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It's Time to Change Our Philosophy

Coaching Education
Jim Hunt

Jim Hunt was the head track and field and cross country coach at CSU Humboldt where he coached distance greats such as Gary Tuttle, Danny Grimes and Mark Conover. He is currently the cross country coach at UC Davis. Additional and detailed information about Coach Hunt's training programs can be found on his video "Introduction to Neural Training." To subscribe to his bimonthly newsletter Runnin' Away or to order a video, contact: Jo Ann Hunt, 8033 Ruxton Ct., Sacramento, CA 95828, 916-682-0719, e-mail:

For the past 40 years coaches in this country have developed the philosophy that a gradual build-up of volumes of sub-maximal running should be the base for a training scheme to develop athletes to race at distances of 800m through the marathon.

Mileage run each week is at the core of this moderate running philosophy, utilizing a "more is better" concept to evaluate the program. This base of sub-maximal running is believed to be the best way to build new capillaries and mitochondria. And, to strengthen the heart muscle in order to improve VO2max, thereby, enhancing the body's ability to bring large amounts of oxygen-rich blood to the muscles that do the work of running.

This slow running base philosophy only allows speed to be brought into the training scheme at some point after the base has been established.

Every fall, hundreds of thousands of youth and high school boys and girls participate in cross-country throughout the United States. Cross-country provides an entry level opportunity for these aspiring young athletes. Unfortunately, these neophytes become victims of a philosophy that allows them to develop a running style of their own while running at sub-maximal velocities. With very few exceptions, the beginning distance runner develops a long slow stride with a passive foot strike along with poor posture and arm swings that are controlled by rotating the shoulders. With the amount of mileage run per week and a "more is better" standard for evaluating a program, this country has developed a core of distance runners that are very proficient at holding slow paces for long periods of time. The United States has more manpower, better facilities and equipment than any other nation, yet we cannot measure up to nations with inferior resources in international competition. So, wherein lays the problem?

The problem cannot be ethnic or racial or genetic, as we are the most diversified population in the world. This leaves only one answer.......the manner in which our youth, high schoolers, collegiate and post collegiate athletes train. With our youth programs, high school and collegiate teams, we have a feeder system that is second to none.

If we are to regain our prominence in the world of distance running, we have to change our philosophy of training. We must develop a program that begins with our youth and is consistent throughout their collegiate careers. Coaches who are setting the standard for training need to re-evaluate their overall scheme for training distance runners. They need to take a look at the latest scientific research, along with what successful coaches in other countries are doing and incorporate new ideas into their training scheme. The major ingredient that is missing in most schemes of training is the development of the neuromuscular system. In the beginning, running is initiated and totally controlled by the brain and neural capacities of the muscular system. The actions of the heart, lungs and circulatory system remain at status quo until triggered by the neuromuscular system.

Running is a neural thing because running is an activity that is completely controlled by the nervous system. The brain initiates a chain reaction of neural stimulation that tells the muscular system how quickly and how forcefully to contract and when to relax to cause the act of running at the intensity and duration that is needed.

An athlete who wants to run fast must teach the nervous system to coordinate contraction and relaxation during the stride cycle. Next to create a foot strike that is quick on and off the surface, and returns the foot quickly and efficiently to a point that is as close to being under the of center of mass as possible. An athlete that wants to run fast for long periods of time must teach the muscles to become strong in the tissue strips along the bottom of the foot, the Achilles tendon and associated muscles, the prevalent muscles and tendons around the knee, and the important muscles and tendons of the hips. All of these tissues are stretched as the foot strikes the ground, increasing the potential energy of the leg muscles. At toe off, these stretched tissues snap back, returning about 90 percent of their stored energy. About 10 percent is lost as heat.

If the feet, legs and hips were not able to store energy, the working muscles would have to increase their work output and energy expenditure by approximately 50 percent. The key parts for storing energy are the feet and Achilles tendon. As the center of a runner's mass passes the fulcrum of the foot, these two stretcher parts snap back to their original position. The uncoiling of these two springs provide the direct force for forward movement, while the buttocks and ham string muscles continue to push backward until the toes leave the surface. These two muscles provide continuing impetus to forward movement while positioning the legs to resume the stride cycle.

If we can accept the fact that the brain initiates running and the actions of neuromuscular system stimulate muscular contraction, it would make sense to accept the fact that running is a neural thing before it is a cardiovascular thing. The heart and lungs remain at their resting rate until stimulated by a demand for oxygen that is created through muscle contractions.

The intensity and duration of contractions determine how fast and how long the heart must accelerate its rate of work in order to supply the amount of oxygen that is demanded. The strength of the heart muscle is limited by the extent to which the duration and intensity of a muscle contraction occurs. The duration and intensity of muscle contraction is limited by the strength and power of the muscles that do the work of running. In reality, the heart, lungs and circulatory system are totally dependent upon the strength and power of the working muscle for their strength and functionality.

The Need for a Consistent Training Scheme
I know that I sound like a broken record but somehow, we need to start the hundreds of thousands of youth and high school age boys and girls that participate in cross-country and track each year, on a training program that is consistent with the latest scientific information, along with what coaches in other countries are doing.

If these young aspiring athletes could follow a specific year around program designed to systematically develop all of the variables of the physiology of endurance running through their youth, high school and collegiate competitive years, they would be better prepared for post collegiate competition. With a solid foundation of neuromuscular training coordinated with multitiered velocities of running, each young athlete would progressively raise their fitness level at each stage of competition.

Combining Neuromuscular and Multitiered Tiered Training In order for a person to run, two basic phenomena must take place. First, the brain signals the working muscles to contract and relax in a coordinated effort, causing movement at the joints. Secondly, the heart immediately reacts by sending oxygen-rich blood to the muscles doing the work. Since no contraction can occur without oxygen to mix with the stored glycogen, running is initially a neurological thing. Other body organs, such as the liver and lungs, becomes involved in keeping the process of running continuing over a period of time. All organs and other body parts that are involved with running are made up of muscle cells and adhere to the stress and adaptation phenomena.

Since running is both a neurological and cardio-pulmonary phenomenon, it would behoove us to include in our training scheme the strengthening of both of these systems, not solely concentrating on the cardio-pulmonary.

The cardiopulmonary system includes mainly the heart, lungs and capillaries, which form the physiological aspects of running. The objectives of training for this system are:
1. Improve the strength of the heart muscle
2. Improve the stroke volume of the heart.
3. Develop as many capillaries as possible around the muscle fibers and improve the size and number of mitochondrin in each cell.

The cardiopulmonary system is best strengthened by exposing it to a multitiered level of running intensities for specific periods of time, when these various intensities are rotated through a training cycle. Endurance, lactate tolerance, VO2 max and speed endurance are all enhanced concurrently using multi-tiered velocities. The neural system consists of the brain, spinal cord, muscle cells and neurons that control the contraction and relaxation of the muscle fibers.

The neural muscular system is best developed through a series of dynamic activities that feature mainly one's body weight as resistance and dynamic movements that enhance running rhythm and quick on and off the ground foot action. Incorporating neuromuscular enhancement activities into daily warm-up and cool-down sessions is a very effective way of coordinating them into a training scheme.

The essentials of neural training are:
1. Strengthening the muscles that do the work of running through dynamic movements that are specific to the act of running.
2. Developing a running model that is as close to present day world record holders as possible.
3. Develop a turnover that is most relative to the time and distance of the event to be raced with a foot strike that is quick on and off the ground.

The foot should strike the running surface as it is being brought back under the center of mass. The closer the foot strike to a point directly under the hips (navel) the faster and more economical this will be.

General goals for establishing a training scheme:
1. Attain the highest possible increase in neuromuscular power so that your maximum running speed will be continually upgraded.

2. Enhance the best possible augmentation of running specific strength for reducing the risk of injury and fatigue.

3. Enhance the economy of movement so that race specific speeds are completed at the lowest fraction of maximal energy cost or maximum aerobic capacity.

4. Improve your aerobic capability as you run as well as the efficiency with which you move when running at intense velocities. vVO2 max is the symbol for the minimal velocity at which maximum aerobic capacity is attained. One's vVO2 max is a reliable predictor of endurance potential.

5. Bring your VO2 max to the highest possible level. VO2 max is the maximum amount of oxygen that a person's circulatory system can deliver to the working muscles. VO2 max is not the greatest predictor of endurance performance, however, it sets the parameters for determining lactate threshold and running economy.

6. Raising one's lactate threshold should be an ongoing goal. Teaching the body to change lactate to fuel for energy and improve one's tolerance to lactic acid and learning to endure the pain of running at LT pace for long periods of time is extremely important. Lactate threshold velocity is the intensity at which lactate begins to pile up in your blood. Flooding lactate into the blood stream faster than it can be cycled back to fuel causes sufficient pain to a runner to want to slow the pace.

7. Improve racing tactics by learning to run at race specific velocities, tolerate pain, surge at appropriate time, and finish with a strong effort.

8. Explore the mental aspects of running. Eliminate mental restraints and negative thoughts that might limit your efforts. Learn to push your body to the highest levels of intensity and pain as possible.

Developing a Training Scheme
1. Warm-up - Every workout begins with a warm-up that lasts from 15-30 minutes. Warm-ups should be dynamic in nature and involve resistance work that is specific to running and developing correct neurological patterns of foot strike and turnover.

2. Skill work - Teaching the body to work the legs, feet and arms in a coordinated and efficient manner. Skill work can be integrated into the warm-up, but is an on-going thing throughout every workout.

3. Conditioning - Exposing the body to multitiered running velocities and exercises that enhance vVO2 max, VO2 max, lactate threshold, speed, speed endurance and lactate tolerance concurrently. Learning to run at perceived goal pace systematically is important during this session.

4. Cool-down - Activities that gradually bring the heart rate and body temperature back to normal. These activities can include functional muscle strengthening. Stretching is best done during this phase so that spazming muscle fibers can relax and begin their recovery. Each stretch is most effective when held in position for approximately 60 seconds.

Each workout lasts from 90-120 minutes. The warm-up and cool-down should take up to 45 minutes during the early part of the season then gradually be reduced as the season progresses.

Objectives for the
Beginning of a Season

1. Begin functional leg strengthening and injury prevention.
a. Learn how to do warm-ups and cool-downs correctly.

2. Begin the development of foot strike and turnover.
a. Quick on and off - basic 17-18 turnovers per 10 seconds - walk-run, use ladder with even spacing - progress to acceleration ladder.

3. Learn the specificity of different running.
a. Time and turnover rate.
b. Core sessions repeat 100m
c. Increase increments by 60%

4. Develop speed and running technique.
a. Acceleration ladder progress - 1.5 ft, 2, 2.5, 3, 3.5, 4, 4.5, 5, 5.5, 6, 6.5.

5. Jump start the VO2 max process
a. Repeat 100's at set time and turnover.
b. Progress by increments of 60 percent (Fibonacci)

6. Rotation and integration of multitiered training velocities.
a. 15k - endurance.
b. 10k - lactate threshold.
c. 5k - VO2 max.
d. 3k - vVO2 max.
e. 1500m - speed endurance.
f. 800m - speed endurance.
g. 400m - speed strength
h. 40m - 300m - speed enhancement.

7. Learn racing tactics
a. Pacing.
b. Surging.
c. Learn L.T. pace.
d. Finish strong.

8. Explore the mental aspects.
a. Learn to run at L.T. pace for as long as possible.
b. Learn what it means to tolerate pain.
c. Learn to mentally muster a kick when exhausted.

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