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This is part 3 of 3 in the series from Athletics Weekly on Dan Pfaff.
Tom is now head of uCoach at UK Athletics.
Below is the portion on training. For the full unabridged interview, visit his old website at http://www.down-right.co.uk. [published with permission]
Dan Pfaff on Training
Q: For power speed athletes (sprints, hurdles, jumps and throws) what systems do you train?
Fundamentally we train Frank Dick’s five bio motor abilities (speed, stamina, skill, suppleness and strength) and then each one of those categories has maybe 20-30 subcategories. [Read his book Sports Training Principles]. Energy system wise we are primarily training ATP and alactic systems but more interestingly we work on training neurochemistry and neuropsychology which are the most important factors for power speed athletes.
Q: What is neuropsychology?
Neuropsychology to me could be the fascial matrix, it could be the central nervous system; it is the biophysics and the neurology of the psychological process – mind, thought and subconscious movement. The classic example is someone is running, they hear a shout and they turn and catch a baseball or something like that. Those kind of reflexive movements are only possible when athletes are in ‘the zone’ and I’m really intrigued by these ‘flow state’ mechanics. When it happens, they are unconscious about what they did and what they felt. You always hear, ‘coach the gun went off and I was at the finish and I didn’t feel anything. I didn’t notice anybody.’ Well how do you explain that they just ran 100m in 46 steps and recorded a lifetime best when they don’t remember a thing?! And Oschman the biophysicist feels that the semiconducting fascial matrix allows the body to react and transmit information faster than what is possible given the traditionally accepted pathways. So trying to tap into this system is the new frontier for coaching and all human performance and something we work on daily in our training.
Q: Turning to training, how do you begin to put an athlete’s training program together?
Putting an athletes training and season together is a lot like a jigsaw puzzle. The wellness of the athlete and efficiency of the training are the two foundations that we build the house upon and then we aim to improve the relevant sub systems that are deficient. A lot of it is about checking and deciding what needs to be dealt with and I operate on the premise that you want to keep athletes strengths foremost in their minds. We don’t stop training their strengths, instead we try and work out how to maintain them or slightly improve them whilst we are dealing with the viruses, weaknesses and uncertainties that affect the modern track and field athlete.
Q: So how do you decide if something needs to be worked on?
The way we design training is a kind of a self tutorial, where the athlete, the coach and the team mates can readily identify weaknesses. A case in point is when people come to us and start doing acceleration development workouts. When they are doing them correctly, with the focus and intensity required, they are fatigued after nine or ten runs. However, people who have been in the system longer can do the same exercise eighteen times before they fatigue. The new athlete that is only doing nine reps looks around at everyone else who is doing eighteen and they know straight away that they have to upgrade that quality. Then we go to the Olympic platform and do twelve sets of one rep for power clean or snatch and they have to start reducing the weight on the bar after the sixth or seventh set, while the other athletes continue to increase load on the bar for all sets. It quickly becomes obvious where their weaknesses are.
Q: So more is better?
Well you can only do what the athlete can withstand and there is a cost benefit analysis to it all. Could we do more? Yes, but then the risk of injury rises which could mess up their biochemistry and stall their progress. So we did more but where did it get us? There is this myth that if you train harder and longer, or you do more of it then you will be instantly be a better athlete. This is one of the single greatest myths in power speed out there. It is like how strong do you need to be to be a world class thrower? Or how far do you need to stretch out your sprint runs in order to develop endurance. I’ve had several sub-10 athletes who NEVER ran anything further than 150m in training. Now there are systems where athletes run 500, 400, 300 and do intensive tempo 10x200m and all that kind of stuff and they are very successful but the way we train and package things we try and see how little we can do to get the maximum results because we want to minimize the injury risk and maximize the use of the time we have available.
Q: So as a workout unfolds how do you know when the athlete is becoming prone to injury?
I look at postural integrity. If they start to change postures and sub-recruit muscles they shouldn’t be using I stop the workout. I look at the reflexivity of the joints and how fluid the motion is. If the fluidity goes away and it starts to look mechanical we stop. In terms of recovery between sessions and readiness to train that day, depending on the budget we also look at many markers of recovery from pulse rate right through to using portable blood lactate analyzers and taking blood and urine to look for chemical markers.
Doing this kind of analysis on world class athletes tells you a lot of things, for example, on acceleration development days we may do 5x3x10-40m with 3-5min minutes between runs. Well with guys like Donovan Bailey, Oberdaley Thompson, Karim Street-Thompson, Bruny Surin, they would be pumping 18mmols of lactate at the end of that workout whereas a world class quarter miler at the end of the race is only pumping 10-11mmol. So lactate isn’t the enemy. Actually if you study the Krebs cycle lactate is very anabolic so we want lactate, we just want to control what days we get it, how much and what we do when it is in the blood stream. The better the power speed athlete the greater the amounts of lactate they can produce. I mean we have throwers on the Olympic platform and when they are done with the lifts they are pumping 12-14mmols of lactate and they haven’t run a step. Also on block workout days we then go to the Olympic platform and we setup curves of lactate infusion because one of the problems we have in sprinting, at the world class level, is four races in two days at the big championships and so there are huge slopes to these blood lactate levels. The athletes have to learn how to weather very steep lactate introductions into the tissue and then rapid dismissal of it. And that is very different to putting an athlete in tempo training or interval training – during which you would traditionally get an athlete to a certain level of lactate and do work there. Sprinters and Jumpers never encounter that kind of lactate environment in competition so why train them there?