High Octane Training
Q&A for high-performance athletes
by Charlie Francis
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.
Abs Training and Hip Flexors
Q: Many experts recommend training the lower, obliques, then the upper abs in that order. Do you agree? Also, what lower ab exercises can I do that won’t tighten my already overly tight hip flexors?
A: I see no particular advantage to the order of ab training, at least as my athletes do it, since the exercises we use are endurance related rather than power related. In fact, our ab training is circuit based (alternating the muscle groups involved) rather than stage based (repeating sets on the same muscle group).
As for lower-ab training, it’s almost impossible to avoid involving the hip flexors and there’s no real reason why you should. You don’t loosen muscles by not training them! What you need to do is introduce a good stretching routine at the end of all your training sessions to address your flexibility issues. Most athletes are pretty good about their hamstring stretches but they ignore their hip flexors.
A good stretch for this area is to lie on your side, draw one knee forward and then grab the ankle of the other leg and pull it back and up behind you. The forward knee prevents the back from over-arching and ensures a good stretch.
If a partner is available, he could lock your front foot (same position as before) while slowly moving your other quad back. While your partner is assisting you, activate your hamstring to pull your heel toward your butt. The activation of the hamstring forces opposing quad muscles to relax to allow for a better stretch. Hope this helps.
Arm Cycling and the Three-Rep Max Myth
Q: In your book The Charlie Francis Training System, you state that Ben Johnson was able to cycle his arms at 4.7 times per second when sprinting. Was the cycle considered the arm moving forward and back as one cycle, or is the arm forward one cycle and the arm back a second cycle?
Also, I thought I read an article by Charles Poliquin that said Ben Johnson performed a three-rep max squat about ten minutes before he broke the world record. If this is true, could you please expound on how you use this training principle?
A: Each cycle is in one direction only. (Although Ben averaged 4.7 strides per second, his peak frequency was 5.2 SPS!) As for the three-rep max story, well, I heard that one too! Sorry, it never happened! In fact, it couldn’t have happened, either, since there were no weights at the Olympic warm-up venue.
For the record, we always lifted after speed work, never before! Ben’s heaviest squat workout was two sets of six at 600 pounds, past parallel. Though, obviously, he could have gone much higher, he never did; after all, that was enough! Of course, this means there was no three-rep max, either!
Olympic Weightlifting for Athletes
Q: Do you think the time spent perfecting the full Olympic lifts is an efficient allocation of resources for athletes, throwers specifically? Or could the athlete concentrate on simpler multi-joint lifts and increase bar speed during the conversion phase to gain a similar effect? They could then spend the time necessary to successfully learn the Olympic lifts on perfecting their specific events instead. Your thoughts?
A: While it’s true that simpler lifts can be perfected more easily, the reason that Olympic lifts are chosen is to use as many muscles as possible in a single lift in order to get the maximum stimulation with the minimum number of lifts. This is a big issue with sprinters where there’s a lot of competition for central nervous system (CNS) energy.
In your case this wouldn’t appear to be a problem, since lifting predominates in throwing events. I agree that if learning time is a factor, I’d concentrate on perfecting specific skills and stay with the simpler lifts.
Stride Frequency and the Secret to Greater Speed
Q: I recall that you wrote in Training for Speed that while Ben’s stride length improved only slightly over his competitive career, his stride frequency (turnover) improved dramatically and made the difference between good sprinting and world records. Since this is the opposite of traditional sprint theory (most experts say it’s easier to improve stride length than frequency), what do you think is the reason that Ben was able to make these improvements?
More importantly, as a tall (6’1") 60-100 meter sprinter and football running back, what training elements should I incorporate into my program to improve my turnover? Were there special drills you used? How did the training for frequency change based on the training period (acceleration, max speed, etc.)? Were specific microcycles devoted to frequency training or was the approach more holistic? Any information you could provide would be greatly appreciated.
A: You’ve asked an excellent and complex question that requires an extensive answer, so bear with me. I’ve always gone against the mainstream in believing that stride frequency is trainable. The prevalent theory is rooted in an extrapolation of the basic, unalterable fact that sprinters are separated from everyone else by the hereditary wiring of their brains that allows them to alternate muscle actions more rapidly, primarily due to their ability to shut down the antagonist muscles faster and more completely (though their contractile velocities are also faster, the difference is marginal). Many therefore believe that talent is defined by frequency and, since talent is unalterable, so must be frequency.
Clearly, though, every sprinter is capable of cycling his legs at least five times per second in the air. The problem only comes in when the sprinter hits the ground and decelerative contact forces work against him. Improvements in strength and elasticity will certainly allow the sprinter to better resist these contact forces and maintain a higher turnover rate. A cursory analysis of Ben’s 100-meter running shows that, though he improved from 10.32 to 9.79 over the 100 meters, his number of strides remained constant at 46.5 steps, leading to the conclusion that all of his improvement was based on frequency.
Subtracting Ben’s reaction time (the time between the gun and the first motion) of 0.132 from the overall time gives the true running time for each race. So 10.32 becomes 10.188 and 9.79 becomes 9.658. Divide each net number into 46.5 and you get a stride frequency of 4.564 SPS for 10.32 and 4.815 SPS for 9.79. Most coaches have maintained that stride length will increase as strength improves and they’re right, too! Wait a second; how can they be right if Ben’s stride count remained constant over the years?
This is where it gets a little more complicated because it isn’t just the number of steps taken, but how those steps are distributed. Most 100 meter runners reach their peak stride frequency at about 25 to 30 meters with a very gradual decline in frequency until about 70 meters where there’s a marked drop in rate as the sprinter runs out of gas and begins to “freewheel” to the finish line. The stride length increases from the start with the optimal combination of length and rate yielding top speed somewhere between 45 and 60 meters. The final few strides are usually very long but with a frequency so low that speed drops off significantly.
Now let’s look at how Ben’s stride distribution changed over time. As Ben’s strength improved, he was able to drive out of the blocks harder and lower, driving his center of mass out farther ahead of his feet. The increased angle forced Ben’s feet to the ground sooner to keep him from falling, actually shortening his first few strides. Once underway, however, the additional power caused his stride length to improve all the way to the 70-meter mark.
At this point, additional strength and efficiency allowed him to keep on driving to the finish and these “power strides” were shorter than the freewheeling strides at the final stages of his earlier races. Thus the total number of strides remained constant even though both frequency and stride length had improved.
In answer to the next part of your question, since the enhancement of all training elements improves both stride frequency and stride length, there’s no need to worry about training one part at the expense of the other. But, before getting into specifics, the number one secret to greater speed is relaxation! It allows a faster and more complete shutdown of antagonists, quickening alternation cycles and permitting more force to be delivered in the desired direction with less energy consumption.
Relaxation must become second nature in every drill you do and every run you take. You may feel that you aren’t generating enough force while relaxed (a perception that gets a lot of sprinters into trouble in big races), but remember, only the net force counts! The net force is the amount of force delivered in the desired direction minus the force generated by the antagonist muscle at the same moment.
For example, if, by maximum effort, you generate 100 pounds of force in the desired direction while putting out 30 pounds of force with the antagonists, you’re left with 70 pounds of net force. If you completely relax and put out an easy 80 pounds of force in the desired direction and no pounds with the antagonists, you are left with 14% more net power with 62% less effort (80 verses130 pound total output)!
This simplistic example shows a colossal energy savings and it understates the case since, in reality, increases in energy expenditure are exponential, not linear. The shutting down of unwanted muscular activity also cuts down on the “background noise” that interferes with the hind brain’s ability to rapidly process input. This is also why it’s critical to work on skills one at a time.
Strangely, though most coaches think that only stride length can be improved, they attempt to work on both stride length and frequency simultaneously with towing or “over speed” devices. These devices are bad news! They force the athlete to land farther ahead of his center of gravity than normal, increasing the risk of injury and increasing the ground contact time even though the key to greater frequency is reduced ground contact time.
Drills are available to train frequency and stride length independently. “Quick leg drills,” with very short steps done as fast as possible over a very short distance, enhance frequency. The emphasis must be on complete relaxation and rhythm. A typical workout might be four sets of six drills over 10 to 15 meters with one to two minutes recovery between reps and three to four minutes recovery between sets. These drills would be done only on pure speed training days, not with speed endurance.
Bounding and hopping drills allow for the development of maximum stride length. Workouts of this type usually consist of between 100 and 200 foot contacts in a single session. Remember that your drills must always be improving in quality, so you must make sure that you are recovered for each new workout. If your workout deteriorates, stop the workout!
A holistic approach was always used in our training cycles but we always ordered our programs to develop acceleration first (to coincide with our maximum weight phase), then maximum speed, and then speed endurance (first you need the speed, then you can worry about maintaining it).
As for your personal circumstance, assuming you’re already fit, you should assess your personal strengths as a sprinter and work primarily on them. Spending too much time dealing with your weaknesses may well come under the heading of flogging a dead horse! Good luck in your training and I hope some of this is useful!
Q: I’m a college sophomore who runs the 100 and 200 and have read your book Training for Speed. I’ve also read all your stuff in T-mag but for some reason I still don’t comprehend your ab routine. How many reps? How often? What kinds of exercises? I take weight training seriously so if you could help with an ab routine I’d appreciate it. Thank you.
A: Thanks for your question. I know that I’ve been a little vague on the subject of abs, other than to say that we’ve always concentrated on very large numbers of repetitions of a wide variety of low intensity exercises. In sprint training, we did 500 reps on our three speed days after the speed work, and 1000 reps on our three slower running days for a total of 4500 reps per week (on average). I’m in the process of submitting an article to T-mag on abdominal training complete with the necessary diagrams. Stay tuned.