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Training as a masters sprinter.
I began taking part in track and field, in the sprints, in 1998 as a fifteen year old. Over the last 22 years, I have been exposed to the work of some excellent coaches, and I have tried various things. I always enjoy hearing the approaches of other athletes, and more recently, masters athletes. I therefore thought others may enjoy some of the observations I have made regarding my own training throughout my journey in the sport.
Training volume is the amount of work done. On the track it is often expressed as the total number of meters run, in the weight room, it is expressed as the total number of pounds lifted, and on the road it is often expressed as the total number of miles accumulated.
I really wish I had kept a training diary as a teenager, so I had accurate records, but I recall doing quite a large volume of general work. A typical off season workout may have been two sets of five laps of the track, striding the straights, and jogging the bends. In that workout alone, there is 2000 meters of tempo work and a further 2000 meters of jogging, not accounting for the warm up. Our training squad also completed fartlek (a word of Swedish origin, ‘fart’ meaning speed, and ‘lek’ meaning play), which involved fairly long duration runs, potentially 20 minutes or more, with different sections of the run being performed at different speeds. My training group had a lot of success, with one of the sprinters running 100 meters in 10.22 seconds at eighteen years, and a fourteen year old girl running 100 meters in 11.79 seconds, and this helps support my view that as a developmental athlete, larger volumes of general work may serve a purpose. Tissues are subjected to, and therefore conditioned by, many contacts. The athlete learns how to operate under fatigue. The energy systems are challenged allowing the athletes to better recover both within and between workouts.
As a masters athlete, I am far more conservative in the volumes I expose myself to. A lot of the more general qualities listed above have been in place for many years, and it takes far less work to maintain those qualities than it does to develop them initially. Additionally, I, as will many masters sprinters, have suffered with Achilles issues over the years. One of the factors that appears to cause my Achilles to flare up is large amounts of volume. My personal experience is that sessions regularly exceeding 1000 meters expose me to a greater risk of problems. However, this is ample volume to develop many of the qualities needed as a sprinter. A typical acceleration workout would not exceed 400 meters of running, nor would a typical maximum velocity workout, provided those runs were being run with maximal, or near maximal, intensity. Even true speed endurance workouts can be completed with little over 600-700 meters of running. Tempo workouts require a little more consideration, and due to the volume limit, I typically place more emphasis on intensive tempo workouts as opposed to extensive tempo workouts. Volume and intensity are linked and I will cover workout intensities later in this post, but as it sounds, intensive tempo workouts are completed at a higher velocity, with longer recoveries between the runs.
A final point relating to volume is ‘listening to your body’. This is a phrase that gets thrown around a lot when speaking with athletes, but it becomes more important to pay attention to any signs your body is given you as you get older. As mentioned, Achilles issues, and also hamstring issues, are more common in older athletes, so one of the ways the risk can be mitigated, is by walking away from workouts early if something does not feel right. I try to tell myself that progress is not determined by a few superhero workouts, but an accumulation of consistent training.
Training intensity refers the effort given within a bout of exercise. In the weight room, intensity is typically expressed as a percentage of the maximum weight an individual is able to lift for the exercise (one rep max or 1RM). Similarly, on the track, intensity could be expressed as a percentage, but a knowledge of the athlete’s personal best time for that distance is imperative, so the percentages can be calculated. If an athlete has a 100 meter personal best of 10.00 seconds, their average velocity is 100 meters/10 seconds, which is equal to 10 meters per second. This would be 100% intensity, and then the intensity ranges could be calculated for 100 meter reps from the average velocity.
Throughout my first few years sprinting, into my early twenties, the proportion of high intensity sprint training I completed increased, and I saw consistent progress. If the objective of an event is to run as fast as possible, then I believe it is clear that, at some point, in training, the athlete needs exposure to maximal intensity sprinting. However, I believe I took this concept too far for a few years and attempted to sprint at maximal intensity too often, and more recently I have begun to consider how often maximal sprints need to be completed in training. The higher the intensity of the training, generally, the greater the inherent risk of injury, and as an older athlete, we have already covered that injury risk is elevated, so it makes sense to be cautious regarding how frequently very high intensity sprints are programmed. The silver lining to this is that sub-maximal effort sprints have a couple of benefits. Firstly, they allow for the repetition to be completed with more optimal mechanics. It is easier to run with relaxation and greater levels of coordination with your foot slightly off the gas. As I mentioned, volume and intensity are linked, and the fact that the intensity is lower, allows for a higher volume to be completed, which therefore means these more optimal mechanics can be practiced more, creating a better environment for motor learning and increasing the odds of retaining these more optimal mechanics. Due to the reasons outlined above, more recently I have been completing the majority of my speed development sessions at closer to 95% (or in some cases below).
Training density is the amount of work completed within a given timeframe. This can refer to the work completed within one workout, or how many workouts are completed in a week, month or a year.
As volume and intensity are linked, density is also related. With increased training density, the overall intensity needs to decrease. Consider complete four runs over 150 meters with 90 seconds rest, or four runs over 150 meters with ten minutes rest. The latter option would allow those runs to be completed in a faster time. Likewise, it becomes very challenging to train with maximal intent seven days per week, whereas if training two or three days a week, those workouts are more likely to be able to be completed at very high levels of intensities.
Growing up in England, the typical track and field club system meant that I trained three days each week. When I started university, I was lucky enough to attend an institution that invested in athletics, and therefore had an indoor 200 meter track and a professional attitude towards the development of their athletes. This led to my training increasing to six workouts per week, a combination of track and weight room sessions. My circumstances at the time allowed for that much time to be devoted to training. I did not have a job or a family, and my grades did not appear to suffer as a result.
Most masters athletes do not only train, but also work full time, and many have families, and whilst these are extremely important aspects of a balanced life, often necessary to create a positive living environment, there is no denying that in order to have a successful career, or to be a successful spouse or parent, that a time must be invested. Therefore it often becomes more practical to reduce the training density and complete fewer workouts each week. I think this can bring about advantages, in that it becomes easier to ensure there is adequate recovery between workouts. There are many stories of masters athletes who have tried to do too much work, train as they did in their teens and twenties, and ended up burnt out or injured. As an older athlete, recovery time may be more important, not necessarily because we are simply older, but because the extra responsibilities in our lives are a stressor, meaning that the recovery process may be prolonged.
Above are just a few of the observations I have made about training as I have gotten older over the past couple of decades. It is worth noting I have made many mistakes along the way, but I have sought to learn from each of them. A common goal amongst masters athletes is reduce the incidence of injury, as each injury is a known risk factor, meaning there is a stronger likelihood of future injuries. There is nothing more frustrating as an athlete, as never feeling like you are able to make progress because you are constantly having to take time off from training due to injury. It is therefore important to weigh up the potential reward, related to any decision made regarding training, with the potential risk. My advice would be to exercise a good deal of caution, because as they say, the greatest ability is availability.