This summary was written by Richie Mercado. This is Part 1. Part 2 will be published tomorrow.
Neuro-Biomechanics of Maximum Velocity
by Loren Seagrave
Loren Seagrave has coached several world class sprinters and hurdlers over the past decade and a half. Recently he took on the task of training Donovan Bailey. His company, Speed Dynamics, has sold volumes of videos and equipment designed to enhance speed, sprinting, and hurdling through a system he calls “speed dynamics.” He made this presentation to a group of 80 coaches at the NACACTFCA Congress in Costa Rica in October 1998, and he focused his remarks on both the importance of coaching skills and attitude, and the specific neuro-biomechanical principles that coaches must take into account when training their athletes to develop speed.
Loren Seagrave began by describing his recent experiences as the national sprints/hurdles coach in Thailand. In his time there he gave six coaching seminars. The question asked most by coaches was: What about sports psychology? He would respond, “Psychology for the athletes or the coaches??” The beliefs a coach has are often imparted to the athlete, and while this should be a good thing, too often it is just the opposite! In Thailand, the coaches have always said that Thai runners are too short to run fast, the athletes are lazy and the facilities are poor. That is exactly what Thai athletes learn! No wonder they continue to have low goals and little success. The coaching philosophy must be positive! Then you can get athletes to have and attain specific skill goals and enhance their performance.
He posed the question: how many people can wiggle your ears? Who taught them? No one – they are self-taught! A person probably did not set out with the goal of ear-wiggling, but accidentally discovered this talent, as do many people who learn particular skills. Seagrave’s belief is that most of the fastest people in world have accidentally discovered how to be fast, and very few have been taught to be fast! Many coaches believe that an athlete cannot improve speed (Football coaches especially), but he believes that everyone can be taught how to run faster! In this respect, Track & Field coaches can be so valuable to other sports with their special expertise.
Seagrave then called on audience participation: in a seated position he had the participants place their feet flat on the ground, place their hands on their knees, and tap their toes on the floor together in rhythm as fast as they could for 10 seconds. (The audience then performed this task). He then described what the coaches were feeling: at “go” they were busting it, but before 5 seconds, they lost some coordination or slowed down to keep both feet tapping together; at 7-8 seconds the speed really slowed down, and before the 10 second signal, there was some shin tightness or pain!
The point? It does not matter how strong one is, no strength would help to do that skill faster or better. So strength is not the key. Speed is a skill: just like any other skill, it can be improved. Any coach can make you tired – but that is not the purpose of training for speed; the purpose is to become faster! A coach must apply a systematic approach to improvement. There is also a profound difference between coaching and training.
Coaching vs. Training
Perhaps if the word “Teaching” is substituted for “Coaching” the important differences will become more clear. Training is developing the physiological qualities through work. Coaching is teaching! But coaches cannot just teach during certain times of the training. Coaches must be present during all of the preparation, drills, and training to ensure that the athlete is performing them well at a very high level. The coach should empower the athlete with the knowledge and the tools to become more self-sufficient as they develop.
Seagrave said that he has four new athletes with an average age of 33 years. He tells them that if they do not understand why they are doing something in training, they are a fool not to ask! An athlete should understand how every component of training is going to help them achieve their ultimate goal! The more they understand, the better the compliance with the training program, and the likelihood of excellent training is increased! Athletes also make excellent peer coaches in a group!
It is a total reclamation project when a coach starts with a new athlete: the coach must help the athlete unlearn old bad habits and relearn proper patterns from scratch! He noted that his recent experiences as the speed development coach for the Atlanta Falcons of the National Football League have demonstrated this clearly. Football players, like any athletes, go through four stages when learning a new skill:
1st Stage: Unconscious Incompetence
The athlete is not thinking because they have never been told to think about anything, and is not very good at new skills. He said that he tells the football players that it is better to look foolish in front of your teammates in practice and get better at the skills than to get embarrassed on Sunday in front of 80,000 people and a TV audience! In this stage, the coach must convince the athlete to lose the inhibitions to looking foolish.
2nd Stage: Conscious Incompetence
The athlete knows what to do but has not mastered the skill; they consciously try to execute it, but are not very good at it yet.
3rd Stage: Conscious Competence
Athletes very quickly progress to conscious competence, where they are skilled but only with conscious effort; they cannot do it automatically and mindlessly. In this stage, unconscious action returns one to previous bad habits. The example Seagrave gave was someone trained in the martial arts would, when confronted by an attacker, most likely revert to ugly, unskilled fighting habits when in this 3rd stage.
4th Stage: Unconscious Competence
The skill is automatic and performed perfectly with no conscious effort. Attainment of this level takes not only practice, but mental imagery and rehearsal. It can take up to 500 hours of practice to achieve unconscious competence with a skill!
With amputees there is something called the Phantom Limb Phenomenon. Someone who has lost a limb feels as if it is still there; all sensory receptors are still connected to the brain despite loss of the limb; it can take up to 500 hours before the brain figures out that these are false receptions! What this means for coaches is not necessarily 500 hours of skill work on the track, but mental rehearsal and imagery practice of a skill counts to help reduce the time to attain unconscious competence!
With respect to skill development and ultimate performance enhancement, Seagrave stressed that coaches must develop a mission statement for their athletes. This statement should pinpoint what the athlete must try to do every day to reach intermediate and long range goals. An example of a mission statement for a Sprinter / Hurdler might be: Sp/HH Mission Statement:
Reduce the time needed to put the required force into the ground by 0.005 seconds
Reduce the time needed to recover the leg through the required range of motion by 0.005 seconds
These may sound like modest goals, but saving 0.005 seconds on the ground and 0.005 seconds in the air saves 0.01 seconds per stride in a 50 stride 100 meter race! That means the athlete has saved 0.5 seconds! What athlete would not want to drop 0.5 seconds off their 100m, 100 Hurdle or 110 HH time? If one computes this out for other distances, here are the results:
- 0.2 seconds in the 40 yard dash (distance most used in Football)
- 0.5 seconds in the 100 meters
- 2.5 seconds in the 400 meters
- Marathon: 3-5 minutes!
The big question is: How can this be accomplished? There are four different ways:
- Apply greater force;
- Apply force in less time;
- Apply force in the proper direction;
- Apply force through the proper range of motion.
Apply greater force. Should this be done simply by hypertrophy or non-traditional recruitment of greater number of motor units? Remember the toe-tapping principle? Motor unit recruitment and inhibiting the inhibitors is the answer – coaches and athletes must get rid of the speed governors! This is just like the little old lady stories about grandmothers who lift the car off of the person who is trapped: all of the inhibitory overrides through the Central Nervous System (CNS) have been removed and all muscle fibers are recruited! Massive injury may and probably will occur to the little old lady, though! Coaches can teach athletes how to reach deeper into their power stores and allow them to feel competent and that they have a high level of ability!
How competent do young hurdlers feel staring down that long line of 10 hurdles? They will be guarded and reserved. Training must allow them to develop a competence above their performance: teach for success
Athletes must learn how to apply the force in less time! An example was demonstrated by Seagrave: place the hand palm down on the table and raise and tap the index finger on the table as hard and as quickly as possible one time. Then pull the index finger back with the other hand and let go! The stored elastic energy – stored in muscle and tendon and fascia surrounding muscle – provides a greater force in less time. This is the stretch-reflex principle of muscular contraction. Muscle contraction alone is severely limited due to restraints of speed of contraction, but this elastic stretch-reflex helps make up for lack of fast twitch fibers, too.
Athletes must apply force in the proper direction. Forces must be forward and backward, not side to side, but without the braking forces that are often applied by athletes reaching with the touchdown too far forward of the center of gravity, resulting in loss of velocity and force.
Athletes must apply the force through the full or optimal range of motion. As speed increases, force on the ground is applied over a smaller range of motion than during acceleration.
Mann pointed out that the angle on knee and hip extension at maximum velocity is smaller in elite class sprinters. The goal is to apply the necessary force in as small a time as possible and a thus the range over which it is applied is reduced at maximum velocity.
If Maximum Velocity = Vmax; Stride Length = SL; and Stride Frequency = Sf, then: Vmax = SL x Sf
Perhaps it would read better as: SL = Vmax / Sf
In other words, the faster one travels, the further one flies through the air! The traditional focus was on stride length and the concept that more strength = a longer stride. But it is coordination that is the limiting factor, and more strength does not necessarily do it, as demonstrated by the toe-tapping.
SL is concrete as a value, so coaches have liked to use it, but Sf is very nebulous, confusing, and more abstract to many coaches. Mann and other researchers and coaches feel that stride frequency is the more important component.
Take a young Costa Rican sprinter and say, “Run with long strides for coaches.” She would probably exaggerate her strides to please the command of the coach. She would increase her actual SL from the toe of the right foot at takeoff(t.o.) to the toe of the left foot at touchdown(t.d.). This is the simplistic concept many athletes have of stride length. But SL is better understood in relation to the athlete’s Center of Gravity (COG), and the distance the COG travels from t.o. to t.d. is used to figure the actual SL.
The longer the distance the athlete’s body travels while on the ground, the more time is spent, and the slower the Vmax. The relationship between ground and air distance for COG should be long air distances relative to ground distances! Change how the athletes look at SL, maybe by utilizing the concept of effective SL: the distance the hip travels through the air in a stride. The goal is big air distance and small ground distance. Therefore, during acceleration runs and buildups, force should be applied into the ground with the goal of projecting the hips forward as far as possible.
Ground Time (GT) + Air Time (AT) = Stride Time (ST), or the time it takes to execute one stride. Here is the data for elites: it is not uncommon for GT to be 0.09 seconds and AT to be 0.11 seconds = ST of 0.20 seconds.
Therefore: 1 second / 0.2 = 5.0 strides per second. 4.8 – 5.2 strides per second is the range for elite sprinters. Young athletes’ values are: GT = 0.12 seconds
In other words, the force applied into the ground at Vmax is virtually identical in relationship for a slow High School boy and an elite male sprinter, so what is the difference? Time! Elites put the same force into the ground in less time and the hips project forward a farther distance.
AT = 0.13 This is lower due to lack of skill and motor coordination.
Sf = 4.0 strides per second. It is not strength which distinguishes elite sprinters from average ones, but efficiently reduced ground times due to enhanced skill and motor coordination.
thigh back down towards the ground.