Steve Robbins summarizes 50-plus years of sprinting lessons
Last year, just before Olathe nationals, I visited my alma mater KU and stopped by Watson Library. I went up to a random librarian and said: “I have to apologize for tearing out a piece of Life magazine in the mid-70s.” I ripped out a quote: “Hurdling is good training for a writer.” The counter guy just looked at me like: Whatever. Now I think writing is good training for a sprinter. Hall of Famer Steve Robbins, the world champ and WR man, has shared a wonderful 3,400-word treatise he wrote three years ago. (He shared it with me after reading Wayne Bennett’s sprint advice.) Too much to summarize in Steve’s version, but I really like his truth-telling: “The ‘magic’ bullets, if you can call them that, are having the right parents and hard training. When a world-class masters athlete tells you he or she takes some supplement and how terrific it is, the fact is that theyâ€™d probably be just as good without the supplement. There are, unfortunately, no shortcuts to top performances.” Steve should write a book on masters speed, adding to his collection of biz manuals.
WHAT I LEARNED FROM 50+ YEARS OF SPRINTING
By Stephen P. Robbins
Let me begin by stating that I have no formal qualifications for offering advice on sprinting. I have never had a course in physiology or kinesiology. Iâ€™ve never even taken a class in track and field. And I have never been a track coach. What I DO have is a lot of experience. As best as I can figure, Iâ€™ve spent more than 20,000 hours training on a track or in a gym preparing for sprint competitions. Yogi Berra once said, â€śyou can learn a lot just by watching.â€ť Well, Iâ€™ve been watching for 50-plus years and I think Iâ€™ve learned a lot.
If itâ€™s true that you learn more when you lose than when you win, I also gained the equivalent of a Ph.D. in sprinting during my undergraduate college days. I ran fast times in unimportant races but I seemed to always underperform (or â€śchokeâ€ť) in the big races. It started in high school. In my senior year, my times ranked me in the top-5 in the state but I didnâ€™t get out of the heats at the state championship. In college, I ran fast times and pulled out victories in small dual meets but never won a conference title and never made it out of the trials in the NCAAs.
Fast-forward 25 years. Something happened in my late-40s. What it was, Iâ€™m not sure. Suddenly I was not only winning local meets but I was medaling in national meets. And starting at age 50, I began winning gold medals at national and world meets. I was even breaking world age-group records at 100, 200, and 400 meters. I might attribute my new-found success to maturing late but I donâ€™t think that would fly. I think what happened was that I learned how to train and how to race. I guess I was just a slow learner. But I did learn and what follows is a summary of that education.
KEEP A JOURNAL OF WORKOUTS
You want to have a record of your workouts. So create a journal and include every workout in it.
Iâ€™ve kept a journal since 1988. Iâ€™ve found it to be useful on many occasions. For instance, itâ€™s a great reference for analyzing what I did or didnâ€™t do before either an exceptionally good or bad performance. It also provided me with the information I needed to identify what actions preceded injuries. More recently, because I now have such extensive data, I can accurately predict what times Iâ€™ll run in a race based on times I ran in practice the week before.
THE BAD NEWS: SPEED IS LARGELY INHERITED
About 70 percent of speed is genetically determined. Every bit of advice or coaching you get is directed at that other 30%. With proper training, a 50-year old who is running 12.8 for 100m can improve to the low-12s. But heâ€™s unlikely to get down to the low-11s. Track workouts, weight lifting, plyometrics, vitamin supplements, and the like can help make you stronger and faster but they are not going to turn someone who ran a 12.5 100m at 18 into an 11-flat 100m sprinter at 45.
The reality is that most of the superstar sprinters in masters track were outstanding sprinters in their youth. For instance, Bill Collins and Bobby Whilden â€” both record setters in their respective age groupsâ€”were world-class sprinters in their college days. All things being equal, the faster you were in your youth, the faster youâ€™ll be as a mastersâ€™ athlete.
IF YOUâ€™RE JUSTING STARTING, HAVE PATIENCE
If you havenâ€™t competed in decades, you need to initiate your comeback slowly. The evidence indicates that it takes about three years for our bodies to reprogram and for you to reach 100% of your potential.
Iâ€™ve observed that this advice is hardest to follow for those who were good sprinters in their youth. They forget that theyâ€™re not 19 anymore. And like the thoroughbreds they were, they find it hard to hold back. The result is that many of these athletes end up quitting, frustrated by recurring injuries.
Injuries, as weâ€™ll elaborate upon, are part of sprinting. But reprogramming muscles that have been dormant for decades takes time. New or returning sprinters can be competitive in 6 months of training but it will take several years to reach your full potential.
The good news is that this transition period is the rare instance when you can actually run faster from one year to the next. Our adult bodies are in constant decline. But during that initial period when you begin to seriously train for sprint competitions, you should find your times dropping. After about three years, the learning curve flattens and most of us can only aspire to decline at a slower rate than our competitors.
WHY SPEED DECLINES
The general view of why speed declines over the years is that our leg turnover decreases. Actually, decline is largely due to shortening of stride length.
An elite sprinter will typically take about 45 strides during a 100m race. If a mastersâ€™ sprinter maintained that same leg turnover and took strides that were a foot shorter (say 7 feet instead of 8), the masters athlete would be 15 yards behind when the elite finished. A top 60-year old mastersâ€™ athlete is more likely to have a stride length of 6 feet or less, which means giving up 30 yards to that elite. And that assumes no loss in stride frequency!
I donâ€™t know of any research on techniques for lengthening normal stride length. Overstriding, which some athletes work on, will only result in reduced stride frequency. I think stretching is about the only thing that helpsâ€”especially focusing on the groin and hip flexors.
LISTEN TO YOUR BODY
It took me nearly 40 years to learn to listen to my body. If youâ€™re goal-oriented and competitive, you tend to set specific goals for a workout and then push yourself to achieve them. But when you feel a pain or ache beyond what you should be experiencing in the workout, heed what your body is telling you. Itâ€™s OK to pack it in and go home. You might not have met your workout goal but you might have avoided an injury that sets you back weeks or even months.
REST IS NECESSARY
Limit your track workouts to three-times a week and give yourself plenty of rest prior to a competition.
College and elite sprinters can do six workouts a week on the track. Many can even do two-a-days. The bodies of athletes over 50 canâ€™t take that kind of wear-and-tear. They break down. So almost all mastersâ€™ sprinters reduce their track workouts to three-times-a-week. They often supplement those track workouts with resistance training on the other days.
THE GENERAL LAW OF TRAINING
Train slow and youâ€™ll race slow! So substitute quality over quantity as you prepare to peak.
With due respect to those coaches who advocate lots of slow intervals for sprinters, every sprinter (even those with world-class credentials) needs to do quality speed work in the weeks before a major competition. If youâ€™ve been doing speed drills on a regular basis, your body should make this adjustment quickly.
SPRINTING IS STRENGTH
Sprinting is a strength and power event. You need lower-body strength to push off the blocks and for your drive phase. You need upper body strength to power your way to the finish line.
Itâ€™s not by chance that todayâ€™s elite sprinters look a lot like body builders. They need that muscle to power themselves to sub-10-flat 100m times.
Many masters athletes in their 40s still have the muscle configurations of elite athletes. But starting in your 50s, you will begin to lose muscle mass at an increasing rate. The research indicates that, past 75, testosterone levels are quite low and building muscle is nearly impossible. Nevertheless, regardless of age, you need to include regular resistance-training in your program.
THIN IS IN
Horse racing handicaps horses by adding pounds to â€śequalizeâ€ť the competition. They add 5 to 10 pounds to an 1100 pound horse to slow him down. If this small amount of additional weight can slow down an 1100 pound horse, imagine what it does to a 175 pound human!
Carrying an extra 10 or 20 pounds is going to add tenths of a second to your sprint times. If you go to a mastersâ€™ world championship and look over the line-up at the finals of the 100 meters, youâ€™ll see very few overweight competitors.
There are always some exceptions (e.g., Marty Krulee is one of the fastest men in his age group and a good 30 pounds overweight but he was ranked among the top-10 sprinters in the world when he was in his late-20s!]. To paraphrase Damon Runyon, the race doesnâ€™t always go to the thin and fit but thatâ€™s the way to bet.
SPEED COMES FROM RELAXATION
Ever seen a race walk event? Competitors walk as fast as they can without running. Bob Costas, the sports broadcaster, once described it as the equivalent of seeing who could whisper the loudest. A similar dilemma confronts sprinters. You have to try to run as fast as you can but as relaxed as you can. It seems like a contradiction. How do you relax when youâ€™re pushing as hard as you can? Itâ€™s not easy but itâ€™s a skill that differentiates the winners and losers in sprinting.
When you watch the great sprinters, they make it look easy. When they run their fastest times, observers will say â€śyou looked like you werenâ€™t tryingâ€ť or â€śif you had pushed a bit harder, you could have run faster.â€ť The truth is that you attain your top speed when you relax and let that speed come out. When you reach that point, pushing harder only slows you up. So you need to practice the art of running as fast as you can while, at the same time, relaxing.
STOP WORRYING ABOUT THE COMPETITION
Isnâ€™t it obvious that you canâ€™t control what your competition does? (Tripping isnâ€™t allowed!) Yet many masters athletes obsess on who is in their race. Itâ€™s a classic mistake and can only lessen your performance.
The race is between you and the clock. When you worry or focus on your competition, they gain the upper hand. You often end up running their race rather than your own.
If there is any one single difference between me at 20 and 60, it has been learning to tune out the competition and focus on what I have to do to run my best. At 68 I can honestly admit that if a competitor runs a 12-flat 100m against me, Iâ€™m going to lose. There is nothing I can do about it. But if he runs 12.8, I might be able to beat himâ€”as long as I run my race, not his.
PAST 50, THERE IS NO OFF-SEASON
We often hear about elite athletes taking a couple of months off after a long season. While I am a strong believer in rest, I donâ€™t think that rest should imply long periods off. Rest needs to be a few days here and there, not months at a time.
Since mastersâ€™ bodies are in a constant state of decline (I donâ€™t like that phrase anymore than you do but itâ€™s an accurate statement), any significant layoff is only likely to hasten that decline. And while the elite athlete can return from a lengthy layoff and quickly return to his or her previous level of conditioning, that doesnâ€™t apply to mastersâ€™ athletes. In most cases, losses are permanent.
As a result, try to avoid any lengthy layoffs. And recognize that one of the negative side effects of a major injury is not only that you lose competitive opportunities but you lose conditioning and muscle-mass that you spent months or years building.
FOCUS YOUR TRAINING ON YOUR WEAKNESS, NOT YOUR STRENGTH
This advice seems obvious but itâ€™s often ignored. If youâ€™re blessed with natural speed, emphasize strength-building in your training. Conversely, if your gift is cardio strength, put your focus on sharpening your speed.
In systems theory, there is the law of equifinality. It says that you can reach a given end state by many potential means. I think this law applies to mastersâ€™ sprinting. There is no â€śone best wayâ€ť to excel on the track. While we all have a tendency to want to mimic the workouts of the â€śstars,â€ť thatâ€™s probably not the best way to go.
For instance, compare the reported workouts of superstars Bill Collins and Stephen Peters. Both are world champs and world-record holders at distances from 60m to 400m. Collins advocates strength-building workouts by doing lots of repeat 400s at a relatively modest pace. He proposes that mastersâ€™ sprinters not exceed 90% speed in workouts. In contrast, Peters reportedly â€śwarms upâ€ť by doing four or five 100â€™s at a progressively faster pace, with the last being at near 100%. Then he runs 2×300 all out with a full recovery.
The fact that both Collins and Peters have had phenomenal success by doing almost exactly opposite workouts merely confirms the law of equifinality. Iâ€™d postulate that Collinsâ€™ training works because he is blessed with incredible natural speed. He doesnâ€™t have to do much speed work to run fast times. Peters, on the other hand, has natural strength and can run fast races up to 400m by running fast 300s in practice.
WORKOUT VARIABLES OFFER LOTS OF OPTIONS
Whatâ€™s a good track workout? 4×150? 5×200? A ladder of 200-300-400-300-200? 10×100? 3×300?
The answer is: All of the above. Your track workout options are only limited by your creativity. Youâ€™ve essentially got four variables that you can modify to fit your needsâ€”distance, speed, number of intervals, and recovery time. For instance, in the winter Iâ€™ve done 4×150 at 80% speed with a two-minute recovery. In the late spring, Iâ€™ve done that same number of 150s at 95% with a 10-minute recovery. Both met my objective at the time.
In recent winters, Iâ€™ve had to train on a flat, 200m indoor track. My feet can no longer take the stress of running those tight turns so Iâ€™ve created more than a dozen workouts all based on repeat 50s. Sometimes I do 20; sometimes I do 5. Some workouts include rests of only 20 seconds; others with 3 minutes. My point is that, consistent with that law of equifinality, there are many roads to the top step on the medal platform.
THERE ARE NO MAGIC BULLETS
Contrary to popular beliefs, there are no workouts, vitamin supplements, track shoes, or the like that will lead to a major breakthrough.
My wife often comments that mastersâ€™ athletes are always looking for some secret potion that will give their performances a big boost. She says that people think there is some secret which others have and which, if they could just get it, would allow them to break records.
The reality is that there are no secrets. The â€śmagicâ€ť bullets, if you can call them that, are having the right parents and hard training. When a world-class mastersâ€™ athlete tells you he or she takes some supplement and how terrific it is, the fact is that theyâ€™d probably be just as good without the supplement. There are, unfortunately, no shortcuts to top performances.
FIRE THE PISTONS
When it comes to fast-twitch fibers, you have to use them or lose them. Young sprinters can avoid speed work for months at a time, come back, and lose nothing. I donâ€™t find that to be true with masters. Our bodies are losing testosterone and, hence, muscle. In contrast to our youthful contemporaries, we need to regularly fire our fast-twitch fibers.
What this means is that all of us, regardless of how much fast-twitch fiber we have, need to do speed work even in the off-season. One workout every two weeks should be adequate. This will do two things: (1) youâ€™ll keep your fast-twitch fibers firing and (2) you reduce the chance for injuries when you move from strength workouts to speed drills.
THE 200 IS AN ALL-OUT RACE
I keep hearing people describe their strategies for running a 200 race. I understand strategy for a 400 but the 200 is an all-out sprint. Just like a 100, there is no â€śstrategy.â€ť
You are capable of running at 100% speed for approximately 40 seconds. That means your body, when itâ€™s in shape, can run a 200 at full speed for the entire distance. The key is relaxing. Once youâ€™ve learned to run full speed and be relaxed, you can run a 200 all out from start to finish.
MINIMIZE WEARING SPIKES
Spikes have a place. You need to wear them to practice starts and to simulate race speed by getting up on your toes. Almost all of us run differently in sprint spikes than we do in flats. So you need to wear spikes to prepare your body for competitions. But spikes offer little support and minimal cushioning. That puts stress on your feet and ankles. The older you get, the more you need to rely on quality flats for workouts. There are now a number of excellent racing flats available that combine light weight with decent support.
CHANGE FLATS REGULARLY
Shoes break down over time. I suggest you change your training flats every 3-4 months so they keep their cushion and reduce injuries.
None of us like to waste money. And throwing out a pair of running flats that youâ€™ve worn for only a few months may seem wasteful. Itâ€™s not. While they may look fine, running flats break down rather quickly. When they do, they donâ€™t provide you with the foot and ankle protection that you need. I buy my training shoes in batches of 3 or 4 at a time. And though they are definitely â€ślow mileage,â€ť I throw away shoes every quarter.
MASSAGE IS A NECESSARY LUXURY
You should make deep-tissue massage a basic part of your training. Most elite sprinters get a 60- to 90-minute deep-tissue massage after every track workout. It helps muscles recover, reduces injuries, and allows you to maintain hard workouts. In addition, a 15-20 minute â€śflushingâ€ť massage after a competitive race will rid your system of lactic acid and allow you to recover more quickly.
When Iâ€™m injured, Iâ€™ve found Active Release Technique (ART) to be very effective for getting me back on the track. If you’re not familiar with ART, it’s basically very aggressive and resistance-related massage.
You can find an ART person near you at: www.activerelease.com/providerSearch.asp
ITâ€™S ALL ABOUT INJURY-MANAGEMENT
The longer Iâ€™ve been competing in mastersâ€™ competitions the more Iâ€™ve become aware that success is all about injury-management.
I often joke that if you meet someone new at a track meet and want to bond with them, just say, â€śSo, tell me about your injuries.â€ť Iâ€™ve never yet had anyone say, â€śOh, I havenâ€™t had any!â€ť
Injuries are part and parcel of mastersâ€™ track. Sprinters are particularly vulnerable because weâ€™re doing explosive activitiesâ€”starts, all-out sprints, plyometrics. But how you handle those injuries will make the difference between making it to the starting line or staying home with an ice-pack on your leg.
What are the most common sprinter injuries? Hamstring strains and pulls; achilles tendonitis; plantar fasciitis; groin strains; and calf cramps.
I include the following as part of my injury-management program: listening to my body, rest, massage, stretching, and having a good orthopedic on speed-dial.
LOOK FOR PRECURSORS TO INJURIES
Use your journal to identify what you did before you got injured. I did this recently and learned there were definite precursors to my injuries. They included stretching before doing speed work or a competitive race, wearing spikes too often, running on flat indoor turns, weight-lifting on my legs the day before a speed workout on the track, not allowing enough recovery between hard speed intervals, not flushing out the lactic acid after a race, doing speed drills when I was tired, and not giving myself enough rest or recovery days.