When looking at a new athlete and their running, I try to assess whether we can improve speed through co-ordination training or strength training, or both.
I use the analogy of having two dials with the athletes: they both are necessary, but we adjust one at a time according to the athlete’s needs.
“Strength” coaches will always look at squats first with “maximal strength” being the answer to everything. However, it could be a relative strength issue, for example when trying to improve the speed of rugby players there is a trade off between size and function.
Studies at the Brisbane Broncos showed momentum to be a key feature of high performing players. Momentum is mass x velocity; if you increase your mass without concomitant improvement in relative strength (your ability to control your own body weight in all planes of movement) there is likely to be a reduction in velocity i.e. your momentum may go down.
Mindless hypertrophy work or two legged sagital plane work may indeed increase mass and strength in that plane, but you must be able to apply it on the field.
Most rugby players I see tend to work on mass at the expense of co-ordination: the “Get slower” programme.
I work hard on their co-ordination in running and change of direction drills. Props are very hard to tackle once they have learnt to run fast.
What about young athletes and females?
Posture for sprints
I am lucky to work with some fast young athletes from different sports at the ADC in Devon. None of them have great “maximal strength” but they do have high levels of muscular coordination.
In these athletes, and also with most females, strength training is required to allow them to withstand the rigours of training and playing. This starts with control of their own body weight, then progresses to challenging this in different planes, different directions, different speeds.
Then we increase volume, then we may add external loadwhen ready.
Some athletes are naturally strength athletes, some are naturally speed (co-ordination) athletes. Both types of training are necessary, but adjust the dial according to their needs.
“One size fits all” is a shortcut that rarely leads to success.
We (the Dutch) lost the World Cup Final against Germany in 1974, our biggest trauma after the war.
One of the players in the famous ‘74 team, Willem van Hanegem, was interviewed some two decades later by a soccer magazine. One question was, what his reply would be to a wide spread opinion that we lost, because he was very, very slow.
Willem answered; “speed is not existing”. This quote made the cover of the magazine and became famous.
Back then it immediately made sense to me without really knowing why and now I want to add; “and strength is not existing either”. Thinking in the basic motor properties, like we usually do, does not make sense to me anymore.
There is no stand-alone entity named “speed”.
The fastest sprinters do not have faster limb movements, than slower runners. There is no strong relationship between fast concentric contractions and running speed. The link between the % of FT fibers and sprint performance is by far not as well proven by science as always is stated.
If anything, new scientific insight drifts away from this stand-alone idea of speed. Running speed may well be limited by loss of robustness and increasing fragility of movement patterns.
The way Dynamic System Theory has shed a different light on how we control our running patterns is fascinating and calls for an integrated approach of training.
Speed, strength, coordination and even endurance are not separated entities, but merely doors, that give access to the same building.
So do not train them separate, but treat them as variations of the same overall theme.
The value of what we do, is not in the sum of the trained elements, but in the interaction between them.
Rumor has, that Willem was not just very slow. He also was very nearsighted, half blind. Still he was from a tactical point of view one of the best players we ever had.
Frans Bosch – author of “Running- Biomechanics and Exercise Physiology Applied in Practice”
“Humans aren’t descended from apes, but are a bad crossbreed of kangaroos and horses”
Frans Bosch delivered 4 great presentations at GAIN V this year each one packed full of information and ideas.
This included two practical sessions. One was gym based and one was running based. That helped immensely with my understanding and application.
Here are some of my thoughts on his analysis of sprint mechanics, based on his anatomical model. He looks not at how the “wheels turn, but how the motor runs”. This requires an internal focus of running mechanics, not an external focus.
He uses comparisons of human anatomy with that of kangaroos, horses and springboks: the best runners and jumpers. By comparing hamstring and gastrocnemus length with tendon length in the different species, we could see how improvements could be made in speed and jump training.
He started off with 3 building blocks for improving sprinting:
Muscle slack (the most important)
Working on improving and developing these areas will improve your running speed.
What is muscle slack?
Imagine a rope dangling from one end, then being pulled from both ends: the slack has been taken out of it. Jogging is bad running with more muscle slack, removing the slack increases your speed.
Slack is not a bad thing, it helps with control of lower speeds. But, to run fast you have to eliminate the slack.
The 2 ways to do this are either:
Use a countermovement, which is what less co ordinated and slower athletes do.
Use pretension where the muscles are co contracting (preferred option).
Reactive strength training
Bosch then explained why certain weight training exercises don’t help pretension because the bar does the work for the muscles. Instead use other exercises that allow the body to provide solutions.
(As an aside someone from the ECB told me that a cricketer I was working with who couldn’t do a body weight squat, could be tested with a barbell because the weight helped him get lower to the ground! Unfortunately he wasn’t allowed to do fielding in matches with that weight on his shoulders!).
Bosch has also eliminated the countermovement from any weight training exercises or drills that he is doing with the Welsh Rugby Union at the moment.
4 Ways to get a bouncy athlete
An erect posture (max 20 degree of knee flexion when jumping). Really good jumpers have 5-9 degrees of knee amortization. These are sometimes known as speed jumpers compared to power jumpers. (Bosch said that power jumpers are just speed jumpers with bad technique!)
Short contact time and little change in joint angles
Pretension prior to ground contact.
Drop height no higher than the jump height of an athlete (you shouldn’t store more than you can unload)
Bosch then went into more detail on the running mechanics themselves (regular readers and our athletes will have as seen this before).
I first saw Frans at the RFU speed conference 7 years ago and was blown away by the concepts. This is what we have been working towards with our athletes since then.
The bottom line is that our athletes are benefiting from this. (Jazmin Sawyers got a Long Jump bronze medal at the Junior World Championships having been trained using this methodology.)
I can’t say I grasped all of his concepts at this conference, but am able to watch the lectures back on video which helps!
“Thanks a lot for the course it was very interesting. Though I was thinking quite a bit of your point about fast feet (high knees)being not really useful for speed training in the wider context.
As I learned these exercises all my life as key exercises for sprint coordination, I wonder if they are not useful in terms of fast coordination of elements and for the learning of tension and relaxing, as well for right movement of arms? and at least by active foot movement for that purpose too. It would be really nice if you would help me clear that point.”
Hanni – “high knees” are often used as speed drills, but just because it is always done, doesn’t mean that it is right. As we discussed on the course, if you focus on hip elevation and foot reactivity drills, then the knee will take care of itself.
If you focus on lifting the knee up, then torso elevation, hip placement and hamstring tension may all be compromised, and then this will adversely affect running speed.
Lifting knees up high will not aid fast co-ordination, as we said, even ladder drills may be more beneficial in that context, but skipping with lower feet and ankle elevation will assist in quicker movements.
The knee may, or may not be high, but it is the activation of the free hip that is the key to better running. The problem is that the cue “high knees” is incorrect and leads to bad execution of the otherwise good skip drill.
This month of our internship we have been learning about speed and the most effective ways to train for it writes Matt Durber.
The speed training I have experienced up until now has typically consisted of a few drills through ladders and over hurdles to warm up followed by 50-100m sprints with walk back recovery.
(Pictured are some speed resistance drills being done in Willand, Devon by our ADC athletes).
Although these exercises are performed at maximum intensity, it is more speed endurance as there is little recovery time in between efforts. Training this way is also very limited, as at no point are you training to make the 50m run faster. As James said “build the quality, then learn to endure it”
When observing James coaching the speed drills to athletes, it immediately became clear that there is a lot more to running fast than just maximal effort. This week the focus was on reducing ground contact time when running.
James introduced a number of drills and the complexity of them soon became clear with athletes interpreting instructions in their own way and performing completely different techniques (some not too dissimilar to the moon walk).
The take home message for me is to go away and practice the drills until I have learned them well enough to think about, demonstrate and explain all at the same time…easier said than done!
How to plan your speed training
As well as knowing the training tools to increase speed, it is important to deliver the coaching in a way that will benefit the athlete the most. James’ recommendation was to include a small amount of speed training regularly within a training plan.
Fatigue will hinder the ability to run at full speed so it is better to perform a small amount at the start of a fitness or team training session when fresh. This should be done regularly throughout the week to reinforce the mechanics.
I have also learned that in addition to planning the drills to use each session, it is important to allow time for the athletes to practice the skills when running. This can be done by interspersing drills with 2 or 3 sprints focussing on the technique.
These running techniques and coaching tools are new to me so I look forward to learning more and watching the athletes develop over the next few weeks.
“The modern player adopts a ‘pick and mix’ loyalty rather than a long-term allegiance.”
He is becoming increasingly preoccupied with self and is more independent and less submissive to authority. He finds difficulty in accepting criticism and is more liable to conflict.
How do coaches adapt to this?
I believe in player development and I believe in the impact that coaches can have on that development. The continual professional development of coaches is important and the words of Dave Whittaker, the 1984 gold medal Olympics hockey team coach, still ring true today.
“You owe it to your players to be the best coach you can possibly be.”
That doesn’t mean that we want to develop coaches who are all the same. There is, I believe, opportunity to develop individuality in our coaches. I do not believe in developing a group of homogeneous coaches – points of difference are vitally important.
‘Big picture’ coaches with a real sense of purpose and a clear understanding of how the principles of play can transform learning and performance are vital for the future development of coaching.
Our challenge in coach development is to help to develop innovative and creative coaches who can maximise player and team potential. Even at the elite end of the game where the media’s microscopic analysis and interest have placed incredible stresses on coaches there is scope for development.
The challenge of elite coach development is to develop coaches who can deal with the most intense coaching environment of world cups, international matches and the premiership.
So, our body fat deposits evolved as an energy store for tucking away excess calories for later use and helped our mammalian ancestors survive seasonal food shortages.
This makes perfect sense; after all the ability to avoid starvation is a real evolutionary advantage. However, in westernised societies where life is sedentary and food is always available, there is now an obesity epidemic which is crippling the population and healthcare systems. But why? And how?
We all know that the wrong kinds of dietary fat give you high cholesterol, heart disease and strokes but why does a high BMI massively increase your risk of diabetes and cancer?
The fascinating answer that is emerging is that far from being just an energy store, our body fat is a fully functioning endocrine organ, secreting factors that can suppress insulin activity and drive aggressive growth of tumours.
The question that remains to be answered is whether it is simply a case of having too much normally functioning fat or whether in obesity, the fat ‘goes bad’.
As with all research, it is difficult to tease apart the confounding factors. In this case, how much of the effect is directly attributable to the fat itself and how much is from the lifestyle that leads to obesity.
After all, there is also a strong link between cancer incidence/prognosis and exercise… But that is another story.
Rugby union has more individual position specific requirements than rugby league.
At top level training will need to reflect this e.g. static strength and neck strength requirements in scrimmaging forwards that are not required to such an extent in rugby league.
Why have I said at “top level”? This is because this specific type of training should only be a small fraction of training time once a player has achieved basic fitness across a wide range of attributes.
Too much icing and not enough cake: players/coaches wanting the latest fancy programme/psychobabble/technology/diet etc before they have adequate rugby and fitness skills.
The Top Ten Myths
All singing all dancing circus programmes e.g. doing dumbbell curls whilst standing on a “sit fit” will NOT improve performance. Choose multi joint exercises and WORK HARD; this will make you strong. Work on your individual weaknesses using predominantly dumb bell and body weight exercises.
Liberal use of the word “strong”. Field athletes are strong, weightlifters are strong; some elite rugby players are now becoming strong but many are NOT STRONG. A simple formula used by old timers for strength was 3,4,5 i.e. bench 300lb,squat 400lb,deadlift 500lb.
Liberal uses of “world class” and “fit” etc see above.
Lat machines are for people who are too fat to do pull ups.
Excuses for poor physique e.g. “he’s young, he’s got puppy fat”- NO “he is FAT, probably caused by a combination of POOR DIET, LACK OF EXERCISE, WEAK WILLPOWER and POOR EDUCATION”
There is nothing wrong with drinking lots of beer and eating Kentucky Fried Chicken, pork pies etc so long as you only want to watch sport and not participate.
Moaning about being tired; players used to work for 8 hours down the pit catch a bus to training arrive back home at midnight and get up for the next shift at 6am!! 13 year old swimmers do 60 minute sessions at 5am!!
Wanting to run before we can walk, i.e. “can you do a minimum of 8 pull ups, 20 twenty press ups and 50 lunges plus 50 body weight squats and 30 crunches rest for a minute and repeat three times?” If not, why are asking for an advanced programme?
Lack of general fitness; see point above plus can you overhead squat with a dowel, can you overhead lunge with a dowel, can you run at least 1300m in 5 minutes? If not you are OUT OF SHAPE in some form or another.
“Off -feet conditioning”; this is often used as an excuse to avoid hard work. Players do not get fit for rugby on stationary bikes!!!
Simon Worsnop is the Fitness Coach for the England Under-20s squad (Rugby Union)
“The hamstrings transfer force from the motor of the butt to the wheels of the foot.” Athletics coach Gary Winckler delivered an excellent overview on what he thinks is important on speed development. A lot of the work is similar to what Frans Bosch did a couple of years ago, and he mentioned Bosch’s work a lot.
Training muscles for speed
Before doing speed assistance exercises in the gym or on the track, it is important to determine how the muscles work. There is no point doing lying down leg curls, or Nordic curls to “strengthen the hamstrings” if they are not used that way in running.
The big gluteal muscles (The Big House) have a mostly parallel muscle fibre structure, and work concentrically. They are also known as “stupid muscles” because any exercise used to work them will transfer well to use in sport.
The hamstrings are a complicated bi-articluar muscle with a pennate structure. This means they are better suited to reactive forces; not suitable for rapid shortening.
Reactive forces: the muscles set up a system to allow tendons to do what they are designed to do. In practice we are looking for a very rapid transition from a closed chain to an open chain at the moment of toe off.
Posture is again important here: poor posture will result in either too much deceleration due to poor foot placement, or the hamstrings unable to utilise tendon elasticity properly due to poor pelvic placement.
The importance of the foot / ankle.
Foot placement is key
Instead of being passengers in the running cycle, the foot and ankle are key parts of the process. Winckler uses his ears to “Listen to it when they run”. He can hear the ankle reactivity as there is less contact time.
As an experienced track coach he uses awareness and sensory exercises to help his athletes develop the right patterns. I made the point that being less experienced, I have to use drills to analyse parts of the process. I can’t see what is happening at full speed. That will come with experience.
It is important to keep a “neutral and active foot”. (Those athletes doing speed work with me over the last 2 years will know about this). Winckler then took some of us through a series of his basic drills to highlight the importance of foot reactivity.
Again, I felt better by doing something and “having a go”; I am not afraid to make mistakes in the hope of learning something.
I asked a question about arms, and Winckler expressed his thoughts that “the arms are a symptom of what is going wrong elsewhere rather than the cause“. This was a good tip for me.
“Work on top speed, not just acceleration, otherwise what are you accelerating to?”
Co-ordination is the ultimate goal
When deciding how to enhance the speed of an athlete, either in the gym or on the track, it is the co-ordination of the body that is most important.
This can be expressed as follows:
Strength is co-ordination training under resistance
Endurance is co -ordination training under prolonged or event specific time restraints
Speed is the expression of co -ordination.
Strength, speed and mobility are interdependent qualities.
Weightlifting for speed development
In the gym we did some more exercises, but this time with external load, to enhance speed. This included hang clean variations with 1 foot behind the body, toe on the floor, then hopping up onto a step after the catch. We progressed through levels of difficulty on this drill, and this certainly challenged a few of the attendees.
Another drill was a lateral step down and up onto a higher box with the bar on our backs. The idea was to get a reactive foot action and toe up onto the higher box. This was very tricky, and Kelvin Giles got “stuck into me” until I had some semblance of competency.
Resisted speed drills
We looked at some horizontal medicine ball work lying on your back and throwing as well as step ups on to the step with a throw and extension at the end: this helps acceleration all the way through.
A lot of talk about abdominal work misses the point about doing it in the same environment as the sport. Winckler uses overhead bar runs, or walking with a partner doing resistive band work behind to work the hip\ abdomen area.
We also did a drill holding onto the band horizontally as it was attached to a pillar and our partner was moving it so we had to try and stabilise.
The whole session emphasised the importance of co ordination (or lack of it) under load.
Winckler was an example of a “sharp” coach. He is very softly spoken, but he was right on with his observations. It was great to hear some similar messages to Bosch, but from a different coaching aspect. His work in the gym was excellent. I think we would have benefitted from being on the track with Gary and seeing how he coaches hurdlers, and what he sees.