“Old school” approach to sprint/ strength work
A while ago, I made a comment to another coach that my belief in sprint/strength work was rooted in the “Old School” model of Tom Tellez. He asked me to expand on that idea, so here you go.

Having thought about it for a while, “Old School” might not be the best way to classify it in one sense and in the other it absolutely fits. It’s not fare because old school implies that it isn’t based on modern science and isn’t as technical, but nothing could be further from the truth. However, the description fits because the essence of the training model is based on how we naturally run and while it’s based on science, it keeps it simple for the athletes and doesn’t overcomplicate things.

So what is this Old School approach? Let’s look at it by dividing the topic up into a couple of different areas.

Every coach loves drills. When I say drills, I’m talking about sprint drills. You’ve all seen them and done them. A skips, B skips, butt kicks, high knees, the list goes on and on. Coaches implement these drills to break up a portion of the running stride. They think that doing these drills will improve the mechanics of the runner.

But they don’t. They make you better at doing drills. The problem with breaking the stride up in pieces is that there are no separate phases of running. One thing impacts the next when running. For example, hip extension impacts knee lift. The drills forget this integration. So, if I’m trying to improve knee lift, high knees do nothing. Why? Because knee lift while running is partially dependent on other factors, such as hip extension. So working it in isolation does nothing to help improve how it work in a dynamic situation. That’s just one example. There are many more. But for now, just remember that the body works best as a whole.

So, in the “old school” approach to running mechanics, you mostly improve form by……running. Yes, that’s right, you improve your mechanics by changing things when you run and perfecting things while running. Throwing out all the crazy drills for technique development is unfortunately today a radical idea, but it works.

Fragmenting up the stride into easier to manage pieces seems like a great idea in theory. But, we’ve taken the theory too far. The general idea that you should focus on one thing at a time is great. But you should do it in the context of a whole stride. You simply give the athlete one cue on which to focus. Breaking the stride into all sorts of drills doesn’t work. For example, while you are running, are you really supposed to kick your butt or actively flick your heel like that, NO. Are you supposed to paw at the ground in a weird exaggerated motion like in B skips? NO. So what are you practicising exactly?

But, who can blame all the coaches out there who use sprint drills for technique? It’s a heck of a lot easier to give some athletes some drills then to actually watch an athlete run, figure out what he is doing wrong, figure out how to fix it, and then figure out what cue you have to give to an athlete to make him change. Ya, drills sound a lot easier.

Old school approach-In sprinting, mechanics rule. An athlete has to run right. Technique takes precedence over almost everything else. Training to sprint faster is relatively straightforward, but if you want to get the most out of it, you do it while running correctly. In order to sprint fast, you have to be able to relax.

In addition, you work everything. Sprinters can actually jog or do some easy distance, instead of being told never to run far as many new coaches do. Some longer repeats over 300m are used to. Everything has progression. In essence, you focus on the demands of the race (i.e. how much is reaction time, acceleration, maintenance, deceleration, etc.), then you go about using different training modalities to improve on that specific

Nothing overcomplicated. Plyos, hills, weights, some med ball tosses. It’s all good, but once again, it’s almost secondary. When I say, it’s secondary, it doesn’t mean that it isn’t important or that it isn’t done, it just means that it’s not a huge emphasis like in some programs. In some programs you have guys doing 45min of abs for example. Why? I have no idea
Perhaps it’s best illustrated by the idea of trying to cram too much stuff in. With all this information readily available there are more training modalities then ever before. The problem is too many coaches get caught up in trying to squeeze a little of every single thing in. Instead of actually getting in quality work and getting really good at one or two things that day, you get okay at 5 or 6 different things. In essence, you’re spreading your athletes too soon.

I think it’s best summed up by the following observation when watching one group of sprinters practice. After a warm up jog and some stretching, they proceeded to do about 40min of drills, then hurdle mobility, then block starts and their running workout. After their running workout and cool down, they do their ab or weight work, and finally do some technique work, either on sprint mechanics, or event specific technique (for long jump for example). By the end of all that, do you really think they are going to be sharp working on technique? Of course not.

Complex to Simple:
Lastly, and maybe most importantly, there seems to be a trend of trying to make things more complex than they really are. We use really neat sounding phrases like post activation potentiation, or velocity at VO2max or , my favorite, string together physiological terms that we probably don’t fully comprehend but sound cool together. We are all guilty of it. It sounds much cooler to tell kids you are coaching to go train at a pace that elicits lactate threshold, then to go do a steady tempo run.

But, in front of other coaches it’s even worse. Go to a coaching clinic and listen to some of the speakers. Granted, many are excellent, but often times you will see big words thrown out or simple concepts made incredibly complex just for the heck of it. When I first started coaching I was guilty somewhat of this. I classified stuff as VO2max work or LT work or whatever. But then I realized, what the heck does that even mean to other coaches or athletes. I opted for keeping it simple. I use race paces. It’s more specific and I KNOW what each workout or running at each pace is supposed to do. So why assign a magic term to 3k pace or 1500 pace or just slower or just faster. There is no magic zone. Keep things simple. Kids understand paces, not weird scientific terminology. If I go tell a kid to run at around 5:30 pace, he gets it. If I tell him to run at Threshold, with no more information, he’s got no clue.

The Old School approach favors making complex ideas simple. This applies to everything. If we are working on running form, you explain it so the athlete can get it. You don’t start going off on a diatribe about how the golgi tendon organs do this and in order for you to get your knee up we have to reprogram your neural coordination via blah blah blah. That’s ridiculous. The coach’s job is to take complex problems, like running mechanics, and to make it useable. It’s not to make it complex.

And finally on that topic, using big complex language is a good way to make it seem like you know what you are talking about. You almost try and talk above people. And if other people can’t understand what you are preaching about, then you they can’t really question you and they just ASSUME that you know what you are talking about, which isn’t always the case.

So, that’s my interpretation of “Old School” training.

So in conclusion, the old school approach pretty much strips things to their basics. Forget drills for technique. Focus on mechanics and form. Everything else (for sprinting) is almost secondary.

And finally to end it, in this approach, you simply figure out what works using knowledge and experience, and you believe in what you do. You don’t believe in something because it sounds complex and grand, you believe it because that is how the body naturally functions and it works in REAL life.

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    1. Jay on March 16, 2009 at 2:01 am

      Love the post.

      Great points and while you and I don’t agree on every aspect* of training, I love the fact that you have an opinion rooted in experience as an athlete and coach and that you’ve as well as via reading the running literature. I especially like your take on “Complex to Simple” both in terms of metabolism and in terms of neuromuscular training…who cares what the golgi tendon apparatus does as long as you know that good balance on one foot probably isn’t a bad thing for a runner.

      Bright future for you a coach no doubt, yet I hope you also have some fast racing in your future.

      I will link to the post and I appreciate your willingness to put your opinions out there.

      – Jay

      *while I agree that breaking up the human running stride isn’t always going to produce better mechanics via the drill, the drill can be thought of as running specific strength training; hip flexor/glutt/hamstring strength in most distance runners is “less than ideal” and a well executed A skip is a step towards greater running specific strength.

    2. Anonymous on April 11, 2013 at 11:58 pm

      I appreciate this article. "The problem is too many coaches get caught up in trying to squeeze a little of every single thing in. Instead of actually getting in quality work and getting really good at one or two things that day, you get okay at 5 or 6 different things. In essence, you’re spreading your athletes too soon."

      Exactly. I have been coaching high school cross-country and track and field for 12 years, and what has worked best is common sense and that gut approach of giving them what I sense they need. Lately, however, I found become victim to the 30 minutes of drills, ladder drills, ladder accelerations, hurdle step-overs, unders, around and inside out, the workout sandwiched in the middle, the cool down drills, the crazy feet, and the concluding static stretch.

      What I get out of this is back to the basics. I think I will be doing some parsing this weekend.

      BTW, in the above post, "I especially like your take on "Complex to Simple" both in terms of metabolism and in terms of neuromuscular training…." LOL.

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