On My Mind Grapes

Over the last few months I’ve been battling with some programming that seems easy, but is actually a pretty complex problem to solve: the proper progression and periodization for some of the most talented sprinters and jumpers in the country. It’s like when something is so simple it becomes paralyzing in its complexity!

Let me give you a little background on the team… the George Mason men’s sprinters and jumpers are extremely talented. Extremely. This past weekend they won the outdoor season’s conference title for the second year in a row. And we didn’t just win - the team annihilated the rest of the conference. In fact, the win was so “in the bag” that the 4x400 team didn’t even run the 4x400. Why? Because they didn’t need to. Those guys are focused on the NCAA National Meet and nothing else. Currently, they’ve posted the 9th fastest time in the NATION. There are some other high points with guys ranked nationally, but I think you get the picture.

Outside of great talent, the unique quality about track and field coaches is that they actually understand and apply sound programming for their kids. So, for the first time in the 6 years I’ve been a NCAA D1 strength coach, I’m interacting with coaches on a daily basis who understand some pretty important concepts that most team sport coaches don’t appreciate: how to get individuals to “peak” at the end of a season. (I’m not trashing team sport coaches, they have many other things to worry about: skill, technical aspects, X’s, O’s, etc.)

To ensure my programming efforts are matching those of the coaching staff and athletes, I’ve been doing a lot of research on training and coaching practices for elite level sprinters and jumpers.

Recently, I came upon Charlie Francis’ lecture on “Weights for Speed.” Charlie Francis passed away almost exactly one year ago (May 12, 2010) and was best known as the coach of the first ever athlete to be stripped of an Olympic Gold Medal (Ben Johnson) for doping. Outside of what, in reality, is a tiny blip on the radar of a great career, Charlie Francis has contributed some wonderful information to the sport. I liken him to Mel Siff in the unbelievable volume of precise training information he managed to produce in his lifetime.

Two of Francis’ closely held coaching tables are the Force/Time Curve and something called Vertical Integration.

In the Force/Time Curve (see my beautiful sketch below), Francis has marked up the curve to reinforce his argument for why the Clean exercise is a poor choice for sprinters (especially as they advance in training age). Francis points out that while plyometric jumps and the Clean come very close to the Sprint in terms of the Force/Time Curve the closeness is actually a problem as it's consistent execution/practice actually takes away from sprint performance. He recommends, instead, to focus on General Strength exercises ONLY for the duration of an athlete’s career. Francis points out that a coach and athlete must develop ALL qualities of the Force/Time Curve (including maximum strength, strength-endurance, etc) to make overall progress, i.e., faster sprinting and longer jumping. I agree wholeheartedly.

The Clean uses 85% of the same muscles that is used in an actual sprint, Francis admits that while being counter-intuitive, this is simply too close for comfort. Especially if using the Vertical Integration style of coaching.

What is vertical integration you ask? It is the concept of training session organization by training age. You can see in the picture below that as years pass the speed work takes up increasingly more training time while plyometric training all but disappears. But general weight training remains an important part of the training week and career long constant. Francis states that the Clean does not fit into this model of training because it TOO closely resembles the sprint. So, in Vertical Integration, an athlete would be walking into the weight room after a speed and light plyometric training session, and then would be required to perform a high skill lift that recruits 85% of the same active muscle that has already been fried in the earlier sprint session. Overtime this continued practice will STALL PROGRESS.

Charlie Francis claims that NO sprinter who has ever broken into the 9.7-9.8s 100m dash time has EVER had a Specific Weight Training program. He claims they have ALL been on General Training programs.

So, what’s the moral of this story? Honestly, I’m not sure. As a general rule, I rarely implement the Olympic lifts with any of my teams. George Mason strength finds its roots with Conjugate Sequence System programming based off the power lifts (squat, bench, deadlift). But, I’m not yet ready (nor have I ever been)  to write off Olympic lifts entirely. I believe it’s important to keep as many training “tools in the toolbox" and have a thorough understanding of what to use at the proper moment to ensure an athlete continues to progress safely forward at a higher level of performance.

Does anyone get the 30 Rock “mind grapes” reference? - Sarah