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Stop Dragging Your Toes: Part V

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Stuart McMillan

Stuart McMillan

ALTIS CEO

In part IV, I discussed the general framework by which we go about designing our input (in this specific case, the ‘technical’ input of block clearance and early acceleration).  In part V, I’d like to take it a step further, and discuss how we do this in practice – i.e. what are the next steps in determining how each athlete should move? 

If you remember back in part III, I offered two reasons why it is not a good idea to teach a low heel recovery for all athletes:

  1. In most cases, the nature of the 100m sprint requires maximizing the effectiveness of an athlete’s maximum velocity – improving initial acceleration is important, but not if it has detrimental effects later in the race
  2. Athletes are unique, and should be coached as such; meaning – rather than applying a single technical model for all athletes, part of a coach’s responsibility is to determine how to maximize the unique abilities of each athlete

The following article will  discuss this in slightly greater detail – especially as it relates to the identification of each athlete’s ‘unique abilities’, and how we go about organizing our training to best take advantage of these abilities.  

As we have discussed, all athletes have unique bodies, all have unique constraints, and so therefore have unique movement patterns.  It is for this reason that we cannot identify one single technical model that we can universally apply to all athletes.  

That said, due to the “constantly fluctuating array of diverse constraints” of the athlete-task-environment system, it seems that it is also impossible to design individual technical models for each athlete.  Even if we could identify optimum athlete-specific techniques, it is highly unlikely that athletes would be able to consistently reproduce these techniques (Glazier, 2019). 

Thus, there is a challenge here: there is no ideal model consistent to all, but it is impossible to design individual models for all athletes. 

So where does that leave us?

For me, managing this challenge is a two-step process:

  1. Identify the athletes’ unique abilities
  2. Mailbox (or categorize) each athlete into the appropriate classification 

IDENTIFY UNIQUE ABILITIES

An athlete’s unique abilities are those factors that co-exist and interact to form the athlete’s ‘authentic movement solution’.  As discussed in part III, this solution includes both internal and external factors – i.e. their structure, their force-producing abilities, their coordination, and their current technical understanding of the task at hand.  We go about this fact-finding process through two methods of analysis: qualitative and quantitative. 

Many in the industry will take their athletes through some sort of ‘quantitative’ screening process early in the training year.  Often this is even the very first day of training.   

We do not do this.  

Rather, we go through a 2-3 week ‘qualitative’ process first, where we ‘live’ with the athlete – watching her, talking to her, getting to know her.  Only after this process, will we move on to more quantitative methods.  

These qualitative factors include asking a number of questions – some directly of the athlete, and some we ‘ask’ ourselves – in our attempt to better understand how the athlete moves:  

  1. What kind of training has she done previously, and what does she think ‘worked’?  What did she enjoy? 
  2. What was she doing when she first felt ‘good’ at what she was doing?
  3. Is she comfortable with small ranges of motion, but uncomfortable and uncoordinated at larger ranges?  
  4. Does she have trouble with slower sprint drills as compared to faster sprint drills?  
  5. Does she move forward really well, but look like she’s always off-balance moving backwards? 
  6. What are the shapes, patterns, rhythms, and postures she creates through all of the training menu-items?
  7. Does she prefer to be on the ground, rather than in the air when she sprints?  Is this any different to her warm-up?
  8. What is her energy like?  Does this change when moving from the warm-up into the main session?  Does it change when moving from the track into the weight room? 
  9. What movements is she more-comfortable with in the weight room? 

Of course, this list is not comprehensive, and many more questions will come about as we go through the process.  We very rarely will identify the most-relevant questions to ask before we have embarked on any process.  It is only once we are going through something, that we have enough information to ask the relevant questions. While some of this first 2-3 week period is ‘structured’ training, a lot of the daily details are fluid; in effect, it is a trial & error process – where we continually place the athlete in various situations depending on what we are currently observing. 

Bringing this back around to our low-heel recovery theme: through this qualitative process, we will observe how an athlete accelerates naturally (i.e. without instruction of any sort, and without any manipulation of the task constraints).  We might then also observe how she changes her technique based upon coaching instruction or constraint-manipulation.  For example, how does her acceleration change if I ask her to push out more horizontally? Or how does it change if we move from the grass to the track?  Or from a 2 point to a block start? Or how does it change if she is accelerating by herself, compared to with others? Do we see low-heel recovery as her ‘natural solution’, or do we see a more cyclical action?  

American sprinter, Chris Royster, has been with us for four years now.  Chris is a toe-dragger. He came to us as a toe-dragger. At that point in his career, he had been dragging his toes for a few years, and this had become his ‘typical solution’ to the ‘problem’ of block clearance and early acceleration (initial few steps).  Now – as you might have gathered by now – we don’t ‘believe’ in toe-dragging, per se.  

One option when we have an athlete who moves in a way we disagree with is to do everything we can do to alter their technique to something more in-line with what our technical model is; but – as you also might have gathered by now – this is not what we recommend, and is not what we did.  

Dr. Paul Glazier, in the aforementioned paper, described the difficulty of making a technical modification to a ‘stable’ movement pattern:

“… given the many hours of deliberate practice that elite athletes, in particular, engage in during their sporting careers, it is conceivable that many of them have gone through a long process of self-optimisation and are already adopting their own optimum technique.”

As Chris had been dragging his toe for a few years by this point, we decided to leave it alone – and instead work on what we thought were more applicable (and perhaps less stable) technical factors (such as improving his rhythm and rise, as described in part IV).  Over time, Chris has become a more effective accelerator, but still drags his toe (although now it is only on 1-2 steps, rather than 3-4!).  

The qualitative assessment period is not only an opportunity to learn about how athletes move, but is also a chance to trial various cueing systems. How do they respond to cues? Do they prefer analogies over external cues?  How are they with internal cues? Do they prefer to watch video prior to reps? What is the density of cueing? How much information can the athlete handle? How little do they require? 

What happens if we ask the athlete to push the ground away?  Does this change the technique?  If the athlete has excessive back-side swing, what happens to the technique if we ask her to drive her thighs forward?  

These are all important questions to ask before even considering a technical change.  

Once we have gone through this qualitative process, we will embark on a more structured quantitative screening process to tease out any information we may not yet have been able to answer.  

This quantitative screen might include:

  1. Anthropometrics
  2. Strength testing
  3. Sprint testing
  4. Biomechanical testing

Note that while we at ALTIS now have access to equipment that can help us focus in on some fairly minute details within the quantitative analysis of an athlete, this is by no means a necessity for athlete success.  There are far more examples of athletes succeeding without access to expensive testing equipment, than there are those who have succeeded in its presence.  

That said – even if you don’t have access to expensive equipment – I encourage all coaches to identify what requires measurement in your specific population of athletes, find ways to measure it, and do it often.  

While not everything that matters can be measured, and not everything that can be measured matters, it is imperative that we seek data to back up our personal biases, intuitions, and anecdotes.  A qualitative approach alone is not enough; the science has to support our coaching. 

Unlike many screening systems, the processes described above do not exist to identify an athlete’s weaknesses, per se; rather it is to identify an athlete’s unique abilities – what are the specific things which make this athlete move the way she moves?  

In this early stage in the process, we don’t have the requisite knowledge to label something a ‘weakness’ yet.  Perhaps what is displaying as a weakness is simply the athlete’s unique solution she has been living with for a decade, based upon some mechanical aberration we are unaware of? 

Perhaps it is even one of the factors responsible for her success?  

A good heuristic for coaches is to focus on what an athlete can do, rather than what they can’t. 

We really must be patient through this period, and finally – once we have a solid understanding of an athlete’s unique abilities – we can move on to designing and organizing the training process.  


MAILBOXING

“In the face of an almost unlimited variability, it is comforting to have some invariant characteristics … [that] … can be used as defining characteristics for sets of movements. More importantly, they suggest inferences about the nature of internal representations or structures that underlie movement production.”

Herbert Heuer, 1991

It is thought to be Plato who first grouped objects based on the similarity of their properties into categories.  Such categorization helps us to recognize, differentiate, and understand our surroundings. It reduces all the complex information into more manageable chunks we can better make sense of. 

Coaches have intuitively categorized their athlete population into smaller groups for decades; the American football coach divides his team by position, and the track and field coach divides them by event.  Of course, this type of categorization is very broad, and most coaches categorize more specifically; the same American football coach may divide his position groups up into starters and back-ups; while the track and field coach may further divide their event groups by ability, with the more elite sprinters training in one group, for example, and the less elite in another.  

As it relates to how athletes move – and in our case, how sprinters clear the blocks – it is useful to categorize further still – into groups based upon their unique abilities: what we call ‘mailboxes’.  

You may be familiar, for example, with my pusher-puller categorization, where I mailbox athletes based upon whether they bias towards pulling (posterior-chain dominant) or pushing (anterior-chain dominant).  

I have found that not only can this help with constructing the technical model, but it can also help direct my programming and my cueing. For example, a pushing athlete will most likely have better kinesthetic feel for how their feet contact the ground; while the pulling athlete will have better kinesthetic feel for their limbs (thigh, knee, hand, etc.) in space. I also tend to organize my training based upon an athlete’s biases; I work towards an athlete’s unique abilities – so if I know the athlete is a posterior-chain pull-dominant athlete, I might look to implement pushing-type work earlier in the training process, and work towards more pulling-type work, when I want them doing things they are good at. 

Another mailbox system we use at ALTIS is based upon horse categorization.  

Horses can be classified into two major groups: light horses, and heavy horses – also called draft horses (a third type – the pony – is believed to have evolved from the light horse).  Different types of horses have been bred for different types of jobs; light horses – of which the Thoroughbred is perhaps the most famous – were bred for speed, agility, endurance, and for riding.  Heavy horses were bred for pulling or carrying loads. The Clydesdale is perhaps the most well-known heavy horse.  

Coach Dan Pfaff has often used this type of categorization for sprinters: on one end of the continuum, you have the swift Thoroughbred; while on the other, you have the powerful Clydesdale.  We have begun to further elucidate the differences between these types by their unique movement solutions, and are currently working to quantify this process. 

The ‘Thoroughbred’ has perhaps a more ‘sophisticated’ and coordinated neuromuscular system – whereby, the timing of their limbs, the fluidity of their movements, and the quality of their ground contact is superior.  Perhaps it can be theorized that these athletes have a greater capacity to use their fascial system: i.e. movement is more ‘connected’ – lacking great muscular power, they rely instead on greater efficiency of movement.  

We term the athletes in this mailbox as ‘fascially-driven’.  

The ‘Clydesdale’, on the other hand, has an entirely different movement solution.  These athletes are generally stronger, more powerful, and more muscular. They rely predominantly on the amount of force they apply into the ground, and ordinarily require greater amounts of time to apply this force than their thoroughbred counterparts. The optimization of their movement solutions necessitates that these athletes maximize their force-producing abilities.  

We term the athletes at this end of the continuum ‘muscularly-driven’.  

Another perspective to conceptualize the difference between ‘fascially-driven’ and ‘muscularly-driven’ may relate to how these athletes transfer weight-room strength into force application on the track. As one might expect, ‘muscularly-driven’ athletes will often excel in the weight room in classic power and strength exercises like Olympic lifts, squats, and deadlifts. On the other hand, ‘fascially-driven’ athletes often struggle to keep up in the weight room, with relative strength ratios that pale in comparison to their ‘muscularly-driven’ counterparts. However, on the track, ‘fascially-driven’ athletes have the mechanics and neuromuscular coordination that allows them to apply large forces into the ground in short contact times, in spite of their lack of classic weight room strength. Carl Lewis, Obadele Thompson, Muna Lee, and Allyson Felix for example, all clearly delivered the necessary forces on the track, even though none of these ‘fascially-driven’ athletes were-are known to be warriors in the weight room.  In fact, if you considered ‘mass-specific force’, as well as the very short time it takes for these athletes to apply it, you might find that these numbers would be higher than their more muscular competitors.

It is important to point out here, that we should not get too caught-up in the terminology, nor overly distracted by binary opposites.  Just because we deem an athlete to be ‘fascially-driven’ does not limit the type of work we can do with them; rather, it simply helps give us a starting position from which to make our decisions.  Understand that all of these classifications exist on a continuum. No one resides on the strict far end of these lines; but classifying athletes as to where they fit on these continuums can make the coach’s decision a little easier. 

It is not only in coaches’ subjective opinions, where mailboxing exists.  There are many examples in the scientific literature.  

For example, a really interesting illustration of mailboxing movements is the work of Thibault Lussiana and Cyrille Gindre, who – with their studies of recreational male runners – identified two different running strategies: “one that relies more on the ability to propel the body forward rather than upward, and another that relies more on the ability to store and release elastic energy.”  They termed those runners who used the first strategy as terrestrial runners, while those who used the second strategy as aerial runners. 

Aerial and Terrestrial Patterns: A Novel Approach to Analyzing Human Running – Lussiana & Gindre, 2015

Runners who use the first strategy are called terrestrial runners; those who use the second strategy are called aerial runners.  

By the way, this is very similar to my push-pull categorization, and we are currently working on something similar with a sprint population – stay tuned!

Another example of a mailboxing system is JB Morin and Pierre Samozino’s Force-Velocity Profiling’ System.  Through force-velocity profiling, a coach can identify whether an athlete is force- or velocity-deficient during a given movement (e.g. vertical jump or a sprint).  A coach can then tailor the training program subject to the athlete’s specific force-velocity profile. 

In a recent study on elite male sprinters, Finish biomechanist Aki Salo outlined the kinematic differences in sprinters, by mailboxing them into stride-length dominant or stride-frequency reliant.

Again – it is important to remember here that this is not a straight-up dichotomy: Salo’s research revealed that “there is a large variation of performance patterns among the elite athletes. There were clearly athletes at the highest elite level of 100-m sprinting who were SL reliant (athletes A10, A9, and A5), whereas only athlete A11 was clearly SF reliant. All other athletes did not have clear reliance on either side.”

That said, there are clear conclusions, and recommendations that can be made from such mailboxing, as described by Salo: “… it is reasonable to conclude that SL is related more to increased force production, and SF is associated with faster force production during the contact and quick leg turnover requiring neural adaptations. Higher SF requires cross bridges within the muscles to be built at high rates, and thus, these need a high rate of neural activation. Consequently, it is proposed that the SF-reliant athletes are required to concentrate on neural activation in their final preparations for the major races and have a nervous system ready such that they can produce the quick turnover of the legs. On the other hand, the SL-reliant athletes need to keep their strength levels up throughout the season and have the required flexibility in the hip area to produce long steps.”

The research of Lussiana, Morin, Salo, and others helps us define an athlete’s unique abilities, and then again to help mailbox them in ways that can inform more individualized technical models, cueing schemes, and programs can help us navigate the complexity of the paradox mentioned earlier: there is no ideal model consistent to all, but it is impossible to design individual models for all athletes. 

Thanks for reading,

In part VI, I will share my own mailbox system as it relates to block clearance and initial acceleration, and how I go about coaching the athlete in front of me. 

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