This article was written by Tom McTaggart, President of the USATF New York Association. These are notes from his presentation at the National Scholastic Indoor Championships back in 2010.
His resume includes:
- Suffern High School (N.Y.) Girls Track Coach 1978 – 2002
- Suffern High School Girls Cross-Country Coach 1980 – 2008
- USATF Level 2 Coach – Sprints & Hurdles; 2 Level 3 Seminars
- 29 girls sub-sixty seconds at 400m in 24 seasons – 15 Boys sub-fifty seconds over 22 seasons
- Olympic Track Official & member of the IAAF Starter’s Panel
Using Critical Zone Training in Developing Versatile Sprinting Potential
It’s no secret to anyone who has coached a scholastic track and field team that a versatile corps of sprinters are an essential element to success. With a dual meet program that includes three sprint events and two sprint relays, you want to develop this corps in a way that the athletes can perform proficiently in all of the sprint events.
The reality of covering events needing power and speed from 60 m through 400 m always encouraged my coaching philosophy that any real sprinter had to be competitive at the 400 m distance at some point in their tenure on my teams. The results I got spoke for themselves. Kids who fancied themselves quarter milers often ran exceptional 100 and 200 m times. Others who fancied themselves as “pure sprinters” managed to always produce superior performances at 400 m.
To be honest, some of those results were lucky. But mostly these results came from a constant investigation of training theory and strategies directed at the goal of developing versatile sprinters who could run the 100, 200, and 400 m dashes with above average competence. A quarter of a century in coaching has shown me that there are “many roads to Rome “when it comes to training. As a former quarter-miler, I had my own preconceived notions as I started out coaching. I learned rapidly that my own personal approach was just not going to work with every athlete. So pretty soon I found myself in the library investigating as many different training methods that I could find, so that I could match it to the athlete rather than the opposite.
It was an enlightening experience to say the least. I discovered “Telford splits”, Purdy’s ComputerTrax, and read everything I could about sprinting and long sprinting that was available. Some of it had been published in the 1920s; some of it within a year of my reading. Some dealt with biomechanics and physiology; some with psychological factors. I read Mussabini, Winter, Mach, Korchemny, as well as the “new kids on the block”, such as Tom Tellez, Gary Winkler, and Loren Seagrave. I went to over a dozen clinics and eventually took both the Level I and Level 2 coaching education courses offered by The Athletics Congress of the USA (now USA Track and Field). There was no question that all this new knowledge made me a much better coach. Having this background in training theory and practice was invaluable. It gave me a tremendous “toolbox” to reach to when I had to solve problems to help my athletes achieve their goals.
Ultimately as high school coaches of track events discover, the biggest challenge to making the high school athlete successful is imparting the knowledge about the distribution of effort in any race – a.k.a. “PACE”, no matter what the distance. When it comes to developing a versatile corps of sprinters is no less important than when you’re dealing with athletes running the endurance events. A 400 m sprinter who runs “out of gas”in the last part of the race is no different than a two-miler who has gone too fast in the first three laps of their race.
Challenges as a Sprint Coach
As Sprint coaches, we have all had these challenges:
- You have a talented sprinter who is absolutely terrified of competing at a distance over 200 meters! You have to keep on their backs at practice to finish a “repeat” distance with total effort. It’s almost daily you have to emphasize “Run through the finish!” to this gal or guy. But they also tend to be the one scoring tons of points. Then you discover that you have the potential for that 3:15 or 3:49 team at 4 X 400 meters – IF ONLY I COULD GET Mr./Ms. X TO RUN THAT 400 at their talent level!
- You have the athlete who runs the 400 meters by trying to cruise around 170 meters and then tries to shift into a sprint for the remaining 230 meters and is always coming up short of their goal.
- You have the athlete who has already had a really good 400 race and now decides they will really “attack” that race, they use too much effort too soon, and in the last 100 meters they look like someone running with paint cans for shoes, punching themselves in the face trying to get home. It’s the classic “piano on the back”, “rigor mortis”, “pouncing bear/gorilla” finish we love to laugh about. Again, the athlete walks away disappointed with the effort.
Earlier in this article I spoke of much of the research that I did on training sprinters to be competent to run the 400 m event. I tried them all, and each of them were successful with a portion of the athletes I coached.
Without question, the approach that I tried that had the most success with the greatest percentage of the athletes I coached was something I learned first in a conversation on an airplane with the renowned coach Wilbur Ross. I took copious notes as he spoke, and was fascinated by what he was telling me about something he referred to as “Critical Zones” in teaching race distribution. He told me that he was publishing an article about this in Scholastic Coach magazine in a few months.
Sure enough, it appeared in the February, 1985 issue. I read that article, absorbed the notes I took in our conversation, and while being computer-phobic at the time, I went to an accountant friend of mine and created spreadsheets employing the concept that I could use to work with my athletes. I had them printed on card stock, laminated, and put in a waterproof binder. That binder stayed with me at every practice session. As time went by I applied the concept to both the 200 m dash and the 800 m run, and created spreadsheets that were added to that binder. The binder was later replaced by a PDA, and now it’s all on file in my Blackberry smartphone. (remember, this was pre-2009!)
What’s so special about this Critical Zones concept?
You should be asking at this point “what’s so special about this ’critical zones’ concept?” Here’s my answer.
First, it is versatile in that I have used Critical Zones for several different purposes:
- Modeling race sensations and testing performance probability
- Working on race distribution and teaching the athlete to “feel” the proper pace
- Special Endurance 1 training for athletes with higher training age
- Pure Glycolitic training for the less fit athletes in your groups.
A second reason I have adapted the 40%-40%-20% approach to race distribution with many/most of my athletes goes back to some educational research and plain old observations of runners at the half way point of races.
There is a tendency of people who are consciously aware of the halfway point of tasks to stop and notice that fact. This brief distraction often provokes other distractions in concentrating on the task at hand like such thoughts as, “Did I go out too fast?”, “Did I go out too slow?”, or “Uh-oh!” (countless other possible thoughts). If you look at research done on students taking long tests, (SAT’s, ACT’s,) a great deal of the incorrect answers occur just past the halfway point of the exam. Think about the times that you as a coach screamed out that 200 meter split during a 400 meter dash. Was it actually useful information to the athlete, or was it an unnecessary distraction at that point?
This small distraction (actually opening a window of opportunity for questioning of self-confidence) breaks the concentration enough to allow races of all durations (400m to two miles) to be “given away” or become larger battles just past the half way point. Thus, I coach athletes with this propensity (especially in the 400 and 800) to think of the race in these 3 segments. Think about it: I need to concentrate more when I count to three than when I count to two. Focusing on putting my perfect effort into the first 80% puts me in a much better position than focusing on the first 50%.
My own opinion is that in a race of any distance if I put my best distributed effort into the first 80% of a race, I am way ahead of anyone who has been holding themselves back in any fashion in that first 80%. I have timed athletes in the 400 m in the last 20% of the race (the last 80m), and I find it remarkable that the times for that last 20% are very close for all the athletes in the race, no matter how slow or fast they went at 320 meters. No matter what I think of my ability to “kick” at any distance, I’d better have distributed my race with a strong investment of my energies at the 80% mark in the race (320m in the 400) if I expect to win.
Here is how it works when you use them for race modeling:
400 meters – for race modeling:
Begin by doing 2 sets of 160m-160m-80m with 30 seconds rest between the efforts, using a flying start on each. Take 10 minutes active rest between sets. Work up enough endurance to be able to complete 3 sets at two weeks before your desired peak performance.
Here’s how it works for pure Glycolitic training (Special Endurance I) purposes:
Do 2 Sets of 160m – 160m – 160m (3 X 160m) — 30 secs.rest between – use a flying start
10 – 15 minutes rest between sets (based upon training age or physical condition).
You can use pace targets for race distribution training.
Take the average of all six 160’s X 2 to establish what you are running at 320m (80% of the race) and look to see what you would have to run for the last 80m (20%) to hit your target performance goal.
For athletes with greater training age and physical stamina, work up to 3 or possibly 4 sets.
What Kind of Long Speed Endurance Preparation do Athletes Need to Prepare for this Kind of Work?
Again, there are many “roads to Rome” on this. But when it came to my sprint corps, I used the distances of 160 m and 320 m in my early-season preparations so that my athletes would become comfortable with knowing what this distance felt like. Also, it has been established that 320m is about as far as most athletes can run at fast effort before lactic acid buildup effects running economy. In the pre-competitive phase of our training I would use some of the following training units after a 20 to 30 min. dynamic warm-up designed to prepare for the unit.
Some Sample Workouts:
Monday: Repeat 4 X 320m at 82.5% effort (Purdy) with 3 minutes rest between each repetition
Wednesday: Repeat 10 – 12 X 160m at Critical Zone pace + 1.5 seconds – 2 min. rest between each repetition
Monday: Repeat 4 X 320m at 85% effort (Purdy) with 3 minutes rest between each repetition
Wednesday: Repeat 10 – 12 X 160m at Critical Zone pace + 1.5 seconds – 2 min. rest each repetition
Monday: Repeat 3 X 320m at 87.5% effort (Purdy) with 4 minutes rest between each repetition
Wednesday: 10 – 12 X 160m at Critical Zone pace + 1 second – 3 min. rest between each repetition
Monday: Repeat 3 X 320m at 90% effort (Purdy) with 4 – 5 minutes rest between each repetition
Wednesday: 2 Sets of 6 X 160m at Critical Zone pace + 1 second – 3 min. rest between each repetition
As you can see, the pattern is to increase the effort with each week and to add to the rest factor between repetitions. Incidentally, I calculate the Purdy percent of effort based upon the goal chosen from the critical zones spreadsheet.
I have found this preparation pattern especially successful with athletes who reported after indoor track season where they had been on a “speed taper” program for the final month of their season. When they reported after a week’s layoff, it had them going pretty fast while restoring their long speed endurance and their abilities to tolerate short rest in the training unit. They struggled during Week 1, but were totally “in the groove” of their training by Week 2.
Of course, there are other ways and other training sessions that could be used to produce the speed endurance necessary to prepare for the Critical Zone training to be done during the early competitive season and the modeling Critical Zone training done during the latter part of the competitive season. Remember that besides LSE work, you need to blend in Special Endurance 1, Special Endurance 2, AT, and Neuropathic training in your warm-ups and training units.
“MOVING ON UP” – Using Critical Zone Training to move up to the 800 meters
[JIMSON’S NOTE: I wrote 400m Sprinter Moving up to the 800 meters in 2010, and a video of 800 meter Training and Moving up from 400 meters, which still holds true today]
Sometimes you know that good 400m runner you have has the innate talent to also distribute their speed to be a good 800m runner. You can see it in practice when they are repeating 400’s, 500s, or 600s and they do it with good effort. Usually it is only psychology that blocks the athlete from accepting that “half-mile” challenge. I created a critical zones model for the 800m event that I have successfully used to prove to journeyman or even good 400m runners that they could also be very good at the 800m event, or at least they would be competent enough to help out in the occasional 4 X 800m relay event or a 800 leg in a sprint medley relay.
Here’s how it works:
800 meters – for modeling:
Run 320m – 320m – 160m. Take 45secs-1 minute between each effort.
For working on race distribution/ pace segmenting:
Run 3 X 320m with 1 minute between, using pace targets.
I suggest 1 set for developing athletes; 2 for those who can handle it.
If 2 sets; take 15-20 minutes active between sets.
Another option: 3 X 320m with a “kicker” of 160m sprint at the end.
I have found that if you take the average time of the 320’s and multiply it by 2, you will know what you have to do over the last 160 to hit your target pace. It has been incredibly accurate at predicting physical capability at 800m, and I have found it especially useful in nurturing 400m runners into the 800 at times, as well as training heptathletes/pentathletes for the 800m.
BONUS MATERIAL (Downloads coming soon!)
- The original article on Critical Zones by Wilbur Ross and Norma Hernandez De Ross from Scholastic Coach of February, 1985.
- 400 meter Hand Time Spreadsheet for high school Boys & Girls.
- 800 meter Hand Time Spreadsheet for high school Boys & Girls.
- Sample of Critical Zone Goals sheet that I used with some of the athletes I trained in 2002.
- Sample of a May, 2001 Training session when we used Critical Zone race modeling that some kids called “simulators” & others called “Barfo-Gutso”.