By Cody Bidlow
In the world of construction, the foundation you initially build must be appropriate for the stresses it will eventually endure. The same goes for base building in the sprint events. Often revered as sacred, the term "building a base" strikes a chord with most track athletes and coaches. People get riled up about base building, but there is a general void of critical thinking in regards to what your base even is, and how to go about developing it. This term has been thrown around countless times, with a variety of meaning being attached to it.
Defining Your Base
If your goal is to run as fast as you possibly can for 60-400m, chances are that endless running in your off-season is not going to bring you the most tasteful fruits of your labor. The end result of training should be optimal preparation for specific workloads for your event, so it would make sense to start thinking of things in a generational sense. First generation work could be your event, such as running the 100m out of blocks in a race. Second generation would be speed work, short speed endurance, and block starts. Third generation could be lifting for power and strength, jumps and shot tosses. Fourth generation work might be general strength and tempo running.
A base of what? - Dan Pfaff
When you normally see someone talking about a base, a few things come to mind:
- Long runs
- Large volumes of tempo endurance
- Hypertrophy lifts
- Very little, if any, acceleration work
- Very little, if any, preparatory work for speed training
When you look at that list, you may start to wonder where the sprint related training is. In events where speed isn't a determining factor, this list may suffice. But when the demands of your event are primarily acceleration, speed, speed endurance, large power requirements and elastic tissue qualities, months spent on endurance work might be the nail in your coffin of stagnant performance.
So what would be a more optimal base? For speed and power events, these are the qualities that need to form your base:
- Acceleration technique
- Workload specific capacities
- Basic Power Production
- General Strength
- Tempo Endurance
All sprint events share one quality - they are all made of up a significant portion of the race where the athlete is accelerating. Even in the 400m, more than 10% of the race is spent accelerating. People want to talk all day about speed endurance, but how do we get up to speed and then subsequently endure that speed? Effective and efficient acceleration.
Acceleration is composed of a unique rhythmic progression of movements, each step contributing to the effectiveness of the next. Leaving the bulk of acceleration work to be done close to or during the competitive season causes athletes to miss out on a large amount of skill development that can happen in the early periods of training. Your ultimate top speed is limited by your ability to accelerate, and as such sprint athletes need to work on acceleration starting day one.
Acceleration work early in the year can be done on grass, hills, with short rests and short distances, and can be done with or without resistance. Above all, proper technique and skill development must be the number one focus. When it comes to sprinting, its not always what you do, but most importantly how you do it.
Workload Specific Capacities
Running flying 30's in April can be very taxing on the CNS, and I don't think that running 600's at 80 second pace in September are going to prepare you for that type of workload. Your workloads and effectiveness of workouts in season will be dependent on the battery you built in the pre-season. This means that the energy systems, neurotransmitter systems, waste by-product removal systems, and nervous system outputs need to be consistently developed so that the athlete can produce very high intensity, high quality workouts later in the year. This requires specific types of work to be done, such as short rest acceleration work and basic power production work. You cannot expect someone to be prepared for a certain type of work if they haven't been exposed to anything similar in months.
Basic Power Production
A core quality of all sprinters is the ability to produce large amounts of work in small amounts of time: the definition of power. Time is of the essence, so developing these core qualities of sprinting are best done early in the training year. This doesn't mean you need to go power clean 300lb on September 1st, but it does mean that you need to dedicate some portion of your general preparation period to basic power production. Just as acceleration work prepares you for speed work, basic power production work prepares you for absolute strength development late in the preparatory periods.
Some options for basic power production could include:
- Med ball tosses or shot tosses for distance
- Rudiment hops, skips for height, skips for distance, hurdle hops
- Lighter lifts done with the intention of moving the bar as fast as possible
- Sprinting (acceleration work springs to mind - two birds with one stone!)
- Many of these options can be incorporated very early in the training year, even the first week.
General strength is strength expressed with no (or low) additional loading. This could be in the form of bodyweight squats, lunges holding a medicine ball, trunk/core work, and many other exercises. The idea with general strength is to develop the requisite core, limb, and postural strength so that the athlete can continue on to more intense loading, be it by weights or sprint intensity. Eventually, this type of work becomes relatively easy, and can serve as a restorative or active recovery workout later in the training year. Lactate production leads to exercised induced growth hormone release, and what better way to produce lactate than to do a bunch of squats and lunges?
Some options for general strength development could include:
- Bodyweight squats, lunges, push-ups, planks, etc
- Foundational poses
- Low load exercises - goblet squat, in-place lunge with a med ball, etc.
Tempo endurance provides you with the cardiovascular fitness that people expect of a base, without making you slower from long bouts of slow running. Charlie Francis talked a lot about tempo endurance, claiming that it increases capillary density in the muscles, which leads to higher muscle temperatures, longer-held warmups, and an indirect effect on speed via reduced peripheral resistance on neurons. By increasing the temperatures in the muscles, via increased capillary density and thus blood, you end up with less resistance and faster conduction in the motor neurons. Beyond that, tempo endurance offers the athlete an opportunity do a large number of strides, planting seeds of skill development when it comes to running technique. Learning to be efficient at different speeds will increase the density of learning so-to-speak. This gives the athlete a wider base of body awareness and motor control, contributing down the road to more effective speed endurance work. In the case of sprinters, tempo endurance work is 100-300m runs, done at 75% of maximal effort or less.
To recap, the base you build needs to support the end goal of your efforts. In sprinting, this means that the base needs to prepare the athlete for high intensities, speeds of movement, power outputs, and work capacities specific to the demands of the event. The next time you hear someone talk about building a base, make sure to listen closely and think critically about what they say.