Do you Like Indoor Track & Field?

I LOVE and I HATE indoor track and field.

I LOVE indoor track because it breaks up the long season from September to August.  48 week a year is a long way to go without racing.  How the hell did Dwayne Chambers, Justin Gatlin or LaShawn Merritt do it, I’ll never know.  You have to race.  Nothing can replace the nerves going into big meets.

Obviously, my biggest pet peeves about indoor racing are:

  • Lack of crash mats for 60m sprints.  Humans are not mean to decelerate that quickly without injury.
  • Tight curves, especially indoor tracks with Lane 1.  The IAAF agrees with me… they got rid of the indoor 200m!
  • Timed finals.  This really irks me, especially the NCAA 400 meters.  2 sections of 4 sprinters in Lanes 3, 4,5, 6.  And we’ve seen the slow section win in the past!   Aaargh!  The first person to cross the line should be declared the winner.

Last week, Stuart McMillan wrote a guest post titled Eccentric Strength (a recommended read), so he offered this piece on Indoor insanity.  Stuart worked with the USA Bobsled Team from 2000-06, the Canadian Bobsleigh Team from 2006-10, and UK Athletics’ Lee Valley High Performance Center with Dan Pfaff.   His resume includes medalists in the Four-man and Two-woman Bobsled at the 2010 Winter Olympics.  Visit his website at www.mcmillanspeed.com

Indoor Insanity (by Stuart McMillan)

It’s that time of year again when folks get either far too excited or far too depressed about the outcome of races that matter very little to what will happen when the real track season comes to its apex later in the Summer. 

Spending 20+ years in the Great White North, where the ‘outdoor’ season is barely 2 months long, I fully understand why some athletes get overly excited about the ‘indoor’ season.  In Canada, for much of the athletic population, the indoor season actually takes precedence over the outdoor season – as if you are on a University team, this is your only chance at competition with other Universities, for instance.  In many parts of the country the outdoor season is not only short, but the weather can be horrendous.  If you live in the prairies, for example, good luck if you’re a sprinter.  Rare are the race days when you will have a legal tail-wind.  You’re either running into a headwind, or it’s blowing a gale behind you.  If you’re on either coast, you lack both sun and competition.  Basically, your only chances of running qualifying times are the few opportunities in Ontario (or the rare and lucky legal race in Alberta), or by traveling south – a constant source of frustration for Canadian sprinters over the years – especially those lacking funds to travel.  And since the greatest density of US competitions comes fairly early in the spring (LA area in April-May, for instance), many athletes use the indoor season to gain the necessary competitive opportunities so they can be ready in time. 

So in Canada – I understand it – this obsession with the outcome of different events 6 months and more from what you might actually be racing once the real season is kicking off.

But in the UK?  I just don’t get it…

The outdoor season is long here.  There are racing opportunities all over the country pretty much every weekend at pretty much every level.  If you want to get away, there’s plenty more opportunities to race a whole different set of people in Italy, France, Spain, etc.

Most athletes feel they need between 6 and 10 races to be in competitive shape (i.e. have become comfortable with the unique pressures of competition, have imbedded any technical-tactical changes, etc.), which is easily done without having to race a full indoor season. 

So why the obsession with indoor?  And what’s the big deal anyway?  Why is this a problem?

I personally feel indoor competition can be potentially dangerous for at least three reasons:

1. Model Challenges

Speaking as a sprint coach, and how it relates to sprinters specifically, I feel that running 60m races effects your 100m race model to the point where it can be very difficult to adapt to the increased patience required of the longer race once the real season begins.  The world is full of 60m specialists – those dudes who think they’re world-class because they ran 6.6 in a 60, putting them top-whatever in the world.  Problem is most ‘real’ sprinters don’t run them, so they get this false sense of superiority – a false sense of being on the right path (or even worse – a false sense of being on the wrong path if their 60m times are slower than previous seasons, while working on changing to a more efficient 100m model; this situation has bitten me personally as a coach on more than a few occasions).  Come the real season (the one that the rest of the world cares about; the one that has a real World Championships, real Olympic competition, with a more competitive population, etc.), where you stand at 60m of your 100m race (or for that matter, at 60m of your 200m race) has very little relevance to where you are at the end (and very little correlation).  Unfortunately for some, they don’t stop and hand out medals half-way though the race. 

The fact is the way to run a fast 60m is different to the way to run a fast 100m. 

The experienced coach-athlete will attempt to run the same model – i.e. just run the 60m race the same way you will run the first 60m of the 100m – but this is difficult for even the most experienced sprinters. Placing the finish line 40m closer automatically changes the way you run the race.  Most sprinters will go through their phases more quickly, rushing to ‘get up’, and sprint.  Where in the 100m, athletes know they have plenty of time – in the 60m, everything becomes rushed.

The ‘60m specialist’ will often be sitting in great position at 60m of their 100m races, but end up going backwards over the last 40m having ran out of gas – not from a lack of speed endurance (- and this is important -) – but for a lack of an efficient 100m race model.  The inexperienced coach-athlete will not recognize this fact, and instead of working on the model, will add more speed endurance work.  Well – more speed endurance work added to a poor mechanical model just adds to additional strain on the system, injuries, and ultimately decreased performance.

2. Outcome vs. Process Focus

I’m not one of those coaches that preaches purely process-driven focus.  At the end of the day, the outcome determines an athlete’s success.  But without an understanding of the process – without periodically letting go of the outcome, and immersing oneself in the details of your sport – the outcome is a shot in the dark.  For me, an effective balancing of process- and outcome-focused practice is one of the keys to effective coaching.  All process, and the athlete gets lost in the details; all outcome, and the athlete loses sight of what is necessary to get there. 

There is reams of literature on how best to structure practice, but for me it all comes down to the coach working with the athlete to best identify what works best for that specific individual.  Some athletes require more time spent on process; some require very little.  Finding the balance is what it’s all about.

What I do know is that – for many – the false importance placed on competition during January and February – conscious or not – steals too much focus away from process, placing it on the outcome of a race that is different from that of the competitive one – at a time that would be better spent developing consistency and confidence in the specific model.

3. Race Burn-out

There are a few athletes who are ‘racers’ – those unique folks that just seem to get faster and faster through the season – racing themselves into shape, and actually often enjoy their best performances after their major championships.  Most, though, have a finite number of competitions that they can perform at peak level, before performances begin to decline significantly. Whether the burn-out is emotionally, psychologically, or physiologically driven is a moot point – most dudes just can’t keep it going for months on end.  Adding a 6 or 8 week indoor season to this is too risky for me.

justin gatlin dwain chambers indoors 60m

Can Indoors be Useful?

Can select indoor competitions be useful, though? I think so – in the right situation:

A. Model Rehearsal

If you’re attempting to bed-in a new model and want to see how it will hold up in a higher pressure situation, an indoor race can give you the opportunity for that insight – as long as the athlete goes into the race with his focus entirely on process - knowing what the goal is.  Then – if the model breaks down; whether this comes from a lack of faith in the model, lack of experience, or some type of psychological mishap – at least you learn something. 

B. Monetary

The reality is – for some – the indoor season also gives the opportunity to make some much-needed cash.  With an overall less-competitive opposition, picking up a few nice checks can provide too great a temptation to resist.

C. YTP Details

Some coaches also employ a double-periodization model, where indoor competition is written into the YTP; in essence acting almost as a rehearsal period for the second ‘peak’  – the main competitions later in the outdoor season.  Although this is not necessarily how I would plan the year, such systems are used quite often, and can be successful.

Whatever the coach and athlete do, it must be well-thought out, justified, and individualized. My general thoughts, though, would be to kill indoor.  More than just the reasons I mentioned above, I really feel the over-emphasis placed on the indoor season in the UK has been detrimental to the long-term development of the nations’ sprinters.  Guys become indoor specialists. Their models develop in this manner, as do their mind-sets. 

About the Author

Visit Stuart’s website at www.mcmillanspeed.com.

NOTE: Stuart’s section was cross posted on http://www.mcmillanspeed.com/2013/01/indoor-insanity.html

    • @JJ – yes, and no +2.0 wind readings! Highly suspicious! Or no “nwi” wind readings that don’t count in official rankings!

  • As someone who only competed during my high school years & now as a master I love the indoor season. (Maybe if I competed as a collegiate I would think differently…) I’m also a former New Yorker so it was also ‘this is just how it is’. Just keep in my mind that my comment comes from running 4 years of indoor, only at the high school level…

    I totally understand why anyone would hate lane 1 but for myself, at 5’8″, was a slight edge for me against my taller competitors as it was nearly impossible for them to pass me on a turn. At the Armory the crowds might be smaller however the noise was absolutely invigorating!!! The 300m/500m/600m & 1000m was an interesting inbetween distance where 200m/400m/800m & milers routinely faced off and it was always funny to see an athlete move up (say 200m guy runs a 300m or whatever) and hit the ‘wall’ because they came out to hard. Granted it was never funny when you’re experiencing it, if you had the opportunity to watch video of your race (the next week after Mondays practice) you’d be hard pressed not to laugh at yourself. In addition during indoor if you happen to go to a big meet say Millrose you’re more likely to bump into a pro because space was limited & back then it was pretty cool to meet someone you saw compete on tv. (I remember a Millrose Games, 94 or 95, where my relay men and myself were in the same elevator with Bob & Jackie Joyner Kersee and we were not 100% it was them. We thought we were wispering when we were disagreeing on whether or not it was….when the door opened and they walked out & Jackie said ‘yea its us’. Everyone in the elevator laughed, just one of those moments.)

    Jimson, normally I just read your articles and then I’m done. This one, for whatever reason, took me back. Thanks & keep up the great work.

    All the best!

    • @Fred, yes, Indoors brings back a LOT of good memories. I think the smaller venue makes the meets more intimate, “up close and personal”. You can actually be on the track and cheer for your friends, whereas outdoor track is like being in the Roman Coliseum watching a gladiator fight.

      I hope USATF reads this article & comments, and hopefully make some changes to the sport.

  • Being from Minnesota, having indoor track in absolutely critical. In fact the temperature outside right now as I write this is -11 (wind chill -41!). Just training outside on a track, if we are lucky, is almost impossible. We have been fortunate this winter with not much snow, so tracks have melted a little, and it is possible to use some of them, but then you are still dealing with the cold temps. It’s really tough to get a quality workout, when you are wearing 4-5 layers of clothes, especially for sprinters. Meets would never be a possibility here. Even early in the outdoor season its a crap shoot as to getting decent weather. It’s really into May here, when you can confidently feel like you should have nice days for meets.

    So indoor track is a must here, and every college has an indoor facility. It’s just the way it is. Yes the corners are tight, and as a masters sprinter myself, the older I get, the harder that is. And yes the race strategy changes, because of the short straights and more curves, but it’s still fun and makes the races a little more exciting is some cases. It is definitely more spectator friendly. And the atmosphere is a lot for exciting for the competitors. Everything is close and packed in, and it can get really loud. You never get crowd noise outdoors, like you do at indoor meets. And of course, the weather conditions are always perfect.

    The indoor season definitely is a season of its own here. I think everyone feels like outdoor is the “real” season. Indoor is separate. Indoor is a long, super competitive pre-season, that gets you ready for outdoor. It’s fun and exciting, and I personally love it.

  • Jimson I think you have a lot of good points. Each athlete has to decide whether they want to do a indoor season. I personally like to do a hand full of indoor races as it can get a bit boring not racing for a while and I can work on my starts etc.

    I’m from the UK and I do think there seems to be an over-emphasis placed on the indoor season and I personally never seemed to understand it either. I don’t think that has given us many really good 60m specialist other than Dwain and Jason Gardener. I wasn’t really familiar with Jason outdoor career (apart from Olympic relay medal) but was more so with his indoor career.

    I think there are a lot of reasons that UK sprinters haven’t developed as they should have other then the indoor season. I think the reason why some our sprinters do it as it is one of the few realistic opportunities where they can win a medal as less competition and some of them want that confidence boost. But tbh outside of them not many people care about european/world indoor championships.

    • @Jon, being a Canadian, we blame our lack of success on the weather, and lack of funds for warm-weather camps!

      Here’s a flashback: at McGill, I remember we signed a top 800m female on scholarship, then her personal coach (not the head coach) decided she would not compete indoors as she was focusing on outdoors! (single periodization model??) The problem is, there is no Canadian college outdoor season!

  • @Jimson. Its cold over here but definitely more opportunities to race. Quite a bit of snow around right now so a lot of the athletes probably looking forward to the indoor because of that.

  • Galen Rupp just ran a 3:50.92……youtube it and listen to the crowd, on the bell lap they roar with something so ferocious it makes me want to go run right now……..but I’m stuck in my cubicle for the time beaing :-)