In life, I’ve learned that there’s no absolutes, and that’s no more evident than in my pursuit of coaching. Every time I’m convinced that I caught the white rabbit, it just slips away and finds another hole.
My latest chase has me re-examining our pursuit of max velocity. Now wait; hear me out. Don’t click the x yet or try and break through the fourth wall and force choke me. Maximum velocity is a very, very important component of the picture. It’s 100% necessary. But, it’s one of three components that needs to be endlessly honed to create a well-balanced sprint program. Enter the trinity.
For the sake of being clear, here is a brief outline of the three phases in a sprint race:
Acceleration is any part of a sprint BEFORE max velocity is attained. It has nothing to do with effort, but rather, everything to do with how fast an athlete is running compared to what they are capable of. For example, if an athlete hits top speed at 40 meters, everything before 40 meters would be considered “acceleration.”
Max velocity is the fastest an athlete is capable of running. Maximum velocity would be the fastest 10 meter fly segments in a short sprinter’s race. For example, this excellent article from SpeedEndurance highlights the 10 meter sprint segments of seven of the best 100 meter races from all time. In Usain Bolt’s 2008 9.69 effort, he ran 3 consecutive .82 fly 10 segments from 50-80 meters. That 50-80 meter segment would be Bolt’s max v segment, and everything before 50 meters would be classified as acceleration because he is still working up to top speed. Max v is not the same as max effort. If an athlete ran two 150 meter sprints for time in a workout with five minute rest, they may have given “max effort.” But it is doubtful that their fly 10 segments would approach anywhere near max v on their second 150.
Speed endurance is the athlete’s ability to resist decay after their max v segment. To keep things simple, let’s look at the excellent chart that Jimson Lee created in a 2008 article on SpeedEndurance.com In Usain Bolt’s 2008 race, his 80-90 meter segment was .83, and his 90-100 meter segment was .90. These times are still blazing, but there is a definite slowdown. Speed endurance is not slogging through countless repeat 200s to build “endurance,” but it is rather a hormonal change that occurs anaerobically. The athlete is still at max effort, but due to coordination, metabolic, and hormonal reasons the athlete slows down. If Usain Bolt cannot hold his top end speed through 100 meters it would be a safe assumption that the youth athletes that we coach cannot either. We are not talking about intensive or extensive tempo here, but rather the ability to have max velocity decay as little as possible. To do this, athletes need to sprint.
It is important that we do not create cookie cutter molds for our athletes, and for our athletes to succeed we need to individualize our sprint program as much as possible. To do this, let’s examine and acknowledge that the seven sprinters listed above are much, much faster than any athlete we will ever coach. And while the times are similar, each race is different, and each of these athletes should have differentiated training programs.
For example, when looking at Asafa Powell, it is clear that his speed endurance is fantastic. It is also clear that he was unable to hold the same max v sector as Usain Bolt was, and that his max v was slower while his speed endurance was better. Hammering away at speed endurance may not be his best path for greatness. It should also be noted that his emphasis on acceleration and speed endurance meant that he had the second fastest time listed above even though he had the slowest fly 10 segment of any of these 10 sprinters.
Maurice Green had wonderful acceleration and max v in his 2001 race, but his speed endurance fell off quite dramatically. For him, finding out how to keep his race from decaying at 70-100 meters may be a better use of his training blocks than trying to find the extra .01 on his best fly 10 to keep up with Bolt’s metrics.
The takeaway is that no two sprinters should be trained exactly the same, and that a cookie-cutter program is not appropriate for elite athletes, let alone for the youth programs (any athlete under 18 is technically a “youth” athlete) many of us direct.
To find out how to train each athlete on the team, it is imperative to find out where all of their zones are. To do this, simply have the athletes do 2×80 meter sprints in their workouts. Take Freelap cones and time every 10 meter segment. (Pro Tip from Jeff White, head coach at Alton High School; if athletes are too tall and the chips miss segments, put all of the yellow Freelap cones on 5 gallon buckets. Works perfectly.) As they finish their chips will give real-time data. Record every segment and find out where each athlete ends their acceleration phase, transitions into max velocity, and where their max-velocity ends, or their speed endurance phase. This is imperative because these tests determine what phase of the trinity each athlete needs to balance out their sprinting strengths.
Acceleration is vital in coaching sprinters, especially at the youth level. Often, it is one of the few elements that can ever be “coached.” It is also the only element of sprinting that is practiced in every single sprint session. Since athletes never start at max velocity they will partake in the acceleration phase in every race and workout. Since it is ever-present, the technique should be practiced continuously.
I’ve seen great success with our sprinters on working acceleration from the very beginning. We usually choose to do 40 yard sprints for our strictly acceleration workouts. Since 40 yards comes out roughly to 36 meters, these are pretty synonymous to 30 meter starts. The main reason why we do 40s is that most of our sprinters play football, and a true 40 yard time is something they can get excited about. In my coaching career I have witnessed exactly 0 sprinters who have hit their top fly 10 segment before 30 meters, so this would count as an acceleration workout.
We run each 40 as we would in a race, especially from our third week of practice on. From here, we film each start, and have athletes progress through the line as fast as possible. If we had more than 14 athletes, we’d try to create a second group that does the same workout in a different location. The most essential thing is to film each start, then the athletes can receive visual feedback instead of the same tired coaching cues. The idea for this workout is to not only run fast, but to teach the athlete proper acceleration mechanics so they take that skill into their sprint races as the season progresses. This saves time and we never have to program in extra block work when we could be using that time for recovery or teaching another skill. We usually hammer acceleration as our main theme for the first 3-4 weeks of practice. Our weekly schedule may look like this:
- Monday: 40 yards (acceleration)
- Tuesday: Deadlift or strong posterior chain lift, some type of kettle bell swing, individual film.
- Wednesday: brief plyometrics
- Thursday: movement prep/mobility/easy movement
- Friday: 60-70 meter sprints (max velocity/acceleration; more on this to follow.
A large component of what we do at Pleasant Plains is an individual athlete film review each Tuesday. The section leaders are expected to lead their squads through the lifts. During this time (and I should also mention that I am supervising in the same room) I pull each athlete aside and we break down each start. We look for proper angles, low recovery legs, and technical aspects of that nature. I do the work for younger athletes and show them what to look for. For older athletes, they break the film down for me and tell me what they need to work on. If they miss something, I tell them. But the key element is to have a discussion with each athlete. Not only does this build good relationships, but when they take ownership in their own process they will see more improvement.
So why start on 40s and not hit max v first? Since most of the athletes at Plains are relatively young, we prefer to have our athletes start at shorter distances to keep intensity up. This shorter distance also allows more quality reps from the blocks. We prefer to keep practices short and precise and to minimize extra sessions. Rather than tell an athlete to do “5 block starts” at the end of practice, we prefer to build in acceleration into our weekly programing. By programing less distance but keeping intensity high, we may be able to squeeze in one or two extra quality reps in (see the volume section for more detail). Our kids are new to acceleration mechanics and this skill acquisition is necessary for us. In a given cycle, we may only work on block starts 1-2 times per week, so this session is important to us. It is also important to note that as the season progresses, we tend to ditch this work in favor of longer work, because our shortest race is 100 meters. But this is an important piece of foundation, and it is wise to build a house from the foundation up.
Training Max Velocity
Max velocity is one of the toughest things to coach because it is so individualistic. For this element, it is important that each athlete works their precise target zone and no less or no more. That’s why the 70-80 meter segmented test is so important at the beginning of the year, and at periodic points throughout training. Otherwise what one may think is max velocity is acceleration or speed endurance, and that target zone is never worked on.
To do this, each athlete needs to have their target zones mapped out. Elites may end their target zone at 80 meters, but it’s highly doubtful that any youth athlete will. Most will end this phase at around 60-80 meters.
After testing is established, find out where max v ends for each kid. To make the workout go smoothly, set up two blocks at the start line of 70 meters, have two on the side of the lane at 10 meters, and two out of the way at 20 meters. Have the 70 meter kids run first, then have the 60 meter kids run, then finish with the kids who end max velocity at 50 meters. The rest should be 5-10 minutes between each rep to ensure full recovery. By this simple modification, athletes can run in their target max velocity zone, regardless of their developmental or ability level. All athletes are coached as individuals.
Another important note; the distance needs to be the same for each max velocity day, but what is measured can change. For example, our kids don’t get too excited about 60 meter sprints. They do, though, get excited about 40 yard sprints. So instead of running 60 meters, we ran 40 yard flies with a 24 meter build in :). There’s quite a few good recipes for chicken parm. Experiment and find what cooks the best in your kitchen.
We also have athletes use blocks. As stated above, just because max velocity is the intention, it does not mean acceleration is neglected; the athletes still have to get to max v somehow. We tape all starts and review them on film Tuesdays with the athletes. We also work on max velocity up until outdoor meets start, as at this time our schedule gets more crowded with 2 meets a week.
At Plains, we prefer a short to long approach. As the season progresses we sacrifice 40’s and acceleration work for longer max v and special endurance days. This makes max v days critical for both acceleration mechanics after basic skills are honed as the athlete progresses to the longer sprint races outdoors.
Another important note is that later in the season, 4×100 handoffs can be used as acceleration workouts. Since outgoing athletes accelerate when receiving the baton, this can be substituted in. And given that 2 legs will have to both give and receive the baton, they will be accumulating more volume than you think. It may also be smart to time your athletes entire 100 meters either on film or using Freelap cones to figure out what their fly 10 segments are at the end of a race to ensure a smoother handoff. Their segment at 40 meters may be similar to their segment at 90 meters, so 4×100 handoffs could be good use as an acceleration day as well, since the body responds to stimulus, not labels, and doing acceleration workouts 2 times a week may not be beneficial for your training block. (But then again, it may.)
Training Speed Endurance
Endurance has gotten a bad reputation among sprint coaches, but it is necessary. Note that this is an anaerobic endurance, so it doesn’t mean slogging through a zillion gassers. The idea here is to decrease the rate at which their max v declines.
Our favorite workout for speed endurance is a fly 20 workout I stole from Chris Korfist. We run 10 fly 20s in 15 minutes. We only time the fly 20 zone. Then we take the total time and multiply by 1.05 to come up with a predicted 200 time.
It’s also important to note that for this workout, we find each athlete’s max velocity zone. Since the idea is train before we see this element of decay, we try to hammer where an athlete should be running their fastest. They will obviously decay as the workout progresses, but the goal is to have each fly 20 within .05 of their fastest.
So, for this drill, some athletes will have a 40 meter run in, some will have a 50 meter run in, and developmental athletes may only have a 30 meter run in. It’s important to prescribe the right distance for each athlete. We start mixing in speed endurance around the fourth week of training. An example week may look like this:
- Monday: max V
- Tuesday: lifting/film
- Wednesday: speed endurance
- Thursday: movement prep
- Friday: Pre-Meet
- Saturday: Meet
Training Special Endurance (A Special Form of Speed Endurance)
Special endurance can also be called lactate. In the United States, we would say that Athens is in the country of Greece. In Greece, they would say that the name of their country is the Hellenistic Republic. If you were driving to Athens from Europe and typed “Athens, Greece” or “Athens, Hellenistic Republic” into your GPS you’d end up in the same place, so let’s not argue over semantics :)
We like to program my athletes from a short to long approach. After six weeks or so we start alternating speed endurance and special endurance until the point where we run more than two meets a week. An example of special endurance could be the famed 23 second drill. From there, one can progress into 3×150@ max effort with 5 minutes rest, and from there progress to Tony Holler’s famed 400 predictor drill. The idea here is to extend speed endurance even more; special endurance is vital for any athlete running the 200 and 400. It would also be advisable not to over do it. We stop when we hit more than one meet a week. The reasoning is that for every sprinter, each meet is a special endurance day. Anymore than two times a week is overkill, and my athletes usually stop running faster.
An example week in this cycle may look like this:
- Monday: Max V
- Tuesday: Lift/film
- Wednesday: special endurance
- Thursday: movement prep
- Friday: Pre meet
- Saturday: Meet
- Monday: handoffs (acceleration)
- Tuesday: lift/film
- Wednesday: special endurance
- Thursday: movement prep
- Friday: pre-meet
- Saturday: meet
Special Note: Volume
Volume is another term that has become derogatory in the sprint world. Often, volume has become a badge of honor. We claim to be “high” or “low” volume people without examining things in much detail. Volume does not mean slogging out 20x300s with 2 minutes of rest. Instead, volume is simply what an athlete does each day. Volume should be individualized. In high school track, we may coach kids who are sub 11 and kids who cannot break 13. They should not be doing the same thing every day.
On his old InnoSport forum, Chris Korfist discussed the idea of autoreg and reps. The idea is simple: let the workout decide how much work each athlete does in a session. Our kids are not the same, so they should not be assigned cookie cutter reps and sets.
To progress in training, a certain stimulus needs to be achieved. Too little stimulus and the athlete doesn’t adapt. Too much stimulus and an athlete breaks. (Note: At Plains, our preference is too little over too much.) To find the proper amount, we use our timing system. The reason that steroids work is that they boost an athlete’s recovery time. Ben Johnson was able to run a world-record 100 because he used steroids and was able to recover much, much quicker than his opponents. He could then do much, much more work at max velocity and receive a bigger stimulus. We don’t use drugs, so we emphasize more recovery time (sprinting only 2-3 times a week) and use technology to assist with load.
If an athlete is within .03 of their best rep on the day, the athlete continues in the workout. If an athlete does not, they are finished for the day. Some athletes may do 8 reps of max v work, and some may only do 2. The same is true with 40s on acceleration day. The reps will change each week for each athlete depending on what their body needs for that given day. Each athlete is not the same. Even the same athlete may be different on different days due to many outside factors, such as stress. Their training load should reflect that and be dynamic. This gives each athlete the best chance to enter supercompensation and become even faster.
By using the trinity, each athlete can have the three phases of their sprint performance identified so that each athlete can improve the phase of their race that is affecting them the most. In this way, it is possible to create sprinters who are more balanced in an individualized, meaningful way.