More and More Speed…

Funny, how ideas flock together. Did you see Jay Johnson’s wonderful Running times article, “Speed Development: How and why to improve your real speed”?

Jay makes a distinction between traditional speedwork (intervals, repeats), and workouts that improve speed by developing the powerful trainable type IIB fast-twitch muscle fibers.

Hm, where have I heard that idea before?

In two recent articles, I looked at ways to do accomplish the same end, using the proven methods of three elite coaches: Arthur Lydiard, master’s ace Pete Magill, and Southern California sprint coach Barry Ross. (See “How to Get Even Faster” and “How to Get Faster Still

In the RT article, Jay Johnson recommends a variety of short, hard sprint drills that cause the type IIB fibers to fire and get stronger. He makes an important distinction between the effects of traditional speedwork intervals and repeats, which increase VO2Max among others things — and the strength drills, which improve an athlete’s ability to apply power to the ground. In my previous articles, I cited a Harvard study that found power to the ground is a strong contributing factor to stride length, turnover, and duration of footplant — and hence, to running speed.

Pete Magill discovered research that showed declining running speed with age is due not only to metabolic changes but primarily to decreasing stride length. Pete advocates plyometric drills to preserve stride by stimulating the type IIB fibers. When a friend of his resisted trying the drills, he gave him an alternate workout that was similar to Jay Johnson’s recommendations:

He [Magill] recalls how a high school friend, a former college NCAA Division I distance champion, was dismayed, upon reaching his mid-forties, by how much his speed had deteriorated. His 5K times had fallen to a distressingly slow, for him, 19 minutes. Magill said, “Dude, you gotta try drills — you gotta maintain that stride.”

Magill couldn’t persuade his friend to do the plyometrics, but he did convince him to do hill workouts of 8-10 repeats of about 40 yards.

After the first session, his friend emailed him: “How long is it supposed to be until those hill repeats have an effect on my stride.”

Magill answered: “Dude — instantly.”

Starting the next day, he found that he could run faster with equal effort. And two weeks later he ran a 17-minute 5K — a two-minute improvement.

Have you had the experience of “just knowing” that a certain kind of running would be good for you — but it didn’t seem logical, or it wasn’t supported by research you were aware of, so you let it slide?

For years, I’ve felt that short sprints must be good for distance runners. After all, they feel wonderful — exhilarating. But lacking logical reasons for pursuing them, I dismissed them as self-indulgent hedonistic pleasure-seeking. And now along come Magill and Johnson to tell me my intuition was right.

Forty-five years ago, Arthur Lydiard told his runners to do two or three 10-second sprints during most easy runs, even during the aerobic base conditioning phase, to preserve some of their muscle and nerve speed-conditioning. It’s doubtful that Lydiard had a scientific basis for the idea. His methods were based on direct experience, discovering what works by trying various things and observing the results.

In my own running, I’ve been applying some of the methods I discussed in the previous articles. I’ve done 10-second sprints, heavy deadlifts at the gym, and a tiny bit of plyo in the form of skipping for about 10 seconds after a deadlift set, as Barry Ross recommends.

I’ve felt my legs becoming steadily stronger. On a weekly sub-threshold run, around 85% of max heart rate, my legs feel relaxed and strong. And my legs fairly float up flights of stairs, as they did 40 years ago.

So many ideas — which ones to try? I’ve recently made the transition from Lydiard’s aerobic base phase to the strength phase. After starting with deadlifts to strengthen my legs for the hard work ahead, I suspect I’ll soon do a weekly session of Pete Magill’s plyometric grass drills, alternating with Jay Johnson’s short sprint drills the next week — while continuing to do a weekly long run and a session of weights.

If my intuition suggests something else, I don’t reckon I’ll be as inclined to dismiss it lightly.

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