For the first time in most of our lives, we are currently operating in a real pandemic. Worldwide, people are changing their lifestyles in order to slow the spread of COVID19, and one of those lifestyle changes is coming in the form of modified training.
With gyms closed, tracks closed, and home exercise equipment shortages increasing by the day, athletes are faced with a situation where they must be creative in order to simplify their training and adjust to the constraints of the situation.
Instead of complaining on twitter and diving into a deep hole of depression, athletes should seek to find the opportunity and silver lining amidst the horrors of the current situation, so that they can continue to train while still fulfilling their public duty to socially distance and flatten the curve of COVID19.
Getting Back To Basics
With external circumstances forcing us to change how we train, we are presented with a fantastic opportunity to focus on the basics of training.
Over the past years, I and many others have gotten infatuated with new methods, fancy training devices, and experimental approaches to training. While this is all well and good for the exploratory side of any endeavor, there are situations where the bias toward novelty seeking leads athletes and coaches to dig themselves into a rut in which they end up repeatedly doing things they think are useful, despite this belief being based on habit and assumption more so than objective fact and historical success.
In the case of sprint training, I think athletes and programs as a whole could benefit from taking a step back from the borderline neurotic focus on speed and specificity, and instead relax a bit by shifting the focus toward a more general direction.
In my mind, this shift would take the form of performing more hill sprints, intensive and extensive tempo training runs on grass, using bodyweight exercises and jump training, performing resistance training with bands or other non-traditional implements, and limiting our focus of strength training to the areas which are most relevant for sprinting performance.
Essentially, I think we need to run more, lift less, and remind our bodies what it was like to train in decades of the past. This is not to say you should go out and jog five miles, but I do believe we can step away from the track & gym, perform some basic training that is generally beneficial, and come out of all of this in a better position to use the speed oriented and “specific” training that we all enjoy.
Pandemic Preparatory Phase Training
As with any other phase of training, we can break down training into a mix of sprint training, jump training, and strength training. Unique to the current situation is the lack of available training facilities, and we should adapt the training we do to the constraints of our specific situation.
For example, one can still sprint, perform plyometrics, and strengthen the body, but the exercises used need to be adjusted in order to fit whatever equipment is accessible. Depth jumps can be performed from a park bench rather than a plyo box, sprinting can be performed on grass and hills, and exercises like squats can be performed while holding water jugs, cinder blocks, or bands.
The chart below breaks down some of the ways that we can still perform high quality training, while adapting to the current situation:
As you can see, there is plenty of work to be done during this period of time where we lack access to tracks, barbells, lifting platforms, etc.
Embracing General Training
Moderate Intensity Sprint Training
Some might posit that, despite the lack of access to normal training facilities, athletes should still emphasize working on the fastest, most high intensity work they can manage to complete. I agree that athletes should do all they can to have the highest quality training possible, but high quality and high intensity are not always going to be the one in the same.
While you and I both know how much I like to lift heavy and sprint fast, the reality is that these training methods can only be performed for so long before the body begins to break down. Long seasons often come along with aches and pains, and in some ways this is likely due to an overload of intense work within a finite period of time.
To prevent the problems that arise from chronic exposure to high intensity training, general training in proper dosages can help build up an athlete’s body and better prepare them for the high intensity training methods that we use when the time comes to get into peak competitive shape.
For example, I believe that the higher volumes of work utilized in intensive and extensive tempo can have an effect similar to hypertrophy training, where the longer duration of work leads to tissue changes that improve general tissue resilience. Just like we do high reps of low intensity work during a rehab program, we can use higher volumes of submaximal sprinting work to build up the muscles, tendons, and cardiovascular system in anticipation of the more intense training we will perform closer to competition.
On top of improving the resilience of the tissues themselves, higher volumes of running and sprinting will help improve the general skill of running and sprinting. Some might nitpick and say that lower intensity sprinting will not directly lead to improvements in maximal velocity sprinting, which is likely true, but these folks fail to recognize that greater competence in fundamental skills can lead to more potential improvement in a specific skill. If you can improve your ability to run and sprint at intensities below an arbitrary level like 90%, the body will be better prepared to sprint at 90% or above.
High Quality Hill Sprints
In addition to extensive and intensive tempo on flat or mostly flat grass, hill sprints performed on a variety of hills can do a lot to prepare sprinters for when the time comes to step back onto the track.
Hill sprints are one of the oldest tools in the book of sprint coaching, as they provide a good overall stress stimulus, they allow for relatively fast movement, and they emulate acceleration sprinting due to the posture and orientation of force into the ground. Hill sprints can be performed over a variety of distances, using various degrees of incline, and with different goals regarding training outcomes.
Short Steep Hill Sprints
These types of workouts require the athlete to produce large forces to propel them up the hill against gravity, and they allow the athlete to get into a forward oriented position relative to the ground. These workouts help develop the general sprinting skills of the athlete, strengthen them in a manner which is relevant to sprinting, and helps prepare them for the coordinative demands of flat ground acceleration sprinting.
Because of the different coordinative demand, short steep hill sprints are a great way to wake the body up after it has gotten bored from chronically performing flat ground acceleration work. I find that when you change up the coordinative demands of an activity, the brain is more apt to respond, as the stimulus is different and the brain must respond accordingly. Being that hill sprints are very similar while still being somewhat different, hill sprints are a great choice for any sprinter’s training program.
Longer Flatter Hill Sprints
Hill sprints can also be performed over longer distances if the hills are not remarkably steep, and these can help build strength endurance while working deeper into the acceleration curve.
A 100 meter sprinter who does 50 meter hills can work on their entire acceleration phase up into upright sprinting, while getting a greater force production stimulus compared to flat ground sprinting, due to the need to overcome gravity and propel themselves up the hill. If kept within the range of 8 to 20 seconds, the duration of work will be relevant to the competitive event, giving a high quality conditioning stimulus in addition to a technical and force production stimulus.
A 400 meter sprinter may utilize 150 meter hill sprints, as this can be a great way to work on strength endurance and a rhythm or tempo which is similar enough to their race pace. These athletes can spend time performing hills ranging from 20 to 40 seconds in duration, ensuring that they stay within a duration relevant to their event without becoming excessively fatigued.
General Strength Training
In a similar vein, we can do a lot to strengthen the body without needing barbells, heavy lifts, and crushing our vertebrae. While strength training equipment surely helps, one can make exercises hard without anything but their body weight, a jug of water, a cinder block, or a band.
Say you don’t have access to equipment, but you want to strengthen your calves for acceleration. In addition to sprinting on grass & hills, you can stand in a half squat position and do bent leg calf raises.
If you want to perform heavy ISO holds, you can stand in a doorway with your hands pressing into the door frame, pressing your toes into the ground to target your ankle & Achilles with an isometric hold.
If you want to emulate an eccentric hamstring curl, you can lay on your back with your heel on the couch, press your hips up, and then lower by slowly opening the knee and engaging the hamstrings with a lengthening, eccentric contraction.
Another thing to consider is how you may be able to get plyometric-like adaptations from exercises that we would normally not consider to be plyometric in nature, as well as ways you can accomplish multiple outcomes through the use of a single exercise. For example, when doing repeated step ups, keeping your ankle stiff and essentially bouncing your support leg off of the ground can give the leg a stimulus which is similar to a plyometric, while being less stressful and overall safer than something like a depth drop.
Ultimately, athletes should think about the types of training they plan to perform when the world is back to normal, and reverse engineer their program so that what they do now is setting them up to be able to perform that work when the time to do so presents itself.
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