CoachingTrack & Field

Seagrave spills his wisdom, part two; Super-freaks, coaching mistakes, and the man to break 9.5

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. In part two of the interview, Cathal Dennehy talks to Seagrave about the most talented athletes he’s ever worked with, asks him to explain some of the most common mistakes sprint coaches make, and Seagrave reveals what kind of athlete it’ll take to run under 9.5 seconds for 100m. 

Cathal Dennehy: Who’s the most naturally talented athlete who’s ever been under your guidance?

Dawn Sowell: "A tremendously, tremendously talented athlete," says Seagrave. "Good explosive abilities, great plyometric characteristics, could lift well and she really had a good feeling for re-tooling the nervous system."

Dawn Sowell: “A tremendously, tremendously talented athlete,” says Seagrave. “Good explosive abilities, great plyometric characteristics, could lift well and she really had a good feeling for re-tooling the nervous system.”

Loren Seagrave: Dawn Sowell. She was a high school athlete in 1983, and at the US Sports festival in Colorado Springs, I saw her and Wenda Vereen run 11.18 and 11.19 while representing the east team, and she went on to junior college, the University of Texas, and didn’t really live up to her billing. Her last year at college ended up with us at LSU, and she ran 10.79 and 22.02. 

It would have been sub-22 but they wouldn’t turn the track around so they ran into the teeth of a gale, and it would have been a legal wind. A tremendously, tremendously talented athlete – good explosive abilities, great plyometric characteristics, could lift well and she really had a good feeling for re-tooling the nervous system. We put her on the end of a sprint medley relay at the Texas relays and she split 49. She was up like a rocket, though, and decided she was going to change coaches and she never really competed again. 

CD: How many athletes do you have right now?

I have about 10 that are full-time residents, then I’m working with the Chinese 4x100m relay team. I believe wholly that coaching is not a long-range game anymore. I believe in co-operative coaching, and that’s going really well. We get a lot of people who come through, spend some time, and their coaches come, and it’s a great chance to see what other people do. It’s a change to your whole athletics culture that transpires in a relatively short period of time. They go back home and are able to move to the next level. 

“It has to be constant vigilance”

CD: What is the biggest mistake that’s generally made when coaching underage sprinters?

LS: The biggest mistake is not developing the qualities of work capacity. Now, that’s a lot more than just endurance training. Work capacity is the ability to maintain the quality of a movement and the intensity of a movement. Quality is understood: you’re talking about how perfect the movement is, and intensity is relative to your maximum and you have to maintain quality and intensity of a movement under ever-increasing volume and loads, because what happens is if you don’t have enough good repetitions in you at high quality and high intensity in order to change the nervous system, then you really can’t progress. 

The other thing is: work capacity extends beyond the physical. If you look at experts in performance, they practice performance six hours a day, whether you’re a concert cellist or an opera singer. What everyone tells you: their concentration and focus has to be maintained right through to the last minute, otherwise you end up practising stuff you don’t want to see in that motor pattern. That’s the single biggest thing. 

The second biggest thing is you have to teach people how to be fast. There are some who just figure it out, but even the fastest can be taught to be faster. The coach has to understand the system and be able to execute that. It’s not just a once-in-a-while thing, it’s something that has to be done on an everyday basis. The best teachers are the ones who monitor everything; they monitor the warm-up, the technique in the build-up; it’s not just go out, jog two laps and stretch. It has to be constant vigilance relative to that because if the athlete doesn’t think they’re being watched, they will go to the level of the lowest energy system and just do enough to get through it, and then you’re starting to undo the things the coach is trying to re-do. 

CD: Have your coaching methods changed much in the last 10 or 15 years? If so, how?

LS: There are a lot of things that changed, but a lot of the basic fundamental philosophies are pretty much the same. We were looking back recently at training programmes we did at LSU, and some of the programmes we did in the 90s when Paul Doyle and I were coaching together. If we were doing that kind of volume and intensity with the athletes today, I don’t think they could hang, but that was just the level of expectation at the time. We do a lot less volume today, but we still get good work in, and there’s a lot more rest than we did back then. 

CD: How much of an emphasis do you place on speed endurance, and does that differ per athlete, in terms of what their strengths or weaknesses are?

LS: I think you have to first create the definition of what speed endurance is, because people talk about that in a very wide band of things. To me, short speed endurance is over six seconds at near maximum intensity, but less than 15 seconds. Long speed endurance is between 12 and 20 seconds, and what you’re looking at is a greater stress on the central nervous system relative to neural fatigue, but you’re also looking at metabolic fatigue and accumulation of metabolic by-products. People used to think: ‘lactic acid? You don’t get lactic acid when you run the 100m.’ 

Elio Locatelli, when he was the head coach in Italy, took blood readings from the 100m runners at their national championships. First year, he didn’t wait long enough; second year I said ‘they don’t have the same ability to get lactic acid out of their cells, you gotta wait longer [before taking the blood readings]’ and what he found was 16-millimole lactic acid levels at the end of a 100m. This is what you’d expect from a 400m runner in training, so you’ve got to be able to train that ability in 100m runners; 60-metre runners, not as much, but 100m runners, for sure. 

Once you get over 20 seconds, you start driving the lactic acid up, and that’s what people call special endurance one. The key component is: because you are loading the lactic acid system up when you’re doing speed endurance, it’s not just a neurological phenomenon – repeated exposure to lactic acid throughout the entire year destroys the aerobic enzymes inside your mitochondria, full stop, you get that low PH. So, it’s particularly important for 400m runners who go through an indoor season; I feel that based on the research, somewhere between 7 and 10 weeks before the major championship, in your late special preparation and pre-competition, that’s all you really need to fool with relative to lactic acid tolerance, special endurance and even speed endurance. 

CD: So if you go into that work too early, you’ll stagnate later in the season?

LS: Yeah, basically, it’s like dropping the ceiling down on your co-ordination barrier. 

“You’re looking at freaks of nature”

Size matters: Usain Bolt has the heignt and turnover necessary 9.5, according to Seagrave. "You're looking at freaks of nature."  Image: Photorun

Size matters: Usain Bolt has the rare combination of height and turnover necessary to run 9.5, according to Seagrave: “You’re looking at freaks of nature, more than 10 standard deviations outside the norm.”
Image: Photorun

CD: The 100m record currently stands at 9.58, set by a man most would consider to be a freak of nature. How close do you think that performance, and Usain Bolt’s times, are to the limit and do you think there’s something undiscovered that might bring an extra tenth of a second off the whole range of athletes around at the moment? 

LS: Every prediction that’s ever been done on the limits of human performance, if you wait long enough, has been wrong. I never thought I would see a sub-9.6 in my lifetime; now I’m hoping to see a sub-9.5. You’re looking at freaks of nature. They are more than 10 standard deviations outside the norm of the population. They are super-freaks. You get a guy that’s almost two metres tall, skinny as a rail and can run like crazy, that’s what it’s going to take. We’re probably not going to see a guy that’s 1.70m/1.75m, cracking down into the 9.50s. If you were to take Usain Bolt, when he’s running at 4.8 steps per second, and you shrink him down to someone who’s about 5’11, he’d be running at 5.37 steps per second. The most I’ve ever seen is 5.19 steps per second out of Andre Cason, when he ran a wind-aided 9.84. 

CD: So for anyone to go faster that 9.58, it has to be a big guy?

LS: Who am I to put a limit on somebody who’s 1.70 or 1.75m, but it’s just going to be a lot more difficult. 

CD: Is there any athlete, whether one of your own athletes or otherwise, who you think could be a star of the future? 

LS: I think Tiana Bartoletta showed in London [2012 Olympic Games] that she has the talent, then she had her Olympic hangover when she tried to do a little bobsledding, but she’s really bounced back. She takes care of business, got back into long jumping, jumped 7.02m last year, which ironically equals her 60m PR. I think she’s got some big things to prove in the long jump this year. Her training partner is Darya Klishina, and they work tremendously well together. This is going to be a huge boost for both of them. It will be particularly interesting, for any British readers, to watch Jack Green this year, because he’s training really well. 

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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 has won two sports-writing awards, the Peter Ball Memorial Award in Ireland and the Wills Writing Award in the UK. Nationally, he previously worked for the Sunday Tribune, Irish Runner magazine and has written for the Sunday Independent, Irish Independent, the Guardian and The Independent in Britain. He is a regular contributor to Running Times, Runner's World, RunBlogRun and the IAAF website.
His banter levels are often poor, occasionally exceptional.

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