Building a Base
In construction, the foundation you build must be appropriate for the stresses it will eventually endure. The same goes for pre-season training for the sprint events – you must build a foundational base of training, upon which you progress and intensify training for sprinters as the year goes on.
In most discussions of building a base, coaches lean toward the high volume running programs of the past, seeing this as the only way to prepare an athlete to run fast. I would argue that this is misguided, and that there are better ways to go about building your base.
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 prepare you to run as fast as you can for a given distance.
The end result of base building or pre-season sprint training should be an athlete who is prepared to increase the volumes of quality, high intensity sprint training.
If we look at training as a hierarchy of specificity, we see something like this (from most to least specific):
- Primary Event – Sprinting 100m out of blocks, in spikes, against competitors.
- Event Specific Training – Training speed, acceleration, speed endurance, and block starts at practice.
- Non-Specific High Intensity Training – Power development, jump & plyometric training, shot tosses, strength development, etc.
- Non-Specific Fitness Training – Bike sprints, tempo endurance, general strength circuits, hypertrophy training, etc.
Usually, discussions about building a base center around high volumes of running for non-specific endurance qualities. That might be fine for a middle distance runner, but the needs of a sprinter are far different.
The demands of sprint events are mainly related to:
Considering that, the base we build in our pre-season should lend itself to those qualities. In my mind, the following qualities should be developed during your base building period:
- Acceleration & Upright Sprinting Technique
- Workload Specific Capacities
- Basic Power Production
- General Strength & Hypertrophy
- Anaerobic Capcity
- Tempo Endurance
Build a Base with Acceleration & Upright Sprinting Technique
All sprint events share qualities – they are all made of up a significant portion of the race where the athlete is accelerating, and the rest of the race they are sprinting while in an upright position.
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 there? We can only endure speed if we have effectively accelerated and then reached an upright position and a maximal velocity.
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.
Along with acceleration development, upright sprinting technique needs to be honed from day one. Depending on the athlete, they might be better off working on upright sprinting first, and then soon progressing into more of a focus on both acceleration and upright sprinting. I and other coaches have found that, from a technical standpoint, acceleration tends to click when upright sprinting technique has stabilized.
During an off-season training program, start the year with a sprint distance such as 40m as this will develop acceleration, transitioning to upright, as well as upright sprinting itself. From here you can progress into 60’s, 100’s, etc. as the year goes on.
Build a Base with 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 it would be advisable to implement this type of work from day one. This doesn’t mean you have to go power clean 300lb on the first day of training, 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 which is usually done during the off-season as well as during the pre-competetive phases of training.
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
- Olympic lift derivatives (hang clean, power snatch, high pulls) done at 50-70% of max.
- 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.
Build a Base with Anaerobic Capacity
While the ultimate goal of the sprint events is to sprint as fast as you can for one all-out bout, you must develop a specific work capacity which allows you to train at a high intensity with volumes that are a potent enough stimulus to cause adaptation.
To build your battery for the sprints, anaerobic capacity work should be done early in the training year. What is anaerobic capacity for a sprinter?
- Acceleration training with short rest periods
- Hill sprints with short rest periods
- Interval sprints on the bike
- Glycolytic short speed endurance work (ex. 40m sprint -> 45sec rest -> 40m sprint -> 4min rest)
- High intensity circuit training
Through these various methods, you can develop a work capacity that is specific to the energetic demands of sprinting. In your sprint training program, ensure that you are beginning the year with a focus on capacity. Once you have developed a solid base of work capacity, you can then transition to focusing more on speed training – high quality, longer rest sprints done as fast as possible.
Build a Base with Strength
Strength is the most fundamental athletic quality which transcends all sports. From walking to sprinting, strength allows us to move around in a world full of gravity and other resisting forces.
Strength can be broken up into a few basic categories:
- General strength
- Absolute strength preparation
- Absolute strength development
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, such as a an in-place lunge with a med ball
Absolute Strength Preparation
Once general strength workouts lose their effectiveness in enhancing strength, it is then time to work on absolute strength preparation work. As the name would suggest, ASP work is done with the intent to prepare the body for absolute – otherwise known as maximal – strength development. How often you should train for strength will vary, but one thing is certain – you need to progress strength training just as you would anything else.
By working in ranges of 50-80% of your max, in rep ranges of 3-6 repetitions, you can prepare the body physically and neurally to generate large amounts of force. Not only does this work make you stronger from the perspective of how much you can lift, but this work will also develop tissue resilience, making you less prone to injury and more likely to handle a full season of training and competing.
For ASP work, I would stick with simple, big movements such as:
- Deadlifts, RDL’s and Dead Rows
- Squats, Good Mornings, Belt Squats, Hatfield Squats, Box Squats
- Bench Press, Incline Bench, Decline Bench, JM Press
- Weighted Pull-Ups, Weighted Dips, Face Pulls, Cable Rows, Bent Over Rows
- Step-Ups, Sled Walks, Lunges, Plate Carries
Absolute Strength Development
Many coaches pose the question, how strong do sprinters need to be? In my humble opinion is that you should be as strong as possible, so long as the time and energy you dedicate to strength training does not take away from your ability to complete other aspects of sprint training.
To truly develop absolute strength, one must work in ranges above 80% in rep ranges of 1-3. Some coaches use phases of absolute strength development, whereas other coaches use it concurrently alongside other types of training. With absolute strength development, you will want to use big exercises, and avoid excessive volumes or frequency. Because of the highly taxing nature of absolute strength development training, you will want to perform this work at times of the year when have already built your base.
For ASD work, I would once again stick with simple, big movements:
- Deadlifts, RDL’s and Dead Rows
- Squats, Belt Squats, Hatfield Squats, Box Squats
- Bench Press, Incline Bench, Decline Bench, JM Press
- Weighted Pull-Ups, Weighted Dips
Build a Base with Tempo Endurance
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, high velocity movements, high power outputs, and solid work capacities specific to the demands of the event.
Consider that you need to develop a base in these key areas:
- Technique – Get reacquainted with the technical aspects of sprinting at high intensities.
- Power – Developing power production capabilities to meet the demands of sprinting & jumping events.
- Capacity – Work capacity specific to the needs of your event must be developed in order for you to train with enough high-intensity volume to stimulate positive change.
- Strength – Strength is the basis of all physical capabilities, and also helps prevent injury by creating tissue resilience.
- Tempo – Tempo endurance helps build capillary density in the muscles, allowing you to send more blood to the muscles, maintain warmups for longer, and speed up nerve signal transmission due to higher ambient muscle temperatures.
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