This is Part 5 of the weekly “Friday Five” series where I ask 5 tough questions to world class elite coaches. Week 1 was with renowned jumps coach Boo Schexnayder and Week 2 had Dr. Mike Stone of the USOC and NBA. Week 3 was performance specialist Henk Kraaijenhof and Week 4 had Dan Pfaff.
You probably know Pierre-Jean Vazel either as an Elite Coach or writer/reporter. Or both.
As a coach, he has coached 2 sprinters under 10.00 seconds (Olusoji Fasuba of Nigeria, 9.85 seconds, and African Record and 2008 World Indoor Champion at 60m with 6.49). The other sprinter is Ronald Pognon of France with PRs of 6.45 and 9.99 for 60m & 100m respectively. Pognon won silver and bronze at the 2005 and 2007 European Championships for 60 meters.
He currently coaches Christine Arron of France, and more recently co-coaching Leslie Djhone with François Pépin.
As a writer, he is a sports reporter for LeMonde.fr and the IAAF website correspondent for France since 2004.
Friday Five is sponsored by Freelap Track and Field, a leader in electronic timing.
Interview with Pierre-Jean Vazel
Q1 – SpeedEndurance.com: One aspect you are known for is the ability to review performances with the context they are in. Could you share how you look at wind, conditions, and the times themselves for analysis? So many times great performances are forgotten because the end time wasn’t very impressive. Often some performances hint to greater things in the future. Any insight?
Pierre-Jean Vazel: On the official result sheets, we find the racing times the sprinters, the lanes, the wind reading, the temperature, the schedule of the race, etc. All kind of figure the coach can take in account to appreciate the performance of an athlete. The problem is: how accurate are those information, and how to utilize them?
As for wind, since 1936, the IAAF rule says that the wind is measured at 50 m point on the left side of the track during 10 sec for 100 m races. Yet, it was already known that this measurement was inadequate. During the 1932 Olympic final, the three anemometers in use gave conflicting results: start: +0,2 crosswind, mid-way –1,4 crosswind, start +0,4 following wind. Other experiences have shown that such discrepancies can be found between lane 1 and lane 8.
That’s why I consider the timing to be the actual anemometer for the race: if a majority of the athletes break PBs, one can observe that the conditions were exceptionally favourable for performance production, regardless what the wind reading is… Take Florence Griffith-Joyner’s 100 m World Record set during the Olympic Trials in Indianapolis in 1988. The anemometer recorded a +2,8 m/s wind blowing from the left side perpendicular (91°) to the track, which calculates a 0,0 m/s official wind measurement. Yet, the wind was obviously provided a strong assistance as the 7 girls of the race broke their PBs, and it only was a quarter-final! (Note that there was no crosswind the triple jump competition whose run-away was adjacent to the 100 m track, as for the jump prior to the race, the wind reading was +4,3, and for the one after the race it was +4,5.). During the Olympic final, Griffith-Joyner ran 10.54, this time the wind was measured at 3,0 m/s (3,3 m/s blowing from the right at 8°). Yet, the other girls, except Grace Jackson and Heïke Drechsler, all had run faster times that year in legal conditions. Looking at the results of this race we can consider that the external conditions were not providing a significant assistance.
To assess performance level, I suggest looking at the gap between athletes running in adjacent lanes during a given race.
Q2 – SpeedEndurance.com: In France weight training is often not maximal, yet one of the best experts (Cometti) is a big influence. Could you share how the culture of France and athletics is helpful and harmful for strength development?
PJ Vazel: It is a difficult question as I have never felt there was such thing as a “French school” for sprinting, unlike Pole Vault or Triple Jump. In France, strength training has always been seen as suspicion. Traditionally, its practice has been associated with drug use and has been opposed to “technical training” (analytical training) which would belong to higher coaching competence.
In a nutshell, the reasons can be understood in both historical and geographical context. During the XIX century in Eastern Europe, the delay in the economical development increased the necessity of militarization within a nationalization perspective, which impacted the education system and sport practice. Pure strength was seen as a virtue, whereas in France, it was seen as one of the least important skill in physical activities, as French authors considered physical education as an aid to intellectual development. Hence they favoured agility and coordination over strength. During the XX century, the lack of theoretical education for coaches on strength training, reinforced by the language barrier, coupled with some good results – yet rare – by French sprinters who didn’t use much of strength training – if not at all – widened the gap between France and Eastern Europe or USA on strength consideration.
Now, you mention Cometti. He was one whose writings were popular in universities and well known by coaches for that he provided translations and vulgarization of research in the field of strength training theory (concentric, static, eccentric, etc). Moreover he proposed training programs for strength development, which were in extenso integrated by a few French sprint groups into their training plan. This reductionist approach, which doesn’t take in account the interplays and conflicts between the various training means, leads to overload syndromes in sprinters resulting in high rate of injuries. The other problem lies in the erroneous analyze of the sprinting activity. For the proponents of this method, the equation of sprint training can be sump up this way: more strength training = stronger athletes = faster athletes. If force production is the key cause of locomotor speed, from a biomechanical point of view, its link with muscle strength (as developed in the weight room) is complex. kinematic and dynamic analyses show that for the best sprinters running at top speed, the flight time exceeds 60 % of the step cycle and that during the reduced contact time, higher ground forces are generated. I analyze this paradoxal muscular activity during sprinting as a cyclic alternation of noise and silence, composing a unique rhythm, a unique music. Inter-individual and intra-individual comparisons using tensiomyometer show that the fastest sprint performances are achieved with faster rate of more intense muscle contractions as well as muscle relaxations. Also, injury rate is correlated with a lesser quality and quantity of relaxation. Excessive training loads in the weight room, especially during the eccentric cycle promoted by Cometti, result in tightness and soreness in the muscular system. While these effects are described by the author, they are ignored by the coaches who still ask the sprinters produce high intensity sprint performances at training while the muscle tone status is not appropriate. Muscle tone really is the condition for fast sprinting performance and guarantees physical integrity. All the training activities should be organized around this consideration. (Note: see Dan’s interview for other insights)
It promotes the theory that sprinters need to learn how to relax, more than to learn how to contract. On that matter, scientific research backs up the coaching cues you can read on manuals published in USA one century ago!
Q3 – SpeedEndurance.com: Christophe Lemaitre is a BIG name in France. Could you share his development not being typical of the average elite? The JB Morin study of Christophe is touted as a landmark study while others cite Milan Coh has better data. What are your feelings about the development of Lemaitre and and the research of elites in general?
PJ Vazel: I’m not coaching Christophe but I’ve been observing his development for years. An interesting feature is that he is a pure sprint specialist. At age 16, during the same meet, he ran 10.77 at 100m but only long jumped 5,51 m and high jump 1,62 m. For a fast and tall guy, such performance discrepancies in power-speed events leave you wonder about how complex is the notion of talent and its detection. The most remarkable in this guy is that no matter the level of the competition, he manages to keep his composure and respect his own race musical partition.
Recently, JB Morin and I were discussing about the methodology and practical application of his study on sprinting. The main problem is that the use of the treadmill sprinting for such experimentation makes the data only relevant for … treadmill sprinting. Of course, Christophe is still the fastest of the group on the treadmill, but he does so with a different mechanics compared to ground land sprinting. During his national record (9,92 s), I found that he reached a 11,9 m/s top speed with a 2,73 m step length and 4,37 step frequency. On JB Morin’s treadmill, Christophe can only reach 8,67 m/s with 1,53 m step length and 4,64 step frequency. Clearly, as interesting are JB Morin’s studies, we are comparing two different exercises evolving different force productions, and we should consider any conclusion from these experimentation with high prudence.
We can only mourn the lack of research with elite athletes as subjects. We know the reasons: most coaches usually don’t like to use athletes as guinea pigs, and they feel it’s never the right time to perform such tests. The best is to perform analysis during competitions, but the organization and protocol of such events prevents invasive instruments to be used in the infield.
Milan Coh’s publications are great sources of data; I suggest to track publications by Mero, Mann, Hess, Susanka, Brüggemann and also Ae and Ito from JAAF team. We never have enough quantitative studies, but qualitative studies are equally desirable. That’s why I think future development on sport science in the XIX century should follow the direction pointed out by the latest development of Soviet/Russian research, going away from the mecanocentrism and the technocentrism towards the anthropocentric biomechanics, initiated by Bernstein and coined by Dmitry Donskoi, where the motor action, scrutinised via the athlete’s aim, is seen as being in adequation, as expected with physics (law), but also environment (social) and biology (genetics).
Q4 – SpeedEndurance.com: Drills or technique exercises are very hard to evaluate effectiveness. Could you share why coaches may want to include them even if they don’t’ change mechanics? I am sure they have other benefits.
PJ Vazel: The first assumption is based on the differences observed between the athlete’s motions while performing drills and while sprinting. When you look at Christophe Lemaitre or Wallace Spearmon at warm-up, you couldn’t detect in their drill form that they can sprint very well. Conversely, you can see a lot of lower level athletes who can perform drills with high quality, yet are no close to reach the required rhythm and coupling of movement while sprinting. When I want to analyze the athlete’s activity, I use Kurt Meinel’s motor qualities framework as described in his theory of movement: the fundamental structure of movement is made of the specific rhythm and coupling of fluidity, precision, consistency, intensity, speed and amplitude. You can analyze any movement produced by the athlete by questioning those 6 elements.
Coaches may want to include drills for that it gives information that athletes are not aware of or are not willing to share before a workout. Take B skips. This was a key drill for Olu as it would reveal if he was in condition to run fast or not on a given day, and his drill form was always getting better and better through the season. You want to see harmonious changes of directions in limbs performed in a smooth action (fluidity), with accuracy of the task with reduced difference in each leg’s motion (precision), a uniform rhythm over the whole exercise (consistency), a high production of force (intensity) in a short contact time and proper accelerations of the limbs in the “down” direction (speed) and a large range of motion in joints and elasticity of muscles (amplitude). If you detect flaws, that’s your job to find out why (lack of relaxation, emotional state, stress, motivation, lack of practice, flexibility or intra-muscular coordination issue, injuries, etc) and address it – or leave it as it is if you feel that those flows will disappear along the warm-up process. Letting the athlete chose the order of the drills to see which ones they favour and which ones they avoid is very informative.
From the athlete’s point of view, drills – or any other pre-sprinting activities are routine that are necessary for confidence build-up from training to training and competition to competition, and give information to themselves on their internal conditions as well as externals conditions (explore the track material, weather, etc)
Q5 – SpeedEndurance.com: Could you share some advice on blocks with initiating movement with the body. Many coaches cue first hand motion or to get long out instead of jumping. What has worked with your athletes? Blocks are very individual but some commonalities must exist. Any ideas on getting better total body action instead of cuing parts?
PJ Vazel: There’s a huge difference between what happens historically during the start process and what the athlete feels it happens. As a coach, you have to know those differences; however, I personally don’t think athletes should know, unless they want to coach themselves. If I would save one cue, it would be “leave the blocks”. That’s something Olu was very good at, in 2007 World Champ 100 m final (where he finished 4th) he had the best reaction time (0,130 s) but more important he was the one who pushes the shortest time on the blocks (0,293 s) while still applying huge forces on the pads. Breaking down the motion process would give the impression that the start is a very long action, while it too short to mentalise and is merely a reflex action.
We spend more time on finding the adequate settings on the “On your mark” position and “Set” positions. This is crucial with athletes who can reach relatively high top speed, like Christine Arron: they have a high competence in applying high vertical forces (which is paramount for the top speed phase of the race), and usually they are not good at applying enough horizontal forces (which are critical for the block and first few steps actions).
Anyway, in the starting-blocks, you want to have the body in position to push, and not to pull at any moment. That supposes to have the front foot behind the hips. I like to see hips lower than what we usually see in many sprinters for that they raise their hips to much on the “set” position, cause either a hip drop during the first contact out of the blocks, or a premature raise of the whole body. The COM should raise from the start to the max speed phase, with disruption in a smooth trajectory. You have to consider the race as a whole. The danger of breaking it down in splits is to sideline the cause-consequence process. In trying to beat intermediate times at 10, 20 or 30 m, how much of the reserve is left for the rest of the race? I spend hours analyzing races of elite athletes and the club’s child I coach, but I only give one or two figures to them so that they can go away with practical information.