Jan 29, 2015Learning Curve
At the University of Alaska-Anchorage, track and field athletes are taught to play an active role in setting their own individual strength and conditioning priorities.
By Michael Friess
Michael Friess is the Head Men’s and Women’s Track and Field Coach at the University of Alaska-Anchorage. He can be reached at: [email protected].
The 2009 track and field season was one to remember for our University of Alaska-Anchorage Seawolves. We set new school records with five All-Americans and 10 athletes qualifying for the NCAA Division II Championships. We also had three performances that broke Great Northwest Athletic Conference individual records.
Some may wonder–how can we produce so many successful competitors out here on the Last Frontier? Of course the athletes themselves deserve most of the credit, as I’m continually impressed by their dedication, enthusiasm, and willingness to make whatever sacrifices are needed to take their skills to the next level.
But part of their success is due to our sport-specific strength and conditioning program. We emphasize frequent performance assessment and encourage athletes to feel a sense of ownership of their customized workout regimens, with a few universal training principles mixed in to address teamwide priorities. In this article, I’ll outline what we do and explain how it helps keep our athletes strong, injury free, and performing at their best.
TEST & RETEST
Like most programs at the Division II level, our incoming athletes arrive with widely varying strengths, training histories, and weightroom experience. Some were regular lifters in high school, especially if they played multiple sports, while others have barely set foot in a weightroom before. To help ensure that everyone makes steady progress in conditioning, whatever their starting point, we rely on testing and performance assessment throughout the year.
One of our top priorities for our new athletes is finding muscle and joint weaknesses, which cause mechanical flaws that can lead to injury, wasted energy, and decreased performance. Two areas we find most frequently need attention in our runners are the hips and core.
Hip weakness, often seen in our incoming distance runners, is fairly easy to spot during initial evaluation of an athlete’s running mechanics. While observing running gait on a track or a treadmill, I’ll notice that one hip dips down too low during the stride, there is excessive swinging from side to side, or the athlete has trouble maintaining the natural, level equilibrium of the pelvic girdle. These are all signs of hip weakness, which hampers running and jumping ability and can lead to iliotibial band injury.
For runners who display weak hips, we will prescribe exercises that develop hip abduction with resistance bands or machines. Closed-chain work, such as single-leg pressing, lunging, and Bulgarian split squats, will also help build hip strength. We have athletes with weak hips avoid leg curls in favor of stiff-legged deadlifts, because we want to train the hamstrings more for decelerating the leg than for acceleration–working the hamstrings from an elongated position in deadlifts provides this effect while also helping increase active range of motion.
If an athlete has a weak core, one of the first signs is usually lower back pain during running, particularly hill running. We will also frequently observe “sitting” or collapsing movements upon landing during jumping and plyometric work, and problems with overall posture.
For these athletes (who are often the same ones who display weak hips), we focus on strengthening the core through stabilization and extension movements. We believe too many people overemphasize flexion alone when training the core at the expense of extension work, so we use ground-based stabilization exercises such as bridging, as well as training on a glute-ham machine to develop the extensor groups. Olympic lifting also helps to train core stabilizer muscles and build core strength.
Beyond fixing individual deficiencies, we test all our athletes roughly every three weeks when we’re not in-season to gauge their progress in conditioning. One of the main skills we want runners to develop is the ability to push into the ground to generate greater and greater force, and a great way to test that is through 30-meter weighted sled pulls. As athletes’ times decrease throughout the training year, we know they are building speed by generating more force from the ground, while also increasing their ability to run with proper mechanics as they accommodate a resistance load.
In the weightroom, we test the athletes on cleans, push presses, and squats to gauge overall strength development. These lifts are explosive and train multi-joint movement, which translates well to the demands of sprinting. The athletes also feel stronger and become more confident in their overall conditioning when they become proficient in squats, cleans, and presses.
THEIR OWN COACH
We believe strongly that athletes must take responsibility for their conditioning and strength programs to build confidence and motivation. Rather than have all the athletes follow a cookie-cutter approach, I encourage them to take ownership of their strength and conditioning strategy, set a few specific priorities or areas of focus, and then choose some of their exercise and lifting progressions to target the areas where they most need to improve.
For example, during strength tests in early fall, let’s say an incoming hurdler learns that her push-off leg is significantly stronger in the quads and hamstrings than her landing leg. This is fairly common, especially among athletes who have never consistently strength trained and thus developed most of their functional muscle simply from practicing and competing in their event. Once she learns of this strength disparity, she might realize it explains the soreness she sometimes feels on one side after training runs, and the uneven gait she experiences when fatigue starts setting in.
If everyone in our program followed the same strength training regimen, this imbalance might go uncorrected. But under our philosophy of athletes setting some of their own priorities and taking responsibility for their fitness, she can emphasize single-leg strength work to fix the imbalance.
We will of course guide her on which exercises to choose, make sure she learns proper technique, and help her to understand progression variables. But the main idea is for her to feel like she’s in control of her conditioning program and helping to shape her own training.
Our focus on responsibility in training also allows athletes to continue using methods and strategies that have worked for them in the past. For instance, one of our top sprinters two years ago came into our program as a sixth-degree black belt in karate. He had a battery of exercises that he felt optimized his functional strength, explosiveness, balance, and coordination, and once he explained the program to us, we allowed him to stick with it.
We monitored his progress in the same categories as our other sprinters and were satisfied that his program was helping him achieve his performance goals. While some of those exercises were unlike anything I would prescribe to the rest of the team, they worked for him and he was comfortable doing them, so we let him take complete ownership of those portions of his training.
Even though we give our athletes a great deal of freedom, that does not mean our strength workouts are a free-for-all. Each individual is encouraged to keep a basic training journal that catalogs the lifts and exercises they did for each workout, including sets, reps, and weight used. They also include any notes on progress, difficulties they are experiencing with a particular exercise, and other observations.
The journals are a great way to open lines of communication between athlete and coach. I look through them at least once a week and provide individualized feedback on how they can make adjustments to enhance their training.
For example, if someone appears to have reached a plateau with a certain lift, I will recommend switching to different exercises that develop the same muscle groups. If someone reports problems completing an exercise, I will observe them one-on-one to look for flaws. If I find they’re lifting their heels during squats, for instance, I’ll give them some range of motion exercises to increase flexibility, then talk them through proper squatting technique. Other times, I’ll simply help them find another exercise that offers the same benefits.
While our athletes have come to take pride in the individualized nature of their workouts and conditioning progressions, there are a few training principles that we like everyone to follow. I have learned through experience that these can pay off for virtually all track and field athletes.
For one thing, everyone incorporates the Bulgarian split squat into their training. If our athletes could do only one movement to build strength, I’d choose this one, because it trains each leg independently for the balance, stability, and power that runners need most.
In the Bulgarian split squat, the athlete begins by standing on one leg, with the other behind them with the knee bent and the foot resting on a plyo box, bench, or bar. The standing leg is positioned slightly forward, so that the heel is roughly even with the front abdominal wall (this typically requires a small forward hop once the back leg is in place). The athlete then performs lunge-like movements, bending the knee of the standing leg and lowering the body until the back knee touches the ground, then returning to the starting position.
Since the standing leg does practically all the work, athletes can use different weight loads for each side to address strength disparities. They can perform the squat with no external resistance, with a dumbbell in each hand, or in a power rack with the bar resting on their shoulders.
In addition to building quad and hamstring strength, this movement also engages the stabilizer muscles in the foot, ankle, and calf to maintain balance and keep the shin from moving laterally. Athletes who become proficient at this squat show improvements in sprinting, horizontal jumping, and ability to accelerate.
Another staple of our strength program for all athletes is Olympic lifting. Much like sled pulls, lifts such as the hang clean and clean and jerk train athletes to push with maximum force against the ground, which helps develop speed and acceleration. For sprinters in particular, we want to train pushing against the ground in as many ways as possible, and Olympic lifting accomplishes this while also requiring coordinated movement of the hip, knee, and ankle joints.
There’s also a psychological component to these lifts. They activate the entire body and leave the athletes feeling stronger and more powerful, particularly when they complete their first set with a higher weight load. It’s hard to quantify that benefit, but we believe it provides an extra motivational edge during tough workouts.
Outside the weightroom, there is one key aspect of our track and field conditioning that differs from most other programs: We pay more attention to cardiovascular work. We want everyone, even our sprinters–who sometimes have never run for distance before–to be able to jog steadily for 30 minutes. I might be slightly biased because of my own background (I was a distance runner in college), but I believe longer bouts of steady-state running can benefit any athlete. Distance running is the most basic form of plyometric work, and it promotes soft tissue and ligament integrity, which can improve performance and decrease injury risk in virtually any activity.
Our program’s emphasis on distance running began out of necessity. Until recently, we didn’t have an indoor track, and during the long Alaskan winters, all our runners used treadmills for speed training. Our fastest treadmill topped out at just 16 mph, so to make the sessions challenging, we had to increase running volume. We liked the cardiovascular benefits and noticed that our injury rates were consistently very low, so we’ve maintained that focus even now that we have access to a beautiful new indoor facility.
To reduce impact stress during longer runs, the athletes will often do their work on our artificial turf surface instead of on the track. And of course, those who struggle with compartment syndrome, alignment issues, or other special considerations won’t run for volume as much as their teammates. But overall, even those with no distance running experience have reported feeling that it helps them become better athletes.
For all of our program’s training philosophies and techniques, the true measure of value is meet performance. When we see our runners’ times steadily dropping, our long jumpers earning top spots in national competition, and our field athletes breaking school records, weíre confident that our strength and conditioning priorities are setting up our athletes to maximize success.