Skip to main content

Cowboy Boots Hat Rope

By Ken Jakalski

This fall marks my fortieth year as a cross country and track coach. Much has changed in my approach during that span, based on what were once accepted strategies for improving an athlete’s ability to run faster. For example, a 1975 manual called Guide to Sprinting provided some insights I thought were excellent—like coach Valentin Petrovsky’s charting of Valery Borzov’s training progression—and others that seemed suspect as time went on. For example, the book identified two prerequisites for increasing stride length. The first was high knee action: Raise the knees high and straight when sprinting and develop the muscles that lift the knees. The second prerequisite was increasing lower leg reach: There is no use getting the knees high unless the lower legs reach out to take advantage of the extra lift.

Now consider the following exercises the book recommended for improving sprint form.

  1. Hold your hands in front of your body, waist high. Running in place, bring the knees up forward and high to the hands. Once you can do this properly, high on the toes and relaxed, run down the field this way. Continue to work on getting the knees up higher and keeping relaxed.
  2. Maintain the knee action of exercise #1 and add increased reach of the lower leg. The tendency will be to lean backward like a drum major. Don’t! There is also a tendency to point the knees out. Keep them together!
  3. Now work on arm action. Arms are a source of speed and power. The faster the arms go, the faster the legs must go. Begin by dropping the arms to the sides. Hold the hands cupped and relaxed. Now bring the arms up to an almost 90-degrees angle, palms upward a bit to keep the elbows close to the sides. Swing the arms parallel to each other, not across the chest. By pumping the arms parallel, you can gain some inches. Keep the hands and arms low and forward. If the arms go too high, you run too high. If they go forward, the body goes forward. Again, run in place until the form is acceptable, then run down the field, working on the previous drills at the same time.
  4. You gain more ground by bounding forward than by bouncing up and down. Learn how to do this by locking the knees and running from the ankles. Keep the head level and don’t look at the ground. This exercise develops a strong “ankle flip,” which all good sprinters possess.
  5. Remember that sprinters need extra lift to keep from decelerating. Lift the knees. Get higher up on the toes. Pump the arms harder and faster. If you can’t pump your arms harder, then reach with the arms, thus increasing stride length.
  6. Run through the finish with no gyrations, gymnastics, or lifting of the arms to breast the tape. Any or all of these movements will slow you down.

As I look back over those years and consider all the changes I’ve made in the way I train my athletes, I wonder what prompted many of those changes. How did I conclude that some of these things were just plain wrong, and how did I come to acknowledge that, in correcting some of these wrongs, I may not have been right myself?

A key moment came in 1997, when World Paralympic champion Tony Volpentest ran on my high school track, soundly defeating several former elite Masters sprinters. I wondered how a guy could run that fast without being able to execute the mechanics that coaches believed were essential for high-speed running.

Paralympic Sprinter Tony Volpentest

At one time or another, all of the insights in that old sprint manual have been called into question based on locomotion research going back to 2000. Those insights were attempts at a technical analysis of running mechanics that preceded much of the groundbreaking research of the past fifteen years. So yes, many of those points have been superseded or modified. As Dr. Mike Young notes at his seminars while discussing what happened as a result of the groundbreaking vertical force research out of Harvard in 2000, “many sacred cows died.” But others remain. For example, many coaches still believe that the faster you pump your arms, the faster you will run.

I include those passages because at one time or another many coaches have heard those points and then either endorsed them or changed their thinking on them. Other points we soundly dismissed have come back to be “not so wrong” on the basis of more current research.

The bottom line is that not everyone has the same approach to speed training. I’m now at the point in my coaching career when, faced with approaches to conditioning and training I might not agree with, I apply my “load six” philosophy. More and more of my colleagues like that concept, because it seems to avoid disputes where a better resolution might be reached just by allowing folks to have a little more time to digest what each other is saying.

Here is the origin of “load six.”

In The Shootist (1976), young Gillom Rogers (Ron Howard) is getting a “shootin’ lesson” from the famous gunfighter J.B. Books (John Wayne in his final film role). Gillom asks Books why he only loads five bullets when he can actually chamber six. For safety reasons, Books replies. He never likes to have the hammer resting on a live round—and he never really needs six anyway. I use that as an example of my minimalist approach. Tony Holler would call it “essentialism.”

Gillom then points out that other gunfighters load all six, suggesting that they too have gained fame and notoriety using a much different approach. How does the aging legend answer his young protégé? With a line I have never forgotten: “Then load six if your insides tells ya.”
The Duke’s response is neither dismissive nor defensive. Do what feels right for as long as you believe it works for you, he is saying. As I’ve grown older and perhaps more of an anachronism—just like the character Wayne portrays in the film—that approach makes perfect sense to me.

The idea of an empty chamber probably came from Frontier Marshal, Stuart Lake’s biography of the legendary Wyatt Earp. In that book, Earp discusses keeping just “five beans in the wheelhouse” (not loading all six rounds).

But who knows if that story, as Lake presents it, is accurate? And who’s to say that loading less than six was the optimal way for any gunfighter to survive in a very dangerous occupation?

The point is that I no longer want to argue issues with colleagues who are just as informed and experienced as I am. They have their own reasons for doing what they do.

For example, on at least four different occasions years ago I debated Dr. Mike Yessis on the significance of the pawback concept. Dr. Yessis was one of the true pioneers in the field of exercise science. The Russian research we so valued back in the 1970s would not have been available to us were it not for the tireless efforts Dr. Yessis put forth in translating the amazing number of studies coming from the labs in that country.

Although I do not regret engaging with a man who has spent the majority of his lifetime providing coaches with the best information available on how to help athletes jump higher and run faster, I do regret being so focused on thinking my analysis was more correct.

Thanks to some of the great work Dr. Ken Clark has done at the SMU Locomotor Performance Lab, we now have a much better grasp of the mechanics the elites demonstrate at their top-end speeds than we did fifteen years ago. We now know that the fastest sprinters in the world reveal a much steeper rising edge waveform than that anticipated from the linear spring model, with peak force occurring well before mid-stance.

As a result, we have various cues that suggest how to “attack the ground down and back,” and use terms such as snap, punch, whip, attack back, and hammer the nail to suggest this aggressive strike under the hips.

But how much different are these from Dr. Yessis’s original concept of pawback, a concept I vehemently argued against? In reality, my problem with his visualization of what needs to take place on landing may have been more in the way coaches were interpreting that action and drilling for it (pawing) than in the concept itself—a speeding up of the leg back to the track.

That acknowledgment comes down to accepting that he may have been “less wrong,” and I certainly “less than right.” And maybe these kinds of reflective moments and begrudging compromises need to occur as research brings us closer to the answers we so desperately seek.

What prompted this article was a blog on fatigue Dr. Ross Tucker wrote for his Science of Sport website. Dr. Tucker acknowledged the problem of scientists polarizing complex issues, and offering simple explanations which come across so definitively that the authors of these studies appear to be saying to their colleagues, “How are you not getting this.”

That got me thinking more about how I might integrate these different models and approaches, rather than trying to advance my own strategies on these complex mechanics and training issues. In other words, less certainty and a more open mind might make me a better coach, at least perhaps a more respected one. Experience alone is no excuse for choosing to ignore or dismiss other valuable experiences.

Now, if someone asks me about an approach different from mine, rather than trying to support the rightness of my position and the wrongness of theirs, I take my cue from the Duke and advise them to “load six” if their insides tells them to.

Wyatt Earp lived to 81, and if he believed that not having the hammer of his .45 caliber Schofield resting on a live round kept him alive, then so be it. If I agree with him, it’s just because I want to avoid the problem of shooting myself in the foot when good science reveals I’ve been wrong about the mechanics I teach or the way I teach them.

Please share this article so others may benefit.


Leave a Reply