Last Updated on April 26, 2014 by Amir Rehman
This article is written by James Smith of Athlete Consulting LLC. Visit www.powerdevelopmentinc.com for more information. James also wrote Other Uses of the Globus SpeedCoach EMS last month.
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Alactic Speed Work
The Most Vital Training Component in a Short Sprinters Preparation
“There’s nothing more elusive than an obvious fact” — Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
The increase in maximum velocity is the most important training component for any short sprinter as they progress through their career. Casual observations reveal, however, that the training problem for a vast population of sprinters is that too few are exposed to intelligently structured work: rest schemes, training load taxonomy, and a sufficient volume of alactic speed development.
The approach of initiating training years with low intensity and large volumes of running quickly outlives its usefulness due to the need for the short sprinter to attain ever increasing meters per second. The “incomplete” long to short approach, in which training years begin with either completely unrelated middle distance runs or slightly more relevant 300-600m special endurance runs, void of supplementary acceleration and maximum velocity sprint volumes, fails to most effectively address the sprinter’s need to develop more speed.
Further, the antiquated approach of initiating a short sprinters training year with high volumes of slower runs causes detrimental adaptations at the muscular level. The lactic stress of the special endurance runs, void of the presence of vital alactic work, causes great stress to the intra-cellular lactate buffer mechanisms. This stress results in the adaptive consequence of red fiber behavior at the level of the valuable white fiber; which then, diminishes high velocity contractile capacity. It is for this reason why, on average a thrower will out jump a sprinter.
The shorter the event duration the greater the explosive demand and the greater the proportion of that specialist’s training load volume is directed towards alactic/explosive/strength efforts. The consequential adaptation is seen at the muscular level in which the most profound explosive ability is seen in athletes who utilize the greatest proportion of their training load towards alactic/explosive developmental protocols.
This phenomenon is also evident on a purely intuitive level: adaptation is essentially a defense/survival reaction within the body. Stress is incurred and, depending on its magnitude, the body generates an appropriate defense reaction. It is therefore intuitive that the body’s response to the most explosive sorts of stressors is to develop explosive ability. Alternatively, the defense reaction to longer/slower/less explosive stress will not be relevant to a short sprinter if not accompanied by alactic stress.
With each passing year there must be a gradually sloped intensification of the training load, increased therapy schedule,and the associated volumes of acceleration and maximum velocity sprints, in order to provide the stimulus necessary to promote the needed adaptations for the short sprinter; though surely not limited to short sprinters.
This logic applies regardless of whether the chosen methodological approach is long to short, short to long, or an aggregate of the two. In all cases, every subsequent training year must be initiated, in part, with acceleration development work and lead towards, either down from (in the case of L-S) or up to (in the case of S-L) the maximum velocity intensity ranges.
Special endurance runs, while necessary for a +200m sprinter (but certainly not for a 100m sprinter), alone, do not positively affect speed development once the sprinter has reached a reasonable level of performance.
It is a function of differentials.
If a developing male sprinter is generating 10.5 m/s in the 100m race and is capable of going 9.5m/s over a 300m run then it is rational to suggest that the special endurance run will provide sufficient stimulation to advance his pure speed. This is because 9.5m/s represents an excess of 90% of his maximum velocity. On the other hand, a world class sprinter who is capable of 11.8m/s over a 100m is highly unlikely to advance speed based upon special endurance runs alone because the differential between what he’s likely able to average over the 300m (possibly 10.5 m/s) and his maximum velocity is too great.
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Thus, regarding the world class level, the associated special endurance velocities are too low and speed is a one way street. Sprinting at +12m/s does, in every way, suggest that the Usain Bolt’s, Asafa Powell’s, Tyson Gay’s, Ben Johnson’s, Carl Lewis’, Donovan Bailey’s,… of the world are capable of running sub 20sec in the 200m. In no way, however, does running 19.80 in the 200m or sub 32sec in the 300m, for example, suggest that the sprinter is capable of making 12m/s in the 60-80m range and running sub 9.8 sec in the 100m.
Increased speed provides for a valuable speed reserve for the longer sprints. Usain Bolt was able to go 19.19 in the 200m because he went 9.58 in the 100m. Michael Johnson was able to go 43.18 in the 400m because because he could go 19.32 in the 200m and sub 10.10 in the 100m. Marita Koch was able to go 47.60 in the 400m because she could go sub 22 in the 200m and 10.83 in the 100m . It is only in the presence of this type of speed capability that the value of special endurance takes its place at the sprint training round table.
In short, it doesn’t matter what level of speed a sprinter can maintain regardless of how fast they can’t sprint (take note team sport coaches who overload their athletes with speed endurance and special endurance runs).
Task specific work capacity may only be developed via task specific training. It is the accumulated exposure to task specific training, over the course of a training year, which builds the special work capacity and renders the sprinter more able to attain multiple peaks over the course of a competition calendar; and more resilient to the stress of maximal and near maximal velocities. The appropriate and carefully monitored dosage of task specific training, over time, is vital for all athletes as the exposure to it normalizes the stress. For a short sprinter, task specific training is training at or near maximum velocity.
The simple rule of long term sprint development is that one must train fast in order to become fast. This requires a re-formatted training week which provides for the necessary recovery/regeneration opportunities and intensification of the training load.
This holds true regardless of level of qualification. School age/high school age sprinters, in particular, require proper exposure to alactic speed because transitional muscle fiber essentially ceases to be plastic post puberty. A young teenage sprinter, and any other speed/power athlete, who is not exposed to sufficient volumes of alactic speed work will not develop the vital muscular adaptations necessary to attain world class results later in life.
As for world class sprinters who have developed their speed following a one dimensional linear approach; beginning with special endurance , only, and gradually intensifying the load as the competition season approaches- genetic gifts are much like diplomatic immunity; they provide the irresponsible user with a sizable degree if impunity; regardless of the nature of their actions.
About the Author
James Smith is a veteran of the US Navy. In the spring of 2012 he assisted UK Athletics National Team Coach Lloyd Cowan in the recovery/regeneration of his sprinters/hurdlers during their warm weather training in Southern California. Prior to that he served as the Director of Sports Programming at Juggernaut Training Systems where he managed the technical/tactical-physical-recovery/regeneration training for 8 players for the 2012 NFL Scouting Combine; 7 of whom were drafted between the 1st and 6th rounds. At the collegiate level he served 4 season as a speed and physical preparation coach for American football at the University of Pittsburgh.
From 2007-2011 he served as editor of English text for selected publications of the late Yuri Verkhoshansky PhD. He has coached and consulted with sprinters/hurdlers, throwers, horizontal jumpers, and multi-eventers. As a consultant to Rugby coaches he has worked with English Rugby League and Union, the IRFU, and Australian Super Rugby. He has consulted with Olympic and professional sport athletes and coaches(Manchester United football, US Olympic Luge, USA Beach Volleyball, NFL, MMA, BJJ,…), government, law enforcement, para military contractors, and military special operations forces on their physical preparation since 2003. View James’ website at Athlete Consulting LLC at www.powerdevelopmentinc.com
A great, GREAT write-up! Short-to -long, in my very humble opinion, is probably always best and, I would even argue, all the way up to the 800m (although, this will depend on the characteristics of the given 800m runner…). Gradually working towards sustaining higher meters per second over progressively longer distances should be the goal, right?!?! Once we realize that for the shorter distances, it’s the muscles (including elastic energy, coordination, etc.) that the energy system feeds which require training, more so than the energy system itself, I believe we are bounds and leaps ahead of the “some would argue” outdated notion of long-to-short, generally-speaking at least… The confusion arises when coaches try to use the same approach with 1500-meter + events (with the 800m, as alluded to already, also coming in that mix depending on the athlete), where here it actually IS imperative that long-term physiological adaptations promoting gains for those events do in fact fall on the idea that is is the energy system here that needs to become more efficient (which of course also includes muscular adaptations, where one will have to find balance between the speed/power/elastic requirements that are inherent of all cyclical movements AND better endurance capacities)….
Like I said though, good stuff :)
I like the write up, and i think it is a great summary of what the current, successful coaches are doing with their athletes. I also tend to promote short to long. I do also include some longer special endurance type work ( im not talking miles, but repeat 150’s to a maximum of 300m) early in the season because i feel it helps A). build a base to prevent injuries and pulled muscles later in the season and B). keep athletes in good physical condition (over weight athletes never run fast). What do you say to this concept? And do you do any type of longer interval with your short sprinters early in the season or strictly keep to acceleration/ maximum velocity training and recovery? thank you.
James Smith says
Brandon, it is my view that all is context dependent: thus, for the 100m specialist, while special endurance training may certainly prove beneficial (as I stated in the article based upon current speed levels) there is certainly no need for any special endurance work what so ever for the short sprinter. This is because the idea of building a ‘base’ has mislead a great deal of coaches. It is true that a degree of general work capacity must be in place in order to intensify the load (ergo being in shape to train); however, this may be accomplished any number of ways:
– tempo, circuit training (weights, med ball, calisthenics), repeat alactic sprint intervals with incomplete recovery (i.e., repeat starts, accelerations, split runs), and so on.
All of which serve to ‘lean out’ any athletes who require it. Charlie Francis and Dan Pfaff are two coaches who have expounded upon this concept in detail.
The special endurance can actually be very detrimental, structurally, regarding larger frame and overweight athletes due to the increased volume/duration of ground impact stress that the larger body mass incurs over the same distance.
All that said, there is certainly a place for special endurance, context dependent (ergo long to short in conjunction with alactic work), though I feel it is often inappropriately used in a whole sale fashion for short sprinters where other methods would prove more optimal. This requires individualized loading which is something that even certain internationally recognized track clubs seem to avoid.
Keats Snideman says
Great article James! This is very similar to my training process with myself as a Master’s sprinter and the athletes/sprinters that I train. The split special endurance runs are a particularly effective way to maintain adequate velocity (m/s).
Its interesting to listen to great coaches like Tom Tellez though who intelligently seemed to use some runs over 300m with his sprinters. In the end, its about how one puts it all together!
Love your stuff James!! I have enjoyed reading your info over the years. One of the best!!
I have my 100 and 200 kids doing this with the obvious modifications when needed, does this sit right with you?
Mon- Speed/ Accel (500M or less volume) / Weights (Max Effort)
Tues- Tempo (1000M volume) / Circuits
Wednesday- Speed Endurance (1000M or less) ie) 8x100M
Thursday- Tempo (1000M volume) / Circuits
Saturday- Speed/ Accel (500M or less volume) / Weights (Olympic/ Dynamic Effort)
James Smith says
Ivan, first off, if your crew is experiencing continued PBs and remaining healthy then you’re right on track.
Regarding the sprint and weights loading, you mention that your group is ‘kids’, now I realize most coaches refer to any athletes who are younger than them as kids; however, I only use the word kids to describe pre adolescent individuals (which is generally grade school/primary school) so I’d have to know their biological maturity levels before I could intelligently comment on the sprint volumes and weight training regimes.
Sorry, I was referring to high school aged kids. 14-18 years old. My athletes times are all over the place because the program hasn’t really been consistent. I asked the question earlier because I am taking control of the sprint training and am mainly concerned about doing high intensity lifting on the same day as high intensity sprinting. With 3 high CNS speed training sessions during the weeks will adding 2 high CNS lifting sessions on speed days be a problem (too much)? They will typically be spaced about 6 hours after the sprint work.
James Smith says
Ivan, it is my suggestion to delay the introduction of maximum strength weights as long as possible; which will differ from one athlete to the next. By definition, females are physiologically prepared for it earlier than the males due to their earlier biological maturation rates. That said, same as for any athlete of any stage of qualification, I think it wise to get the most out of sub-maximal (accumulation) weights/calisthenic/gymnastic variants and only drift into the maximal loading zones when they are structurally and technically ready for it. Simply put, anyone should secure anatomical/muscular development and efficient lifting mechanics before maximum weights are employed.
Great article which builds a strong case for the importance of maximal/near maximal speed work for short sprinters and also how this feeds into speed reserve for 400m runners. I have read a lot of stuff from proponents from this school of thought (Latif Thomas, Jimson Lee et al) and the logic resonates with me.
However, it puzzles me why Michael Johnson’s 400m record has stood for so long in spite of massive improvements to the 100m and 200m world records. Of course I realise that we could simply say that Johnson and Bolt are anomalies with exceptional gifts, and that there are fewer people around doing both the 200/400 double. Maybe today’s 400m runners are not doing enough speed work? ;-)
My point is, Johnson beat 200m runners who had faster 100m PB’s than him (Ato Boldon, Frankie Fredericks 9.86 for example ), and trounced all comers at the 400m.
The women’s 400m presents another puzzle, although the 100m record has not been significantly challenged. Love to hear James’ view on why Johnson was so much better than his peers, and why none of today’s women’s 400m runners can get anywhere near 48 seconds?
Thanks again for a thought-provoking article.
James Smith says
The commonality between all points you’ve mentioned, regarding the nature of the 400m, is, in my view, a function of way too much volume of special endurance work and successive days of stress (special endurance one day, speed endurance the next, and so on) and no where near enough volume of pure alactic speed work.
I’ve seen the training programs of more than a couple international level groups and they are, in my view, missing the boat and, instead, relying too much on the genetic gifts of the athletes and the idea that ‘hard work’ is the world beater.
Interestingly enough, Johnson was not a product, by any stretch of the imagination, of speed work, short to long, and so on. Hart’s program is the very definition of one dimensional linear long to short so Johnson’s results are, in my view, as much of anomaly as his physical abilities. In his case, his speed was not a product of training; but of inherent ability. Running sub 10.10 off of a non alactic based program speaks volumes. Couple that with his incredible speed endurance and special endurance and that’s why he was beating faster sprinters in the 200m.
While speed is a one way street, the path to success in the long sprints is not.
You can have all of the max V you want but if you don’t couple that with speed end and special end work you won’t be contending for a record in the 200 or 400m any time soon. We must remember that Bolt has performed loads of special endurance work so it is this ‘strength’ combined with his ridiculous max V that contributed to his 200m result and likely potential for the 400m.
Also, let’s not forget that Bolden and Fredericks were fantastic 200m runners, just not the world record holder. Heck, when Johnson ran his 19.32 Fredericks, who was barely in the tv frame when Johnson crossed the line, still ran a 19.66 which bettered Johnson’s previous WR of 19.68 and Bolden’s 19.84 is nothing to scoff at.
Sometimes I think we get tunnel vision when discussing sprinters in the context of the extreme minority of sub 9.8, sub 19.8, sub 44.0 athletes. We must remember that 10.0, and 20.0, and 45.0 are very fast times and any A standard qualifier for a World Championship deserves great respect (regardless of how foolish or spot on their training may be)
As for the women, first thing is that Flo Jo’s world record was very likely massively wind assisted. This is suggested to be a function of a wind gauge malfunction as nearly every other runner in that heat set substantial PB’s. (this was discussed in detail by Gresham geometry professor John Barrow). so the 10.6 time that she ran in the final is likely representative of her true ability. When viewed in that context, it’s not so far out of reach by any means as 10.7 has been touched its share of times. Also, Pierre Jean Vazel has excellent information on the complexity of wind assistance relative to its multiple vector angles, placement of the gauge, effect on runners in different lanes, and so on.
In short, and in my view, Johnson’s results were, from a physical standpoint only, a function of great intrinsic speed + fantastic speed and special endurance as a result of training and the women 400m athletes, same as the men, are suffering from a lack of alactic loads and misguided training week taxonomy. Again, remember how incredibly fast Koch was in the 100m, add to that her tremendous speed end and spec end and the result is her 200 and 400m times.
The pharmacological/doping aspect of all this is a bit of a wash because who knows what any particular group has access to at any time and the most clever minds tend to always stay a step ahead of the tests.
All of this is easy to discuss from an after the fact academic viewpoint so please don’t take anything I have to say in absolute terms.
Thank you for your very comprehensive and interesting response, James. Certainly lots of food for thought there. The hows and whys of what makes the greatest athletes that extra bit better than their peers is endlessly fascinating.
But I agree with you, there do seem to be a lot of coaches who are (wittingly or unwittingly) getting by on the inherent gifts of their athletes and ascribing the results to their training programs. The challenge I am facing personally is getting coaches at my local club to give more alactic speed work a try and see if it makes a measurable difference. They tend to be a bit defensive about an athlete asking them to change their training program…like speed, that seems to be a one way street too ;-)
Lee Ness says
Great article James. It reinforces what I already believed and what is working with all my Sprinters, long and short.
does the alactic speed work have to be done on its own day or can it be done with other lactic work, i.e. blocks work and maximal vel’ work then a special endurance session..will that ruin the benefits?
James Smith says
Doug, the alactic speed work can, and should, be performed on every training day that is not of an aerobic emphasis (if using a High/Low system). So even if the emphasis for the session is speed endurance or special endurance it is highly beneficial to begin the session with a predetermined volume range of start/acceleration work.
By beginning the session with the ATP dominant work you ensure that it will be performed at the highest quality/output levels while doing very little, if any, to negatively impact the speed endurance or special endurance work to follow. Alternatively, if the speed endurance or special endurance were to precede the ATP dominant work the cost to the ATP dominant work would be substantial in terms of reduced output potential.
In both a long to short as well as short to long program it is actually vital to perform volumes of starts/accelerations throughout each training week because in a long to short you don’t get enough of that work early on and in a short to long once you get farther into the calendar there won’t be enough volume of pure speed to support further gains due to the need to reduce the volumes of the SE work as competitions approach. So in either case the short speed work is fundamental towards optimizing results.