Dan Pfaff is widely regarded as one of the world’s top track and field coaches, having coached 33 Olympians to seven medals and 45 World Championships performers to ten medals – across sprints, jumps and throws.
In the second part of this interview Dan discusses his unique philosophy on training and key issues in youth development.
When you have a good young developing athlete who is showing potential to move on to greater things, as a coach what should you be aware of as they develop?
When you have a gifted junior, you will see certain strengths. Keep those strengths, even embellish them, and then put them on the shelf whilst you are fixing weaknesses. Always keep the strong cards alive but don’t let the weaknesses become a psychosis.
The athletes read us, so if we put a lot of time and emotion, energy and concern into weaknesses, then pretty soon those weaknesses are magnified because of our intent. Similarly if we don’t praise the strong points they begin to wonder if these strengths are really strong anymore. So the day to day management of psychological issues is really important.
As an athlete’s body develops they become physically able to handle different types of training, tempting you as a coach to try new things. Perhaps the timeframe for introducing these things and getting good at them should be two years. However I often see coaches rushing to implement stuff over a couple of months because they believe other athletes are already proficient at the exercise and so their athlete must catch up, increasing the chances of injury while failing to maximise the potential gains from the exercise due to poor adaptation. Bounding is a good example of something that is often introduced too quickly and without a structured progression. Instead of jumping straight in, we might first introduce straight leg scissor bounds or flexed leg scissor bounds and then later skips for height and eventually my entire “rudiments” series (Dan has several series of exercises for athletes in all power speed events, which can be seen on his General Strength DVD). Having learned the technique there must then be an incubation period to master these drills so the athlete does not become sore and develop injuries. After this stabilisation phase you then systematically introduce the exercises that you think a person of this training age and experience should have in their arsenal. For me unrushed, systematic, gradual, uniform change to a programme is the key to developing the talented athlete.
Another potential pitfall for the developing athlete is as they mature, their life becomes more complex. So when they were young and training in a controlled environment they behaved in a certain way. Now they may be living alone, going to university or working, they may have to drive across town to train with you, they get into relationships and invariably they get out of relationships. Everything becomes more complicated as they get older. As coaches we have to understand these factors and manipulate training to fit around the athlete. We have to consider if we can reduce these factors and if we cannot, then we might have to train an athlete lighter then when they were a junior. It is counter intuitive but it works. I have had kids that have gone to medical school and on Saturdays I can get something done because they are excited and glad to be out of the classroom. Well my instinct says lets try and do a session on Sunday too but they are so tired from a week of study and Saturday’s workout that Sunday is just not a good day to train. I have had kids that trained just on a Tuesday, a Friday and a Saturday and had them make NCAA finals and International teams because they already had enough background as a junior, we just identified a few key themes that they needed to keep going whilst they studied.
So with these young athletes how do you go about creating a base for them?
Everyone talks about building a base before we train and my question is, ‘a base of what?’ People talk about an aerobic base but I prefer the term ‘work capacity’ because to develop as a power speed athlete you need to be able to handle a certain volume of event and power specific work. So I create my base through general strength circuits, medball workouts, multiple jumps and weight training – regardless of whether they are a sprinter, hurdler, thrower or jumper. For example, on one of our days we do 1-2 bodyweight general strength circuits, 1-2 med ball circuits and a hurdle mobility circuit. Now to do all of these routines takes between 38-42min and we’ve put heart rate monitors on our people and their heart rates never drop below 140bpm. As a result the athletes got 40 minutes of aerobic activity doing power speed related motor specific exercises as well as prehab and rehab work which is much more time efficient than going for a 40min run or sitting your bum on a bike for 40m because now you covered four things at once and saved a lot of energy and therapy time!
So for power speed athletes (sprints, hurdles, jumps and throws) what systems do you train?
Fundamentally we train Frank Dick’s five bio motor abilities (speed, stamina, skill, suppleness and strength) and then each one of those categories has maybe 20-30 subcategories. Energy system wise we are primarily training ATP and alactic systems but more interestingly we work on training neurochemistry and neuropsychology which are the most important factors for power speed athletes.
What is neuropsychology?
Neuropsychology to me could be the fascial matrix, it could be the central nervous system; it is the biophysics and the neurology of the psychological process – mind, thought and subconscious movement. The classic example is someone is running, they hear a shout and they turn and catch a baseball or something like that. Those kind of reflexive movements are only possible when athletes are in ‘the zone’ and I’m really intrigued by these ‘flow state’ mechanics. When it happens, they are unconscious about what they did and what they felt. You always hear, ‘coach the gun went off and I was at the finish and I didn’t feel anything. I didn’t notice anybody.’ Well how do you explain that they just ran 100m in 46 steps and recorded a lifetime best when they don’t remember a thing?! And Oschman the biophysicist feels that the semiconducting fascial matrix allows the body to react and transmit information faster than what is possible given the traditionally accepted pathways. So trying to tap into this system is the new frontier for coaching and all human performance and something we work on daily in our training.
Turning to training, how do you begin to put an athlete’s training program together?
Putting an athletes training and season together is a lot like a jigsaw puzzle. The wellness of the athlete and efficiency of the training are the two foundations that we build the house upon and then we aim to improve the relevant sub systems that are deficient. A lot of it is about checking and deciding what needs to be dealt with and I operate on the premise that you want to keep athletes strengths foremost in their minds. We don’t stop training their strengths, instead we try and work out how to maintain them or slightly improve them whilst we are dealing with the viruses, weaknesses and uncertainties that affect the modern track and field athlete.
So how do you decide if something needs to be worked on?
The way we design training is a kind of a self tutorial, where the athlete, the coach and the team mates can readily identify weaknesses. A case in point is when people come to us and start doing acceleration development workouts. When they are doing them correctly, with the focus and intensity required, they are fatigued after nine or ten runs. However, people who have been in the system longer can do the same exercise eighteen times before they fatigue. The new athlete that is only doing nine reps looks around at everyone else who is doing eighteen and they know straight away that they have to upgrade that quality. Then we go to the Olympic platform and do twelve sets of one rep for power clean or snatch and they have to start reducing the weight on the bar after the sixth or seventh set, while the other athletes continue to increase load on the bar for all sets. It quickly becomes obvious where their weaknesses are.
So more is better?
Well you can only do what the athlete can withstand and there is a cost benefit analysis to it all. Could we do more? Yes, but then the risk of injury rises which could mess up their biochemistry and stall their progress. So we did more but where did it get us? There is this myth that if you train harder and longer, or you do more of it then you will be instantly be a better athlete. This is one of the single greatest myths in power speed out there. It is like how strong do you need to be to be a world class thrower? Or how far do you need to stretch out your sprint runs in order to develop endurance. I’ve had several sub-10 athletes who NEVER ran anything further than 150m in training. Now there are systems where athletes run 500, 400, 300 and do intensive tempo 10x200m and all that kind of stuff and they are very successful but the way we train and package things we try and see how little we can do to get the maximum results because we want to minimise the injury risk and maximise the use of the time we have available.
So as a workout unfolds how do you know when the athlete is becoming prone to injury?
I look at postural integrity. If they start to change postures and sub-recruit muscles they shouldn’t be using I stop the workout. I look at the reflexivity of the joints and how fluid the motion is. If the fluidity goes away and it starts to look mechanical we stop. In terms of recovery between sessions and readiness to train that day, depending on the budget we also look at many markers of recovery from pulse rate right through to using portable blood lactate analysers and taking blood and urine to look for chemical markers.
Doing this kind of analysis on world class athletes tells you a lot of things, for example, on acceleration development days we may do 5x3x10-40m with 3-5min minutes between runs. Well with guys like Donovan Bailey, Oberdaley Thompson, Karim Street-Thompson, Bruny Surin, they would be pumping 18mmols of lactate at the end of that workout whereas a world class quarter miler at the end of the race is only pumping 10-11mmol. So lactate isn’t the enemy. Actually if you study the Krebs cycle lactate is very anabolic so we want lactate, we just want to control what days we get it, how much and what we do when it is in the blood stream. The better the power speed athlete the greater the amounts of lactate they can produce. I mean we have throwers on the Olympic platform and when they are done with the lifts they are pumping 12-14mmols of lactate and they haven’t run a step. Also on block workout days we then go to the Olympic platform and we setup curves of lactate infusion because one of the problems we have in sprinting, at the world class level, is four races in two days at the big championships and so there are huge slopes to these blood lactate levels. The athletes have to learn how to weather very steep lactate introductions into the tissue and then rapid dismissal of it. And that is very different to putting an athlete in tempo training or interval training – during which you would traditionally get an athlete to a certain level of lactate and do work there. Sprinters and Jumpers never encounter that kind of lactate environment in competition so why train them there?