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Why medium doesn’t just exist in t-shirt sizes.

This topic follows on well from Zane’s post on training smart vs. training hard. As a sprint coach, you are often branded. Are you a short to long guy, long to short guy, high low guy… the tempo guy?

In the world of speed development for short sprinters, Charlie Francis is often cited as being responsible for a great deal of coaches’ training philosophy. He popularised the idea that sprint training should be polarised and sit in one of two boxes: >94% or <76% intensity. As such, time spent in the middle intensity (Intensive tempo*) was wasted. Despite this, probably 99% of individuals that have run fast over the course of history have trained frequently and sometimes predominantly in this ‘zone’. *To classify Intensive tempo – this is in reference to runs between 80-89% effort with incomplete recoveries.

Why not?

From a neurophysiology standpoint, it might be difficult to justify why running an athlete at this kind of intensity, might be beneficial for a short sprinter. Coaches have alluded that this form of work may cause muscle fibre transitions towards the slow end of the spectrum, and is not energy system specific. Historically, in the UK system, intensive tempo based programmes remain popular during the winter period. This has been at the expense of acceleration and speed development. These programmes have enjoyed some level of success; although it has not been consistent. The influx of a number of overseas coaches being hired by British Athletics, before the London 2012 Olympics, began to challenge this trend. Some argued that this swung the pendulum too far to the opposite side, where athletes became mechanically very sound but “unfit” and not “conditioned” enough to finish a race strongly. The most successful coaches since this revolution have been able to blend both, more traditional and more “new school” philosophies, to find a happy and successful medium.

Dan Pfaff, Kevin Tyler, Stu McMillian, Derek Evely, Charles Van Commenée, Dr. Gerry Ramogida: part of the team put together by UKA to deliver medals at the 2012 Olympics.

I am going to offer some potential explanations, as to why this training might actually have a place, in a programme for a short sprinter. What I outline is constructed on experience based research, anecdotal stories with some great mentors and 5 years in the trenches! Academic journals might not help you a great deal on this one.

Why we could learn something from the lifting world

Improving sprinting speed involves maximal expression of the neuromuscular system, in a similar way to that of improving maximum strength in the gym. A common methodology for the latter process is lifting sub-maximally. Strength and Conditioning coaches know max strength can be improved without lifting loads >90% 1Rep Max (RM). The Soviets, one of the most successful weightlifting nations, were renowned for spending most of their time at loads between 70—80% of 1RM. This doesn’t necessarily mean you should never lift or run maximally, or you must then spend time running between 70-80% effort, but there is certainly some benefit to lifting sub-maximally, which helps when returning to intensities closer to 100% effort. Carlo Buzzichelli (co-author of Periodisation of Training for Sports) suggests the mechanism responsible for this is likely intermuscular coordination, the ability of the nervous system to coordinate the "rings" of the kinetic chain.

Rhythmical endurance

Speed endurance is not only dependent on the development of energy systems. Composure- the ability to run relaxed once maximal velocity is reached, is an underpinning factor for success at the end of a sprint race. Sprinting sub maximally with optimal upright mechanics, under fatigue, is likely to benefit an athletes’ coordination. Because rep speeds sit in the 80-89% bandwidth, it gives an opportunity to hold race postures and complete a larger number of efforts, putting more steps down and giving more opportunities to teach the timing, and rhythm of upright running mechanics. Evidence of this is often found in the training of long jumpers. Running distances of >100m are often prescribed to enhance performance on the runway. Randy Huntington suggests a real indicator of whether a jumper’s speed is in a good place, is more likely based on their 200m performance rather than their 100m, due to the relaxation required to run well in the latter distance.

Stu McMillan’s YouTube channel: Intensive Tempo executed with good postures


We’ve all heard of, or seen, monstrous intensive tempo workouts – athletes laid out on the track in the foetal position or throwing up. An interesting benefit to consider here is to the psychology of an athlete, specifically the last 20-40m of a race. Athletes that have taken themselves to “hell” during these types of workouts, clearly gain confidence on finishing a race strongly. There has been evidence of this throughout history; with athletes following this type of programme being notorious for coming through at the end of races, despite some significant biomechanical inefficiencies. Linford Christie’s Coach Ron Rodden was known for running a programme which featured large amounts of intensive tempo. Linford’s training system today as a successful coach still features large volumes of this type of work.

Linford Christie coming from behind to win the 1992 Olympics 100m.

Muscle fibre recruitment - the endurance world

One might expect that physiologically, to improve speed endurance for a short sprinter, one must sprint at 95-100% over distances ~80-200m with very large rest periods. This is because the rate at which energy is produced would be similar to that of a race (often termed glycolytic power). However, in examining the mechanisms by which distance runners improve their ‘kick’ at the end of races, there may lie another explanation in favour of intensive tempo. Running to fatigue at sub-maximal intensities, can recruit additional motor units that may otherwise not be accessible. Therefore, during intensive tempo sessions, where on the last rep that athlete is volitionally giving 100% despite executing speeds at @80-89%, the recruitment pattern executed is very similar. Consequently any additional muscle fibres accessed during this period, will be on-hand for future speed endurance requirements.

Topping up the battery – peak control

College sprinters have some of the hardest competition schedules in track and field. In 2015 Andre DeGrasse ran 51 races before he PB’d in the world championships final in Beijing. Highly successful College coach Dennis Shaver insists that intensive tempo type training can control the tapering process. Typically, during recovery weeks, textbooks suggest to lower volume and maintain intensity. However, if this is all you are doing, you aren’t recharging the battery; you are just deciding not to drain it. Jonas Dodoo explained that early his coaching career, his athletes would always run very-fast in May, and then fail to run faster throughout the season. He attributed this to the form of work he was doing up to May and his decision not to go back to that work during the season to “top up the battery”. A similar phenomenon is present in the throws world. The Bondarchuk throws systems uses rest periods often referred to as “washout cycles”. One aim of this phase is to restore adaptive capacities by using a lower intensity of competition exercises. Intensive tempo type work is a couple of steps back on the intensity scale from speed endurance, so topping up this type of sprinting work during a recovery week, can have a very positive effect on speed endurance adaptations in the subsequent work block.

Maximising the glycolytic system

We know that regardless of a coach’s system, you will rarely find one that begins a general preparation phase in October, with 6x60m blocks off a complete recovery. Even in the Charlie Francis system he suggests starting with repeat 60 metre runs, with an intensity limit (~90-95% often termed Alactic, or Glycolytic Short Speed Endurance) with incomplete recoveries. With the aim to improve capacity before power. Long Distance runners go from a high mileage, to more specific race distances, to maximise the aerobic system. Powerlifters lift with hypertrophy protocols before strength protocols. One must volumise before one intensifies, by increasing the adaptive resources available. Building a solid foundation of intensive tempo work, prior to special endurance and speed endurance work will maximise the development of glycolytic system for short sprinting performance.

LSU Coach Dennis Shavers’ Energy System Training for Sprint and Hurdle Events

When it might NOT be appropriate

Usually, the athletes that are very gifted in their fast-twitch fibre makeup; typically, anterior chain, acceleration dominant, neural based are unsuited to large volumes of intensive tempo. With this type of sprinter you have to be very careful you don’t overdose this kind of work, as it will “kill the beast”. So many times these types of sprinters get prescribed more endurance based work because of their relatively “poor” final part of the race. This ends up taking more time away from their performance from 0-60m, than it gives to back to their 60-100m performance. Additionally, this training isn’t fun – it’s horrible. Coaches of talented junior athletes often prescribe this kind of work because they know firstly that it gives back easy gains, secondly it’s very easy to prescribe, and finally it’s very easy to run the session - all it involves is holding a stopwatch, a whistle and shouting quotes from Rocky movies. In the long term these athletes often burn out early. This could be a psychological issue, because they end up hating the training for their sport. However, it can also be a physiological issue. Effectively young athletes are robbed of an opportunity to develop their technical and speed qualities, during a period where their nervous system has the most ‘plasticity’ it will ever have. Instead they have an adult based programme with an inappropriate density of glycolytic work. Not only is it harder to make the speed and technical gains as an adult, but there are diminished returns from the glycolytic work as it was overprescribed when the athletes were underdeveloped.

Istvan Balyi famous image of three gymnasts of the same chronological age

Round up

The aim of this article is not to say in absolute terms what is right or wrong, or that intensive tempo is the secret sauce. Rather, it is to put forward a case as to why mid-range, intensive tempo style work may contribute to short sprinting success. As always, some athletes will respond favourably, some won’t. We all know how many ways there are to programme successfully for a sprinter, and the genetic makeup of that athlete will dictate the appropriate decision making to be done. The beauty of coaching is that every athlete creates a different puzzle to solve. As a general message on the use of intensive tempo, Steve Fudge put it fantastically in his blog, Trust Me On The Sunscreen: “Train with heavy volume once, but leave before it makes you too slow. Train with speed once, but leave before it makes you too unfit.” Everything in moderation.

Ross has worked with a number of athletes from a range of sports including a grand slam tennis player, professional boxers, Olympic medalists from basketball and rugby sevens, World cup finalists in football and rugby as well as spending time coaching under the guidance of British coach Jonas Dodoo within the Speedworks system, coaching national and international level athletes.

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