Speed training: how a treadmill can help athletes run faster

The Frappier super treadmill

Getting from A to B in the fastest possible time is the key to performance for most sports – whether you aim to run a marathon in just over two hours or go ‘sub-10’ for the 100m. Not surprisingly, improving an athlete’s speed is a highly valued training objective. This goal has been subject to much research, analysis and systematic treatment, and many theories abound as to how it can be improved. This article focuses on one particular speed development programme, known as the ‘Frappier system’. This method adopts a highly systematic approach to speed, with protocols for sprinters, games players and endurance athletes.

American John Frappier began developing ‘his’ system in the 1980’s. After gaining an MSc in sports science, he spent considerable time in Russia with the US junior gymnastics team, where he gained valuable insights into how the former Soviets trained for speed and power. (The Russians were probably the first nation to fully appreciate the benefits of plyometric exercises.) On his return to the States he started working with top NFL (American Football) players and began to put together his thoughts on speed development. The first Frappier Acceleration Centre opened in 1986 – and there are now more than 100 such centres, mostly in the United States.

The system has put through its paces well over 100,000 amateur and professional athletes, the latter group including former tennis ace Steffi Graff, former 400m world record holder Butch Reynolds, current top Kenyan middle distance athletes, and numerous internationals and Olympians from an array of sports. The system now has an accredited UK centre in Chiswick (Sport Dimensions), run by Mike Antoniades and Ulick Tarabanov. Since opening the centre in the spring of 2001, they have worked with such notable performers as Chelsea and Bayern Munich footballers and England rugby players.

All athletes, whatever their sport, are put through a six-week ‘level one’ programme. This is personalised to the strengths and weaknesses of the individual and acts as a gentle introduction to the protocols and techniques of the programme, in particular the use of the ‘super treadmill’. Progressions are strictly adhered to and strengths and weaknesses identified in order to ensure safe progression from one level to another. For those seeking absolute speed there are 12 levels to work through, while those after endurance progress through six levels. Both programmes utilise eight-week training cycles.

The 30mph top speed treadmill is the key aspect of the Frappier system, although specialised plyometric and weights drills also play a crucial role. It can take time to get to grips with running on the machine, but the combination of inclined/declined running potential (max 40% up, 10% down) increasing belt speed (max 30mph) and an emphasis on biomechanically correct sprinting form are geared to making you a faster athlete.

The Frappier system, just like any other systematic training programme, is based on the overload principle. It relies on the fact that the body will respond to speed overload in the same way it does to progressive resistance or endurance training stimuli – by developing an appropriate physiological response. For speed this means more powerful muscles and an increase in the relevant neuromuscular patterning that will enable an athlete to move faster. Butch Reynolds apparently recorded a speed of 28mph on the treadmill, which is way above the 23mph recorded by Maurice Green during his world-record run.

In technical terms, it is explained that incline running on the treadmill allows for the specific development of the key factors associated with acceleration. In terms of the running action, increased speed can only be accrued from a certain point in the running action – from the ‘toe off’ as the body shifts forwards over the grounded foot and extension occurs through the ankle to the hip. The incline permits the athlete to learn and maintain optimum knee drive, pelvic and trunk positioning and – crucially – a dorsiflexed or cocked foot strike. Athletes are often filmed on the treadmill for specific technical analysis.

Sprint athletes used to be implored to run on their toes; on reflection many coaches were probably really asking their athletes to run from a ‘high hips’ position, trying to prevent them from ‘sitting’ on each stride and thus denting forward momentum. But if this advice was taken literally, as it was and still is by many, it actually led to the athlete attempting tip-toed sprinting. This is detrimental to speed generation because a breaking effect is caused on each foot strike, as the ankle inevitably yields from its extended position, irrespective of lower limb strength. The dorsiflexed foot position minimises force absorption and maximises force return and is recommended not just by Frappier trainers but by many other top coaches.

How progressive treadmill training boosts speed capability

Readers may be questioning the use of a treadmill in the Frappier system. Here’s how UK Frappier coach Antoniades justifies it: ‘Our high-speed treadmill allows for specific neuromuscular recruitment and synaptic response. What people don’t realise until they run on the treadmill is that it is manufactured to make it as close to running on a track as possible.’ In a recent issue of PP, US Editor Owen Anderson questioned the use of such a machine in an athlete’s training programme, arguing that foot strike time was increased. He wrote: ‘Basically the athletes were trying to create more stability for themselves on the unstable fast moving and/or inclined treadmill by keeping their feet on the belt a little longer than usual.’ The Frappier response is that progressive treadmill training allows athletes to achieve greater than ‘normal’ running speeds than those achieved through track work. This, when coupled with the other exercises and drills in the system, ultimately leads to optimisation of speed capability.

This belief involves a reworking of the over-speed principle, of which downhill sprinting and sprinting using elastic cords are other examples. These methods and the Frappier super treadmill permit athletes to run at higher than normal speeds. Because of this, their neuromuscular systems adapt to the stimuli of artificially-enhanced greater limb speed capability, with the end result that these patterns are ‘learned’ and the athletes become faster. Away from the treadmill, speed theory has it that the extent of the assistance should not be greater than 4% of an athlete’s normal non-assisted top speed, otherwise the stimuli (the decline or the elastic) does the work and not the athlete. The athlete needs to be able to ‘fire’ his or her limbs to generate power, not be ‘dragged’ to super speed. It is because of this that the other speed enhancement methods are eschewed by the Frappier system. Antoniades explains that downhill and with elastic cords are harder to quantify and control than treadmill running, which offers control, regulation and incremental progression.

It is also important to point out that Frappier athletes are encouraged to continue with their normal sport-specific training. At the time I saw the Frappier system in action, Olympic Bobsleigher Colin Bryce was being put through his paces while still involved in team training. The system certainly worked for him, as the former strong man became fast enough to push the two- man bob in Salt Lake earlier this year.

What are the other aspects of the Frappier system – and how do they contribute to greater speed development? Specialised weights and plyometric exercises have been constructed to complement the treadmill work. The ‘Pro-Implosion’ is a sprint arm action-mimicking machine, which is also capable of 10 other moves. A dynamic and powerful arm drive is crucial to absolute sprint speed, and this machine conditions the upper body accordingly. The ‘Plyo-Press’ is a squat/leg press machine which enables the upper thighs to be loaded dynamically in a way that could not happen with free weights. Basically, athletes push themselves dynamically off the machine’s platform (as if jumping) and then drive into the next lift/jump (as if performing a plyometric drill). This exercise is performed in a reclined position, with the option of increased resistance from the machine.

I myself had experience of a similar – if more rudimentary – system when competing in the former Czechoslovakia more than 15 years ago. This involved something like a child’s swing: you simply plucked up courage, swung towards a wall and used your legs to push yourself dynamically backwards to invoke a plyometric response. Frappier obviously took some of these former Eastern Bloc conditioning ideas and refined them for use in his own system.

The Frappier system also offers a rehabilitation programme. ‘This is particularly unique in the UK, as we get athletes or individuals back to fitness and competitive sport much more quickly and safely,’ explained Antoniades. The system has demonstrated particular success with knee and back problems and, although rehabilitation is beyond the scope of this article, it does appear that miraculous recoveries are possible. Antoniades gave the example of Chelsea player Jesper Grønkjær, who had knee ligament surgery in September 2001. In February this year he was put through the Frappier system, while still in pain, only able to run at 70% (eight miles per hour) and with a big (35%) strength differential between his left and right leg. ‘We got Jesper fit in two weeks,’ enthused Antoniades. ‘That was 12 sessions and he has been playing regularly in Chelsea’s first team ever since.’

The Frappier system does seem to offer real potential for speed enhancement, having taken speed and power development theory from around the world and quantified it into a systematic methodology. Speed is a unique conditioning aspect: it depends on eliciting a very specific physiological response – one that can actually be hindered if the wrong training is performed. The Frappier system seems to have successfully put into one box the right equipment that an athlete needs to get faster.

John Shepherd