strength and power movements in the morning before practice.
This type of training is the sweet spot for track athletes, especially in season. These adaptations are largely neurological, meaning training this way doesn’t generally deplete the athlete’s energy for practice in the afternoon or compromise tissue integrity. This limits the risk of lifting directly causing a hard death during intervals or creating enough damage to pull a hamstring while sprinting and jumping. For many athletes, minimizing hypertrophy is important in-season, and this low-volume, high-intensity approach limits the stimulus to grow while still allowing the athlete to gain strength through increased neurological efficiency.
To the extent that energy may be depleted, the several hours between lifting and practice allows it to be replenished. This ensures that the heaviest and most technically demanding movements can be performed fresh without lowering practice quality.
Many proponents of lifting after speed work make the claim that speed can prime the athlete for the lift. While this can work after true speed (not sloppy conditioning), the reverse can also be true; low-volume, high-intensity lifting can prime speed as well, given proper technical training, consistent exposure, and adequate fatigue management.
2. Avoid highly fatiguing methods like rep-outs, finishers, and other high-volume accessory work or conditioning.
Most strength coaches who work with track aren’t tasked with “conditioning” the athletes. That usually falls under the purview of the track coaches. If we try to turn the weight room into EMOMs, AMRAPs, or HIIT or consistently perform rep-outs and finishers to exhaustion, the athletes will struggle with whatever comes next. Even with a few hours between sessions, the stressor is enough to severely impact practice quality. If additional hypertrophy work needs to be done, save it for after practice.
3. Reserve direct hamstring training for after practice.
Especially if using accentuated eccentrics that are designed to create more damage on movements like RDLs, GHD hamstring curls, Nordics, and good mornings.
The importance of hamstring strength in preventing injuries cannot be understated. Neither can the role hamstrings play in improving sprint and jump performance. All these choices can be excellent additions to a program, but they must be carefully dosed and placed, as they are the movements that have the highest risk of directly causing an injury when performed before speed development and jump sessions. Moving these movements to after practice helps navigate this dilemma. Furthermore, moving RDLs to days where the next day is a recovery day is a good idea as well.Another benefit of dividing the lift this way is that the block of lifting after practice usually only takes about 15 minutes, and the movements aren’t as technically demanding, says @matclarkansas. Click To Tweet
Another benefit of dividing the lift this way is that the block of lifting after practice usually only takes about 15 minutes, and the movements aren’t as technically demanding. That is a much easier pill for athletes to swallow than having to muster the energy for a 45–60-minute lift when they are completely exhausted.
Here’s an example of what this would look like in-season:
Power Clean 4 x 2 @ 87%
Back Squat 4 x 3 @ 85%
Bench Press 4 x 3 @ 85%
Class, Lunch, Practice
RDL 3 x 6
Single Arm Farmer’s Carries 3 x 30 meters
Hanging Knee Raise 3 x 10
While strength training is widely recognized as critical for performance improvement, there is often tension between the sport and strength coaches, and strength training turns into a pursuit that competes with sports training instead of enhancing it. To dissolve this tension, we need to reframe the way we view the time spent in the weight room.
Neglecting strength training can severely handicap the performance ceiling of the athlete, but forging a program in isolation from the demands of practice and the timing of the competitive season creates issues too. We need to view lifting weights as one piece of sports training: an invaluable component of performance, not a separate entity distinct from sports training that must be fit in somewhere on the periphery.
With this approach, the different training stimuli can be arranged and seamlessly fused into a larger training plan—one where strength and sport don’t have to compete with each other.With this approach, the different training stimuli can be arranged and seamlessly fused into a larger training plan where strength and sport don’t have to compete with each other, says @matclarkansas. Click To Tweet
Many coaches will attach the caveat that lifting isn’t sports practice, so it isn’t the priority. As a result, it is always devalued. While it may not be the primary driver of success, what’s the point in purposefully handicapping athletes by neglecting valuable strength and power work or forcing it to be done while they’re completely exhausted? Lifting weights while muscle contractability, energy stores, focus, and motor control are impaired is wrought with risk.
Sure, some people grind through it. But improving sports performance isn’t necessarily about how hard you can grind or how difficult you can make your training environment and endure. It is about doing everything possible to set up an optimal environment that allows you to train and recover effectively and efficiently. Grab the low-hanging fruit. Split the lift.
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