When working with team sports, everyone chases speed, and for good reason. It is often the difference between winning and losing or your current level and the next. Athletes are always looking for ways to improve their speed. Some of these ways make sense and some, less so. My point is that speed, as a biomotor quality, is extremely important in team sports. In track & field, speed is even more important for obvious reasons. Every event has a speed component and you can’t win without it.
One story of Charlie Francis’s that has always stuck with me is the idea of speed on the playgrounds. We all start off on the playgrounds and get challenged by other kids to run faster. This is where the strong and the fast survive. The slow kids on the playground generally stop trying to win those races and look for other avenues of success. While the kids who continue to win, continue to look for new challenges and new opponents. Then they find a sport where their speed can lead to success, such as track & field. As they continue to beat their opponents, they find coaches and training groups that will take them to the next level. All along the way, those that aren’t fast enough, peak where they are and move on to become coaches or something else. If you’re lucky enough and fast enough, you’ll get an education out of it. If you’re really lucky and really fast, you can make a career out of it.
Speed is one of those qualities that has gained the reputation that sprinters are born and not made. Again, Charlie stated the only people to ever make an athlete were their parents. However, every athlete and every sprinter have their team that helps them along the way and without that, it doesn’t matter what they are born with. Very rarely does anyone succeed on their own without support.
Moving from the world of T&F to the world of track cycling, there are many developmental groups across Canada and around the world. The sport of track cycling is very similar to track & field (minus the field obviously). Let’s pause for the cyclists to put down their pitchforks for a second. I know that statement is likely unpopular in the track cycling world, however, the omnium is simply a bike heptathlon. There are sprinters in both sports, but in cycling there is a lot more skill and tactics involved because you are not simply racing the clock in a specific lane. Then there are time trials in cycling which are much more like T&F events.
When young athletes join the T&F team at school or at their local club, they are often encouraged to try everything. Some kids will gravitate towards distance events, others to sprinting and jumping, and others will go to the field and throw things. In track cycling, from what I have seen in Canada, the kids are encouraged to try everything as well. The difference lies in the training and of course this will vary from coach to coach and region to region. The term “kid” must also be defined more clearly moving forward.
I want to define the age range in question as the high school age of about 13-18 years old. During this age range in T&F, you have generally figured out whether or not you’re a sprinter, middle distance runner, long distance runner, jumper, thrower, or utility athlete (does well in most events, but not a superstar in any – this was me). For training purposes, when you look at a T&F practice, it is often broken down into training groups; even at the grassroots level. How specific these groups are is of course dependent upon the coaches available, their resources, and their knowledge of each group. When we look at a track cycling practice, things can be a little different. I have often seen multiple training groups on a track, but they are typically different levels of endurance athletes. I understand sprint groups are typically few and far between, but that’s the point.
After noticing this, I decided to talk to coaches and older riders about the idea of youth sprint groups. Of course, older sprinters (> 19 years old) are onboard. It was interesting to hear the concerns, though, of youth coaches, non-sprint coaches, and endurance riders. There seemed to be this idea that we cannot “specialize” riders too young as sprinters. Why not? No one was able to give me a reasonable answer, but I typically heard,
“they need to develop base miles and riding experience first,”
“they need to learn how to spin,”
“they need to learn tactics from bunch racing,”
“it’s bad for their overall development,”
“it’s bad for their bodies as they mature,”
“there’s nothing in it for sprinters, so why bother (no money or fame)”
“Canada funds pursuiters, so we should focus on pursuiting”
Then there seemed to be a general concern for the athletes being in the weight room “too early” and falling into classic fallacies like becoming big muscle-bound meatheads that couldn’t pedal up a hill even if there were donuts at the top.
The problem that I see with this mentality is that we are selling our young riders future short, by only really offering them the opportunity to pursue half of a sport. Children and adolescents are fairly in-tune with activities they like and activities they don’t like. I mean that some kids want to sprint and know they are generally faster than their peers, but if they must sprint at the end of a 2-hour road ride they might not be that great. These kids are either going to quit because they’re doing too much endurance work, or they’re going to sandbag efforts, or do enough to stay on the end of the pack. Sometimes you need to let the wolf feed.
I want to take this opportunity to address some of the concerns above with youth athletic development. The first major point is that by taking a stance of “not specializing early as sprinters” we actually end up specializing towards the endurance end of the spectrum without thinking about it. Most youth groups have predominantly endurance work throughout their training. If they’re riding road, mountain bike (MTB), or cross, these are all endurance disciplines. Do they involve high-power events or bursts of speed? Yes, but nothing close to the power outputs of a track sprinter. We know from research that genetic potential plays a major role in sprint-ability. However, we have also seen, that epigenetics plays a role as well. Epigenetics is how our genes express themselves. Our training will directly impact these and the more explosive and speed-oriented training we do as youth athletes, the higher our ability to express force, speed, and power later in life. This can help in the development of more Type IIa muscle fibers (the fast-twitch, fatigue-resistant fibers). This is extremely important in the long-term development of sprinters. If they are doing tons of road miles in their development, we are potentially limiting their potential. This is also why we see athletes come from other strength/power/speed sports into track cycling and excel like Hugo Barrette, Kate O’Brien, Kelsey Mitchell, and Curt Harnett. They had genetic potential to be fast, but they developed speed/power qualities in other sports then learned how to ride a bike in their adult years.
If we move down the list from above and look at spinning and tactics next. I don’t know why it is thought that you can’t learn these qualities from sprinting. Sprinters spend an awful lot of time on rollers which is basically overspeed training. Sprinters can hit 235+ RPM while balancing on these and hold for 6-10 seconds. If you have an inefficient pedal stroke, you will bounce yourself right of these. Sprinters will typically do cadence pyramids and other cadence drills on these for neuromuscular workouts. Depending on how they are programmed, they can also create a high lactate response. This type of work helps to train your muscles to contract and relax at higher speeds than you could ever reach on track. Since youth are gear-restricted in races, they generally hit about 160 RPM in a sprint race, compared to an elite who will hit 120-135 RPM in a much larger gear. So, sprinters are learning to spin, but what about tactics. Just like their endurance brethren, they must race to learn. To learn sprint tactics, you must race in sprinting, but you don’t need to exclusively race sprints. Sprinters can and should race certain bunch races for both tactics and fitness. They can even race crits on the road to gain these tactics. The thing is, though, that they can’t simply be raced whenever you want. They must be strategically picked and input into the yearly training plan. If you’re a month out from Nationals, you’re not racing crits, you’re focused on the track.
The next two points focus on the physiological development of young bodies. Sprinters are thought of as meatheads and if we train youth athletes like sprinters, they’re going to lift heavy all the time, become lazy, and ride their bikes less. So, if we looked at youth athletes as mini-adults then yes, this might happen. However, if we approach this with long-term athlete development at heart, then we will progress through their training as we would any endurance athlete, but with a different focus. Sprinters will ride their bikes less simply because the event calls for it. In T&F we don’t send 100m athletes out for 10km jogs (or we shouldn’t be). The same idea works on the bike, we shouldn’t be sending sprinters out for a 3-hour road ride up a mountain. I typically hear, “but where is the aerobic work?” Sprinters need to do aerobic work of course, but they also need to do a lot more alactic work compared to endurance riders. If we look at Charlie Francis’s work, Derek Hansen’s work, and the coaches at Altis, they all show similar ideas with younger (weaker and slower) athletes doing 60% aerobic, low-intensity GPP work and 40% alactic, high-intensity SPP work. As the athletes get faster and the demands on the nervous system increase, then the high-intensity work actually decreases because of the toll it takes while the GPP work increases to facilitate recovery and maintain fitness. Some of you are asking about HIIT or anaerobic work and that is included in the high-intensity percentage due to the stress it has on the central nervous system (CNS). So, sprinters are getting aerobic work – I cannot state strongly enough, either, that sprinters do need aerobic work to maintain a high enough capacity to perform the high-intensity work required. It is structured and dosed differently than endurance athletes, though – but they’re also training off the bike in the weight room more. Here they are learning how to lift and generate non-specific force, to jump, and throw as well. They are exposed to more of a variety of activities all designed to improve force production, overcome inertia, and generate and withstand large torques which they will experience as the gear restrictions are lifted at U19. By participating in more activities off the bike, sprinting can be seen as less of a specialized activity relative to endurance riding due to the amount of time required to be on the bike. The point is, that sprinting shouldn’t be considered as “early specialization” because these athletes are typically exposed to variation in their training. I think it’s time we make sprinting great again.
Finally, the ego points, not focusing on sprinting because Canada doesn’t fund it. This is the worst excuse for not coaching sprinters. There is an equal medal count for both endurance events and sprint events (6 and 6) and yet we tend to focus only on the team pursuit and if riders can, they might ride the omnium. To be honest though, Canada doesn’t fund most sports except for a few. I understand that getting a pro contract for a road team is possible and you can live and ride on that. Most Olympic sport athletes, though, don’t have those options in their sport and yet we see athletes still competing for their trip to the Olympics and to fight for a medal. If we create the pathways to develop sprinters, there are spots on the National team, there are the Olympics, and then there are always tournaments around the world to go to if you so choose. There is also the new UCI track league, but it is yet to be determined when and what that will look like exactly.
In conclusion, I think we need to re-evaluate our ideas in developing sprinters, and I think the idea of it being taboo needs to be lifted. Sprinters are a dying breed, minus a couple of pockets, in Canada. With a better long-term development pathway for sprinters that is visible, I think we can lift the curtain and see sprinting grow. I might have to write a secondary article outlining more of an outline of possibilities for creating a sprinting pathway. I think I’ve rattled on too long as it is. For now, we need to examine our own biases and open our minds to sprinting, without losing the endurance pathways we’ve already developed. Europe, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, the Caribbean, South America, and Asia have all developed great sprinters and have depth within their pools. Franck Durivaux is doing a great job with our sprinters which has been fantastic to watch, but what are we doing at the grassroots level to create a bigger pool?