It’s not easy being a High School Track coach, but it can be.

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Have you ever watched a child play?  They’ll run as fast as they can for as long as they can, usually for just a few seconds, but then they’ll do it over and over and over and over again.  They’ll throw things, sometimes at you, but still, they throw things – anything.  They’ll jump around or over anything in their way and if there’s nothing exciting to jump over, they’ll make something up and then jump over that.  Excuse the pun, but that’s Track & Field in its infancy.  But as those interests focus on other sports, those fundamental movements tend to migrate towards the mechanics needed to excel at those other sports.  The execution of the simple “run” is eclipsed by the various agility and other movements needed to perfect other activities.  The training – the coaching – of how to simply run becomes secondary to teaching the skills of a specific sport.  So in track & field events, and not counting the throwing events specifically, the basic competency needed to excel is the simple skill to run with swift efficiency. 

 

So, if you happen to be a Track coach, you probably already know that as you get new athletes, one of the challenges is the fact that you have to ‘teach’ athletes how to run – even seasoned athletes.  If you are a Track athlete, you probably wonder why your Track coach puts so much emphasis on running “form” – you already know how to run, right?  If that’s what you think, in most cases, you’d be wrong.  When considering the running events in track, a successful athlete (and their coach) will have to have a keen awareness of the relationship of the center of gravity to the spot the ball of the foot strikes the ground… and then, everything affecting those two points – before and after around and through.  There’s the consideration of the shin angle, dorsi-flexion of the ankle, pawing action, acceleration, deceleration point, knee height, hip direction, lean angle, chin angle, neck tension, shoulders and arm swing.  And then there’s the big question on when to rest, how much rest, how many days of hard running, of easy running… of any kind of running.  And then you have to evaluate whether the youTube video your athlete watches actually helps…or hinders their training and form.  Not that simple considering the differences you see between a 100M runner and a 3200M runner. 

 

Consider this.  Football players have difficulty running tall and have this belief that lifting massive weights, any kind, will not only make them stronger, but faster too.  Soccer athletes, if they haven’t come to you with it already, will need close attention to keep their ACL’s from snapping during track drills, let alone during an all out sprint.  And cross country runners, notwithstanding, do seem to enjoy coming out to track, but will spend thirty minutes of your drill times stretching their hamstring muscles before the workout or spend more time complaining that they’d rather run in the woods than on your oval. And even though more middle school programs are being started every year, it’s not likely these programs put a great emphasis on biomechanics of a sprinter or distance runner – the attention span of a sixth grader probably doesn’t help much either. 

 

There isn’t anything wrong with what’s being taught to athletes in other sports.  As a track coach, you are just more in tune to the intricacies of all the muscle movements related to running.  The foot strike is watched closer than most coaches.  The push off has a different meaning to you.  A muscle firing and a blocked muscle out are not unfamiliar terms to you.  Workouts are planned for the development of the aerobic, anaerobic, alactic, or glycolytic systems and training set up to increase the athletes lactic acid tolerance levels.  Spending hours on the mechanics of the penultimate step is just a routine day, even though most other sports wouldn’t give it a second thought (and yes, the second thought was a pun).

 

Even the most accomplished of athletes almost always will have some kind of biomechanical flaw when they step onto the track for a workout.  For a coach to work with an athlete to improve their running form, it’s estimated that it takes about 500 to 600 hours working directly with that athlete to instill permanent athletic muscle memory.  That means that over the course of high school, assuming they were involved in track all four years, you will have had the time to condition and train your athletes muscles and make them ready to properly participate in Track & Field by the time they graduate.  Wow!  Discouraging isn’t it.  And just think, in TN, the timeframe that a coach can work directly with the athlete is very short (too short in my opinion) and it’s even shorter if the athlete happens to be a winter sport athlete. 

 

So now that we’ve agreed that there is such a huge hurdle (again, sorry for the pun) to coaching track, the best approach is to focus on the most simplest of flaws and work to correct these one step at a time.  A few things will make that more than just an attempt but will make you successful are: 

  • Baseline your knowledge of the sport
  • Identify and correct common flaws
  • Eliminate myths from your training philosophy
  • Follow the simple fact that the athlete is the focus, notthe coach.

 

USA Track and Field (USATF.org) has a fantastic coaching certification program that baselines the fundamentals of the sport.  This coaching education program covers track from the fundamentals to highly specific and scientific event level training.  The first level (Level 1) usually takes a weekend (Friday evening through Sunday afternoon) and is highly recommended for all track and field coaches, even those with years of experience.  I would also recommend being a volunteer coach or official during season meets and even during the summer for any number of USATF sanctioned Track meets and clubs.  Another easier option is to buy the USATF book on coaching fundamentals.  You also have the opportunity of further levels of certifications but I would take advantage of those only if you wish to move on to professional, college or otherwise more dedicated competitions. 

 

Once that baseline for coaching is established, picking out simple and common flaws that can improve several athletes on your team would be the first approach.  As your whole team improves their fundamental movements, then it’s easier to put your focus onto more specific techniques and more individualized to each athlete on the team. 

 

You’ve probably seen all kinds of styles and techniques when it comes to running.  Some running styles are so unique, you’re almost afraid to try and change it in fear of ruining that runner.  But in most cases, you’ll see common errors or flaws that athletes have in their running form that should be corrected.  Here’s some flaws (if that’s the correct word here) and thoughts on helping correct them:

 

  • Excess and exaggerated arm movements.  You’ve probably seen this.  The runner is flailing their arm – and in some cases, both arms - all over the place and you’re not sure how they can run down the track without slapping the person in the next lane.  First of all, start the athlete out with some simple drills.  Marching is good for teaching form, it’s an easy way to have the athlete pull their form together and limit unnecessary movements. The A-Skip is also a helpful drill to help pull the form together in a more dynamic move and teach the athlete how to have a good rhythm in their running form.  Hurdle drills (over-under, over-over, step over 2 hurdles step back 1 and repeat, and any number of other drills) are good for strengthening general muscles used in Track.  Start the drills slowly until good form is observed and then transition them to faster movements.  It’s important to remind the athlete to stay relaxed throughout the drills since most athletes will have a tendency to tense up to keep movements in check.
  • Point the toes in the direction you run.  Seems simple, but it’s a common flaw in several athletes.  Some will have one dominant leg with a slight outward turn of their toes at the ankle.  Some will turn both their feet out.  Not too often you’ll see an inward turn.  A lot of times this flaw is more pronounced at the start of a run – be it a sprinter or distance athlete.  This is a big cause of injuries because it’s placing a lot of force on a small part of their heel and doesn’t disperse the forces of the foot stride across the whole bottom of the foot.  It also puts excess stress on the knees.  As long as there aren’t any skeletal issues in the athlete, the easiest way to fix this is to just be sure the athlete is aware.  Next would be to do strength training for knee and ankle areas – leg lifts, ankle lifts, lunges, walking lunges, heel to toe walking, skipping off the ball of their feet, step-ups on a box, even bunny hopping (or leap frog, which is more fun)… exercises that strengthen their ankles. 
  • Over Striding.  Oh, but you should try and stretch out your stride, shouldn’t you?  You’ll be faster.  You’ve heard the encouraging spectator (or even coach) yelling out those words to “stretch it out”… “lengthen that stride’… or something similar.  The problem is, when you force a stride to lengthen, the only result is a hard heel strike and ultimately a slower, choppy pace and a tired athlete with sore thigh muscles.  To experience that bad feeling from lengthening your stride, try running downhill till you are on the edge of running to fast to be in total control.  You’ll get that feeling of hitting your heels and braking and ultimately an over-stride.  That’s what happens when you unnaturally force a stride to lengthen.  You force a foot strike to be out of sync with the athletes’ center of gravity.  It’s best to not worry about “teaching” an athlete to lengthen their stride, just warm-up properly, incorporate drills for running form, watch closely for flaws and train normally.  In almost every case, the athlete will get to a stride that is right for them.  

 

I’ve been a big fan of the TV show “MythBusters”, but I doubt there’s any real explosive way to dispel the many myths related to running or even to the sport of Track & Field.  But anyways, here’s a start:

 

  • How about static stretching.  If even the mainstream Runner’s World magazine questions the value of static stretching, you have to wonder.  Track & Field has known that it’s a myth that static stretching helps eliminate injuries and will help you run faster in a race.  A static stretch of a muscle is a one dimensional motion and logic would dictate that to warm up a muscle for intense movements, you would want it warmed up in every possible motion available – especially in the direction you will actually be using the muscle.  So, eliminate static stretching from your training regimen and use it only for rehab purposes or maybe before you go to sleep at night if you need to.  A good warm-up will include some aerobic movements (jog a lap or two), exercises that loosen up all your muscles & joints (arm/leg swings, simple lunges, side-to-side movements, carioca, heel-toe walking, easy marching) and generally exercises that slowly and deliberately move your larger muscles in various dynamic movements. 
  • Over-striding.  Already talked about that.  This doesn’t do much to lengthen your stride.  It is much better to focus on stride turnover than the length of the stride.  There are even times when forcing a shorter stride will help an athlete get through a tough race and conserve energy in the process.
  • Humungous muscles.  Have you noticed how bulked up Usain Bolt is?  Jeremy Wariner?  Allison Felix?  I know, they’re not.  Weight training is extremely important when it comes to track – strength is a key element to being successful.  The idea however of bulking up and pushing the body to massive muscle growth is no longer a key element in track and field training.  When was the last time you saw a 100M sprinter carrying a fifty pound weight across the finish line?  I can’t get into the details of a good weight training program here since it is such a highly specialized area of training, but bottom line: balanced muscle growth is always the best approach. 
  • The more I workout, the better I get.  To a point yes, but a workout plan that continually fatigues and pushes the athletes’ muscles without having a sufficient recovery and rest period will do nothing but burn out the athlete and cause poor performance.  Incorporate plenty of rest time – between hard workout days and even during the actual workout.  And discourage those parents or personal coaches to convincing an athlete that they need to do ‘additional’ work to be a star.  That not only doesn’t help the athlete, it’s down right bad for the athlete and only guarantees a trip to therapy.   
  • Your Punishment is Our Sport.  I love seeing that on T-Shirts.  And that’s where is should stay, on the back of a t-shirt.  Be careful on how punishment is used in track, it doesn’t work.   Punishment for a rough performance at a meet is never a good idea.  Punishment for goofing off or not doing drills properly, well, that’s another thought.  Assuming an athlete is legitimately giving their all and doesn’t perform well at a meet, the first place to look is at you (the coach).  Considering track is so much the purist of all sports, take punishment out of the plan and focus on technique and encouragement.   Teach and you will see the best results.
  • Carbo-Loading.  Yuk.  If your athletes take ninety minutes to run the 3200M, then you might consider carbo-loading yourself to get through that.  Keep carbo-loading to the marathoners.  If they want a bowl of spaghetti the night before, just tell them to make it a small bowl – no need to have that extra water weight for any track event.

 

Not everyone will agree with everything in this article.  That shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that has coached athletes in any sport – very few athletes themselves are identical in all aspects.  But the best way to be successful at Track & Field is by having a solid baseline in the sport, focusing on how efficiently the athlete executes track movements and then understanding what is really important within the sport.  I’m not a big fan of giving a “Coach of the Year” to a Track & Field coach.  There should be no ego when it comes to coaching track.  The most important aspect of track is the athlete.  If you study with USATF, you will learn quite a bit but you will also remember the phrase and should live by it – Athlete’s First, Winning Second.

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