Today I’ve got a kickass blogpost for all strength coaches, track & field coaches, and sprinters. This post is a compilation of insight and reflections provided to me by UK Coach Greg Potter. You can find his blog and twitter handle at the very bottom of this post. As I read through this article, I found myself nodding in agreement. Greg is highly astute, and it’s a rare treat to read such insightful observations from a strength coach. I realize that the post is 6,500 words long, but I didn’t want to split it up into two parts. I hope you enjoy this as much as I did! Here you go:
At the end of each year, I reflect on what I feel I did and didn’t do well in the various aspects of my life over the previous 12 months with a view towards self-improvement. One of these aspects is my work as a sprints coach, and today I’d like to touch on some of the things that I either learned or were reinforced last season. For those not interested in specific sections of this post, I’ve divided these points into categories so that you can skip to whichever section you deem most relevant to your own situation. The sections included are Coaching Philosophy, Programming, Specific Exercises and Minimising and Rehabilitating Injuries. Some points could arguably go into more than one category so do forgive me if there’s some overlap.
- Study widely to capitalise on ‘marginal gains’. I suspect that most readers will have been transfixed by the Olympic Games last summer, and it is always interesting to observe highly successful teams so as to learn from their approaches. It quickly becomes apparent that many divergent training methodologies can produce outstanding results, but I think that one commonality among top performers is what the Great British cycling team have coined ‘marginal gains’. Dave Brailsford, British Cycling Director, explained this to the BBC as follows: “The whole principle came from the idea that if you broke down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improved it by 1%, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together” (http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/olympics/19174302 ). In my mind, this speaks to the need to read widely as a coach, and to grasp every opportunity to learn from those in the know in areas of relevance to physical preparation. This might entail rigorous study of areas such as anatomy, physiology, psychology, biomechanics, motor learning, training methodologies, environmental influences on health and more, as well as making a concerted effort to communicate with those who know more than us about topics of relevance to performance.
- Think critically. I frequently hear coaches (many of whom I have a great deal of respect for) espouse the superiority of research emanating from the likes of Russia to the neglect of important research that has taken place closer to home. Do not misinterpret this – I have found much of this research highly influential in shaping my own thoughts (I’m sat about a metre from books by Bondarchuk and Verkhoshansky); however, the fact that a training means, method or periodisation model originated in the Eastern block does not make it infallible. As a well-written, accessible example of a relevant critique, see this response to a review paper on Block Periodisation written by Vladimir Issurin: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20806489. As a further example of this point, Dr. Bondarchuk’s Transfer of Training correlational data on associations between performance in athletics events and various preparatory exercises are very interesting, but it is a leap in logic to infer that these relationships should dictate exercise selection. Moreover, a closer look at some of these relationships reveals some oddities in the data. For instance, the association between a preparatory exercise and the competitive event may fluctuate up and down as you look at more and more highly qualified athletes.
- There are many ways to skin the cat – be wary of those who suggest otherwise. Even a cursory look at the training programmes of top sprinters suggests that some have had success with a so-called ‘short-to-long’ approach, whereby short maximal sprints are included early in the annual plan and sprint distances are increased as the Competition Period approaches (e.g. Ben Johnson). Others have enjoyed favourable results with a ‘long-to-short’ programme, wherein longer, sub-maximal runs are included early in the plan and their intensity is increased and distance reduced as the Competition Period approaches (e.g. Michael Johnson). I recognise that Ben was primarily a 100 metre runner, and Michael a 200 metre and 400 metre runner, and I also have my own biases as to which might be appropriate in a given situation. However, these examples are not exceptions to the rule and, from what I gather, considerable differences in methodologies are nonetheless widespread among successful athletes in a given event. I also concede that without being there in person to observe the training we cannot know specifics of how these athletes trained, but based on what I’ve seen, this point holds true. Indeed, some have emphasised the lifting of circa-maximal weights in the gym (e.g. Ben Johnson), whereas others have barely touched barbells (e.g. Christophe LeMaitre). Inter-individual responses to a given stimulus are highly variable, and while science and our experiences can merge to form a starting point with an athlete, implementing a programme is a dynamic process and there must therefore be room for revisions.
- Coaching relies on the placebo effect. An outstanding sprints coach and all-around top man named Henk Kraaijenhof alerted me to this, in stating that his success is in part due to ‘placebo coaching’. If your athletes truly believe in your approach, success is that much more likely. And this is not reliant on anecdote alone – both placebo and nocebo effects are well-documented in the sports performance literature (Beedie & Foad, 2009).
- Keep your eyes open. I had the great privilege of spending 3 years at arguably one of the world’s premier training facilities and corresponded with some great coaches such as Jared Deacon, and what a wonderful breeding ground for new exercise application ideas it was. Nevertheless, such a training environment is not a prerequisite for bright ideas: watch people move, keep your brain switched on in the gym, and novel thoughts on exercise may emerge at unexpected times from people that others may have dismissed as ignorant beginners, or meathead simpletons.
- Educate athletes on the other 22 hours you’re not around. One of my early influences was Vern Gambetta, who spoke about the 24 hour athlete concept, in particular the notion that an athlete has the other 22 hours or so that you’re not around on a given day during which to undo their good work in training. It is therefore essential to try and educate athletes on how they can help maximise their progress outside of the training environment. For me, this entails email lessons and subsequent conversations about a new behaviour I’d like them to adopt, and these changes are implemented one at a time. Once mastered, another is introduced. The specifics of the interventions introduced are dependent on their needs, goals and lifestyles. For example, an athlete is competing in an event where minimising adiposity is at a premium and is several kilograms above their target weight. On completion of a week long food diary, it becomes apparent that they’re consuming roughly 100 grams of added sugar in beverages daily. Their first habit is to eliminate energy containing beverages in light of evidence to suggest this may help reduce body mass (Tate et al., 2012).
- Every training means must be justifiable, and it can therefore pay dividends to have somebody question you as to your training choices. Furthermore, this person needn’t be an expert in the sport that you coach. To provide an example from coaching the sprints, at what point does upper body strength training begin to actually detract from sprinting, secondary to increases in upper body mass and heightened training stress and therefore recovery demands? Yes, it is possible to gain strength without concomitant increases in muscle mass, but the two generally occur in synchrony. Another example might pertain to redundancy in exercise selection – for example, are both squats and step ups justified within a Competition Period microcycle for a sprinter?
- If you decide a training means is justified, it should not be treated as an afterthought. A prime example of this would be my own implementation of static stretching prior to 2012. Looking at some University physical preparation programmes, one common pitfall that I’ve seen and succumbed to myself is not always specifying static stretches for individuals and failing to periodise them, as I would were they any another other component of a training programme. While I may have coached athletes through stretches that I think will benefit them as individuals, assuming that the athletes will both remember the stretches and do them off their own backs is wishful. Rather than prescribing slap-dash recommendations such as ‘static stretches of choice: 3x30s’, formally tabulating specific stretches for athletes based on their postural and movement presentations is warranted. I got this idea indirectly from Derek Everley who used to coach Dylan Armstrong and currently coaches UK hammer sensation Sophie Hitchon. Derek prescribes medicine ball circuits as cool-downs for his throwers but has found that his athletes will only do them properly if he labels them as ‘general strength’ on their programmes.
- On the subject of static stretching, the usual exercise principles such as specificity and overload still apply. The problem inherent to this area is the paucity of research on how to optimise and periodise stretching in the long-term. Indeed, how many periodised, randomised, controlled, crossover trials with a sufficient wash-out period investigating static stretching means beyond say 12 weeks have you come across? Therefore, some informed experimentation on this front is surely worthwhile. Another consideration is that certain types of stretching may maximise compliance. Many would turn their noses up at vibration plates but in my experience athletes enjoy them (scientists such as Dr. Pete Lemon have also reported unusually high compliance with their use in comparison to other exercise modalities) and a growing body of evidence points to their potential in augmenting improvements in flexibility in trained athletes, perhaps due to inhibition of group Ia afferent fibres or activation of Ib pathways (Sands et al., 2006).
- Strength retention loads can be minimal during the Competition Period if their intensity is sufficient. Maximal sprinting has a beneficial effect on many strength parameters. As a testament to this, try testing clean derivatives before and after this period – frequently a sprinter’s clean will actually increase during the Competition Period despite a reduced emphasis on strength training.
- Some athletes respond better to consecutive rest days; others dispersed rest days. For example, I had one athlete two years ago training 3 days on, 1 off, 2 on, 1 off within a microcycle and fatigue appeared to be slowly accumulating. On switching to a 5 on, 2 off format, not only did he feel better, but his sprinting times began falling again. Of course, other factors were at play and it cannot be said that this change caused the improvement, but I do think it is worth manipulating rest days with a given athlete initially to try to delineate what might be optimal. Unless you have an Omegawave unit of access to physiological testing to help determine what this workload distribution might be, subjective markers, such as ratings of perceived exertion and motivation scales, and your observations in training can be used to help determine how you choose to allocate rest days.
- In most sports, strength training means are not ends in themselves, and therefore orthopaedic considerations are crucial. Accordingly, choose exercises that an athlete can do with good form while working towards exercises that the athlete cannot currently perform proficiently, but that you foresee as being worthwhile further down the line. This is with one caveat, in that all general strength exercises are not created equal, and I do believe that some individuals respond better to some strength exercises than others (e.g. squats versus step ups). The point is that safety must never be compromised because you feel an athlete ‘should’ be doing an exercise that is not the competitive exercise itself.
- Begin barbell exercises with the bar and the bar alone. Doing so has invariably produced greater ultimate strength gains then trying to hasten this process. For example, prior to joining my group, one of my athletes had cleaned a maximum of 80kg for 3 reps from the floor with a previous coach. We began his General Preparatory Period doing the pull-to-catch exercise with the bar alone and through gradual increments in loading and exercise progressions he cleaned a comfortable 115kg for 3 reps from blocks with the bar just above the knee that season. On a related note, conversations with certain coaches suggest that avoiding very high strength training intensities (e.g. over around 80% 1RM) while emphasising bar speed to maximise motor unit recruitment has elicited very impressive strength gains for many power athletes. From my understanding, many learned of this approach from Dr. Bondarchuk who has quite a unique approach to strength training. Nonetheless, I’m loathe to put a percentage on loading as with respect to loading intensities as I’d suggest that several factors are often overlooked. For example, a 3RM deadlift represents a very different stress to a 3RM power clean as one is a ‘grinding’ lift and the other inherently explosive.
- A mesocycle including intensive tempo (e.g. runs at 75-90% of an athlete’s personal best over a given distance with incomplete rest intervals) during the General Preparatory Period can be useful in retaining anaerobic capabilities without encroaching excessively on recovery demands and as preparation for more specific speed endurance training at 90%+. Intensive tempo work has been frowned upon by some, with the common argument being that the intensity is too low to benefit maximal speed development but too high to recover from rapidly. I agree that it takes longer to recover from than extensive tempo ( slower than 75% of an athlete’s personal best) work but think that otherwise many of the peripheral training adaptations (e.g. muscle anaerobic enzyme activity) gained previously could decay excessively. I have not found intensive tempo work to impair acceleration development and have introduced intensive tempo by increasing the intensity of extensive tempo runs over the first couple of General Preparation Period microcycles.
- Heavy sled drags can be a useful general strength training means that minimises Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS). The many permutations of sled drags permit an athlete to gain some strength and endurance qualities in multiple planes without incurring significant DOMS. They may therefore be useful in injury prevention and can also serve as a smooth transition into resisted sprints in subsequent mesocycles.
- The distribution of training loads is crucial during the Competition Period to avoid detrimental effects of DOMS on coordination. There are few things that can hamper running technique quite as overtly as DOMS and therefore minimising its occurrence is a priority where there is a strong emphasis on maximal, quality sprinting. Small volumes of damaging exercise produce less damage than larger ones but elicit ‘the repeated bout effect’ to a similar extent, whereby DOMS and markers of exercise-induced muscle damage are attenuated in subsequent exercise bouts (Howatson et al., 2007). This speaks to a benefit in introducing new exercises in low volumes, and also ensuring exercise selection continuity during the Competition Period. I’d add that using a ‘High / Low’ type approach, as espoused by Charlie Francis (and Gerard Mach) can also help manage DOMS as there can be more rest in between damaging exercises like some strength training and jump exercises.
- During recovery weeks within the Competition Period, include higher intensity strength work to prevent unnecessary declines in strength. I have previously fallen into the trap of reducing the intensity and volume of some strength training exercises excessively during the competitive period. I previously noted that sprinting itself often benefits certain lifts (e.g. cleans), but the same is not true of others. One way to bypass this is simply to put a slightly greater emphasis on strength training during recovery microcycles during the Competition Period while the volumes and intensity of other training components are reduced.
- Isometrics are a good starting point in teaching correct positions during the General Preparatory Period. For example, simply holding the beginning position of an Olympic grip front squat has been useful in teaching athletes to hold their spines more erect and achieving the wrist, elbow and shoulder mobility needed to do the Olympic lifts. This was used (e.g. 2 x heavy 30s holds) in conjunction with other means to acquire leg strength.
- Isometrics can also produce significant improvements in flexibility and may confer other benefits of relevance to sprinting. Yielding ‘quasi-isometric’ exercises (or ‘eccentric quasi-isometrics’), such as holding the stretched position of a goblet squat, will not only improve strength in deep knee and hip flexion, but I’d hypothesise that they may encourage favourable changes in muscle architecture. For example, Kumagai et al. (2000) found that one characteristic of superior sprinters is longer lower-limb muscle fascicles. In such a study, a causal role of longer fascicles producing faster running times cannot be inferred, but existing research suggests that fascicle length makes a greater contribution to maximal muscle shortening velocity than biochemical differences between muscles (Burkholder et al., 1994). It is understood that conventional, dynamic resistance training can increase muscle fascicle length (Blazevich, 2006) but I suspect that using loaded stretching exercises can accelerate this process. While isometric training is relatively joint angle-specific, this appears to be more true for shorter muscle lengths (Thépaut-Mathieu et al., 1988), and therefore strength gains in loaded stretching exercises should still transfer well to dynamic exercises, especially as they are not used exclusively. Finally, by improving flexibility, it is possible to create a greater ‘flexibility reserve’ that may confer protection against injury.
- ‘Strength symmetry’ should be emphasised in the General Preparatory Period. Left-right lower limb strength asymmetries have been shown to predispose athletes to injury in sports involving sprinting. Moreover, addressing these asymmetries can reduce the incidence of injuries (Croisier et al., 2008). It follows that emphasising strength symmetry with unilateral exercise during the General Preparatory Period may be a useful injury prevention strategy. Putting this into practice, assess left-right strength at the start of the General Preparatory Period, always train the weaker side first and try cutting the exercise volume in half for the stronger limb to help address this.
- A broad spectrum of general exercises will help maintain musculoskeletal health and keep athletes interested and motivated. This point will come as no surprise, but I still find it easy to revert to certain exercises without continuing to challenge athletes with new movement problems to solve. With respect to musculoskeletal health, exercise diversity will help avoid overuse injuries and promote mobility. Therefore, during lower intensity training days, I frequently prescribe circuits including lateral and curtsy split squat variations and diagonal ‘core’ exercises. Training variety will also prevent staleness and simple inclusions such as novel exercises in warm ups or simply different ways of performing them (e.g. doing some exercises with the eyes closed) will likely help.
- Consider load vectors in prescribing medicine ball throws and jumps. By doing so, many special strength exercises can be formulated and used alongside components of the competitive event to try to teach athletes to produce more power where needed. For example, diving medicine ball throws (like an explosive chest pass, where the ball is thrown forwards and slightly upwards with the athlete landing on a soft mat, like a high jump mat) can be alternated with block starts in an attempt to encourage an athlete to produce more power into the blocks.
- Blocked practice may be of use initially, but thereafter a random practice schedule may be superior. This blocked practice fits ideally with the General Preparatory Period where relative intensities aren’t so high and therefore rest intervals between repetitions or sets are generally shorter. On transitioning to the Specific Preparatory Period, more rest may be required between training means and therefore a random schedule may allow a higher training density if the exercises selected permit this. While blocked practice may be of great use in the initial learning of a complex skill, resulting in superior immediate performance benefits, random practice ultimately yields better learning. Cuddy and Jacoby (1986) present a useful mathematical analogy in explaining this discrepancy: if a young child had to perform 10 multiplication calculations (in a blocked practice format), after working out the correct answer the child would simply have to repeat the answer; only on being asked to solve a new task would he or she be further challenged. However, in a random format, children would be called upon to engage their brains each time as they’d likely have forgotten the answers they’d acquired previously. Furthermore, variations of a given task (varied practice) yield better learning than constant practice as a schema (or set of movement rules) is formed that highlights the most important variables to attend to. An example of this might be performing regular sets of front squats with a set weight for a novice trainee (blocked, constant practice) and using the complex method (e.g. front squats alternated with jumps or medicine ball throws) with inter-set loading variations with more experienced trainees (random, varied practice). Another logical approach is to perform an exercise twice in a training unit. Finally, another application of this principle would be to perform variations of the same exercise (e.g. sprints and resisted sprints) within a training unit, so as to form superior schemas. Indeed, many powerlifters have performed dumbbell bench presses after their barbell brothers for years, thereby emphasising key commonalities to successful pressing.
- Use different starting positions to achieve different training effects. For example, half-kneeling starts can be a useful exercise to strengthen the hip and knee extensors for block starts. One thing that I’d mention is that sometimes these variations require tweaking. For example, some athletes find Charlie Francis style falling starts with both hands in front of the face difficult with regards to coordination. The beneficial aspect of doing them this way lies in the fact that the centre of mass is raised versus when one hand is up and the other down. However, as some athletes are prone to swinging the wrong hand down from this position (such that the ipsilateral shoulder and hip are simultaneously moving into extension), the concentration needed to address this sometimes detracts from where the athlete’s concentration is better invested (such as an individual’s leg action). Therefore, starting with one shoulder flexed and the other extended helps address this while still allowing the benefits conferred by falling starts (e.g. the use of gravity to overcome the body’s inertia).
- Train hip extension in the antero-posterior vector in both flexed and extended knee positions. Soon-to-be doctor glutes, Mr. Contreras deserves some credit for popularising this one. Isometric shoulders-elevated hip thrust holds with the hips in extension are a useful strengthening exercise and tool to encourage good posture in those with an excessively anteriorly tilted pelvis. I like the isometric holds initially as in my experience some athletes initially find it difficult to maintain lumbar spine lordosis in the position of greatest hip flexion (although this is dependent on the height of the shoulder rest). I teach these with the bench positioned just below the scapulae and with a strong chin tuck to counter the habit that so many have of carrying the head anteriorly.
- Deficit reverse lunges off a box of around 20 cm are useful in both strengthening and increasing the flexibility of the hip and knee extensors in deep flexion before an athlete can squat proficiently. I’ve frequently used these alongside goblet squat isometric holds in the stretched position and have found this combination effective in improving ‘strength-flexibility’. Likewise, rear foot-elevated (by about 20 cm) split squats with an Olympic front squat grip are useful in improving the flexibility of the muscles that contribute to hip flexion, especially as this grip necessitates a more erect torso position than the conventional counterpart of this exercise (barbell on the back).
- Reverse lunges with a front squat grip are a general leg strength exercise to use during the Competition Period. The necessity of using lower absolute loads in this exercise versus regular reverse lunges makes them less taxing and likely to produce soreness. The need to keep the trunk upright perhaps changes the relative demands on the hip and thigh musculature (I’d expect it to reduce the demands on the hip extensors and increase that on the knee extensors) which may be a consideration worth noting. This grip probably also encourages increased relative demands on the thoracic spine extensors too and I therefore consider it useful in reinforcing good upper-body posture, especially if cervical retrusion and capital flexion are emphasised (I cue my athletes to give themselves ‘double-chins’ to achieve this).
- I’ve veered away from using good mornings during the competitive period. These were never done with heavy weights (one athlete, for example, front squatted 150 kilos prior to the season, but never used more than 50 kilos for 6 repetitions in the good morning in the Competition Period), however, even very low volumes at low intensities (e.g. 2×6 @ around 50% 1RM) left some athletes with pronounced hamstring DOMS. I suspect this could have been counteracted by performing these more frequently than once per week (e.g. 1 set of 6 repetitions twice weekly); however, why not just use an alternative hip extension exercise that isn’t so likely to produce soreness? On a related note, some athletes don’t seem to respond well to including additional hip-extension exercises in the Competition Period, perhaps due to the higher volumes of circa-maximal sprinting during this period which already pose a large demand on the hip extensors.
- Training the hip flexors is probably appropriate for some. If coaches prescribe strengthening exercises for the hip extensors, knee extensors and so on, why are the hip flexors commonly neglected? This is not to say that hip flexion exercises might not be contraindicated in some (e.g. somebody with poor hip hyperextension mobility or certain spinal pathologies) but for others, simple hip flexion strengthening exercises like low pulley hip flexions may be useful.
- Train deadlifts and Olympic lifts from the top down. I don’t intend to turn this into an article on exercise progressions, but approaching these exercises in this way has made teaching them easier. Using a simplified clean progression as an example, once front squatting mobility is in place, this might entail beginning with the pull to catch exercise. Once proficient, the hang clean from above the knee might be introduced. Next, a clean from the floor with a slow first pull, and finally the clean from the floor in its entirety.
- The bench pull and chest-supported pulley row can be handy alternative to unsupported rows as they reduce hip and spine extension torques. The loading of this musculature is already high due to running and other lifting means. It is also easier to maintain an orthopaedically robust position of the spine, whereas this may be compromised during exercises such as barbell rows, especially while unsupervised. General preparatory exercise means should not unnecessarily encroach on the demands of more specific exercise means and safety is of paramount importance.
- The bench press from pins fosters good bench press technique, forcing the athlete to stay ‘tight’. If the bar is not in the correct position at the start, the athlete will likely miss the lift if the load is circa-maximal, making the exercise self-correcting. Furthermore, in the absence of the spotter, the pins fulfil a safety function. While the elimination of the stretch-shortening cycle will necessarily entail lower peak-power outputs versus the conventional bench press, the general nature of the bench press and absence of a significant correlation with the competitive event in the preparation of most athletes renders this insignificant. Moreover, the close and reverse-grip bench press from pins can be an excellent exercise in the early stages of rehabilitation from shoulder impingement syndromes as the reverse grip prevents significant abduction and internal rotation at the glenohumeral joint which would otherwise reduce the sub-acromial space.
- The 1 arm dumbbell bench press is also a useful tool in teaching correct bench press technique, ensuring left-right strength balance and training an athlete to control rotation. The offset resistance encourages strong co-contraction of the torso musculature, ‘tucking’ of the elbows and scapular adduction and depression, all of which seem to have helped minimise upper-body niggles in the training of my athletes. I typically use this in the early General Preparatory Period as preparation for subsequent bilateral bench pressing variations.
Minimising and Rehabilitating Injuries
- Visualisation is a hallmark of successful athletes. Existing research suggests that imagery use is widespread among athletes (Silbernagel et al., 2007). Emphasising its use may be a useful strategy at specific times, and one instance where I’d consider this particularly useful is during an injury. It has previously been demonstrated that imaginary muscle actions elicit strength gains, albeit in a finger abduction model (Yue & Cole, 1992), and this appears to be due to enhanced neural drive to the relevant musculature after imagery training (Yue et al., 1996).
- Training therapy is loading. Therefore, massage, self-myofascial release, cold water immersion and all other therapeutic interventions should be considered as part of the training load and planned accordingly. As these interact with other training means, I think it unwise to write programmes and then throw in these modalities afterwards.
- An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. To sprinters, hamstring injuries can be the banes of their existences. One reason for this is an unusually high re-injury rate (Croisier, 2004). A multifaceted approach must therefore be incorporated that addresses the numerous factors predisposing individuals to hamstring injuries (e.g. contralateral hip flexor flexibility, dyssynergic contraction, hamstring flexibility, hamstring / quadriceps ratios, fatigue etc.).
- Capitalise on cross education while injured. In the advent of an injury that affects one side of the body alone, I’ve always programmed my athletes to continue to perform unilateral exercises for the contralateral side to capitalise on the effects of cross-education in the retention of strength on the injured side (Magnus et al., 2010). Moreover, this effect also appears to be true of the vascular system (Yasuda & Miyamura, 1983). It follows that cross-education is not of relevance to strength training alone and that exercises such as single leg bicycle sprints may be of use in retaining some of the biochemical adaptations to high-intensity, cyclical exercise such as sprinting in the contralateral limb. In rehabilitating the recovering area and returning to exercise on this side, it may be necessary to concurrently reduce the volume on the side that was never injured such that left-right strength and morphology return to near-equality and the workload on the two sides over the training period is similar.
- Yielding (‘eccentric’) hamstring strength training exercises have received attention due to their efficacy in reducing injury incidence. The exercises used have commonly been primarily knee flexion exercises (which are probably important as the biceps femoris is the most commonly injured hamstring muscle), but I think it makes sense to also include primarily hip extension exercises that emphasise the yielding phase. One exercise that could be used is the good morning where the athlete lowers the weight with ‘soft’ knees (as is typical) and, on reaching the fully stretched position, the athlete flexes the knees and does a kind of good morning / squat hybrid lift to return to the start position, provided that it is included carefully (e.g. with low volumes).
- Embrace Nordics for bulletproof hamstrings. The efficacy of this exercise in attenuating hamstring injury incidence in football players (Petersen et al., 2011) has deservedly received a great deal of press. I like the gradual progression used in the study but use a modified version. More specifically, one effective progression is as follows: modified razor curl with arms by sides – modified razor curl with hands touching ears – modified razor curl with arms overhead - band assisted Nordic curl with arms by sides (such that the band is anchored to a point above and behind you while performing the exercise) – band assisted Nordic curl with hands touching ears – band assisted Nordic curl with arms overhead – Nordic curl with arms by sides –Nordic curl with hands touching ears – Nordic curl with arms overhead. The modified razor curl entails beginning in kneeling with the hips extended. Next, lower yourself as far as you can while maintaining this hip position. At this point, flex the hips and knees so that your thighs are vertical and your torso parallel to the ground. Finally, extend the hips to return to the starting position. A couple of sets three times weekly adding 1 rep each week has proven effective, with the exercise progressed in keeping with the athlete’s competence. Isometric holds at various points during these exercises can also be effective. An alternative to the Nordic is the prone 2/1 leg curl (lift with both legs, lower with one).
- Skipping with a rope is a useful means of teaching an ‘active foot strike’ of relevance to sprinting. During returns from hamstring strains, it is also an appropriate alternative to lower intensity training means such as ‘extensive tempo’ running and cycling owing to the smaller hip and knee joint ranges of motion. This can also help retain adaptations in the cardiovascular system and the multitude of skipping variations helps maintain interest in training at a time when motivation can wane.
- Nerve mobilisations may sometimes relieve what at first feels to be a hamstring strain. Indeed, there were a couple of instances last season where athletes felt they may have incurred minor hamstring strains. They then performed sciatic nerve mobilisations, and what they had thought was an injury promptly disappeared, allowing them to complete the sessions without any issues.
- Use flutters to train the late swing phase. These are a means of strengthening the knee flexors at high velocities that can be used to help minimise injuries in light of the action of this musculature to negatively accelerate (I don’t like the term ‘decelerate’) the shank during the late swing phase. To perform these, lie on your back with your hips flexed around 90 degrees and a Swiss ball beneath your heels. Next, pound the ball with your heels with an alternating leg action as fast as you can by rapidly flexing your knees. These are typically done for time.
- Previously, in returning to sprinting post-muscle strains I’d largely used falling starts beginning with 10m sprints and slowly increased the distance and thus the maximal velocity attained from one session to the next, as per Gerard Mach’s progression. This at times worked well; however, the high power output requirements and large joint ranges of motion such an approach requires rendered some athletes prone to re-injury. Therefore, I began using a regular standing stance with a gentle 20m build-up prior to the faster section. This faster section can be short and relatively maximal (e.g. 10m @ 90% maximal effort, progressing sessions by extending the distance of this segment) or longer and of a lower intensity (e.g. a timed 60m, progressing sessions by running the segment in gradually faster times). The velocities attained using this approach may be higher but this method has at times proved superior with my athletes. Alternatively, both methods can be used concurrently with the very short faster sprints (e.g. 10x10m sprints from a falling start) used to work on acceleration mechanics and the timed segments (e.g. 20m build-up + 60m in 9s) used to work on upright running mechanics.
Needless to say, these ideas will not benefit all (and perhaps you may disagree with some of them), but, if nothing else, I hope they have provided food for thought and perhaps some self-reflection on your part. Do share your own lessons learned in the comments section below as I’m sure many of you have gained experiences that we can all learn from!
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- Blazevich, A.J., 2006, Effects of physical training and detraining, immobilisation, growth and aging on human fascicle geometry. Sports Medicine 36, 1003-17.
- Burkholder, T. J., Fingado, B., Baron, S. and Lieber, R.L., 1994, Relationship between muscle fiber types and sizes and muscle architecture properties in the mouse hindlimb. Journal of Morphology, 221, 177–190.
- Croisier, J.L., 2004, Factors associated with recurrent hamstring injuries. Sports Medicine, 34, 681-95.
- Croisier, J.L., Ganteaume, S., Binet, J., Genty, M. and Ferret, J.M., 2008, Strength imbalances and prevention of hamstring injury in professional soccer players: a prospective study. American Journal of Sports Medicine, 36, 1469-75.
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About the author: Greg is a Coach, Personal Trainer and Sports Massage Therapist in the U.K. Check out his blog at http://gdmpotter.blogspot.co.uk/ and find him on Twitter @GDMPotter