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Sprinters at Block Start

By Ken Jakalski

Tony Holler, a recent inductee into the Illinois Track and Cross Country Coaches Hall of Fame, is one cool cat with an engaging personality. But when it comes to discussing his speed philosophy and its impact on the Tigers of Plainfield North, he’s like a cat on a hot tin roof.

For example, Tony often begins his seminars by mentioning how many times he’s heard clinic speakers say that their session is worthwhile if attendees came away with just one thing.

Tony disagrees. In fact, he thinks this notion sucks. He believes he hasn’t done his job effectively if he doesn’t present coaches with a multitude of things worth considering.

Quite often, the takeaways from Tony’s presentations are the ones that are controversial and contentious. That’s not unexpected from someone who believes in the philosophy of Frank Zappa: “Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.”

Deviate he does, but he is not alone in taking an aggressive stance on issues affecting his sport. Though other coaches have expressed similar views over the years, most (if not all) lack Tony’s flair for what some believe borders on political incorrectness.

Number One

Sprinters are cats…cats don’t run cross country. Cross country athletes don’t make good 4×1 team members…they’ve been trained to run slow.

Although this statement may strike some as contentious and controversial, he does have a point. Big cats are fast, but they don’t run for long periods of time. Cheetahs may be the fastest animals in the world. Their sprint lasts about fifteen seconds, and in that time they will cover about 500 meters. As Tony would say for the cheetah who needs to eat: running at top speed is a good thing. But running at such high speeds comes at a cost. Cheetahs’ body temperature quickly elevates, and they need to rest, sometimes for a half hour or more, to avoid overheating.

What about his comments on cross country runners? Some might find them inflammatory, but others have suggested a similar point—although not with Tony’s dash of literary hot sauce.

For example, Dutch biomechanics professor and sprint/jumps coach Frans Bosch noted the following in his speed seminar at Loyola University in 2007: “A long distance runner is just a sprinter with bad coordination.” Bosch believes that good coordination for sprinting involves muscle pre-tension and the avoidance of muscle slack, what in Dutch is called “stijgtijd.” He believes long distance running is a way to have more slack. “Distance running,” he adds, “causes the Series Elastic Component to deteriorate.” As a result, he concludes “training energy systems to maintain speed is nonsense.”

Tony’s analysis: “This is what you need to know about energy systems: Aerobic conditioning has no place in sprint training. Slow running ruins mechanics (vertical force) and confuses the nervous system. In addition, cats hate it.”

Number Two

Valeri Borzov (USSR, 100/200 Gold Medal 1972 Munich Olympics)…Borzov smokes cigarettes. Repeating…world’s fastest man in 1972 was a smoker! Sprinters are not endurance athletes.

The reference to Borzov makes sense relative to another of Tony’s overarching philosophies: what you measure you can improve. Valentin Petrovski, Borzov’s coach, was one of the first to take a scientific view of the 100-meter dash. He broke down the race into small increments, analyzing each section and determining at what point Borzov should reach it. (See Petrovski’s tables) His movements were calculated to thousandths of a second. As running book author and journalist Neil Duncanson notes, “The calculations were made with slide rule accuracy and resembled the designing of an aircraft rather than the training of a sprinter.”

But even Borzov’s youth coaches believed, as Tony does, that fast sprinting should be enjoyed. Their training approaches were intended to make sure that Borzov did not tire of sprinting before he reached his full potential.

A final note on smoking: It is not just an Eastern European thing. We could add the great Jesse Owens to that list. A lifetime smoker, Owens died of lung cancer at age 66.

Number 3

Light a fire, don’t fill a pail…practice is over-rated.

Tony also notes that you “can’t afford to build endurance foundations and develop speed later…sprint in the off season, sprint in the pre-season, and sprint during the season. Build a sprint foundation…sprint, jump, sprint, jump, sprint, jump…”

So much for periodization. On this most sacred issue in track and field, Tony wields Occam ’s razor like a chainsaw: “I don’t believe in periodization. I lose respect for coaches who start talking about macrocyles and mesocycles. The only periodization for high school sprinters should be football season and track season.”

I like it! It reminds me of something I said at a clinic back in 1986: “Say all that you want about periodization, about macrocycles, microcycles—or bicycles, which is about the only cycle I can relate to at this point in my coaching career. The fact remains that I run two meets a week for over eight weeks with runners who hate to train, complain about racing, yet somehow expect to run their best times and their brightest efforts at the biggest meets of the year.

“If I get this done, I call it a motorcycle.”

Tony has some noteworthy supporters. Most of us can recall one of the great quotes from Canadian sprinter and coach Charlie Francis: “If American track coaches had designed the Great Pyramid, it would have covered 700 acres and topped off at 30 feet.”

Texas A&M sprint coach Vince Anderson also comments on this notion of pyramid peaking for sprinters as a “faulty tower.” He adds, “In the case of distance runners, maybe they need to take a cue from sprinters. Speed is something you can’t just hold off to ‘top off the peaking pyramid’ at the end of the season. Sprinting, like any complex skill, must be actively rehearsed for an athlete to achieve their best possible result. It is delusional thinking that skill development will occur without specifically training that skill properly. It takes several weeks (a few months) of SPRINT work to sharpen a sprinter to top form. Start sprint activity from the first day of practice. Do not wait to begin sprint training. We never try to wait to run fast.”

Bob Sevene, who trained Mary Decker, said Mary was so talented that he could have coached her all wrong, and she still could have gone out and run a 4:20 1500! My attitude is that this certainly applies to the kinds of high school athletes many of us work with, regardless of their basic talent. Systems don’t produce—kids do. It just so happens that we believe kids perform better because of our systems. Whether this is a truth—or a myth—is not the point.

Remember, the measure of our accomplishment will be how successful we are at keeping new runners out, average runners productive, good runners happy, and the great ones healthy. Successful coaches at our level—given our limitations and challenges—will find that we can have a positive impact on the kids we coach when we construct programs that do three things that Tony believes are essential: educate, promote, and motivate. This is how he Feeds the Cats.

As Tony explains in his mission statement: “Plainfield North will have a successful team because the fastest guys walking our hallways will WANT to run track and will remain happy, enthusiastic, and energetic. Our best athletes will speak well of our program and will recruit fast guys to join them.”

In this regard, perhaps his least controversial statement is the one we should remember the most.

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  • Joseph Sinagoga says:

    Congratulations Tony!
    This is pure gold!

  • Very amusing. Loved Vince Anderson’s thoughts. I wonder if he’s right. Arthur Lydiard got tremendous results using sprint training judiciously. What if someone were to experiment with using it optimally? As the great S. African ultrarunner Bruce Fordyce said, “Speed is everything.” A 1- or 2-second improvement in mile pace over 6.2 or 26.2 miles would be huge, especially if it could be safely achieved in addition to, dare I say it here, a thumping huge dose of aerobic power.

  • MJ says:

    I really want to be teached from Tony and Ken.It’s so sad that we have no coachs like you in my country..

  • Cedric Johnson says:

    I have read a lot on reverse periodization and I believe in running fast from the start, literally. However I have always wondered how this impacts the early part of a season. Especially when the weather is cold and kids risk chance of injury. Can someone please explain if one in fact caution running fast in early cold weather season, or stick with high quantity aerobic work early? Thanks

  • Tony Holler says:

    In my opinion, cold has never caused an injury.

    We NEVER do slow aerobic work. Aerobic work ruins the sprinter’s nervous system. Train fast in small doses.

    Speed grows like a tree. Must grow that tree early and consistently. No jogging.

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