More on the Thorny Issue of “Strong Enough”

Patrick Ward, who maintains what is, in my opinion, one of the better training-related blogs on the net (Check out Patrick’s work, here),  wrote this piece recently, which I thought was a fantastic compare-and-contrast/food-for-thought companion to my own recent Of “Failure”, “Intensity”, “Inroad” and “Frequency” post, and, too, to an older piece that I wrote, What, Exactly, Constitutes ‘Strong Enough’?.  This particular offering from Patrick’s site is an interesting and insightful interview with British sprints coach and biomechanics researcher, Jon Goodwin.  In this interview, coach/researcher Goodwin speaks to strength as it relates to sprint speed; and it’s interesting stuff, indeed.

Now as I’ve stated before, issues of increasing athletic prowess are applicable to only a fractional subset of trainees or potential trainees; yet I do thoroughly enjoy the “geek factor” involved  in locating an athlete’s weak-link, attenuating that weakness, then witnessing that “applied theory and practice” manifest in an improved athletic performance.

But then again, there’s a huge satisfaction to be had in seeing your “average Joe/Jane” reap the rewards of adopting tenants of properly applied Physical Culture.  Both scenarios are special in their own way; it’s all good.

Anyway, I do encourage you to check out the full piece over at Patrick’s site.  Below, however, is a snippet of the interview that I’d like to highlight, as it does directly relate to ideas that have been kicked around a bit here at TTP as of late.

Bold portions = emphasis mine.

Patrick asks:

In your opinion, how strong is strong enough?  We have seen some great sprinters who do very little resistance training.  How much lifting do sprinters need to do, volume or frequency wise?  While every athlete is different and has different needs, do you have a basic template that you follow for programming training for your sprinters that you can speak a little bit about?

Jon Goodwin replies:

There is no ‘strong enough’. Providing they don’t break, you can never have a sprinter that wouldn’t benefit from being able to express more force more quickly when they hit the ground. However there are some caveats to this statement.

One is that there certainly is a point of ‘muscular enough’. More muscle mass enables sprinters to run faster through the application of higher ground forces. However for all athletes there is a threshold where this relationships flips; where the strength pay off is outweighed by the additional resistance you have to overcome to accelerate your bodyweight vertically. We don’t have any numbers to say what this point is for individual athletes so coaches have to make a judgment call. I certainly think there are some 10.0 sprinters around that would run a bit quicker if they weighed a few lbs less. Perhaps dropping some of the pecs and guns and even a bit more body fat in some cases would help!

*TTP insert – Hello?  Paleo nutrition, anyone??  😉   Sorry, couldn’t help it…*

The second is that with a finite limit on optimal muscle mass there is then a ceiling on how strong we can get a sprinter. Our general training is designed to educate the athlete to rapidly activate all of their big, high threshold, fast twitch motor units in a coordinated fashion. Well once they can do this maximally and with sound steering/control, since we can’t get them bigger to get further strength increases, then general training ceases to be effective in pushing the athlete forward in terms of force production (not to say there aren’t other benefits).

As strength coaches we need to accept that the closer athletes get to their optimal muscle mass, and rapid maximal activation of that mass, then our general training methods become progressively less effective. Eventually all that is left is becoming more skillful in expressing that force in the specifics of our sports task, in this case sprinting.

The sprinters we see excel without strength training are the rare and lucky breeds who are naturally able to achieve many of the outcomes that our general training is directed at. Perhaps they are gifted with a level of hypertrophy that is optimal without any resistance training, perhaps they naturally are able to recruit all of their big fast twitch motor units in a skillful manner upon ground contact. I’m sure we can often still improve these athletes further, but certainly the gains are likely to be a lot smaller.

Having said all that, most of us aren’t lucky enough to work with animals like that, and generally have big gains to be made. In those cases then typically gym based work takes precedence for me in the first 3 months of a winter off season. 3 gym based sessions, and possibly 4 will be in place where we think the athletes structure and general force producing capabilities are a limiting factor. Progressively running reclaims the front seat through mid winter and by the time May/June comes round then general strength training gets dropped almost completely, about 8-12 weeks before key races of the season. In this period all training efforts are in refining the way forces are applied in running specifically. It’s another common mistake that I think is made, people wanting to hang on to their big general strength training exercises for too long into a season. General strength gains built over months or years don’t disappear when we stop lifting. Our squat score goes down but that’s more a skill issue than an underlying strength issue, and the skill we are concerned with is running, not squatting. The fatigue from continuing heavy lifting far outweighs any benefit from continuing strength work. Squatting a 190kg PB 2 weeks before a race will not likely enhance performance as that strength is only being expressed in a squat action and we haven’t had any time to transfer that to force production in our running action. Squatting 180kg 2 months before and then practicing running with that strength, in a more rested state, is what is likely to improve performance.

So, some fantastic stuff here for sure; and that’s just a teaser.  Like I said, be sure and check out the rest of the interview at Patrick’s site; you won’t be disappointed. Also, If you happen to be a member of the Crossfit Journal, check out this; Nicholas Romanov (of POSE method fame) speaking to how the maintenance of proper forward lean correlates to record sprint times – or record times for any running distance, for that matter.  Now it’s my belief that Dr. Romanov has the cart before the ox here (I believe that strength and athleticism allow for the maintenance of proper lean angles, not the other way around – see my comments on the site), but nonetheless Dr. Romanov’s ideas are fantastic food for thought.