Is it time to turn convention on its head?
The traditional training approach has been to progress speed athletes from slower, aerobic work through to anaerobic speed work as the season progresses. But John Shepherd argues that this methodology is outdated and that convention should be turned on its head.
Until quite recently, the prevailing methodology in sprint athlete training has used a ‘long to short’ training approach. Basically, for this periodisation model, the sprinter performs slower aerobic and anaerobic work at the beginning of the training year and then progresses to faster and faster anaerobic work as the season approaches and in-season. Intensity is increased, training volume reduced, and specificity of training increasing accordingly.
However, more recently a ‘short to long’ approach has become more popular. Coaches such as Charlie Francis (see box, below) have been at the forefront of such a shift in thinking. This approach emphasises speed all year round. Sprint workouts, for example, take place in what would normally be the ‘slow slog’ preliminary stages of training, when an athlete is ‘supposedly’ building base condition using slower conditioning methods. In the ‘short to long’ approach, the athlete trains at or near 100% effort throughout. Advocates of this approach claim it will:
- maximise physical speed development;
- optimally stimulate the central nervous system (CNS);
- reduce injuries (athletes using the conventional approach can pick up injuries when attempting to sprint after months of much slower work);
- allow for more speed peaks;
- minimise the negative effects of de-training on fast-twitch muscle fibre.
The ‘short to long’ approach to sprint training can be seen to reflect the ‘undulating periodisation’ (UP) theory of training planning (of which more later).
How much of an aerobic base does a sprint athlete need?
Aerobic fitness underpins the development of most other types of fitness. The more efficient an athlete’s body is at processing oxygen, the quicker it will be able to recover between efforts. In the past it was reasoned that developing good aerobic condition in a sprint athlete would boost speed development. Thus it was not unknown for rugby and football players to go on 10-mile runs, or sprinters to run continuously for up to 30 minutes.
The logic of this approach, however, is questionable when you consider that most of the work performed by sprinters is anaerobic and too much emphasis on aerobic work can blunt speed; this results from an unnecessary increase in the oxygen-processing capabilities of slow-twitch muscle fibre and a ‘blunting’ of the speed and power generation capabilities of type IIa and type IIb fast-twitch muscle fibre.
Prolonged training with a specific emphasis (ie speed) can change fibre type(1,2). Sprint athletes obviously require a proliferation of fast-twitch fibres – a top class sprinter’s leg muscles will possess 70-80% of fast-twitch fibres – and the ‘short to long’ approach never loses sight of this, as it maximises the opportunity of changing fibre type to express speed.
So how much aerobic training is necessary in a speed/sprint training programme? Charlie Francis recommends that for training a ‘mature’ 100, 200 or 400m runner, the development of base fitness with an aerobic element requires relatively little attention(3). He advocates only a short six-week period at the beginning of the training year.
Training immature athletes (less than five years of consistent sprint training) will require a slightly greater aerobic conditioning emphasis and Francis identifies an 8-12 week development phase at the beginning of the training year. Both these durations should allow sufficient time to plan a double or even a triple periodisation sprint programme using much more specific training (of which more later).
Instead of long, slow distance, tempo running is used as a more appropriate base builder; these runs provide a more relevant anaerobic base of fitness, whilst improving aerobic condition. A typical tempo running workout would be something like three sets of 100m/200m/100m with 50m walk recovery between each run and 300m walk between sets. The runs would be performed at 75% of maximum speed.
Maintaining speed in-season for speed athletes
Undulating periodisation (UP) is probably the sprint and field sports coach’s most effective way to maximise the playing condition of his or her athletes. UP basically mixes and matches all of the relevant training ingredients into one training mix. Strength, power, agility, endurance, speed, specific individual and collective playing skills and flexibility are all carefully overlapped and fused together to keep the athlete in peak playing condition.
This requires careful and consistent athlete appraisal on the part of the coach (something that Francis emphasises with his sprint training). It is crucial that coaches are aware that no two athletes will have exactly the same training needs and that individual training programmes will therefore have to be produced (although this may be more difficult for those involved in team games). It should also be noted that athletes from certain sports, such as a football midfielder, will need greater levels of aerobic conditioning than others to allow them to cope with the energy pathway demands of their games. However, even then, anaerobic training is the most important.
Intensity, not volume, is the key to improved sprint performance
Although nearly all athletes increase the volume of their training as they progress from year to year, for sprint athletes it is training intensity that is critical. Intensity should increase while volume may remain unchanged or even decrease. The coach needs to monitor carefully the volume of intense work being performed by the athlete and ensure adequate recovery to allow progression and reduce injury risk.
The ‘short to long’ approach allows the athlete to remain close to absolute sprint condition at any time in the training year. This is why, for sprint athletes, double and even triple periodisation is advocated.
A triple-periodised training programme allows an elite sprint athlete to peak for the indoor season, mid-outdoor season and late outdoor season for Olympic or World Championships. Each peak can elicit a higher level of performance than the previous one, whereas the conventional ‘long to short’ approach may fail to achieve three optimum speed peaks, as too much time is lost returning to previous speed levels rather than building on them. An exacting sprint coach should attempt to blend all the ingredients of perfect sprint performance into the third peak.
The importance of power
Power is also crucial for a sprinter, and the ‘short to long’ method keeps power on the boil. Francis ensures that complementary training takes place at all times eg by maximum strength work in the gym during tempo running phases and even workouts. He doesn’t advocate combining flat-out sprint work with near maximum weight lifting, due to the contraindications of the two training methods and the ‘strain’ that this would place on the CNS. Interestingly, neither does he recommend a weight-training ‘channelling’ phase (where, after general strength is developed with ‘slower’ exercises, sport-specific weights exercises are performed with increasing speed). Instead, Francis sees sprinting plus plyometrics exercises as the ultimate ‘channeller’.
Sprint speeds as conditioning ingredients
In order to develop optimum speed, the coach and athlete need to blend carefully sprint speeds. We have noted, for example, that aerobic conditioning becomes much less of a concern for nearly all power athletes as they become more mature. In terms of absolute speed, it is generally recommended that running intensities never fall below 75% of maximum speed. Speeds slower than this will not produce a sufficiently strong stimulatory effect on fast-twitch muscle fibre. Many coaches fail to divide up (in terms of their effects) the percentages of speed that can be generated between 75 and 105% of maximum speed (105% refers to the speed that can be generated through the use of over-speed techniques, such as downhill running and the use of bungees).
Various terms have been applied to sprint running speeds based on percentages of effort, such as tempo runs, speed endurance, lactate endurance/maximum speed and over-speed runs.
Speed endurance is crucial to a multitude of athletes and a lack of it will result in reduced sports capability. A rugby player short of speed endurance may be intercepted and hauled to the ground after making a 60m break for the line, while a 200m runner may have built up a seemingly commanding lead off of the bend, only to be reeled in and passed in the last five metres of the race. In field sports, players make repeated short-lived but intense efforts; the athlete with a high level of speed endurance will experience less ‘fade’ during a match or workout and will be able to maintain high power outputs. Speed-endurance workouts are therefore crucial to their training.
The ‘short to long’ approach should be used when developing speed endurance, as well as out-and-out speed. How much of an emphasis the coach places on this will be dependent on the training maturity of the athlete, the point in the season and the specific playing requirements of the athlete’s sport. For example, a midfield football player will require greater speed-endurance capability than a goalkeeper, who needs more ‘immediate anaerobic pathway’ conditioning. George Dintiman is another one of the world’s leading speed training experts and he has devised an eight-week speed-endurance training programme designed to increase both immediate and short-term anaerobic fitness.
The ‘short to long’ approach, as stressed, never loses sight of the need to move at maximum speed. It is totally focused on developing this quality. It strips out all the intensities, exercises and energy pathway training methods that are seen to be detrimental to achieving this goal. And crucially, it is very carefully constructed to allow the athlete and his or her CNS to adapt optimally.
John Shepherd MA is a specialist health, sport and fitness writer and a former international long jumper
1. Sports Med 2001; 31(15):1063-82
2. Sports Med 1990; 10(6):365-89
3. Francis C (1991) The Charlie Francis Training System (e-book) available from CharlieFrancis.com
4. Dintimen G (2002) Sports Speed (3rd edition) Human Kinetics