What sprint coaches can teach us about speed training

If you want to know about something, the best place to find answers is from those that coach the best. So when it comes to speed, there is a lot we can learn from those that coach the world’s fastest individuals: sprint coaches.

When it comes to speed, too often we simply ask sprint coaches about technique, and not training. Throughout the month on HMMR Media we’ve been looking at speed as our theme, and on this month’s GAIN Master Class also explored sprint mechanics and sprint training. I’ve had the chance to talk with several sprint coaches along the way. Below are a few lessons from the track that apply to speed training for any sport.

» Learn more: Learn from the top track coaches of history in our latest HMMR Classroom Video as PJ Vazel breaks down lessons from the history of sprint training.

Sprint first, drill second

A quick look on social media might make it seem like drills are the secret to speed. But if you stop by your local track club, you could even go the whole session without seeing drills.

This might seem a little ironic since just last week I shared some ideas on how some drills can help teach acceleration mechanics. Drills definitely can play a role in motor learning, but they are simply nice to have elements, not need to have. The list of need to have elements of sprint training is simple: sprinting. As Carl Valle wrote recently on Twitter: eventually you have to run the 100 or 200 meters, not just 50 meters of wickets. Good sprint coaches have their sprinters sprint fast. Research still shows that’s sprinting is the best way to make an athlete faster, not to mention the potent strength stimulus and injury prevention benefits in can also provide.

When evaluating drills, one thing to look for is challenge. We spoke about this back on GAINcast 109 a few years ago. As we said then most drills just present athletes with repetition, not challenge. Challenge is what makes you better and most drills fail to deliver there. Taking your body to max speed, on the other hand, will always be a challenge no matter what level you are at.

Keep it simple

Sprinting fast is hard, but the mechanics behind it are based on pretty simple concepts. Unlike the hammer throw, sprinting is a natural movement after all. Watch top sprint coaches at work and they rarely spend time breaking down mechanics in detail. Sprint mechanics are so intuitive that they often don’t even warrant much of a discussion.

I’m not saying everyone can go out and be an expert sprint coach, but it is an area where an outsider can quickly learn the basics and make a measurable impact on athletes. Coaches are more likely to get in trouble diving into the complexities than by focusing on the simple basics.

Respect the rest

Another thing you might see at track practice is lot of is sitting around. This isn’t because sprinters are lazy, but because true top speed requires rest. Not just one or two minutes of rest, but three or six minutes, or more.

Both athletes and coaches often get nervous when athletes are standing around. Don’t give in to the temptation. The shorter the rest, the more you’re working properties other than speed. And if you’re worried about wasting time, there are plenty of activities you can put into the rest periods: from active rest, skill work, or even some less metabolically demanding specific strength and technical work.

More isn’t better

In nearly every facet of life we think more is better. This assumption is often false, even more so when it comes to speed. On the recent Master Class coach Brian FitzGerald explained that max speed sessions should have a maximum of 500 meters of work, often much less. To put that in other terms, that’s just 1 minute of hard effort spread out over an hour or more of training. And that’s just done a few times a week. As mentioned above, sprinting provides such a potent stimulus you don’t need a lot of it to start making progress.

Understand the tradeoffs

Every decision in training has a tradeoff. As the saying goes, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Bench press can increase strength and body armor, but often reduces mobility. Our job as a coach is to weight the tradeoffs to see if something makes sense to put in training. Therefore it is important that coaches understand the tradeoffs with different sprint training methods before deciding how to use them.

Resisted sprinting, for example, can be helpful in developing power. But it also increases ground contact time and alters your center of mass. Wickets can increase an athlete’s focus on some technical aspects, but can simultaneously create other problems, especially if thought is not given to spacing. You can make lists like this for nearly every element of sprint training. If you don’t know what tradeoffs you are making, it might be best to just stick to sprinting until you understand how to use all the tools at your disposal.

Put quality first

We also need to understand sprint coaches also have some luxuries. In our most recent HMMR Classroom video lesson on the history of sprint training, coach PJ Vazel and I covered the long-to-short vs. short-to-long debate. In other words: should the season plan try to add speed to endurance, or add endurance to speed. The debate is a century old and the answer is that both methods have been successful since it often comes down to the individual.

Sprint coaches have the luxury of exploring such nuances since they are training athletes with an established baseline of speed and, more importantly, stable sprint mechanics. Team sport speed coaches, on the other hand, rarely walk into that situation. Before we start asking those questions, we need to be damn sure we have the basics covered first.

As Jimmy Radcliffe discussed on the Master Class, the reality is that a long-to-short approach for non-sprinters often just engrains bad mechanics. Slogging through long sprint work before we learn how to sprint is not going to promote quality. The best bet is to establish quality first, and then build up a volume of quality later.