Secrets to Running Faster
By: Barry Ross
Since publishing Underground Secrets To Faster Running, I’m frequently asked why there seems to be minimal information regarding on-track sprint training workouts in a book about running faster. This is often followed by questions about standard sprint training protocols, such as: What about volume? What about density? Intensity, CNS fatigue, distance, recovery days?
And so on ad infinitum.
They are fairly common questions, but are they fair questions?
Let’s examine them from a different viewpoint.
If we recognize them as standard questions, then they are not really about 'secrets'. Rather, they encompass the common vernacular of the sprint culture. What the questioners really want to know is how the answers to their questions might differ within the parameters of the protocols they already use and whether any difference might give them an edge, as trainers or athletes, over the competition.
Therein lies the problem with the questions. The focus of sprint coaches and athletes is on changing the numbers within the framework they know. It’s about finding magic or secret numbers – what number of repeats of a distance, how many plyo jumps on the track, how many rest days, what number of hard days, how many recovery days, etc. There is never a challenge to the framework, only to the numbers that are provided.
Underground Secrets To Faster Running would be about the weight room if it was written to show how its particular strength training protocol fits within the broader and more well established category of strength training. But Underground Secrets To Faster Running is not about the weight room. It’s about addressing a paradigm change in training to run faster that is long overdue. Its about the science of sprinting and the elimination of the rampant guessing as to what actually happens during high speed sprinting.
Far from being a book about how much weight one can lift, it fully addresses one of the most (if not the most) important aspects of sprinting: The effect of mass-specific force on running speed. It goes on to describe a very simple yet powerful training method that will result in faster running, even if most of the standard on track training protocols were significantly reduced or eliminated.
At this point, many will think that what I’m writing here is merely a way to increase sales of my book (while that is not the case, I would certainly welcome that outcome!). Others will shake their heads while muttering to themselves, .Just another weight guy trying to make himself important. He doesn’t get it that you have to run to be fast. Just get on the track and run..
Well, I do get it. You do have to run to be fast…and faster. But you must do more than that to run your fastest.
There is purposeless running and there is focused running. There is purposeless strength training and purposeful strength training. Can you distinguish between them?
Since this article is in response to the track training portion that appears to be missing, let’s look at that aspect first.
Did you know that 95.89% of the track coaches throughout the world use purposeless running to train their sprinters?
How did I arrive at that precise number? By strict scientific research? By analysis of local coaches and interpolation of raw data? By regression analysis?
You caught me! I guessed.
Which is precisely how coaches arrive at the ‘right’ number of repeats at the ‘right’ distance. It’s what they do because they’ve always done it, or darn close to it. Is this the best way to build a sprint training program? I don’t think so!
Are you part of that large, guessed-at number of coaches? You are if you give your sprint group a single set of instructions: Today I want you to run 5 200.s , then 8 100.s, 10 50.s then do some block work and call it a day. Or, maybe you’re the up and down ladder type instead. Same guess, same result.
Are you thinking to yourself, “That’s not me! I don’t guess, I got my workout from John S.. or Charlie F… or Clyde H.. or Dan P. or the guy at the clinic I went to.”
And those coaches and clinic guys got their workouts from where? From the coach that coached them? Years of trial and error? By keeping up with the latest in research?
Perhaps the fundamental question should be: What is the purpose of training on the track?
There are really only 2 purposes for on-track training: neuromuscular adaptation and plyometric training.
In its simplest form, Neuromuscular adaptation is teaching your body to adapt to high speed movements without loss of energy. You can only do that by running at your high speed as often as possible, but this is no secret.
What is plyometric training? It is defined as causing a rapid change from eccentric contraction (lengthening a muscle) to concentric contraction (shortening a muscle), in which elastic energy is stored and released. The act of running fast is a plyometric exercise, so it trains for the storage and release of elastic energy. Elastic energy is a necessary part of increasing your speed. How much running should you do?
As much as is effective in increasing your speed, but this is no secret.
The number and length of repeats should be different for each runner, and they must have a specific length and measurable goal if they are to be effective. Either specific time/distance or distance/time goals work best. If someone is telling you to run x number of repeats at x distance, ask them why that number and that distance. Ask them how it would specifically benefit your particular needs and demand an answer with specific number goals, such as maximum completion time per rep. If you’re a coach, ask the same question on behalf of your athlete before you give them a workout or shame on you! When running speed decreases to a point below the goal over a set distance, or distance covered decreases to a point below the goal over a set time, your workout should end. Immediately. But stopping when goals can no longer be met is no secret.
(Psst. I’ll have to keep my voice down so no one can hear this secret except you: muscles don’t care about what the are being used for! They don’t ask if they’re lifting a weight or walking up stairs, or moving down a track. They only want to know about the load placed on them so they can gauge how to respond. This is the same basis of the strength training protocol in Underground Secrets To Faster Running!)
If you’re thinking that a track workout could be very short, you’re right. If you’re thinking that it could be very long, you’re right. The preceding statements reveal this important ‘secret’: There is no magic number of sets or reps in a running protocol. The correct number of set or reps is based upon the portion of the race you need to work on. That differs for every sprinter.
What about rest times between repeats?
(Hey tiger, here’s a little used underground secret, just between me and you: Inside the weight room or on the track, it’s all about the phosphagen pool. It’s a secret revealed in Underground Secrets To Faster Running.)
What about form problems, what about sleds, hill running or weight vests to increase strength?
All of those questions relate to how your muscles work. All of those issues are addressed by and through the strength training protocol in Underground Secrets. None of them should be used or addressed on the track.
What about speed endurance, speed strength, strength speed?
All of these are improved in the weight room, and speed endurance is enhanced by targeted on track training in addition to the weight room.
What about CNS fatigue?
Interestingly, coaches seem to believe something different then experts in this area. Certain well known sprint coaches are brazen enough to base their entire workout around CNS fatigue. What do the real experts say? Here’s some examples:
“Hence, during exercise, only 5HT neurons that are firing should increase 5HT production/release when brain TRP rises. It is not known which 5HT neurons fire during exercise; the 5HT neurons that respond to exercise-induced increases in brain TRP are therefore not known. Hence, it is not possible to conclude which 5HT neurons contribute to the generation of central fatigue. Because some 5HT neurons control specific functions important to physical performance (e.g., respiration), the current understanding of 5HT neuronal function in central fatigue might benefit from the study of specific 5HT pathways during exercise.
— Exercise, Serum Free Tryptophan, and Central Fatigue; John D. Fernstrom and Madelyn H. Fernstrom
Departments of Psychiatry, Pharmacology, Epidemiology, and Surgery, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, Pittsburgh PA, 2006
“Several factors have been identified to cause peripheral fatigue during exercise, whereas the mechanisms behind central fatigue are less well known.”
— Eva Blomstrand, Astrand Laboratory, University College of Physical Education and Sports and Department of Physiology and Pharmacology, Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden, 2006
While researchers in the field believe 5HT and TRP are responsible for CNS fatigue, they simply don’t know what causes these fiends to generate CNS fatigue. To base a training protocol on a factor that no one is sure about seems ludicrous. That being said, it doesn’t hurt to keep on-track and weight room training to no more than what is essential.
The bottom line of all the foregoing? You’ve probably wasted enormous amounts of your valuable time spending useless hours on the track. More than likely, your workouts focused on effects rather than causes. In other words, the entire framework from which your speed training has been derived could be seriously flawed. If your on-track or weight room workout is based on a model other than the spring-mass model, you can be sure it has serious flaws.
By now you are probably wondering if there really are any unrevealed 'secrets' to faster running? The answer is simple: yes and no.
No, there are no ‘secrets’ as to how we run faster. The spring-mass model of running locomotion introduced in the late 1970.s, followed by extensive testing of many of its facets from the 1980’s through the early 2000.s revealed that .secret.. The results of the rigorous research over nearly 30 years has shown the validity and merit of the model to virtually all locomotion experts throughout the world: Those who understand the causes and effects of bipedal and quadrupedal running. Unfortunately, sprint coaches rarely fall into the category of experts in locomotion.
The spring-mass model takes into consideration the effects of gravity, as well as the physics of motion and energy. From that model, and the testing of it, has come some surprising conclusions that should alter the entire sprint workout, both in the weight room and on the track.
Those conclusions have been kept .secret. from us for more than 20 years. Not by the real experts, but by the self-proclaimed experts. The .guru’s. of the sprint community simply don’t want to accept the studies. Instead, they put up straw man arguments with no basis in fact, show little or no understanding of physics, and ignore the effect of gravity.
Are there ‘secrets’ to faster running revealed in Underground Secrets To Faster Running? You can bet on it.
The most important of the factors affecting running is mass-specific force. The greater the force applied to the ground relative to mass and in opposition to gravity, the longer the stride length and the faster the stride rate. Stride rate increases because ground contact time decreases, not because the limbs are moving faster.
Longer stride rates are effects of strength training. Faster stride rates are effects of strength training. Simply running on the track will never maximize stride length and stride rate. Increased mass-specific force comes only from strength training.
Mass-specific force may not seem much like a revealed ‘secret’ at first glance. In fact, many would say they already knew that being stronger then your bodyweight would make you run faster. What they are referring to is the ability to apply force from a muscle contraction. They will often use squat max vs. bodyweight as their example.
However, that is not what mass-specific force in opposition to gravity means. Mass-specific force in opposition to gravity does not come from muscle contraction. It is isometric (by definition – strength production without change in muscle length). An accelerating mass (the sprinters body as it returns to the ground) increases force. Gravity acting on the falling human body will cause ground contact force to reach or exceed 3 times bodyweight. The ability to withstand hitting the ground that hard without collapsing (thereby dissipating energy) requires tremendous isometric strength. Where is the most efficient place to increase that strength?
(Shhhhh, don’t let anyone see or hear this underground secret: It’s in the weightroom. Not on the track.)
So what, you say, big deal. That’s why I’m in the weightroom doing my squats, power cleans, deadlifts, and all my ballistic stuff. So I get strong enough to push of the ground to..
To do what? Propel yourself into the next stride with a massive push off? Sorry, that doesn’t happen because IT CAN’T HAPPEN.
Think about it. If you’re a weight room stud, you know how much force is required to push up a big weight when squatting. If you believe you push off the ground during a sprint by using a concentric contraction of the leg muscles then consider this: Ground reaction force plate measurements show maximum forces of 3 times bodyweight at midstance during high speed running. Research shows that ground contact times can range from .09 to .10 seconds. Half way through that time frame is midstance. So maximum force is fully developed in .05 seconds or less.
If you weigh 150 lbs, and you can push your bodyweight plus an additional 300 lbs (a total of 450 lbs or 3 times bodyweight) 3 meters down the track from a voluntary muscle contraction of one leg (with a minimal angle of flexion) lasting 5 hundredths of a second or less, then you’ve got bigger secrets to reveal than I do.
Where are these massive forces coming from if we cannot apply them by volitional muscle contraction? Force measurements are correct, so what force is being measured?
Ground reaction force plates measure the opposite side of the force applied to them. This relates to the 3rd law of physics. Because of the reasons stated earlier, you’re not pushing off the ground with a force equal to 3 times bodyweight. Instead, you’re hitting the ground as a falling body with that amount of force. That’s why the force, and your response, can occur in such a short time frame. If you collapse, or partially collapse (increase knee flexion) under the force being thrust against you from the ground, then you can’t use that force to your advantage.
Increasing the ability to withstand that force, by opposing it with isometric strength, increases your ability to use it to your advantage. In fact, being able to withstand forces of multiple times your bodyweight (mass-specific force) increases running speed dramatically. How? Partly because of what ground reaction force does to you. You hit the ground with 3 times bodyweight, but the ground is hitting your real bodyweight, 150 lbs in our example. Think of it this way, if you hit a cue ball into another billiard ball, without any added spin of the cue ball, then the both of them will react equally upon contact with each other, i.e. the cue ball will move back to you and the struck ball will move away from you. The reactions are equal and opposite. If you hit a bowling ball with the cue ball, the bowling ball will barely move and the cue ball will move toward you for about twice the distance of the earlier example. What happens when your little 150 pounds of rock hard mass hits the earth’s mass?