At our Manchester Personal Training and Sports Massage base, in Longford Park, Chorlton, we have a very varied client base. Personal Training clients include busy mums looking to tone up and train for fat loss. The sports massage client base includes many of the Track and Field athletes at Trafford Athletics Club. And I also work closely with a number of the sprints coaches at the athletics club.
So with that in mind, I thought it was time for me to write a few thoughts about strength and conditioning training for sprinters and sprinting.
A good starting point would be to take a look at the strength qualities that are required for high level sprinting. It makes sense to establish what qualities are important for sprinting before deciding how best to train those attributes.
You see, we can express strength in many different ways. Optimal training methods will depend on which expressions of strength are of most importance.
Maximum strength is about producing the greatest possible amount of force and muscular tension. It takes time to build up to such a peak. As such, maximum strength is best expressed when lifting very heavy weights. Such weights cannot be moved quickly, and it may take several seconds to complete a lift using a maximal or near maximal weight. As such, maximum strength is not directly related to sprinting performance, since the sprinter simply does not have sufficient time available to express this quality. In fact, the sprinters foot only remains in contact with the ground for approximately 0.1 to 0.2 seconds with each stride (a far cry from the amount of time needed to express maximum strength).
However, maximum strength is the foundation for all other strength qualities. So even though it is not a direct determinant of sprint performance; it is an important base quality to build in the early part of a sprinter's off season.
Power is the product of both force and velocity, and so it would be easy to assume that power development is of more direct relevance to sprinting. And, of course, it is. Sprinters do need to be capable of producing large power outputs. But a word of caution. Training for power may not be the most important aspect of a sprinter's strength and conditioning programme...
For the same reason that we de-prioritised maximum strength... Explosive strength is perhaps the most important strength quality a sprinter can develop. Explosive strength is the interaction between peak force and time to peak force. Explosive strength can be calculated using the following formula...
So in essence, producing more force in a shorter period of time represents a greater expression of explosive strength. The ability to produce high levels of explosive strength translates very well into being able to produce large amounts of force in very sports- specific time frames... such as the 0.1 seconds in which a sprinter's foot is in contact with the ground when sprinting at top speed.
Of course, there is a crossover between power and explosive strength. Powerful athletes are generally also explosive athletes and vice versa. However, there is a difference in the way in which the two qualities are trained (especially in the context of sprint training). The reason for this comes back to that point on very short ground contact times during sprinting.
Research has consistently shown that ground contact times are a key determinant of elite sprint running performance. Faster top speeds are associated with shorter ground contact times. We also know that a quality known as stiffness is associated with shorter ground contact times during sprinting.
We can apply this concept of stiffness to muscles, joints and tendons. We are particularly interested in knee joint stiffness with regards to sprinting performance. The more stiffness the sprinter can generate at the knee joint upon ground contact, the less movement there will be about the knee joint during ground contact. This in turn results in a reduction in ground contact times (since it is time consuming for the knee to flex and extend through a large range of motion... if we can reduce that range of motion then we are saving time).
We express high levels of explosive strength by producing high levels of force in as short a period of time as possible. In the context of sprinting, this is achieved by generating high levels of knee joint stiffness. This means the sprinter needs to be capable of producing, and controlling, very high levels of force about a very small range of motion. This requires high levels of isometric and eccentric strength. SInce isometric training is a type of training in which muscle length doesn't change during the contraction, this is the polar opposite from power training, where the objective is for the muscle to contract at a high velocity.
So the strength and conditioning programme of a high level sprinter needs to take multiple approaches in order to develop the separate qualities of explosive strength and power.
The explosive strength exercises in the left hand column of the above column represent a progression in terms of specificity to sprinting. Drop Jumps involve stepping off a box, and then attempting to stick the landing as quickly as possible upon ground contact. This specifically trains the eccentric strength that is needed to develop knee stiffness and explosiveness in maximum speed sprinting. Depth Jumps are a progression from Drop Jumps, since they involve a rapid rebound back into the air upon ground contact. These can then be made more specific to sprinting by moving on to tuck jumps - which are arguably less intensive... but that allows for force to be produced during a shorter period time with very little knee movement during ground contact.
Of course, there are many more plyometric exercises that a sprinter could use in their strength and conditioning programme. However, they will all be very different in nature to the type of power exercises listed in the right hand column in the above table. Power movements such as squat jumps and countermovement jumps involve working through a much larger range of motion. This means that the movements take longer, and so time to peak force will be much longer (i.e. less explosive), but the longer time period provides more opportunity to build up to a greater peak velocity... hence why these exercises are more useful for developing POWER.
So generally speaking, once an initial base of maximum strength has been developed, the strength training programme of a sprinter needs to include two very distinct types of training in order to ensure both Power and Explosive Strength are being adequately trained.
There are perhaps a very small number of exceptions to the rule. Certain exercises such as olympic lifting movements and also resisted sprinting (such as hill sprints or sled sprints) are actually very useful for training both Power and Explosive Strength. Perhaps they wont overload either quality to the same extent... but they can be very useful tools for integrating the two qualities together as the training programme becomes more sprinting specific. This provides us with a means to structuring the strength and conditioning programme over the course of a training year. This structure is depicted in the diagram below.
Of course there will always be many routes towards achieving the same goal. However, using the above structure would mean starting out by building a base of maximum strength during the early part of winter training. Following this Power development and explosive strength development can be focused on separately. I would favour developing power in the weight room at this stage and developing explosiveness with plyometric exercises. Later into the winter, with a heavy emphasis on olympic weightlifting style movements, hill sprints, sled sprints and the like, we can attempt to integrate the two qualities of power and explosive strength. These would then usually be gradually phased out as high end speed training becomes more of a feature in the training programme.
This represents a logical approach to the planning of strength and conditioning training for sprinters. It wont suit all programmes of course, as the strength training needs to fit around the sprint training and not vice versa. I hope it offers some food for thought though... And it would be great to open a dialogue on strength training for sprinters in the comments below, should anyone have any different opinions on how to approach things.
Thanks for reading!