Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Do weights have anything to do with sprinting?

I was doing some squats yesterday morning. Today I'm trying not to think about tomorrow's defense, so I wrote this post. Here goes.

I was thinking about my previous post which briefly mentioned good lifting technique. What I wrote was when lifting heavy, you must keep your heels firmly planted on the ground. You benefit from wearing shoes with as little cushioning as possible. You'll see people wearing Vibrams at the gym these days. Don't laugh, they have the right idea; laugh at the ones wearing thick-soled shoes believing this to be a good idea. Never mind, the whole idea of keeping on your heels was what as interesting to me: it got me thinking about its connection to running.
Runners are always told to use the front of their foot as much as possible when running fast, i.e. sprinting. Our coach at McGill told us to keep on our toes during sprint drills, strides, and other speed work. He's not alone. It's pretty uncontroversial to say sprinters (60 - 600m distance) keep mostly on their toes when racing. Herein lies the disconnect that got me thinking. Although lifting heavy sounds like sprint training (both involve coordinating a lot of muscles for a short period), they actually seem to have precious little in common. Hence the idea of lifting heavy weights to improve your speed training has a few problems in my mind. The first problem, as I have already stated, is that ideal sprinting uses your toes while ideal weight lifting (squats and dead lifts in particular) use your heels. I have never heard of anyone directly address this issue. To be fair, some coaches might not claim weights make you sprint faster and I am beginning to think along the same lines.

Then there's another interesting, bigger issue that runs along the same line as the one above, and that concerns the speed of lifting weights. In Dr. Livingstone's book Healthy Intelligent Training, he highlights that distance athletes benefit the most from lifting very heavy weights. He mentions how he did not lift heavy enough (too many reps), and although his sprint times improved his middle distance times did not. Another clue. He emphasizes that to lift heavy you must lift slow. This should come as no surprise, and slow movements seem like the exact of the opposite of what a sprinter wants to train. Livingstone mentions there are some weight trainers out who will tell you to lift heavy and fast. Such advice is probably directed at pro weight lifters. Weight lifters do the clean and jerk motion pretty damn quick, but do they look anything like a sprinter? Slow and eccentric is what's usually done for endurance types, in agreement with Livingstone.

Interestingly, another place where I read about lifting heavy was in Bompa's weight training book Periodized Training for Sports. Unfortunately Bompa's book provides its own internal contradiction worth mentioning here. He encourages both sprint and endurance runners to lift heavy (i.e. 80-90% 1 rep max), but he later criticizes distance runners who use steep hill training as a poor substitute for weights because you spend too many milliseconds with your feet on the ground! (p. 41) I had to re-read that part a few times and make sure I was still holding the same book. Bompa's idea comes from slow joggers spending about 0.3 seconds on the ground, whereas top sprinters take only 0.1 seconds. Numbers vary, but no barbell squat is ever completed in so short a time. Hill running is surely a better way to practice a strong toe-off, no? In both endurance running and heavy loads you keep your heels on the ground and perform (relatively) slow movements. Weights ought to supply your body with stresses that cannot be had easily from running outside, else they'd be redundant, but they should also in some way simulate what you do while running. Will training to keep on your heels on the ground as you lift slow be good sprint training where you push with your toes fast? 

The conclusion seemed unavoidable to me: Heavy weights have more in common with distance running than sprinting. Lifting heavy appears to have more in common with distance running where the heel plays an important role (thought both require a toe-off after landing). I know there's plenty of debate about 'ideal' distance running technique. Some of the best marathoners land on their heels, others don't, but certainly spend more time on your heels than a sprinter. Sprinters meanwhile spend a lot of time with exercises strengthening their toe-off and reflex drills. I've even read that bunion surgery is not recommended for sprinters because they put so much stress on their first metatarsal they risk breaking the semi-permanently weakened big toe. Lots of power in those legs to be sure. Meanwhile distance runners need not worry as much about the time spent 'on ground' while landing/pushing off compared with the goal of lengthening their strides with strong -hence durable- legs. Ultrarunners are surprisingly muscular. I don't know what 1500m-to-marathon racers ideally need in terms of weights. Perhaps the shorter your distance, the farther weights should be from your race phase (this seems counter-intuitive but I think it is correct. Sprinters already receive plenty of acute muscle stress from their race-prep phase sprinting, whereas marathoners might need to balance high rep/low impact long runs with low rep high load weights). 

Again, from my own point of view, it seems lifting heavy is a good way to learn how to push off slowly but firmly. A good endurance program, like the one I've been given by my coach John Lofranco, includes both weights and hills. I had thought they were working the same muscles because they superficially resembled each other and I foolishly slacked off the weights. I realize now they are pushing two very different systems. Hill work is not the same thing as weight training! Meanwhile a lot of distance runners stay out of the gym entirely. With all this confusion going on, and given that each athlete reacts differently to weight stress, I guess I don't blame them. To summarize, here is the skeleton diagram I'm imagining:
The hills-to-flat sprint transition I borrowed directly from Steve Magness' blog, the cyclic nature is from Bompa's work, but the heavy weight to hard interval/longer run transition is harder to find anywhere stated explicitly. From this diagram the heavy weights play an early season role and disappear once hard intervals take over. But for longer distances marathon and beyond you might hold on to weights a little longer. I'm hoping to verify as many of these claims as soon as I can. 

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