On Friday and Saturday, I attended the annual Track and Field clinic hosted by the Mass. Scholastic Track Coaches Association (MSTCA). I attend this clinic every year, and find it a useful way to learn more about events in which I have little expertise, as well as a chance to reflect more generally on my goals for the upcoming track season.
Great athletes, not-so-great teachers
Over the years, I’ve attended sessions given by some very well-known athletes. It’s somewhat surreal to be sitting there in the fourth row of a nondescript hotel meeting room listening to a woman or man who won an Olympic gold medal. Sometimes you remember watching them on television. There’s no doubt that what they have accomplished commands attention.
Unfortunately, I have found that there’s little correlation between a person’s athletic success and his or her ability to present information that is remotely useful to others. I wonder whether there might even be a reverse correlation: the more successful someone was as an athlete, the less they are capable of communicating the ingredients of their success to others. After all, by definition gold medalists are exceptional. Who’s to say what makes them so? Is their success a matter of inherent ability? personality? training? luck? some other factor?
Whatever the various reasons for their success, champions do not necessarily have anything interesting to say about training. There are notable exceptions, but they are rare. I don’t mean this to be too harsh a criticism; I understand that there are different reasons to hear a successful athlete talk. Sometimes it’s more valuable to hear their personal histories than to know exactly what they did every day of the week, how much weight they lifted, how many 200 reps they did.
But if someone gives a presentation called “Strength and Conditioning for Sprinters,” and if that presentation is given to an audience of schlub high school coaches, I think there should be some attempt to provide a few crumbs of information regarding what types of strength and conditioning are beneficial to high school athletes and why. Those crumbs are likely to be more helpful than an hour of personal anecdotes loosely tied together by the theme that it’s really important to be in good shape.
In addition to great athletes, there are also distinguished coaches on the agenda. At this year’s clinic I had the chance to attend a presentation by Jack Daniels, one of the most respected distance coaches in the U.S., and author of “Oxygen Power” and “Daniels’ Running Formula.” If I had not already been a fan based on his books, his presentation completely won me over because of his insistence on an evidence-based approach to training.
If you have read his books, you know that Daniels believes that a coach must always be prepared to answer the question “Why are we doing this workout today?” Furthermore, the answer must address both general and specific concerns. As a distance coach, Daniels begins by defining the desired outcomes of training for the distance events, that is, what functions must be improved to achieve improved performance. According to him, these fell into four rather broad categories:
- Central (heart) and peripheral (vascular system) adaptations
- Aerobic and anaerobic capacity
- Speed and economy
Other taxonomies of physiological outcomes required for success are possible, but the point is that, having defined broad goals, every single workout can be judged on its effectiveness in improving one or more of these factors.
Once that has been established, the second powerful idea is that the specific benefits of a workout or series of workouts can and MUST be measured. For example, central and peripheral adaptations can be measured in a lab; endurance can be assessed in a variety of ways in training; aerobic and anaerobic capacity can be measured by testing C02 levels in expelled breath and lactate levels in the blood before, during, and after training; economy can be measured by looking at the oxygen cost of running at different speeds.
Well, maybe your average runner can’t do all of these sophisticated measurements, but researchers like Daniels can, and the results can be shared broadly and confirmed (or not!) in subsequent experiments with other athletes. You can try to replicate the results on yourself using something as crude and as powerful as 5k race time.
If you are not an analytical person, this probably sounds unbearably tedious. But to me, it’s infinitely more interesting than simply repeating the workouts that I read in a book, or the ones that were given to me by MY coach.
The 3.5-mile dash
So I enjoyed listening to Daniels, even though everything in his presentation was familiar. It was still valuable to see the thinking process that was the foundation for the conclusions, in the form of training recommendations, that he describes in his books.
Going back to the presentation by the gold medal sprinter, one of the intriguing things he mentioned was the importance he places on having his sprinters do a “3.5-mile dash” (what does that even mean?) three or four times during the preparation phase of their training. This goes counter to everything I’ve ever read about sprint training, and I would have loved to hear an evidence-based argument supporting it.
There was none. That gold-medal sprinter turned coach uses it with his athletes because his high school coach (who knew nothing about track and field) used it with him. It was a psychological thing, a test of toughness and willingness to push through discomfort. There’s value in that, surely, but it seems so arbitrary that if I were an athlete, it would drive me crazy.