How Strong Is Strong Enough? Training Considerations for Track and Field Athletes

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Carl Lewis, one of the greatest sprinters and long jumpers of all time, did not lift weights seriously until he was 35, the year before his last Olympics. Obadele Thompson, bronze medalist in the 100-meter dash at the 2000 Olympics, was “allergic to iron” according to his coach, Dan Pfaff. With personal best 100-meter times of 9.86 and 9.87, respectively, it’s hard to argue that either of these men’s performances could have been improved greatly had they been more dedicated to strength training. After all, Lewis once held the world record in the 100 meter, and in 1996, Thompson ran the then fastest 100 meter time ever—9.69 (wind aided). These men are the exception to the rule. Obviously, most of the athletes we come into contact with as strength coaches are not Carl Lewis or Obadele Thompson. For the vast majority of athletes (i.e. those who didn’t inherit some of the greatest genetics of all time), getting stronger is the easiest way to get faster.

How much strength is enough though? As a strength coach with a powerlifting background, one of the hardest lessons for me to learn was that there is, in fact, a point in every sport where increases in strength no longer result in improvements in performance. Some athletes may spend their entire careers training and never reach this point. For others, like the aforementioned Lewis and Thompson, it comes relatively easily. In order to ensure the continued progress of the athlete, it is important for the strength coach to recognize this point and shift the emphasis of the program to the enhancement of lesser developed physical qualities. The following is an analysis of the strength requirements and the relative importance of maximal strength for different disciplines in track and field.

Throwers

There isn't any event in track where maximal strength is more important than the throws. As vital as it is to be strong, however, we have an unnecessary preoccupation with maximal strength in the training of our throwers in the United States. In the shot put, where the velocity of movement is slower than other throwing events, this has helped us achieve great success (6). In the past 20 years, America has won eight of a possible 15 medals in the men’s shot put. In the other three throwing events combined, however, we’ve won one out of a possible forty-five medals in the same time period. In these other events, where lighter implements' mean velocity is the key to throwing far, we have unquestionably failed.

Chad Smith touched on this in his article “Why we actually suck at Olympic lifting.” He states that “once an adequate level of maximal strength has been achieved, everything becomes about speed and technique.” So what is an adequate level of maximal strength for the throws?

In his book, Transfer of Training, Anatoliy Bondarchuk lists characteristics of elite track and field athletes in various events. Below are some of the numbers he presents for throwers:

By looking at the table above, a coach can see where his athletes sit and identify weak points. The following athletes are just beginning to approach the strength numbers laid out by Bondarchuk. Maximal strength is still a priority, but the focus of their training is on speed of movement and keeping them healthy through a very long (25 weeks) season.

Sprinters

Speed is a product of two factors—stride frequency and stride length. The first is relatively difficult to change. The second is easy. The more force an athlete puts into the ground with every step, the further he will go and the fewer steps he will need to cover any given distance. There are several ways to increase stride length, including bounding and uphill running. The most effective, however, is to simply get stronger.

By definition, strength is the ability to overcome inertia. There isn't any point in a race where the athlete must overcome more inertia than the start. Rocketing out of the blocks and accelerating from 0 to 25 mph or more in seconds requires tremendous amounts of strength and power. The shorter the race, the more important the start is because there is less time to gain ground after reaching top speed. Thus, the shorter the race, the more the athlete can benefit from increased strength. An example of this can be seen in one of our sprinters. Last year, he had season bests of 6.98 in the 60 meter, 10.53 in the 100 meter, and 21.33 in the 200 meter. After dedicating himself to the weight room last fall, his squat went from 295 lbs to 340 lbs at a body weight of 170 lbs. This season he posted personal bests of 6.77, 10.41, and 21.29, respectively. As you can see, his greatest improvement came in the shortest race.

While throwers can afford to add significant mass to their frames, sprinters often can't. Joe Douglas, founder of the Santa Monica Track Club, has said “every time you put on a pound, it takes an additional four to twelve more foot-pounds of force to move your body.” For sprinters and jumpers, where strength must be increased without an accompanying increase in muscle mass, relative strength is a more appropriate measure than absolute strength. The goal for all of our male sprinters is to squat twice their body weight. For females, the number to shoot for is 1.5. These numbers aren't set in stone but serve as a general guideline. Beyond this point, the emphasis of the program shifts to improving speed and rate of force development.

Jumpers

For the most part, sprinters and jumpers train the same way. Both must be fast and explosive. Both must have high levels of elastic and speed strength. However, the main difference is the decreased importance of starting strength and acceleration in the jumps. In the horizontal jumps, speed down the runway is critical, but the time it takes the athlete to reach this top speed isn't nearly as important as in a short sprint. While the decreased importance of acceleration would seem to indicate less of a need for maximal strength in the jumping events, ground reaction forces in the step phase of the triple jump have been shown to exceed 15 times body weight (4). Similar forces, albeit not as high, can be seen in the long jump as well. An athlete must be very strong to tolerate such high impact forces while maintaining speed and body control on takeoff.

Our best high jumper, a three-time All-American with a personal best of 7 feet 5 inches, has squatted 290 lbs and power cleaned 242 lbs. Taking into consideration his poor leverages (he is 6 feet 8 inches) and the nature of his event, this is plenty of strength. His training, for the most part, consists of explosive Olympic movements with light weight and different plyometric variations. A high jumper only needs to be strong enough to effectively transfer horizontal velocity into vertical velocity. Given that approach speed isn't all that high in this event, it doesn’t take a tremendous amount of strength to do that.

In the pole vault, upper body strength is obviously more of a priority. However, the two most important factors in this event remain runway speed and jump height upon takeoff. These are the two variables that will allow an athlete to progress to bigger poles. Vaulters, therefore, should be held to similar lower body strength standards as other jumpers.

Aside from the benefits in performance, improving strength is one of the best ways to prevent injuries. While Thompson, mentioned earlier, achieved great success at the highest level without lifting, Pfaff has stated that he believes many of the injuries Thompson sustained throughout his career could have been prevented if he had been more dedicated to strength training.

The bottom line is that a certain level of strength is essential for any athlete to reach his full potential. Exactly how much is necessary and how much time and work it takes to reach this point varies with each event and each athlete individually. Strength should always be the first thing a coach looks to improve with his athletes, but writing programs for track and field athletes under the impression that more strength is always better is a misguided belief that will only lead to performance plateaus.

As for Carl Lewis, perhaps he could have been better had he started lifting earlier in his career. Perhaps his legendary showdown with Mike Powell in the long jump at the 1991 World Championships would have gone his way. Perhaps if he had realized the benefits of strength training in his early 20s as opposed to his mid 30s, Usain Bolt would still be chasing the 100 meter world record. Given the absence of lifting in his training for the majority of his career, it is not surprising that Lewis was never great out of the blocks. In a New York Times article published in 1996, Jere Longman stated, “The final 40 meters have separated him from others, not the first 60.” If Lewis had been able to turn his start into a strength, or at the very least less of a weakness as Bolt has, who knows what his ceiling might have been.

References

  1. Bondarchuk Anatoliy P (2007) Transfer of Training in Sports. Michigan: Ultimate Athlete Concepts.
  2. Lists of Olympic Medalists. Retrieved May 12, 2011. From: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Olympic_medalists_in_athletics.
  3. Longman J (1996, February 5). Lewis Thinks Gold and Pumps Iron. The New York Times.
  4. Perttunen J, Kyrolainen H, Komi P, Heinonen A (2000). Biomechanical Loading in the Triple Jump. Journal of Sports Sciences 18:363–70.
  5. Pfaff D (2008 October) Training theory in power-speed events.
  6. Smith CW (2011, April 6). Why We Actually Suck at Olympic Lifting. From: http://www.jtsstrength.com/articles/2011/04/06/why-we-actually-suck-at-olympic-lifting-part-1-of-3/.
  7. Smith CW. Online conversation on May 15, 2011.
  8. Zimmerman C (2005, September 1). 21 Tips on Track from Carl Lewis’ Former Coach. Stack.
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