Speed parachutes

Speed Parachutes: Displaying their bold maize and blue colors, the chutes billow out behind runners during workouts, attached by cords to the athletes' chests.

As long as there are no gale-force winds, chute-users don't become airborne; in fact, their running velocities slow considerably because of the increased air resistance created by the chute. It's a bit like running uphill, except that instead of working against gravity you're fighting against the air hitting the inside of your trailing parachute.

But is it really a good idea to use a speed chute during training? Chute proponents claim that the device strengthens leg muscles and leads to more powerful performances, especially over competitive distances of one mile or less. Even chute critics have to admit that the contraption does provide 'specific' training, which is always a hallmark of wise workouts. After all, you do run when you're wearing the chute, and running well is your ultimate goal. In that regard, chute use is a better form of resistance training than, say, lifting a weight with the leg muscles while the body is in a standing or sitting position.

However, it's easy to criticize the chutes, too. Let's face it: once you have a chute strapped to your chest, you are definitely going to run more slowly during training, compared to running chuteless. As we all know, training more lethargically is definitely not the way to become a better runner, so in this regard, chute training looks stupid.

Realistically, though, you don't have to use the chute every day. Even if you became a chute fanatic, you could still do your regular high-speed work on days when the chute remains in your gym bag. Plus, recent research with the weight vest, another device which, like the speed chute, slows running speeds but increases the stress on leg muscles, found that such training could produce unexpected gains in running prowess.

Although speed chutes have been extolled in various advertisements, no chute research has been published in scientific journals, so runners have been basically clueless about the colorful contrivances. Fortunately, that's all changed now, thanks to the untiring efforts of Matthew Taylor, an exercise physiologist who now works in the Human Performance Laboratory at the William Beaumont Army Medical Center in El Paso, Texas.

While at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, Taylor began working with 14 school sprinters, aged 15-18. All of the athletes trained four times per week for a period of six weeks, but only half of the runners actually worked out with the speed chute.

Two days per week, the groups trained in a very similar manner, using workouts which emphasized stretching, sprint drills, plyometrics, stair climbing, hurdle jumps, table jumps, quick-feet drills on a 'Port-A-Pit', lateral hops, full-court basketball, high-knee drills, and butt flicks. Speed chutes weren't used on these days.

On the other two training days, the speed-chute group completed sprint intervals using a speed chute while the other athletes ran similar sprint intervals without the chute. During early stages of the six-week training period, the speed-chute runners completed 200-metre intervals in a very interesting manner; they ran the first 100 metres of the interval with the chute attached but then released the chute at the 100-metre mark and ran unencumbered over the last half of the interval. Average time per 200 meters was about 26-28 seconds. The no-chute group ran the same 200-metre intervals without chutes, and their times were also in the 26-28 second range. This meant that chute-group members were actually working harder during the interval workouts, since they covered the 200-metre distance in the same time needed by the chuteless athletes, but against increased air resistance.

Toward the end of the six-week period, the intervals were shortened and speeded up, especially for the chuteless runners. After a 10-metre flying start, chute-group athletes ran 50-metre intervals in about 6.5 seconds each, with chutes attached for the whole interval. Meanwhile, after the same running start, chute-free athletes ran 50-metre intervals in six seconds (a pace of 24 seconds per 200 metres), with no chutes to tire their leg muscles. Thus, near the end of the study, the no-chute runners were actually running a little faster during their workouts, compared to the speed-chute trainers. During an average workout, about eight of these 50-metre intervals would be completed per session, with 45-60 seconds of rest between efforts.

Improvements? After six weeks of training, speed-chute runners improved their 55-metre race times by an average of .23 seconds, from 6.26 to 6.03 seconds, a pretty respectable improvement. However, the no-chute trainers fared just as well, lowering 55-metre clockings by .22 seconds from 6.12 to 5.90 seconds. In other words, use of the speed chute provided no special benefits during training; sprint performances improved just as much in the runners who abstained from speed chutes altogether.

The bottom line? Using a speed chute does no harm, as long as the overall quality of training is kept high. However, performance problems may arise if the chute consistently reduces running speeds during interval training. On the positive side, speed-chute use is fun and provides an interesting break from routine training. However, there's still no solid evidence that the utilization of speed chutes will heighten sprint performances, compared to conventional training.

'Effects of Speed Chute Training on Sprint Performance,'Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, vol. 26(5), Supplement, p. S 64, 1994

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