CoachingTrack & Field

Speed guru: Coach Seagrave spills his wisdom; part one

As one of the most expert minds when it comes to developing speed and power, Loren Seagrave is a man with an enviable wealth of knowledge. Seagrave is currently the Director of Speed & Movement at the IMG Academy in Florida, and has previously coached several Olympic and world champions, along with training a host of the biggest NFL stars. Today, Seagrave counts Russian Darya Klishina, American Tianna Bartoletta and Britain’s Jack Green among the many world-class athletes under his tutelage. We caught up with Seagrave recently and, in part one of the two-part interview, tried to extract some knowledge from the speed guru.

Speed science: Loren Seagrave has coached many of the world's best athletes. Image: IMG Academy

Speed science: Loren Seagrave has coached many of the world’s best athletes. Image: IMG Academy

Cathal Dennehy: What do you see as the key fundamentals of good sprinting?

Loren Seagrave: It all goes back to the biomechanics of the action, and the best biomechanics have evolved over time. A lot of the work done by Dr. Ralph Mann has chronicled that. There’s a couple of fundamental things: stride frequency is the more important of the two. Athletes also have to be strong, but the key point is that you’ve got a finite amount of time to fly through the air and it’s an optimal number; it’s 123 milliseconds – the optimal air time. If you go greater than that, your stride length is longer but you’ve got more vertical, and if you go less than that you can’t cover the distance that you need. 

CD: How have you calculated that as the optimum?

LS: Looking at Dr. Mann’s work. His first presentation was done in 1983 and his model has evolved. The coaches who are producing some of the better sprinters in the world have evolved with that. That is what we see in the fastest of the fastest people, and it boils down to pure physics. The key point is the most important thing – that the optimal air time is 123 milliseconds, which means the way you get faster is with a big force into the ground in a shorter amount of time, and now we see sprinters out there putting their force into the ground in less than 80 milliseconds, running at over five steps per second. Andre Cason, who I coached in 1983, was hitting those kind of numbers. What we’re seeing now in athletes I work with is they’re getting so good at it, we’re looking for the next frontier. 

CD: Do you have any sense of where that next frontier of sprinting may be?

LS: You’ve got to be strong in the weight room then, in such a short amount of time, you’ve got to translate more force. The Russians came up with the whole concept of jump training, plyometric training, but how do you make this more specific? The challenge is: if you do bounding, the ground time is too long, so that’s one of the things we’re playing with right now. 

CD: We often hear sprint coaches emphasise the importance of increasing the power an athlete is putting into the ground, but what’s the best way to develop that power?

LS: First of all, in the weight room; you have to have good propulsive strength, which basically is power, and good stabilisation strength. If you hit the ground and mush out and you don’t have the strength or the neuromuscular coordination to send the message down to stabilise the joints, then you’re in big trouble; that’s one of the big problems we see with sprinters coming out of high school and college – they haven’t spent enough time developing these qualities of strength. The explosive strength is incorporating jump training in the weight room, and finally you’re dealing with the reactive strength, reactive power – how do you get a huge force into the ground? After that, the next thing is: how do you get leaner? How do you develop specific muscle strength without developing hypertrophy and non-specific muscles?

CD: Does that vary, in that you have to be more cautious in the weight room with some athletes to avoid too much hypertrophy?

LS: Yeah; some male athletes, they just look at a weight and get bigger. The example I use is Dwight Phillips. After 2008, when he didn’t make the Olympic team, he retired but his former coach Paul Doyle talked him into giving one more go and suggested he train with me. He was weighing about 194lbs. He looked great, wasn’t that fat, but could have been playing strong safety here in the NFL. We systematically changed his diet and we also changed his weight-training regimen. We got his upper body down. He had a lot of the unused muscle, which really isn’t applicable in the long jump, as well as the erroneous development of the vastus lateralis in the legs from doing too much front squatting. He then jumped 8.74m at a body weight of 173/174lbs. 

The British cyclist Bradley Wiggins is a perfect example. One of the reasons they’re so successful in Great Britain with their cyclists is their training is tremendously specific. I was at the European speed conference in Birmingham recently and one of the guys put up a picture of a guy’s upper body; he looked like he was anorexic. It was really sick, but then he flipped it around and showed the lower body and he had massive legs, and it was Bradley Wiggins. That’s what you need as a cyclist. You don’t need any extra weight going up the hill.  

When you’re looking at the equation for vertical force development, you’re punished two times for every pound extra you’re carrying, because weight appears two times in the equation. For example, if I take a 10.96-second female sprinter, and I put an extra five kilos on her, she ends up running 11.26 when you do the calculations and see how that disturbs the actual ground time because of the extra five kilos. Wouldn’t it be great if you could say: ‘if I take five kilos off, I’m going to run 10.96 from 11.26, but the challenge is there’s a lot of other things. 

I remember reading  a quote from British long jumper Lynn Davies back in the day, and they asked him if you could do something over again, what would it be; he said I would lose 10 kilos. That’s exactly what Dwight Phillips did and he went from not making the Olympic team one year to world champion and equal for the fifth best jumper in the world the next. 

CD: In terms of developing a sprinter, especially a younger athlete, how much of their biomechanics do you want to tamper with, and how much do you want to leave alone for fear of making things worse? 

LS: My philosophy is: ‘if it’s not broken, break it, and then re-engineer it to a higher level.’ The critical thing that coaches have to recognise, particularly when working with younger athletes, is that you have to have basic levels of strength and power in order to run the basic technical model. If you don’t have that, then you have to be satisfied with a rough technical model. You need advanced levels of strength and power in order to be able to run the advanced technical model of sprinting, and that’s the one mistake that people can make – you start putting athletes in the optimal positions that you would expect out of a world-class athlete. 

What we try to do is teach the athletes how to re-programme their nervous system, first of all by getting the right conceptual technical model, so they can see in their minds what perfect sprinting looks like, then we help them re-programme their nervous system in order to replicate that model. The challenge is if you don’t have the advanced levels of strength and power – particularly as you’re striking the ground on a relatively extended knee, generating high negative foot-speed and continuing to accelerate the thigh through the ground – you’re going to need good elastic strength in the hamstrings and stabilisation strength in the quadriceps, and if not you get a hamstring strain. That’s the one danger – progressing someone to the advanced level, which they can learn, but they don’t have the on-board equipment in order to execute. 

CD: With a developing athlete, is there an age that’s too young to be hitting the weight room?

LS: I think that young athletes need to learn how to lift. At the IMG Academy in Florida, we’re a full-on prep boarding school; we have 14 and 15-year-old athletes in our programme, and they’re learning how to lift, but we’re not loading the weights on; it’s just the movements and body-weight circuits, jump training, those types of things; then they have the basis on which to add weight as their structure has greater integrity. 

CD: In terms of plyometric training, how essential is that as part of a training programme for a speed or power athlete?

LS: It’s absolutely essential; the challenge is if you have some orthopaedic challenges, or you’ve never really learned how to do the movement, you’ve got to break it down and learn it. I think the European athletes, speaking as an over-generalisation, have a better plyometric and jump training background than most of the Americans coming out of high school or college. All of our Europeans, provided they don’t have a knee or back issue, do a great job bounding. 

Part two can be found here.

Mark English finishes fifth at the FBK Games in Hengelo. Image: FBK Games
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Cathal Dennehy

Cathal Dennehy

Cathal Dennehy is a freelance journalist, a once-serious, now-retired athlete who writes for a number of international publications in the running industry. He previously worked for the Sunday Tribune, Irish Runner magazine and has written for the Sunday Independent, Irish Independent, Irish Examiner and the Guardian. He is also a regular contributor to Runner's World.
His banter levels are often poor, occasionally exceptional.

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