The useful thing about modern training theory is that it was put together by scientists using empirical and replicable evidence rather than a hodge-podge of ideas and intellectual artifacts advanced by coaches. Because it is rooted in science, training theory is an ever-changing set of principles and concepts that evolve as better scientific testing is done. The primary literature has been very beneficial to middle-distance coaches over the past ten years especially. Scientists working in sophisticated, modern laboratories have provided coaches with contemporary research findings such as rest issues, recovery protocol, economy efficiency and muscular actions such as stretching guidelines to help with structuring a workout, and which they can apply to their athletes. This information is just reaching the secondary literature and there are many questions from middle-distance coaches as to what they have recently heard. Much of this new information is directly applicable to setting up a modern practice session for the athlete in such a way as to not only attain more work, but also to aid in regeneration issues as the athlete recovers.
Physiologists recommend a preferred order in the units that an athlete does in a practice session. Generally speaking, the more technical or skilful the activity, the earlier in the practice session it should be done. Conversely, the more endurance related the practice unit, then the later in the practice session it should be done. A classic example in middle-distance training is the concept of maximum speed work sessions, and by this do we mean “strides” at the end of practice? Maximum speed work is always done with work of 60 meters or less on the fly. It is also characterized by at least three minutes of recovery between bouts of work in order to ensure full recovery of the alactic anaerobic energy system. Having a middle-distance runner do 8 x 40 meters on the fly, with three minutes rest between is a very technical workout. The athlete should be as fresh as possible and this should be done as the first unit following a dynamic and thorough warm-up routine. The force production necessary to attain maximum speed is more then four times the force needed to maintain VO2 max pace. This is a great dynamic strength unit as well as a unit to promote more efficient neuro-muscular technique. Flying 40 meters make you faster! Strides at the end of middle-distance practice are a different story. Strides are usually done in distance of 50-100 meters and usually done on football fields or on track straight-aways. A short jog or walk back is the popular rest technique. Doing strides at the end of practice moves the focus from a technical unit to an endurance unit. Why? When an athlete is fatigued their stride length decreases and stride rate diminishes. Both of these factors must be at optimal levels to improve maximum speed. In addition, strides done as described are too far in distance. Running fast for more than 60 meters places a greater emphasis on the lactic energy system and leads to acidosis which mot only deteriorates performance, but influences recovery. This information does not mean you should give up strides at the end of a practice session. What it does say, is use strides to enhance the anaerobic speed endurance, but not as a tool for maximum speed development.
Tip from Coach Christensen: How to Run the 800 Meter (video)
Another area that has been thoroughly investigated over the past ten years is the concept of static stretching muscles and where to place that unit in a practice session. There is no doubt that the static stretching of muscles leads to a deterioration of their maximal force production for a time. Just pick up a rubber band and perform your own experiment. Long distance runners do not need much force production to run at speeds slower than the lactate threshold pace and hardly any force production is needed at the aerobic threshold pace, so pre-exercise stretching is not harmful to them. It does feel good to stretch and it helps remove crystallized salts from muscle membranes and joints so some light static stretching has application with these athletes. Middle-distance runners who practice at 120-134% of their VO2 max pace on a regular basis do have an issue with pre-exercise stretching. Necessary force production is compromised. For middle-distance athletes the primary use of static muscle stretching should occur as the last unit of a practice session.
The enzymes that regulate all of the elevated aerobic and anaerobic reactions that surround distance running perform better at a metabolic temperature above the basal level. For that reason the first unit of any middle-distance practice session should be an extensive dynamic session that emphasizes slow metabolic temperature elevation and an increase in range of motion activities. Once this unit of “warm-up” occurs the athlete can move on to their major unit of focus that day, keeping in mind once again that endurance units always follows technical units. Strength units need to be characterized as to what they are: endurance, power, or maximum strength work (technical) in order to place them in the session as well. Set them up in the same manner as your running units. For example, the core body work that has become very common in middle-distance training should be done as the last unit of the session. The goal of the activity is to maintain body posture as the athlete fatigues during the workout or race and thus is an endurance activity.
Scott Christensen is the head track coach at Stillwater Area High School in Oak Park Heights, MN.