I have done one season as a “sprinter” and need to decide if it is worth continuing this “experiment”. So how does one decide? …what drives us to do things – 1) interest and 2) feeling we’re quite good at it, and also 3) doing it with like-minded people we get on with. So far I have 1 and 3, just waiting to see if I have 2, as well.
Why is strength so important for sprinting compared to endurance running? Sprinters spend more time in the gym than on the track running. Whereas, the fastest endurance runners have great Cardio-Vascular (CVS) fitness and an efficient running technique, sprinters need just power to accelerate to maximum speed and maintain it (nearly) for the duration of the race. They are not focused on efficient running, just being fast. An analogy is driving your car – the fuel consumption goes down rapidly if you accelerate quickly and drive fast rather than in a more genteel way!
Table 5.1, from “The Mechanics of Sprinting and Hurdling” by Ralph V Mann, Ph.D, and Amber Murphy, M.S., 2018, shows the forces generated by an elite sprinter weighing 70kg (~700N). This application of force requires strength, e.g. a sprinter needs to achieve about half maximal velocity in the first three steps (see Usain Bolt’s 100m graph, below). This does require considerable amount of power and that only can be achieved with significant strength. Many of the sprinters I train with can lift considerable weights, one being able to deadlift 250kg! I can’t lift half that. Strength training serves two purposes: building of the ability to deliver the power required and, secondly, and as important, the capability of the body to do that without breaking down, i.e. injury prevention. So that’s why I go to train at a gym.
I started at the gym in summer 2019 and started lifting weights in September 2019. Being a member of a gym with classes brings a structured approach to strength development, through progressive overload, and the Catalyst Training barbell club sessions progress from higher volume to lower volume with increased load over a 4 to 6 week programme. Lifting barbells and kettlebells for a small number of reps develops maximum strength not power, as the weight moves relatively slowly. For power one needs to use lower loads and move them at speed. So, I started Personal Training sessions, with Scott Williams at Catalyst, in July 2020, focusing on developing “explosive strength”. For instance, instead of lifting a heavy bar in a back squat, we would reduce the load to less than 50% and I would drive the bar up at speed effectively jumping off the floor. However, the number of reps is still not high as fatigue kicks in after about four reps. Even lower weights, or just body weight, are required with higher number of reps, to develop strength endurance. Some of the exercises involve no weights, just resistance, such as pushing the prowler (a heavy sled) along the gym floor, or practising starts and acceleration with a resistance band around the waist with Scott hanging on to it (don’t ever let it go – it hurts!).
Obviously, Covid has interrupted the strength development programme and the principle of ‘reversibility’ (if you don’t use it, you lose it) has meant it has taken up to three months to recover the strength lost over lockdowns. However, over the last couple of years, I have made some progress in strength, e.g. lifting 30% more in a deadlift than before the first lockdown. Unfortunately, I probably have not converted these underpinning strength gains into as much speed as desired through not doing sufficient plyometric exercises, so I am planning to rectify this, as I need to strengthen my tendons, especially the Achilles to avoid a recurrence of this Autumn’s issues. Plyometrics are exercises that develop the biokinetic system in particular, through doing jumps, hops, etc (see picture). They’re not so sexy as lifting barbells but I probably need as many sessions of them as the weights. They’re also simple to do, requiring minimal equipment, and therefore can be done at home, so requires more self-discipline, than attending gym classes.
Experiences with racing
Obviously, it’s only a beginning – I have run as an endurance runner for over thirty years and so it will take a while to adjust to sprinting (those who know about fast twitch and slow twitch muscle fibres will realise I am having to change the ratio of these, and this only comes from appropriate training). Speaking to a female vet GB sprinter at the one of the PoW meetings, she stated that she really only started delivering good times after her first winter of training, where the focus is on strength and volume, not speed. So, this year, was about putting stakes in the ground. I managed to run races at 100m, 200m, a 4x400m relay leg and an unexpected 800m. I don’t know what event I will be best at, but it makes sense, to me, to start with the shorter events, as that will indicate how fast I can go, and if not quick enough, perhaps I can build the strength to maintain the speed I do have for longer and run longer sprint events. I have included my best times for this year in the goals section below. The only concern with longer sprints is that the training load is quite high, so a cross between short sprints and endurance sessions, so it hurts not only in the muscles but also in the CVS! NB Michael Johnson suggested to Usain Bolt that he try 400m in addition to the short sprints, due to his strength and size, but he decided not to, due to the training requirements!
Unlike endurance races where there are different strategies of how to run and win, there is only one way to run 100m fast. Simply, you must accelerate really fast to your maximum speed and try to minimise the speed drop off as much as possible. The following graph is a Model based on Usain Bolt’s 100m world record (from England Athletics).
The phases of the 100m are so well defined that there are standards for every part, including shin angle against distance from the start.. Therefore, the goal is to develop one’s technique to match the “standard model” as much as possible. FYI: transition is when the sprinter’s acceleration starts to taper off and they become more vertical, especially shin angle.
Some Personal Goals
Firstly, I should state that I am a great believer in the power of goal setting. I have also learned in recent years that process type goals are usually more effective than outcome focused goals. Doing the right things, the right way, is a process and you will get the best results with such goals. Stating “I want to run a sub-40 10k” as a goal does not really help one much, until one turns that into a plan, which will include some process type goals, e.g. run an interval, tempo session and a long run each week.
All goals start by identifying what one wants to achieve and then to determine where one is and what needs to change to achieve the goal most effectively. Coaches are key to this process, but you can also do some of it yourself. Before I raced, I needed to establish where I was (the open meetings require your estimated finish time), so I did some analysis of my sprinting using cones (1 metre apart) and video on my phone. I assessed stride length, cadence and maximum velocity, so I could estimate a 100m time (17s).
I also ran over mini-hurdles (150mm high) to determine what is the maximum stride length I can achieve currently (not 2m nor 1.8, but 1.75m was possible).
Subsequently compared that time to running same distance with normal stride length and time was the same, so longer strides resulted in lower cadence for me, so I need more strength.
This year I achieved the following track race results (chronological order):
800m run – PoW July 3:00.1 (best described as “experience of a track race”)
200m – Horspath August 33.6s
400m relay leg – Horspath August 75.0s
100m – PoW September– 16.1s (you always run faster in races than training!)
200m - PoW September– 34.7s (shows that, despite 4 hours between races, my muscles could not recover enough to be near the previous 200m time)
What could/should I do?
I think a 10% improvement is an outcome goal, but to achieve this I have created two sets of process goals:
Underpinning strength development (using one rep maximum for deadlifts and back squats as indicators – 120kg and 85kg targets, currently 105 and 75 resp.)
Running technique improvement (matching the standard model, especially starts, and general running technique improvement. The indicators will be mainly coach feedback, but could also include times for “flying 30’s” and 15-20m starts)
To do the latter, I will also use video again, this time head-on, as I suspect my Achilles problem was “seeded” by an issue in my left hip : weak glute and TFL (joins IT Band to your hip). I have introduced some specific exercises, including stretches targeting the weak point, into my training.
In the short term, I have been coming to the Club Tuesday sessions to rebuild some aerobic fitness and to gradually increase the speed of the efforts in the sessions. This, combined with some Fartlek sessions, should enable increasing the loading on my Achilles (and hip muscles) gradually allowing them to adapt, and with the extra targeted strength exercises, to recommence sprint training on the track at Swindon again.
This is the last article in this series. I will post some learnings from my Athletics Coach level 2 course on endurance running in the not-to-distant future. Enjoy your running, whatever distance you decide to run.