High Octane Training 2

Q and A for high-performance athletes


Think you have what it takes to make it in the world of elite sports? Do you have immense talent and ability? Great, but so do a few thousand other guys. Unfortunately, all of these things will only get you so far in this world where good often isn't good enough. At this level you have to be one of the best just to get your foot in the door.

Where do the best athletes go to get even better? More often than not, they contact one of the coaches whose articles you read right here in T-mag. Since the beginning, we've been asked to have a special section geared toward athletes and performance. Luckily, we landed Charlie Francis as our high-performance guru. No matter what sport you play, Charlie can make you better. And if you're not a competitive athlete? That's okay, you're sure to still pick up a thing or two.

Winter Training & Squatting

Q: I'm an Italian track coach who wants your opinion on how to set up the winter training for sprinters, both on track and in the gym. Regarding the latter, I'd like to know which kind of squat you most frequently use: deep or just parallel?

A: I believe in a triple periodization scheme, with a full indoor competition schedule. In shorter sprint events, it's important not to stray too far away from competition. Naturally, indoor competitions over 60 meters work well with a seasonal development plan that moves from shorter to longer distances. As for squats, we always did squats past parallel to ensure adequate hamstring involvement.

Squatting and Max Lifts

Q: How deep should a track and field athlete be squatting for maximal results and what percentage of the athlete's one rep maximum is most commonly used in training? I'm primarily interested in squatting for shotputters and sprinters. I've seen answers all over the board on this one.

A: As stated above, my athletes squat past parallel. We always tried to ensure hamstring involvement. There are many theories about how high an athlete's 1RM squat should be relative to his weight, but the answer is, there really is no answer! How long are the athlete's legs compared to his torso? If he's a sprinter, what's the strong part of his race? Should you emphasize the start or the finish?

Even with the shotputter the question can become complicated. He'll eventually become so strong that a 1RM is too dangerous to perform. Top throwers often have to adjust their programs by feel or by making assumptions about their 1RM based on max triples etc.

I never tested Ben for his 1RM squat, though he did squat two sets of six at 600! Though obviously Ben was capable of lifting more with fewer reps, he never did for safety's sake. After all, how strong did he need to be? Remember, there's a lot of strength endurance involved in sprinting, so Ben's 1RM squat wouldn't be as high as a shotputter who could handle the same 6RM.

I Want a Sprinter Bod!

Q: Sprinters as a group have the most esthetically pleasing bodies in sports. Do they become great sprinters by developing their bodies or are they great sprinters because of their genetics? It's kind of a "chicken or egg" dilemma. If it's because of the weight room, what kind of routines and splits do they follow? Do they use high or low reps? Any comments would be greatly appreciated.

A: This comes under the old heading, "Looks right, flies right." In other words, coaches soon learn to identify the body type that will "succeed for speed." Aside from the most obvious attribute (long legs) the sprinter must have high mounting points for the muscles to give him the mechanical leverage he needs to generate high frequency and power.

The high mounting points also give the sprinter the characteristic pleasing shape you describe. So in that regard, it's genetic. Of course, these characteristics can be greatly enhanced by the correct selection of exercises, such as reverse hypers, squats past parallel, cleans etc The rep and set schedules are highly individual, depending on their sprinting schedules and level of development, but the emphasis is usually on low rep, high-intensity lifts.

Hamstring Injuries and Ratio Tests

Q: I'm a university football player who also runs indoor track during the off season. I've sat out this last season rehabbing my torn hamstring. It's become a chronic problem; first I was injured last October (biceps-femoris), next in March (semi-tendinodious) and again in August (semi-membraneous). Unbelievably, they all strain at the lower junction of my tendon to the muscle attachments.

MRI reveals a lot of scar tissue and my ham/quad ratio is back up between 75 to 95% depending which velocity you look at. My major problem is my stride length. Because I keep feeling a strain in the lower position and I feel some blockage in my ROM while I'm extending. Anyway, I should start sprinting again this winter. My question is, do you have any advice on therapy or specific training for my comeback and will I ever be able to run injury-free at 100% again?

A: I don't like the sound of your ham/quad ratio test. It sounds like you've been assessed and rehabbed on a Cybex or Orthatron machine. In all my years of experience, I've never run across a happy result with this kind of equipment.

First of all, the basic premise that you can assess ham/quad ratios, as they apply to sprinting in this way, is bullshit. Since the rate of movement around the knee during ground contact (when real force is needed) approaches zero, then the unloaded rate of movement can approach 1500 degrees per second! Let's see a machine test that!

Secondly, most hamstring injuries are caused by overwork, not an imbalance. What happens is that as you fatigue, the hip height during sprinting drops, causing more deflection at the knee than there should be. Therapy with these machines is, unfortunately, the rule and not the exception these days. The fluid resistance these machines rely on comes on all at once. It's like cracking the whip with the hamstring.

The muscle will go into more spasm, shortening it's length and sending the problem up into the Ischeal Tuberosity. Of course, your therapist will explain this away as sciatica (a narrowing of the lumbar or cervical spinal canal, which causes compression on nerve roots). Only manual therapy such as cross-friction or Active Release Technique will solve the problem.

I was once called in by an NFL team to assess the injury to their star receiver. It turned out that he'd been on the Orthatron for a year and the harder he worked, the worse the hamstring got. Finally, he missed a full season! Once proper therapy was instituted, he came back for a dream season. I should also point out that hamstring injuries in football players cannot always be avoided because they often occur during intense deceleration, something sprinters shouldn't have to worry about.

Cone Drills, Acceleration Work, and Jump Training

Q: In Speed Trap, you mention performing cone drills. Is this referring to what most know today as "ins and outs"? How would you balance out the volume of your cone drills with your acceleration work from phase to phase? Do you do a lot of velocity work or is the majority of the sprint work in the form of accelerations? What type of jump training do your athletes perform and is it performed prior to acceleration work? Please describe sample microcycles of 7 to 14 days and how they would differ depending on the time of year.

A: I should charge you by the question! Just kidding. Cone drills and "in and outs" are basically the same thing. We basically divided the emphasis in the different phases. In a triple periodization scheme, I emphasized acceleration, as this allowed for a greater emphasis on improvement in weight training. Basically, the farther you accelerate, the faster you go.

Top sprinters reach top speed at about 60 meters, though beginners reach their relatively lower maximum speed much sooner. Exit velocity for Ben Johnson in Seoul at the 30 meter point was 11.76 MPS. His peak speed in the same race was achieved at 60 meters at 12.2 MPS, with an average speed of 12.05 MPS between 50 and 70 meters.

The extra range of motion required for maximum speed requires great care in the assignment of lower body weights during maximum speed training. Remember, the speeds illustrated above were achieved after a maximum effort acceleration. Still greater speeds were achieved after an easier acceleration. In Zurich, Ben hit his highest race speed ever at 12.35 MPS (recorded at 70 meters). It's very likely such speeds were achieved during maximum speed drills in practice.

During the Phase One acceleration period, weightlifting gains of 6% could be expected; however, during the Phase Three maximum speed period, gains of 0 to 2% could be expected.

Ben did only small amounts of jump training due to a history of chondromalasia (a degenerative condition of the knee joint). I hesitate to specify Ben's exact training in microcycle detail, as his workload was completely specific to him alone and anyone else's program should be based on their own abilities and training level.

Reverse Hypers, Glute-Ham Raises, & Hammy Injuries

Q: What's your opinion of the glut-ham bench? Also, what's your opinion on reverse hyperextensions? Should glut-ham raises and reverse hypers prevent pulled hamstrings? I'm an ex-hurdler turned bodybuilder who still thinks he's an athlete. Every time I do my sprints, bam!, pulled hamstring.

A: Hypers, reverse hypers, glute-ham raises and, to a much lesser extent, hamstring curls, are all part of the sprinter's routine, but these exercises alone will never eliminate hamstring injuries by themselves. The vast majority of ham injuries are caused by training errors, not imbalances. (See earlier answer.)

Although Ben lifted weights extensively, he had only two major hamstring injuries in eleven years of competition. We took great care in assigning workloads and all his weight workouts were designed to help in his speed development, never as an end in itself. He also benefited from year round, daily therapy.

Speed and Flexibility for Football

Q: For football players, we can get the first ten yards in 1.4 seconds from a modified three-point stance, and we aim to get the 20 yard time in 2.5 seconds. The problem usually arises in the transition from the 20 to 30 yard where we lose 1.4 seconds. In your book you stated that every ten meters after the initial ten meters should take about a second to cover that distance. What advice would you have to get the athlete to transition better from the 20 to the 30?

A: This is a tough one to answer without a lot more details. What kind of timing are you using? Obviously, electric timing from a touch pad to photo eyes makes communicating your problem over the net a lot easier, otherwise I have to guess how your times compared to mine. Usually hand timing generates the biggest discrepancy over the first 10 meters with the error factor diminishing as the distance increases.

The difference between your 10 to 20 yard time (1.1) and your 20 to 30 yard time (1.4) seems extreme, and since the farther into the 40 yards you go, the faster you're running, the problem is top speed. Are you guys linemen? In any case you have several things to consider in finding a solution. Is the volume of high intensity work too much for your group to handle? Are the rest periods between intervals too short? You should be completely recovered between intervals! Is your weight training compromising your speed? A large volume of high intensity lifting will certainly compromise your top speed.

What phase of your training are you in? If you're early in your training, you might consider holding off on your higher speed runs and concentrate on your 0 to 20 yard times until you can unload a little from your weightlifting demands and then introduce your 20 to 40 yard work. If, in fact, you guys are linemen you may want to consider how important the 20 to 40 yard work really is.

Also, flexibility may be an issue here, as the higher the speed demand is, the more that range of motion becomes an issue. Make sure that stretching is emphasized at the end of your training sessions. Although stretching is an important part of the warm-up, the quest for additional range of motion should always take place at the end of the workout because the muscles are hottest and therefore the most receptive to increased range of motion and least likely to be injured by over-stretching.

There's also a huge side benefit to this order. Before the main part of muscle recovery can begin, the muscles have to be restored to their normal length (to allow unrestricted blood flow for nutrient transfer and waste product removal). Without stretching, it takes four hours for the muscles to return to their normal length, so you can jumpstart your recovery by this amount.

When do I Stretch?

Q: I would like to incorporate more stretching into my overall training program. I've concluded the best time for me to stretch is first thing in the morning before work, but as I live in Scotland, the weather isn't always the best, so going for a five minute run to heat my muscles up is a royal pain in the ass. My question is: I shower every morning and I was wondering if it would be okay to stretch after my shower? Or is having a shower not hot enough to heat the muscles to an appropriate level to stretch them?

A: As stated in the answer above, the time to increase your flexibility is at the end of your workout. An AM warm-up is a good idea, but I'd strongly advise against trying to increase your flexibility in the morning!

Sprinting, Rapid Improvements, and Those Wacky East Germans

Q: I'm a 26 year old 100m sprinter who's been sprinting on and off since my junior year in high school. In the college program I attended my times were worse than in high school and I attribute it to the buffoon type of aerobic training my coach insisted I do. Well, years have passed and since having read your material I sprinted my PR of 10.72 (electronic- previous best was 11.00) with very poor strength levels. My goal is to get down to 10.4 this upcoming track season. Is this level of rapid improvement possible in one year? 10.72 felt like I was floating; it was the easiest race I've run. Have you ever seen anyone drop their 100m time by 4/10's of seconds?

A: That's a lot of time to drop all at once, especially as you've already dropped 3/10's in the last year! I'd suggest that you put some of the time planning on hold and concentrate on getting the best training program in place that you can. Relax and let the results come to you.

Your comment about your 10.72 race illustrates what I mean. The best races always feel easy! Don't put pressure on yourself. I'm not sure what sort of aerobic training you did before, but I've always had a significant aerobic component in my running programs (about 35% anaerobic, 65% aerobic). These runs act as an "active recovery," enhancing blood flow and increasing capillary density (the enhanced microscopic network slows down the flow of blood past the cells, allowing more time for complete nutrient transfer).

The other poorly understood, but even more important benefit, is the increased ability of the body to generate more heat around the muscle motor neurons. Increased heat around the neurons lowers electrical resistance, allowing more current to pass. This permits more muscle fiber to act as fast twitch fiber!

The East Germans understood the role of additional heat when an extensive review of world record performances revealed how often the record setter was at the early stages of a cold and running a fever when the record was set. (Later into the cold, the adverse effects outweigh the benefits, of course.) This led the East Germans to experiment with de-natured viruses to generate a slight fever immediately prior to a world record attempt!

The warning here is that these "tempo" runs must not interfere in any way with the quality of the high-speed runs. This means that aerobic interval runs must not exceed 75% of your best possible speed. If your best time for the 200 meters is 21 seconds, then your interval 200 meter runs must be slower than 28 seconds! Additionally, your last interval must be as fast as your first. If you have any problem doing that, you're going too fast!

EMS: Crank it Up!

Q: What are your thoughts on electric muscle stimulation (EMS) for sprinters? If positive, please explain how they are used.

A: EMS (Electronic Muscle Stimulation) is a very useful adjunct to training. First, EMS can address muscle imbalances by specifically working one set of muscles. Second, EMS can be used during an injury to maintain the unaffected muscles. For example, an ankle sprain could make running and lifting impossible for a time even though almost every muscle in the body is ready and able to work.

Third, EMS can be used as part of the rehabilitation program. This is particularly useful with knee injuries where the VMO can be maintained without the need to bend the knee. The VMO is particularly fast to waste away during an injury, perhaps because it does a lot of eccentric work as a shock absorber.

The standard protocol for EMS strength building is 10 maximal contractions of 10 seconds duration with a 50 seconds rest between contractions. In clinical settings, the rest period is almost always shortened in order to speed up the treatments (i.e. time is money). This greatly compromises the effectiveness of the treatment by reducing the force of the contractions, even though the patient may not feel the difference.

Perhaps an analogy would help here. What would yield better average 100 meter times- 10 repeats with 20 minutes rest between, or 10 reps with one minute rest? A lot of research went into determining the protocol I describe, so don't stray from it! However, what the Eastern block discovered, but didn't tell us, is that this EMS protocol can be applied up to three times a day, if necessary, provided there is a four hour break between applications! This is especially effective for athletes who are, shall we say, nutritionally enhanced.

Which Device to Buy? Try the "George W" Home Model

Q: I read in your book Training for Speed that you used EMS pretty extensively in your training of sprinters. I'd like to get an EMS unit, but I'm not sure if the ones that I see for "toning the abs" are going to be of any use. In your book, you talked about the PowerStim models from Bio-Med Systems, but I can't seem to locate the company. Do you have some recommendations for other EMS machines or can you put me in contact with a place to purchase the PowerStim models? Secondly, do you know where I can get a copy of your other training book, The Charlie Francis Training System? Thanks!

A: My sprint group was sponsored by BMR, a company out of Ireland. They had produced muscle stimulators for women for "figure control" under the brand name Slendertone. By chance, I was hooked up with the president of the company. Although the company's focus was on "figure control", it turned out that the president's wife had used EMS for the treatment of race-horses as far back as 1948! This predated even the Polish and Russian applications.

We soon decided to develop products for the sports market under the PowerStim name. We assembled a great team of researchers and had the great fortune to hook up with Dr. Joseph Cywinsky, the director of Medical Engineering at Harvard, who was the president of the American Society of Electrical Engineers. It turned out that, before defecting from Poland, he had been building EMS equipment for the Soviet Union's sports teams as early as 1952! Unfortunately, the company was sold several times and I'm currently unaware of its status. Perhaps a search of the web would find them under their new name.

I can tell you, however, that the key to a good stim is the tolerability of the wave-form it generates. This is the key to achieving a maximal contraction. Most of the machines on the market will generate plenty of current. This is because fat is an insulator and the stims are mostly intended for women in clinical situations where, how can I put this delicately, fat is an issue. If you're a serious athlete we can safely assume that this won't apply to you!

You should also know that EMS reverses the body's normal order of muscle fiber recruitment, hitting the fast twitch fibers first. This is because the larger neurons found in these fibers have lower resistance to the current flow. An outflow of this phenomenon is that the more white fiber you have, the less current it takes to achieve a maximal contraction.

Even if you're not a sprinter, don't worry about frying your muscles, even if it sometimes feels that way! It only takes five millionths of an AMP to contract your quad. As for the training manual, I'm currently working on a new, and much-expanded version. Stay tuned for details!

Fat Loss, Interval Training, and Abs

Q: I'd like to know what you'd consider a good ab training program for a football player (linebacker/fullback) and/or wrestler. Also, what do you see as a good form of interval training to lose fat and improve conditioning?

A: I addressed the topic of abdominal training in my last Q and A (link to issue 128). I'm running against the grain of the latest "cutting edge" muscle-head technology when it comes to abdominal training by suggesting large volumes of low intensity reps, with the widest variety possible. Of course, I'm assuming, as an athlete, you favor effectiveness and not just appearance! Always remember the role of the muscles you're training!

As for "fat burning intervals", you've raised another pet peeve of mine. We've all heard about training in the "aerobic zone" for fat burning. This is really a load of crap, since the overwhelming majority of calories are burned during the recovery period, which may take many hours. The example that stands out in my mind is the 400 meter dash. (I have a long memory for traumatic experiences!) This event is about as tough as it gets and those of you who've puked at the end of one of these races may be surprised to learn that the race itself burns only about 50 calories!

As for interval training, linebackers and fullbacks would require a totally different program than wrestlers as the demands of the sports are very different.

Training for Throwers

Q: It's good to see Canada's foremost trainer available to the public. You mentioned that 40-yard dash sprinters shouldn't cross the alactic anaerobic/lactic barrier of approximately seven seconds of work in their sprints. Does it apply to weight training as well as sprints? Would you then be in support of training for max reps within this time limit to build explosive power? An example would be seeing how many squats you could do in a set in seven seconds rather than doing a set of six with execution speed as high as possible for each rep. Would short sprints (once again, 40 yards) be a beneficial addition to a training program as opposed to or complimentary to plyometrics for a thrower?

A: I wouldn't recommend such short intervals for weight training because of the time it takes for even the fastest lifts. Throwers, during the conversion phase of their weight training programs, often work at maximum lifting speeds for periods of up to 20 seconds, as this approximates the rate of movement during the throws; however, this doesn't apply to sprinters as their rate of movement is so much greater.

Peak lifting speed in the squat is around .6 MPS whereas the peak movement speed of the hamstrings for a top sprinter can reach 22.5 MPS! The 20% increase in lifting speed available in this phase is functionally irrelevant to the sprinter so, for this reason, my group never used a conversion phase. We went straight from the maximum strength phase to the maintenance phase.

Certainly, short sprints are a useful adjunct to a thrower's program, in combination with plyometrics, though I'd favor even shorter sprints, such as 20 meter runs.

Micro Cycle Evaluation

Q: Using your micro cycle concept as you illustrate in the book Training for Speed, you incorporate a program where intensity increases over three weeks and is then reduced for a week while supercompensation theoretically takes place until you repeat and hopefully end up with a new level of performance in week three of the next micro cycle. What I would like to know is, what elements of training should be reduced in the fourth week?

I plan to lower the intensity of the track and pool sprint work for the week and reduce the weights but up the reps slightly with the aim to ensure that CNS is fully recovered for the next week of the new micro cycle. I plan to keep tempo and core work at the same level. The next micro cycle will replace the pool sprinting with another track session, this time geared for speed doing flying 30m etc. Am I on the right track as far as the micro cycle? Does this program appear sound to you?

Finally, as far as the strength program goes, should the weight program follow this micro cycle approach, hopefully reaching a new strength level in the third week of each micro cycle for this whole macro cycle? Or should a maintenance level be introduced when some speed endurance training is commenced?

(letter edited for length)

A: Of course, it's a little difficult to answer your question without more details about your volumes and what speed work in the pool consists of, but overall your plan sounds okay. I'd drop the volume of the intense work during the fourth week; this way you only need to reduce the intensity very slightly to ensure recovery. This will also make the re-adaptation to maximal training much easier. The plan for the next cycle of training sounds fine.

As for the weights, I'd be careful to reduce the level of improvement you expect as the demand for maximum speed requires the muscles to be stretched out more than in the acceleration improvement period. Good luck.

Charlie Francis (1948-2010) was a world-renowned Canadian track athlete and coach. In 1971, he became a Canadian national track champion in the 100 and 200 meters. He made it to the quarterfinals of the 100 meters for Canada at the 1972 Olympics in Munich. Charlie coached many elite athletes, most notable is 100-meter sprinter Ben Johnson. He was very interested in the mechanical model of how people ran, and was one of the most attentive and intense coaches of his time.