By Cody Bidlow
In a previous article, I wrote about the concept of the stages of athlete development. As athletes age (both in terms of chronological age and training age), their training needs and training capacity will change, requiring adjustments to training over time. A 30 year old post-collegiate athlete is going to need very different training compared to a 15 year old high school athlete.
While many would agree that this is true, little information exists regarding how we can change training over the course of the career of an athlete in an effective manner. In this article, I will present some thoughts on how to modify training inputs over time, banking on the direct experience of myself and fellow athletes.
Training Systems – Everything Has It’s Place
A wide variety of training programs have, over time, produced athletes who have achieved great success. Clyde Hart and other long-to-short style programs have produced many elite 200m and 400m sprint athletes, while short-to-long programs like the Charlie Francis Training System have produced medal winning athletes predominantly in the 60m and 100m dash sprints. Some programs rely on heavy running volumes, others utilize a lot of strength training. Whatever the case, it is certainly true that various programs with stark differences have all produced high performing athletes.
While an individual athlete may have a certain proclivity to one style of training over another, there are times when doing the things they dislike might be in their best interest. Alternatively, there comes a time where things really need to come into focus, and the stimulus applied to the body needs to be unquestionably directed at the ultimate goal.
Specificity Is King
While we do not want to go overly-specific too early in an athlete’s career, eventually the only way to make significant improvements will be to make training more specific.
The 60m athlete working on speed, block starts, and power production in December is likely to have a relatively better indoor season compared to the athlete training with 300m repeats and 3×12 in the weight room. Similarly, the second athlete is likely to fair much better in the 400m dash than the first athlete. The point here is simple: the qualities you need during competition should be reflected in your pre-competition training.
A misinterpretation of what is specific to any given event can easily be the demise of an otherwise capable athlete, and as such we need to be wholeheartedly certain that the inputs we place in a sprint training program are closely related to the outcomes we desire. I have seen coaches claim to be training speed while doing 20m block starts, 150m repeats, moderate load sleds, agility ladders, and stadium sprints – none of which directly train maximal velocity to any large degree (or at all).
Don’t be one of these coaches. Don’t say things because they sound good, or put them in your program because you saw it on Instagram. If it is going in your program, you should probably have a multi-layered explanation as to it’s utility and how it fits into one of your goals of the program. The goal can be as simple as getting stronger, or as complex as working on a specific muscle action at a certain joint position under time or velocity constraints – either way, you should know why it is in there and how it fits into the bigger picture of training.
Training For Beginner Athletes
Earlier in an athlete’s career, as well as earlier in the training year, generalized training with significant variability is warranted. Later in the year, and later in an athlete’s career, the specificity must increase and variability decrease, in order to ensure that the stress we apply is reasonably likely to result in the outcome we desire. In the case of the sprinter, this is a shift toward high speed and high force outputs. For a distance runner, this would be event-specific distance runs done at a race pace.
Early in an athlete’s career, nearly any training input will result in an adaptation and change within the athlete. Young sprinters might get faster running at sub-maximal speeds, and they definitely will get stronger by doing generalized strength training (hypertrophy/cross sectional area work, body weight work, etc.). These athletes will need a lower dose of any specific stimuli, but will likely need an overall more diverse program in order to build a wide base of physical characteristics.
By training athletes in a general manner early in their career, they will develop in a well-rounded manner, giving them a better chance at progressing over time and ultimately reaching a high level of performance. Generalized training for younger athletes should consist of the following, in some way, shape, or form:
- Various planes of movement
- Various speeds of movement
- Varied duration of exertion
- Full ranges of motion
- Lower to moderate loads
- Various levels of intensity
By incorporating variability in an athlete’s training early in their career, they will develop wider competencies when it comes to movement, musculo-tendinous tissue development, neurological wiring, energy system development, and general fitness. Additionally, general training early in an athlete’s career will reduce the likelihood of chronic overuse injuries by mitigating overly repetitive tissue stress by nature of the program’s varied design.
Training For Intermediate Athletes
Once an athlete has been exposed to sports training in a general manner, such as through team sport practice and basic exercises like push ups and body weight squats, they will reach a point where they should be exposed to strength & conditioning training in addition to their sport specific practice. For the purpose of this discussion, we can think of intermediate athletes as generally being as young as a sophomore in high school to someone as old as a senior in college. While the training of a sophomore in high school will surely need to be different than that of the college senior, they are similar enough that the same basic tenets of programming can be used.
For an intermediate athlete, a vertical integration approach to training is likely to be most effective for most athletes. Vertical integration is the concept, popularized by Charlie Francis, which incorporates a wide range of training tools into the program at any given time. An athlete might sprint on the track, throw med balls, lift weights, and do some jumps all on the same day. The specific volumes of each training input vary over time, such that one may be emphasized for a given period of time while the others are used simply for maintenance of other qualities. For example, one would not want to program high volumes of maximal strength lifts during a time where high intensity plyometrics are also being performed in high volumes.
This type of program is what most speed/power oriented training programs are based off of. Sprint training programs following this approach will likely have an acceleration day, a speed day, a speed endurance day, and some lower intensity grass runs on the low intensity days. High intensity days will feature jumps and/or lifts, and low intensity days might include some med ball circuits or body weight strength exercises.
While the concept of progression is the same here (general to specific), this program will have enough variety to not overcook any one quality, but enough specificity to work qualities like speed or strength in sufficient volumes to see improvement. Most intermediate athletes who come from a base of general training will see their speed, power, and strength qualities improve under a vertical integration setup.
Training For Advanced Athletes
In my mind, an advanced athlete is one who has attained a high level of performance, and one who can tap into that high level of performance with relatively little preparation. You can think of this as their performance qualities being baked-in and accessible, not fleeting and inconsistent like earlier in one’s career. Advanced is more of a place in your career as an athlete, not necessarily your absolute level of performance.
Once an athlete is relatively advanced, general methods of training are no longer going to elicit the responses needed to improve the athlete’s chosen specialty. Instead, the signals which tell the body how to adapt need to be highly specific and repeated over time. Considering our bodies prefer to conserve energy than expend it one costly adaptive processes, a relatively general and fairly variable program may not provide a potent enough stimulus to encourage the changes we want in order to run faster.
For a 60m/100m dash sprinter, a high frequency program may look something like this:
- Track work emphasizing maximal velocity (speed), with speed endurance and acceleration constituting the rest of the sprint training volume. To get the most out of it, the distances used within a given week or cycle should not vary greatly. Over time, they can vary to a larger degree.
- Power development work being the predominant quality trained in the gym, with absolute strength development second and specific hypertrophy being used for injury prevention.
- Lower volumes are used within each session, and sessions are repeated with high frequency throughout a micro-cycle.
- Sprinting 3-4 times per week without significant variation in the distances or intensities, ideally an event specific distance run at maximal intensity.
- Lifting 2-3 times per week, emphasizing power output, rate of force development, specific hypertrophy, and overall low volumes.
When we increase specificity, increase frequency, and keep the daily volumes within reason, various positive effects can be seen:
- Higher frequency training keeps you in a state of readiness, allowing you to perform well more days than not. This is particularly useful leading up to competition, when consistently high performance is important.
- Lower volume training each day prevents excessive fatigue accumulation, and the concomitant reduction in movement quality which comes with it.
- Frequent exposure to the specific stimulus (such as sprinting) allows for the athlete to constantly refine their technique, over time giving them many more days in a given period where they were able to work on intensity-specific technical skills.
- Lower volume, high intensity training preferentially develops fast twitch muscle, and the high frequency of exposure frequently tells the brain to optimize the neural pathways which allow us to perform at a high level.
- Higher frequency training seems to have an adaptive effect on your recovery, meaning that after some time your body’s recovery timeline will shorten. Once this happens, you’ll find that sprinting on back to back days is far easier than it was before, even if you were at or close to a PR the day before.
There are certain caveats to keep in mind when instituting a high frequency training program, so remember the following:
- Limit your maximal intensity sprinting to a few repetitions. Once the warmup is completed, the high intensity sprinting can be something simple such as:
- 2x30m, 2x60m
- Ensure that you are sleeping 9-10 hours each night. Frequent exposure to high intensity stress, despite it’s low volume, REQUIRES that you sleep a lot, sleep well, and sleep consistently. Maintain a consistent schedule when you go to bed and when you get up. Also, make sure that you turn off electronics an hour before you intend to be asleep, and avoid stimulant use in the hours prior to winding down.
- Avoid any lifting which incurs significant tissue damage or long time under tension, leaving this type of work to be done the day before a rest day. If you sprint the next day, stick to some low volume olympic lift derivatives like power cleans, hang snatches, high pulls, etc.
In general, high frequency, high specificity training works best when most days end on your best rep. If you hit a new PR on the track, end the session and go home. If the PR was your first rep, you can do another one, but only if you have no sore spots that might snap when running another fast rep. In the gym, do not go for multiple max effort attempts unless you will have adequate time off following the session.
Additionally, foam rolling before you go to bed can be useful for a couple reasons. For one, if you are thorough when you roll, you will be able to pay attention to problem areas, and keep a mental log of what may need some extra warming up or work. Beyond that, foam rolling just before bed in a dark room is a fantastic way to make the slow descent into sleep mode, and can help you get to sleep soon when you eventually lay down in bed.
Lastly, pay attention to your stimulant use. If you are drinking coffee in the morning, diet coke at lunch, and hitting 300mg of caffeine in your pre-workout, you are putting your brain under a lot of demand with regards to producing neurotransmitters. Just like you might periodize your training in to slightly lower and slightly high volume days within a week, do the same with your stimulant intake. Keep the higher caffeine intake to the days you feel you can hit a PR, and on other days stick to 150mg (or none at all).
Bringing this all together, a couple trends are worth noting. First, the general progression of training should be from more general to more specific, and this trend exists both within a training year as well as when looking at the time scale of an athlete’s career. Earlier in their career, the training should be general in nature. Over time, training needs to shift toward being much more specific to the demands of their sport or event.
As with any training adjustment, keep in mind the interplay of intensities, volumes, and frequency, making sure that an adjustment to one variable is reflected by a compensating adjustment elsewhere. While it may work for a brief moment, we cannot increase all variables of training without running into a wall of fatigue.
Keep all these concepts in mind when programming your training or training for your athletes. How an athlete’s training is progressed over time can have a significant impact on their ultimate level of performance output.
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