Part 1 was Matt Scherer, Professional Pacer-Rabbit.
Stuart McMillan has the unique experience of coaching at three Home Olympic Games: American athletes at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, Canadians at the 2010 Vancouver-Whistler Games, and British athletes at the 2012 London Summer Games. The pressure must have been enormous!
Stuart is an accredited S&C and Sprints Coach and has over 20 years of professional coaching to both professional and amateur athletes in a variety of sports with the focus being on power and speed development, namely Track & Field and Bobsled.
His resume is impressive… personally coached 55 Olympians who have won a combined 26 Olympic medals at 5 Olympic Games where he worked as part of NGBs in 6 countries, and have been part of and/or led ISTs in the United States, Canada and the UK. With the consolidation of Lee Valley and Loughborough HPC, Stuart is no longer with UKA.
Visit his Blog at www.mcmillanspeed.com.
It’s going to be tough to keep this down to 5 questions!
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Interview with Stuart McMillan
Q1. I want talk a bit about Bobsled (and Skeleton). In the past, we’ve seen a lot of Decathletes changing to bobsled, but we’re seeing a lot of sprinters/hurdlers like Craig Pickering and Lolo Jones convert. Do you think that is a reflection on how important speed and power (and strength) type of training today’s sprinters? Is there a big difference in bobsled sprint training, since the element of the push is critical? for example, ground contact (on ice!) is much more important pushing a 210 Kg empty sled (on a 4-man)? Sprinters aim for shorter ground contact with greater forces.
Stuart McMillan: First of all, Jimson – thank you for inviting me to do this. I have enjoyed your website for years, and feel it is a fantastic source for coaches, athletes, and track and field lovers around the world. I admire your commitment, and truly appreciate your love for the sport. I’m honored to be included in this series – following up on the likes of Dan Pfaff, Henk Kraaijenhof, Dr. Mike Stone, Boo Schexnayder, etc. is humbling and a little nerve-racking… I’ll try not to embarrass myself!
As for your question on the cross-over between bobsleigh and sprinting – I think it’s probably more a reflection of the importance of speed to bobsleigh, to be honest – though I would like to touch on the growing need for strength and power in the sprints, also.
Firstly, there are three key differences in training between sprinters and bobsledders:
1) bobsledders need to be significantly bigger – it’s a gravity sport, therefore you want to maximize the amount of weight that is in the sled, and it’s generally better that the weight be in the athlete, and not the sled (i.e. a faster push-time will normally occur with heavier athletes pushing lighter sleds, rather than lighter athletes pushing heavier sleds. For example, Tianna Madison came out for the US Bobsled team this year, and while obviously having world-class speed, was just – at 60k – too small to be effective; they had to weigh the sled up with an extra 12k or so, making it significantly more challenging to get the sled going. Britain’s own Craig Pickering faces a similar challenge on the men’s side – at this moment, he is a little too light);
2) bobsledders (especially females and 2man specialists) need to be significantly stronger than sprinters. A 2man bob weighs over 170k, so to get it rolling requires a great deal of strength;
3) the typical bobsled push is less than 40m, so any considerable amount of time spent developing speed endurance, lactate qualities etc. is greatly reduced (in fact, rarely will any of my bobsledders ever run further than 80m); and
4) you’ll know this yourself Jimson as a former bobsledder coach – often overlooked is the amount of work that goes into bobsled outside of actually pushing and driving the sled. Bobsledders are their own ‘pit-crews’ – they are responsible for transporting the sled (everywhere – including all over Europe, the bottom of the track to the top, in and out of trucks, etc. – and remember, they weigh anywhere from 170k to 250k), and the rest of their equipment (bags, helmets, runners, tools, etc.), polishing runners (a surprisingly tiring task), and ‘enjoy’ early mornings, and late nights – the overall systemic load of a bobsled season is significantly higher than that of a track and field season. It’s not easy. Just ask Lolo. Or Craig.
As an aside, often over-looked is the physical abilities of the world-class bobsledder. Many of them are truly world-class athletes, and it’s becoming more competitive every year. I asked Craig Pickering this question last week in St Moritz – whether he was surprised by the quality of athlete on display on the World Cup level. He said that he was very much surprised. Most countries now have former world-class sprinters pushing for them, and those that were not are often pretty freaky in their own right: as I stated, they may lack the top-end speed, and speed endurance qualities of sprinters – but many are extremely close, and I’ll back many of them over the world’s best sprinters to 30m! For example, in the USA Bobsled Combine testing in September, 2010 Olympic Bronze Medallist and 2013 World Championship Silver Medalist pilot Elana Meyers ran 3.77 to 30m (lead foot 70cm behind the line, and timed with electronic timing system), while 2012 4x100m Olympic Gold Medallist Tianna Madison (who ran 7.00 over 60m last indoor season) ran 3.85, and world-class 100m hurdler Lolo Jones ran 3.87. Even through to 45m, Elana still had the faster time. And by the way, Elana can also full back squat 165k for a triple at a bodyweight of 80k! Many of the men have ran sub 6.60 60m times. Many more have power cleans in excess of 170k. And squats in excess of 250k. The sport is getting better and better…
Conversely, the day of the sprinter having weaknesses in their race and getting away with it because of their relative strengths in other areas are long over. It used to be that a Carl Lewis or a Donovan Bailey could spot the field a couple of meters at 50m – safe in the knowledge that their top-end speed would save them. This is no longer the case – if you are significantly behind at the half-way mark, your race is over. Everyone can start now. Everyone can split sub 6.45 to 60. And everyone can rep out 0.84 10m segments or quicker. So I would say that the sprinter with lesser relative power abilities – the ones who take just a little longer to get rolling – are now at a bigger disadvantage than ever before. All strength components are necessary. Dudes need to excel at all points on the force/velocity curve. [JIMSON’S NOTE: Hence the series on Eccentric Strength]
Q2. Prior to London, you were overseeing both Dwain Chambers and Christian Malcolm’s training. Since Dwain is a 60/100 sprinter, and CM’s better event is the 200m, did they do the same workouts? Did one feed off the other on different workouts? Can you give us a typical speed endurance session? (i.e. my classic is 4×30, then 60, 80, 100, 120, 150 with full recoveries)
Stuart McMillan: Firstly, Dwain is not a 60/100 sprinter. He is a 100m sprinter. There is no such distance in elite track and field as the 60m. It only exists as a point along the way to a 100m. 1m further than 59m, and 1m less than 61m. That’s it. This distance exists as part of this concept called ‘indoor season’. I don’t quite understand it; but what I do know is there is no such distance in the real track season – no one stops the race at 60m to hand out medals.
As for programming, they followed a very similar macro structure – i.e. the general organization of their programs was similar. The devil was in the details. I tend to view program organization at four depths (I borrow this concept quite liberally <and unapologetically> from Mladen Jovanovic). The first is the philosophy – what do you believe in? The second level is the plan – this includes all the components that are important within the coaches’ philosophy – the exercises, the distances, etc.. Third, is the periodization – the specific manner in which we organize the components. And finally, is the program – the details of the daily sessions. Each level involves differing levels of fixed, fluid, adaptive, and responsive programming, becoming increasingly fluid the deeper you go – while the first level (philosophy) is usually quite fixed, and will not change from athlete to athlete. The details of the daily program, however, can vary drastically, and is often quite fluid and adaptive. Adaptation prediction on a large scale is a losing proposition – the only way we can stay ahead is with constant monitoring, and effective and efficient tweaking. I try not to get too emotionally tied into my program; allowing myself the fluidity to tinker, and – to use a Nicholas Nassim Taleb principle – expose the athletes to ‘envelopes of serendipity’.
I’m also a big believer in developing an athlete’s strengths, and not spending too much time on their weaknesses (especially with more mature athletes – Christian was 31, and Dwain was 32 when I began working with them). It is important that the athlete never lose touch with what they are most comfortable with – most confident in. Dwain is a powerhouse – he needs to touch heavy weight…drag some heavy sleds…and accelerate out of blocks. A lot. He applies huge forces – and while this also becomes his greatest weakness (i.e. he relies on this ability even at top-speed, and therefore spends too long on the ground) – retarding its development will lead to a ‘loss in identity’. It is the main reason he runs fast. More importantly, it is the main reason he feels fast. Stray too far away from an athlete’s strengths at your peril – as they will quickly lose their mojo.
Christian, on the other hand, is an elastic sprinter. He needs to feel ‘bouncy’, so we often included exaggerated ‘bounce’ runs in his workouts, as well as a higher volume of elastic strength work, such as horizontal bounding. I would say that we were not entirely successful, and should have included quite a bit more volume in Christian’s program, as this proved to be his Achille’s Heel. His top-end speed was world-class; his ability to accelerate on a bend was world-class; his race tactics were world-class; but putting it all together consistently – in a race – remained elusive. Sometimes coaches can do a fantastic job of developing all the necessary individual components; sometimes athletes can feel confident in all these separate components; but if we don’t spend the appropriate time synthesizing them – the appropriate effort in stabilizing this synthesis – the jigsaw pieces will have a hard time fitting together. I look forward to Christian putting all the pieces together this summer with his new coach Rana Reider.
As for feeding off each other, we tried to have them run together as often as possible. Early-season sessions were more similar to later, competitive-season sessions, so this happened more in the winter than it did in the summer. Generally, I’m a big believer in guys running together in training though. We had other good sprinters in the group also (Marlon Devonish was a good training partner for Christian, while Mark Findlay was a good foil for Dwain), so it was very rare that anyone ever had to do a rep by themselves.
As for a typical speed endurance session: rarely will I include acceleration work, top-end speed work, and speed endurance work in the same session (although this happens more frequently as I attempt to stabilize these components later in the pre-competitive phase); At least earlier in the training process, I prefer to have a unifying theme for the session – i.e. the theme might be acceleration development: I would pair this with the types of qualities that are most necessary to develop effective acceleration (such as maximum strength). I would often pair speed endurance sessions with endurance horizontal bounding (60-80m scissor bounds or alternate-leg bounds), for instance. Sessions would vary greatly depending on the time of year, but I would say a 180, 150, 120 session would be my best indicator of 200m ‘race-readiness’. The order of the runs might change depending on what the athlete is feeling, what I am seeing in the warm-up, or the specifics of what we might be working on.
Q3. On changing coaches. Dwain is now at Loughborough with a new coach, Rana Reider. I wrote an article that if an athlete treated their training like a job, they would learn different skills from a coach, and then change jobs/coaches every few years! (i.e. screw the loyalty!) How was it “inheriting” an athlete with 10+ years of experience? Of course, there’s the popular “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” attitude? What was the biggest thing you (and Dan) had to “fix”?
Stuart McMillan: Generally – in most cases – I agree. Rare is the situation where an athlete and coach will work together successfully over the course of more than 5 years. They usually tire of me sometime during the third year (and I usually tire of them sometime during the third month!). In the rare case, though, when the mojo is just right – where the athlete and coach develop and learn with each other together – we should ride that wave as long as possible. And it is in these situations where we often see the greatest performances.
For example, Tony Minichiello has coached Jessica Ennis since she was 12 years old. I’m sure they occasionally get on each other’s nerves, but there is an understanding there that neither will get from anyone else. It is essential to both of their successes. Similarly, Usain Bolt has been with Glenn Mills since he was a youngster. Christine Ohurogu has been coached by Lloyd Cowan for years.
For myself, I coached American bobsledder for Steve Mesler for eight years, and he got better every year, as I feel I did a better job of coaching him every year. The relationship grew synergistically, as the whole became greater than the sum of the parts – it culminated in an Olympic Gold Medal in 2010 in Vancouver. Similarly, I have now coached Canadian bobsledder Kaillie Humphries for 6 years. Kaillie is just finishing up on the final touches to the most successful amateur sporting season in Canadian sport history – winning 11 of her last 13 races, including the 2012 and 2013 World Championships (as well as the 2010 Vancouver Games).
Schopenhauer, in his essay ‘On an Apparent Intention in the Fate of the Individual’, discusses seemingly random events in your life that in hindsight seem to be indispensable components of your success – a series of ‘happy accidents’ that while they are occurring do not seem to be linked, but upon reflection have come together to determine the very course of your life; everything links to everything else – as if plotted by a novelist – and it is within this ‘symphony’ where the greatest performances exist. The right athlete meets the right coach at the right time, and magic can happen….
This doesn’t happen inversely, however. It’s difficult to write your story on the fly; we can’t force this relationship. Athletes who bounce around too much are often searching for the magic pill. That magic workout. The magic relationship. From time to time, they find it; more often than not though, the ‘answer’ lies within – always the hardest place to look.
As for picking up athletes later in their careers:
‘Inheriting’ an athlete who has 10+ years of experience is very challenging; more so, when that athlete has some past semblance of success. It’s easier when the athlete has battled through those 10 years and not been very successful – a new program; a new philosophy; a new way – is a relatively easy sell. The buy-in is not difficult, since the athlete has consciously (or sub-consciously) become a little desperate. It’s a totally different story when you inherit athletes that have been successful. Their success is tied in – consciously or not – to what they did, and how they felt when they achieved that success. So it doesn’t matter whether a change in philosophy is appropriate or not – it becomes much more difficult…
The athlete’s entire athletic identity is wrapped up in the experiences they encountered when they achieved success. And the tricky part in dealing with these experiences – and trying to affect positive mechanical change – is that these ‘memories’ are often not stored consciously. They exist as a permanent (yet dynamic) part of their being – stored through mechanoreceptors in their connective tissue, through their enteric nervous system in their guts. How it is stored is affected by changes in movement, posture, mechanical force, and is an evolving and dynamic system that interacts with all other tissues influencing our organ systems in all manner of unpredictable ways.
Q4. Are you a big fan of the 3 round format, instead of 4 for the 100m? Looking back, Dwain ran 10.02 in the heats, followed by 10.05 in the SF and missing the final. (Our lone Canadian, Justyn Warner suffered the same fate) Man, 36 years ago, a 10.05 would win an Olympic Gold medal! What could he have done differently, and what can first-timers learn from this, other than running sub-10 in the semi-finals?
Stuart McMillan: I actually preferred the 4 round format – and if you ask most athletes, they will say the same. I think it’s a much fairer – especially when it comes to feeding into the Final. Dwain’s situation was slightly different. He spend a majority of the spring and summer stressing over whether or not he was going to be able to compete at the Games, because of the BOA ban at the time. He really wasn’t able to focus with full intent on competition until after the ban was lifted. A great weight fell from his shoulders, and he began training again with a renewed purpose. If you remember, he was probably not even the favorite to win UK Trials – Adam Gemilli was, having recently ran 10.05. Because of the surrounding stresses, Dwain was not competing very well, and spend most of the year running 10.2s and 10.3s.
At the Holding Camp in Portugal, though, it was clear he was ready for a bit of a breakthrough. He had some awesome sessions, and we knew he had a good chance of making the Final. In the heat, he ran 10.02, easing up for the last 20m. If this were a one-off race, he was capable of a 9.9. Now, if he had spent the spring/summer running 10.0s (as he had the previous year), this time would not have taken much out of him.
Unfortunately, this was the fastest he had run all year – by a long shot – so it was always going to be difficult to come back less than 24 hours later and repeat it twice more. He gave all he had in the semi, but it was not quite enough. He was actually pretty good through 60 or 70m, but just ran out of gas. I really don’t think his inability to run faster (or not making the final) had much to do with his training, directly. It was solely down to the fact that a season-best run will take a little more out of an athlete than what people realize. There is a reason why, when athletes run PBs or WRs, they struggle to back it up. The stress of placing your body somewhere it has never been before is just immense. Donovan Bailey would tell me that any time he ran a sub10, he would book a ticket home – knowing that he would be pretty much toast for the next three weeks!
Bottom line on the 3 or 4 round debate: it really doesn’t matter – the best guy always wins. The second best guy always comes second, and the third best guy always comes third. History will forget the rest…
Q5. Last question on the toe-drag! (controversial subject) I don’t teach it, and neither do you, but we see time and time again with Usain Bolt, Asafa Powell and even Dwain using it. I see the physics and logic behind it, but obviously, it’s not for everyone. What do you think of it, and when is it “okay” to use it? A long explanation is okay!
Stuart McMillan: I don’t think I need a ‘long explanation’. It’s stupid. Anyone who teaches it is stupid. A grade-school physics student will tell you it’s stupid. It is never ‘okay’ to use it.