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Designing Speed Programs - Part 1

This article is to help give you a basic, yet detailed, look at how to set up your programs for you and your athletes. It is not meant to be the definitive text on periodization. I am not trying to reinvent the wheel or promote myself as the next Tudor Bompa. (If you don't know who that is, you'll learn a great deal from this series!)

My purpose is to provide you with information and resources to help you create better annual plans for your athletes. However, coaching is a science and an art. If your goal is to simply cut and paste sample programs into your practice, you are not putting in the same effort you expect from your clients and athletes, and you won't get very much out of this, or any, training advice.

If you coach team sports or individuals and your season as a whole isn't organized following specific training guidelines, then neither you nor your athletes should expect to see consistent or continuous improvement. No periodization at all is just making things up as you go along. I can't think of many situations in life or athletics where such a philosophy is a recipe for success.

With this article series, I invite you to ask questions as we go along. I strongly believe that is the best way to learn. While we don't profess to have all the answers to every possible sport, training situation or scenario, we will certainly do our best to supply valuable answers to any and all questions and comments we receive.

Let’s begin our look at training theory.

One of the biggest misconceptions regarding training theory is that there is some universal method of training that magically applies to everyone. There isn't.

There are multiple paths to the same goal. The problem comes when coaches aren't on any particular path at all. Instead, they just wander aimlessly toward some poorly defined end point, making things up based on their mood that day. Science is not used in any of their training decisions.

This is not to say that experience and tradition don't have a role in program design. They do, but they shouldn't be the foundation of the program.

On top of that, let's not make training theory and program design more complicated than it is. Adding depth and detail for the sake of being fancy will take away from basic training principles that serve as the glue holding the plan together.

In the past, I would try to add as much detail, charts, graphs and testing protocols as I could think of to my programs. I thought this would get better results. Well, unless you coach full time, you don't have time for that. And all it will do is add more to an already full plate.

I always advocate the “train smarter, not harder” philosophy with training and I also employ the “coach smarter, not harder” mindset when it comes to organizing and planning training.

Don't forget, a well thought out program doesn't absolve you from having to teach running mechanics, drills, etc. In fact, it makes those issues all the more important.

But you should still factor in the amount of time you have to commit to program design before you get in over your head. I always wish I had more time to add more details to my training programs, even the ones that result in state champions.

There is no such thing as the perfect plan. Plus, any plan must account for the fluidity of your season. What I mean is, s*** happens! Your athletes may be excessively sore. Rain may keep you inside. Cold weather could make it unsafe to do that speed workout. A competition may get rescheduled. An injury could occur. School could get cancelled. All of these things will force you to adapt to the current situation.

That is why it is so important for you to take the time to learn how and why certain things affect athletes. You need to be able to make changes to your training plan on the fly without it throwing your entire season into chaos.

If you're just cutting and pasting a sample program and calling it your training plan, what will you do when forced to improvise?

It's the same reason why I don't write out every workout of my season in advance. I learned the hard way that once your schedule gets thrown off, the entire plan has to be amended. You'll need to plan what you want to get done in detail and in advance.

But always have a plan B that affects the body the same way as Plan A.

OK, so that is a very quick overview covering some of the things you should be thinking about as you begin to acquire new information. You'll want to go out and start making changes in your program and in your training.

This is the “art of coaching.” Learn something new, apply it to your athletes and see what works for your situation and athletes and what doesn't.

I have found that one of the biggest problems in having this discussion is that of different coaches using different terms to describe the same things.

Therefore, before we really get going, it is critical that we be on the same page regarding our use of terminology. I will be using terms that may not be familiar to you and that could cause confusion. So, I will try to make it as easy to understand as possible.

Now, any well designed program revolves around one central principle. Without it, you can't possibly devise effective training in the long term or the short term. What is that one overriding principle? The End Result.

What is the goal of your training? What are your athletes training for? Is it to win the Superbowl? Qualify for the post season? Peak for the state championship? You can't ask for directions if you don't know where you're going. Designing an effective program is no different.

I want you to think about a few things. What is your end goal? Is your current or past training designed specifically to help you or your athletes be at their best when that day arrives? Or does erratic, inconsistent training prevent you from getting there in the first place? When you really sit down and think about it, how organized and specific is your athletes' training?

At the collegiate level, most coaches have every aspect of their seasons planned out in advanced. Most college coaches couldn't imagine “winging” it.

To quote my friend John Doherty, the idea of running “Junction Boys” style training would never realistically occur to them. In case you don't know what Junction Boys training is, watch the end of most football practices. It's when coaches run athletes into the ground just because it's what they did when they were in high school. It pretty much consists of running wind sprints until you can't run anymore.

This, of course, is an inferior way to develop athletes. However, this style of coaching is unfortunately less the exception and more the rule.

I am sure you have heard of or even know coaches who decide what they are doing for practice that day, on their drive over to the practice facility. Don't get me wrong. I have lived in New England most of my life, so I know you need to be able to make changes on the fly. Weather can cause problems to your ideal practice for that day, so you need to be able to make adjustments. Even the way your athletes feel on that given day is going to change what you can do for practice. You can make adjustments to your training plan, but you must know what the goal or theme of the workouts are and what you want to get accomplished in order for you to reach your end and desired result.

The key is to actually have a plan set up in advance. Volumes, intensities and the entire program should be set up and in place before you ever set foot on the practice field. But before you can begin creating a program for yourself or your athletes, there are certain questions you have to answer. Such as, “What are the demands of your sport and, thus, the speed, strength and conditioning requirements of your athletes?” Without having a clear understanding of this foundational question, you can't possibly design an effective program for anyone.

Let's break this question down a little bit further so there is no confusion. You shouldn't read any more of this series (or conduct a practice session or workout) until you have clearly outlined these parameters.

The following questions will help you understand the mindset you must bring to planning and organizing your sport's practice and training activities.

  1. How long does a game/competition take? The training plan for a 55 meter sprinter and a soccer player cannot be the same. One athlete may be competing for up to 90 minutes, the other for less than seven seconds.
  2. What is the rest period between plays/events? Would the rest intervals for a track sprinter who may have an hour or more off between events be the same as a football player who only has 30 to 40 seconds between plays?
  3. What is the ratio between sprinting, jogging and walking during a competition? Your soccer and field hockey players need to be able to sprint at short bursts then go into a jog, repeatedly, for an extended period of time. Would interval training be more useful for your athletes or continuous slow distance training? Generally, I see these coaches focusing on the latter. How about speed development? Acceleration is critical to the success of these athletes. But how often do coaches specifically build this necessary skill into their programs? In my experience, not very often.
  4. What type of “speed” do your athletes need to succeed at their sport? There is a difference between just doing some speed work and actual speed development. The former is what is occasionally done in some programs. The latter is specifically designed to foster adaptations that improve the skill of sprinting over time. This is why I advocate a “short to long” program with speed development, a topic that will be discussed in a future edition of this series. Let’s get back to the important question: Do the demands of your sport focus on acceleration like soccer, football, lacrosse and basketball? Or does the ability to maintain near top speeds determine success, like for a 200 meter sprinter? Acceleration development and maximum velocity training must be addressed differently. What about speed versus speed endurance? Faster top speeds can only be developed when there is no presence of fatigue. While both skills need to be trained, some sports require athletes to be able to quickly accelerate or change directions while under a state of fatigue. After all, there is a world of difference between these two seemingly similar workouts:
    • 10x30m at 100 percent intensity with three minutes of rest
    • 10x30m at 100 percent intensity with 30 seconds of rest
    One will improve an athlete's ability to get from point A to Point B in the shortest period of time possible. The other will improve an athlete's ability to repeatedly get from Point A to Point B in the shortest, average time possible, with decreasing difference between the fastest and slowest times.
  5. What sport specific and speed specific skills must be factored into your training plan? We'll go into this in much more detail when discussing training inventories, but it is worth mentioning here. How many times in a game do your basketball players or volleyball players have to jump? How many times in a row will they have to jump in most situations?

Many coaches will have these athletes do sustained vertical jumps for periods of 30+ seconds as the sole means of improving specific “jumping” or “vertical leaping” ability.

But how many times do these athletes have to jump in a row? Two, three, maybe  four if they are a Dennis Rodman style rebounder? Wouldn't they make better improvements to their maximum vertical leap height by practicing a few jumps at full intensity and then resting? Does jumping endurance help an athlete out rebound his opponent or spike the ball in a single effort situation?

If my team does Workout A and yours does Workout B, whose athletes are going to succeed in getting more rebounds, blocks or kills over time?

From here, we can keep adding details to the training demands such as looking at the energy system and metabolic demands (we'll get into all of that later). But when you use common sense, it really isn't that complicated.

Now that you are beginning to understand the specific demands of your sport, we have to look at two things in order to identify why this process is so important to athletic success:

  1. The reason why we train in the first place.
  2. What organized training actually does for the body.

While conclusions made during a discussion of these two issues may seem painfully obvious once explained, one only has to look at the lack of organization and forethought behind most strength and conditioning programs to understand that such issues are hardly being taken into consideration when most plans are being created. That is why, when in doubt, we go back to the basics: Why do we train?

At its most basic level, we train to overcome fatigue. (Although, as a coach, our job is first injury prevention!) During the course of any competition, athletes are going to get tired. By using certain specific training modalities, athletes can learn to overcome that fatigue or at least delay it long enough to succeed. Here is an analogy that fits.

Many people think (or are taught) that the greatest success in this race will be realized by running the entire distance as hard and as fast as humanly possible. However, that is just not possible. (You'll understand why when we discuss energy systems.) In a nutshell, a sprinter must “rest” or “float” during the race to conserve energy. This is a subtle skill that takes patience and experience but is nonetheless true. By the midpoint of the race, most athletes are, in fact, slowing down.

When you step back and look at the entire picture, the 100 meter dash, like most competitions, is won by the athlete who “decelerates the slowest.”

By using certain specific training modalities, the 100 meter runner can learn to overcome some of the fatigue that sets in by training him/herself to decelerate slower than the competition.

Now, it is the job of the 100 meter coach to factor in this fact to the athlete's training by understanding the demands of the event. Of course, slowing down is just one of many elements of the 100 meter dash. But without specifically addressing this fact, athletes can not reach their potential.

So the coach must consider what methods can be used to address this issue, one of many limiting factors that must be understood and dealt with in order to develop the fastest possible athletes.

Another reason we train is to perfect technique. Repetition of a “properly” executed skill will train the athlete to perform automatically, a critical skill when considering the amount of information athletes must process during the course of any competitive situation. This too must be addressed in a specific fashion worked into the framework of the overall training plan.

But the main reason we train, above all else, is to improve performance. Often, to improve so that we are competing at our best at the end of the season for the state championship, playoff tournament, Superbowl, etc.

But other times, especially in team based sports like football and basketball, athletes must be in top shape at the start of the regular season. The season is all about maintaining all of the improvements that were made in the preseason.

This difference, however, in no way changes the approach that should be taken to creating the speed development program.

Regardless of the sport, there are clearly many factors that go into a season. Your job is to ensure your training program allows athletes to be at their best when the time comes. The best way to maximize the likelihood of this is to organize your training by carefully following the framework being laid out in this series.

The next issue of importance deals with what organized training techniques actually do to the body, especially in comparison to the generally unorganized training that most coaches employ. This will go far in helping to understand just how significant the level of improvement can be when incorporating organized skill development into each microcycle, mesocycle and macrocycle.

In Part 2, we'll explore this issue and look more specifically at the most important principles and components to designing an effective training program.