This is the second of a series of interviews with industry leaders in fields such as Strength & Conditioning, Coaching, Physical Therapy, Sports Psychology, Nutrition & Physical Education.
This is Part 2 of the interview. Check out Part 1 here
You currently coach a range of track athletes, can you briefly detail your philosophy to speed development?
Again this is multi-factorial but there are some general philosophies that I am always more attracted to. To me it comes down to nervous system adaptation, mechanics, training loads and loading design. I think that being patient is key.
Specificity is extremely important. I like my athletes running at relatively high intensities from early on in the preparation and I tend to work from smaller volumes to larger volumes across the training year, but this does vary from one athlete to another.
As an example when working with sprinters and middle distance athletes they will be completing a certain amount of their training at or above race intensity from early on in the preparation. Usually this may not be over the full race distance but rather a part practice (i.e 150-600m at race pace or above for an 800m athlete). A 100m sprinter will usually be performing high intensity accelerations or hills from the first week of training.
We are always working on our running skills for all athletes (acceleration, upright mechanics) and use video regularly to assist with educating athletes about what they are trying to achieve.
With the loading design I am more comfortable with a lower volume of high intensity work. I agree with coaches such as Henk Kraijenhoff who advocates that speed is truly a result of neurological system improvements. I think it is a hell of a lot more difficult to improve speed capabilities through long periods of low intensity training or non-skill specific running, and adhere to the idea that volumes of speed training need to be athlete specific. I try to keep to the premise that we can always increase training volume. And because I always like to plan for athletes in a multi-year model, I tend to look at what volume of training that I want to see in their speed sessions at the end of the development process. When I look at prescribed volumes, I think mostly about common demands of racing volume that an athlete may need to be able to tolerate during a competition, i.e 3 rounds of 100m across two days including warm ups.
The biggest mistake that I have made and I think is made too often is rushing the development curve.
Specific to training, both for your track athletes and MAD clients, what is your philosophy to ‘athletic development’?
Athletic development is very individual. There are basic physical characteristics that need to be developed for most sports (strength, speed, co-ordination) however identifying the type of athlete that you are working with helps to improve this process.
As highlighted in the discussion of speed development, this process is heavily influenced by the type of athlete, training age and sporting demands. When I start with any athlete I am always running through a screen of different items. What are their speed and limb velocity properties? Are they co-ordinated? What is their training history and ability to deal with training stress? If I can work these things out quickly I am able to tailor it to the best of my ability to what that athlete wants to achieve.
By keeping this model ticking over constantly I am able to make changes where needed. The biggest trap that I have fallen into as well is becoming too focussed on one area, particularly with strength work. It is relatively easy to get a talented athlete stronger, but unless they are a strength athlete (powerlifter, weightlifter etc) this is unlikely to be the major factor related to their overall development.
So my aim is to develop the physical skills needed for sport through and the gradual establishment of physical properties (co-ordination, elastic power, strength, power, speed, agility).
From a Strength & Conditioning perspective, have you found any differences with coaching males compared with females?
My experience is limited to a relatively small sample but yes definitely. Females are more emotional about their performance. So you have to be mindful of this. As an example, if a female is unable to pick up a skill quickly, fails a lift or has a bad training rep they can often get very disappointed about it and they will go one of two ways; attack it until they succeed or retract completely. Males on the other hand attack rather than back away from a failure, so it is important to recognise this. I have found myself restricting some male athletes when they get too competitive as it causes a risk to the rest of their training or may cause an injury. For both genders however it remains about education when it comes to the importance of certain factors.
Females are very social creatures, which means that talking during training sessions needs to be monitored. It can get very frustrating with regards to time management, however if you give them some flexibility and keep them happy you will usually get a better performance.
Wearing your therapy ‘hat’, what do you find are the most common types of movement dysfunctions for your athletes?
It depends on the athlete and their background but most athletes I deal with have common movement issues, tight hips, poor ankle and foot mobility, thoracic stiffness and poor shoulder mobility. With my background as a physio I tend to try and work on these things regularly and input mobility schemes into their plans (warm up, recovery schemes).
Generally from a movement patterning perspective teaching extensor patterning is sometimes difficult with athletes that have poor postural habits.
From your own experience and understanding, what do feel are the limiting factors to improving speed for the majority of track athletes?
Again with the small sample size that I have data on I think that is a combination of having the underlying nervous system capability, technique and the ability to produce the necessary power. With regards to the necessary power there are some internal factors that are difficult to change (muscle characteristics, elastic structure, force producing capacity and anthropometrics). Speed can be improved significantly and it is important to train fast if you want to improve. You are unlikely to improve the necessary motor skills without experiencing stress at the velocities approached in competition.
Technique is also very important. Athletes need to be able to sufficiently apply forces to the track and if they are in poor positions the laws of physics will limit their ability to excel. Most athletes have the necessary components to run well so often it is small tweaks over time that have them moving at their best.
In your current or previous role(s), can you detail any sport science technology which you have had access to?
There are a couple of items that we use but unfortunately not as often as would be nice. In previous roles I have had access to 3D biomechanics systems, GPS units, timing gates and force platforms. In my current role a high quality camera, monitoring software systems, such as heart rate monitors and Omegawave, along with timing gates are the most common items being used.
How has this made an impact to both the athletes you coach and those you consult for?
It gives you some objective data and numbers to present as well as refer back when testing or assessing change. Technology is extremely valuable at clearly identifying whether what you do works or whether it is subjective.
Obviously a lot of what I do is related to movement quality and for this biomechanical analysis and video are easily accessible technologies that give a huge amount of value.
If you could give some advice to young athletes, where should they place the greatest focus to improve their performance (specific to track and field or sport in general)?
It would be to focus on improving all of the necessary attributes for your sport gradually over time. So in all sports try to improve technique of the required skills, adapt your physical capacities over time by gradually developing physical skills (strength, co-ordination, mobility, agility, speed, power).
All too often I see athletes, particularly in track and field overtrain certain areas without developing others at all. They are completing training sessions at intensities, or volumes, or both, that an adult would without having developed good technical skills or lacking largely in strength, mobility, power or co-ordination.
Just before we finish up, wearing all of your ‘hats’, what are your thoughts on the promising Tasmanian junior athlete Jack Hale, who ran a wind aided 10.13 in Adelaide in 2014?
He has a lot of talent, and some great physical capacities, but there are definitely areas that he needs to continue to develop. If he, and the team around him are able to continue to develop some of the other areas there is no reason that he cannot be competitive at world level.
See below for further information about Melbourne Athletic Development
Follow John on Twitter: @MelbAthDevelopment
or at his website
Thanks to John for being the one of the initial coaching contributors to the College Strength & Conditioning Blog.
Stay tuned for further coaching interviews in the coming weeks!