The last few days I have found myself coming across more and more instances of track coaches and football coaches having meaningful (and often heated) discussions regarding the best way to train speed in sports. While there has definitely been a positive shift in knowledge, safety, and overall effectiveness in coaches’ approaches, there still exists a large majority of coaches in many sports who take a “more is better” approach to developing workout plans. For example, it is taboo for many coaches to allow their athletes to rest, as “rest is for the weak”, “nothing good comes to those who wait”, “every minute you’re not working, your opponents are”, etc. The list goes on forever and has created a culture and mentality for athletes that praises those who never stop working and shuns those who need a water break, need rest, get hurt, take a vacation, etc. While this can be effective for some athletes, there are more athletes that will hit a ceiling and possibly even regress in their performance abilities. Many coaches tend to avoid looking at the evidence of their program showing detriment and focus on those that are “thriving” in their program, no matter how overwhelming the evidence may be. If Little Johnny went from 2.5yds per carry to 5yds, but the other three running backs in the program regressed from 2.5yds per carry to 1.8yds, it becomes the athletes fault and not the program design. Little Johnny is the exception and not the rule, but we tend to focus on these exceptions rather than the vast majority because it supports our agenda. I remember growing up that I fell victim to this mentality and culture of more being better. It was normal for me to wake up at 5:30am, be at weights by 6:30am, crush a track workout over my lunch, and then spend 2-3 hours at football practice. During basketball season I was on JV and Varsity, so I would come in at 5:30am to practice for JV, come in after school for the same 2 hours of practice for Varsity, find time to lift weights and hopefully get a track workout in. The list goes on and on, but this was the expectation. If we asked for anything different we weren’t committed enough, we weren’t loyal enough, we weren’t hard enough workers. Our playing time was threatened, our spot on the depth chart jeopardized, our coach’s trust in our abilities tainted. You couldn’t say anything about being tired because it was perceived as an excuse for lackluster performance and it was completely unacceptable to EVER question the coaching decisions. You’re aching or have a nagging injury? Too bad, walk it off, play through it, do whatever necessary to hobble onto the court/field/track and perform at your best. So as a high school athlete, we are forced to engage in all of these activities every single day, keep our mouths shut, turn off our brains, and just obey. This overload and lack of informed coaching decisions is something that I often look back on as playing a large role in my injuries in high school. 7th grade ankle tweak, 8th grade partial achilles tear, 9th grade hip flexor strain, 10th grade various shoulder injuries and full ankle sprain, and in 11th grade I finally sustained the mother-load of them all when I tore my ACL, MCL, meniscus, and calf muscle in football practice. While loyalty is expected at all levels of athletics, blind obedience can become a problem as we are continuously exposed to potentially sub-optimal training loads and environments that can jeopardize the health and wellness of our athletes. As coaches, we should also encourage questioning as it helps us to find our rationale for what we are doing and keep us up to date with the science of our training programs. It was hardwired in my brain that I had to be doing something all hours of the day or else I wouldn’t get better. While it is good to have a work ethic, it is also better to WORK SMARTER NOT HARDER. Why would I as a coach want to make my athletes do more if they can get the same or better results from doing less? So the question is do we use the “more is better” approach or a “quality over quantity”/ “work smarter, not harder” approach. Which is more important to you as a coach? My injury history is obviously anecdotal evidence, but there has been a buzz going around that overtraining is becoming more and more prevalent. I’ve spoken with several coaches who are terrified of overtraining, burnout, and fatigue injuries. We have long and thoughtful discussions about the demands of the sport, the state of the current training program, and how we can better adapt it to fit the athlete from a progress and safety standpoint.
Depending on your sport, you will need to either be more aerobic or anaerobically fit. These two types of fitness exist on a spectrum and are influenced by total training volume, recovery implementations, intensity, sets, reps, mode, and more. As you can see from the image I made, the majority of training occurs between the two extremes of the spectrum. It is important to remember to understand which part of the spectrum your sport primarily exists and that training programs affect the body in a multitude of ways. Training adaptations include muscle type development (type I vs type II), satellite cell content, hormone modulation, mitochondria vs cytosol metabolic abilities, oxygen consumption and utilization, motor learning, etc. So depending on the demands of your sport, you should be aware of these adaptations and how you as a coach/athlete can give yourself the best chance of success. Does your sport require short bursts of speed paired with a level of lateral quickness and coordination for success? Will you be taking high levels of contact frequently (think about bone mineral density)? How long must you sustain this level of performance? Are you running nonstop or intermittently? What distances do you typically cover per possession, per play, per down, per race? Do I need big bulky bodies absolute strength athletes or do I need lean, quick, powerful athletes? The list goes on and on, but you get the idea. If you’re going to be responsible for writing practice plans for a sport, you should be aware of:
1) WHAT ARE THE DEMANDS OF MY SPORT?
2) HOW CAN I BEST CATER TO THESE IN MY PRACTICE PLAN?
Let’s talk about traditional approaches vs progressive approaches to training.
The Traditional Coaching Model: As previously stated, the old school mentality praises volume and training in a tired state in order to create toughness and resilience. It is not enough to wake up at 4am to begin your 2 a day practices, but you must die at each session or else it was not a good practice. If athletes are not vomiting following your practice session, they did not work hard enough, they were not prepared enough, they will not represent your program on Friday nights when you’re playing your rival because it disgusts you that this weak person is on your team. I understand this is how many of us were coached in high school and think that this is the best way to coach. I will not tell you that you are wrong, but I will ask you where you draw the line? At what point are you solely training mental toughness and physical resilience and forgetting about the major components of your sport? Most of this type of training occurs on the aerobic end of the spectrum and actually takes away from the anaerobic adaptations that may have taken place prior. Knowing that aerobic adaptations are paired with slowness and low power output, is that helping or hurting your program’s potential for success? Is it more important for you to endure the demands of the sport or demand the opponent endures your relentless explosion? Are you training your athletes to survive an onslaught or deliver the onslaught? Most sports require an unparalleled level of explosion, speed, and finesse to dominate an opponent. If you’re focused on building mental toughness and endurant athletes, you’re training the opposite athletic traits that are required for game changing plays. You’re training the energy systems and muscle fibers that move slow and last forever. Colleges are recruiting the explosive animals that destroy opponents on highlight reels. Your endurance isn’t noted on your game film and if it is, it’s not weighted as heavily as your athletic prowess. Even sumo wrestlers are explosive beasts and require precise, split-second decisions to achieve success. While mental toughness and competitive fight are absolutely important attributes of various sports, you do not need to kill an athlete in order to achieve this.
The New Coaching Model: Coaching is beginning to shift completely away from the old school mentality and praise rest, recovery, quality, and explosion. Coaches are becoming more educated on the importance of task specificity in order to create the most adaptations that are critical for success in their sport. For example: if a sprinter in track is successful for running fast for a short distance, the focus is now on just that. The more you practice running fast for a short distance, the better you will get at running fast for a short distance. In a traditional coaching model, athletes in track are being run to death at sub max intensities (50-70%). As we learned previously, training tired athletes creates endurant athletes but not fast athletes. While you may make some incremental gains in the speed department, you are capping their speed specific adaptations by catering to their slow muscles and encouraging the CNS to conduct impulses in a manner that is not ideal for top speeds. In the new coaching model, we focus on explosion, plyometrics that are specific to the movements required in the sport, allow proper rest / recovery, controlling training volumes, and sprinting distances that are similar to what their sport will require, they will be more likely to make gains in all of the relevant departments. Notice that there is a trend in specificity. “WE ARE WHAT WE REPEATEDLY DO”. If I want to get good at shooting three pointers, I will shoot three pointers, NOT FREE THROWS. If I want to get good at shooting three pointers, I will practice shooting three pointers OFTEN but NOT ENDLESSLY. If I want to get good at shooting three pointers, I will not take long runs around town. All of these same principles can be applied to any sport or any skill.
IF YOU WANT TO GET BETTER AT PLAYING YOUR SPORT, YOU SHOULD PLAY YOUR SPORT. IF YOU WANT TO GET BETTER AT THE SKILLS REQUIRED FOR YOUR SPORT, YOU SHOULD PRACTICE THOSE SKILLS AND NOT OTHERS. IF YOU WANT TO GET A BETTER GAS TANK FOR YOUR SPORT, YOU SHOULD TRAIN IN A WAY THAT IS SIMILAR TO THE FLOW OF YOUR GAME/COMPETITIVE ELEMENT. ALL OF THIS NEEDS TO BE TAKEN INTO CONSIDERATION WHEN PRACTICE PLANNING IN ORDER TO CREATE AN ENVIRONMENT THAT WILL ALLOW YOUR ATHLETES TO PROSPER IN THE THINGS THAT MATTER MOST TO YOUR SPORT, NOT OTHERS. WE ARE NOT TRAINING WEIGHT LIFTERS, WE ARE NOT TRAINING MILERS, WE ARE NOT TRAINING CROSS COUNTRY RUNNERS, WE ARE CREATING EXPLOSIVE MONSTERS AND WE NEED TO TRAIN THEM AS SUCH.
As coaches, we still have no perfect method of practice planning because everybody has different levels of metabolic ability to adapt, structural variations, access to proper nutrition and means of recovery, etc. So it is important that we are constantly reflecting on what we have, what the results are, what did we do well, what did we do poorly, how can we make it better? If you as a coach are not making adjustments every year, you are selling yourself AND your athletes short. There is always room for improvement from every aspect of a program. If it was successful, why was it successful and how do we become even more successful? Instead of winning your rivalry game by 1 point, next season you could win by 3. Instead of winning your conference championship by .05s, you could shoot for .06s. We as coaches need to work together to better serve ALL ATHLETES, not just our own and engage in these discussions to help one another. We need to throw egos aside and be open to hearing each perspective and understand that there will always be benefits and flaws in each training approach. It is our job to ensure that we find and correct these flaws by looking internally, accepting feedback, and always striving to create meaningful changes in our athletes. If we put the athletes ahead of our egos and chest pounding, I believe we will notice a significant change in the way we approach everything we do. The idea is that we are never complacent with our programming and that we are always striving to better serve our athletes in any way we can. How can we as coaches provide them better opportunities to showcase their skills, enjoy the process, and create the perfect recipe for success? The verdict is still out, but I believe we are getting closer and closer every day by engaging in these thought provoking discussions.
Thanks for taking the time to read this and I hope it is helpful in creating questions and productive discussion moving forward. That being said, I am by no means perfect and am open to all suggestions, discussions, and viewpoints regarding these controversial stances on training. Please feel free to share, give feedback, agree, disagree, etc. I want to have these discussions and I hope you’re ready to as well.
Follow me on Twitter @BrendanThompsn or @BTExceleration. I am a physical therapy student at Washington University in St. Louis that double majored in Human Physiology and Psychology while also being an All-American sprinter at the University of Iowa. I currently run my own speed training business focused on the new model of coaching and teaching the biomechanics to athletes from all sports at all levels from all backgrounds. If you want to learn more visit: www.btexceleration.com/about.html or for more personal information about my athletic background visit: www.btexceleration.com/brendanthompson.html .