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Håkan Andersson Interview


Hakan Andersson

Among of the most respected coaches in the sprints is Swedish Athletics coach Håkan Andersson. His knowledge of applied sprinting and sport science is one of balance. The impact of his coaching can be seen in the athletes he has coached and the education he has provided. Each year Andersson hosts the SSG Windsprint Grand Prix. In addition to track and field, he has worked with high-level athletes in other sports including Olympic swimming, boxing, speed skating, professional ice hockey, basketball, and soccer.

Fiber Types and Adaptations of Speed and Strength

Freelap USA — You have a wealth of knowledge on muscle physiology, specifically fiber typing with sprinters. When you work with athletes over years you are likely trying to manage adaptations that can elicit favorable changes without compromising higher fiber types. While this is a volume and program design question, how do you look at tempo running, jump training, weight training, and the sprints as ways to improve steadily without digging yourself into a hole? What should we look at 100 m athletes to get them to improve each year without ruining long term potential?

Coach Andersson — Even though I’m very interested in muscle physiology I’m a definitely just a layman with pretty humble attitude towards my own knowledge and understanding. After 30 years of private studies in combination with plentiful exchange of information by fellow coaches and sport scientist I’m a firm believer there are still many areas in sport to explore and understand. In this regard science with application to sprinting is rather sparse even if our understandings in some aspects are much greater today than when I started coaching more than tree decades ago.

Scientific information is extremely accessible for everybody today and more or less free, but there are also risks for disinformation. You have to review all information with a very critical mindset and don’t take everything that you read in scientific journals as hardcore evidence. I do find some consolation by the fact that hardly any coaches are sitting on scientific information that we can’t obtain. There is no longer any “secrets” that we believed the Eastern block had access to in the seventies and eighties.

I do take some pride by the fact that I always tried my best to build our training systems on mixed cornerstones of my own experience and scientific evidence that I believe is either solid or at least in my view seems logic.

To answer your question, it is always tempting for a coach to increase volume in everything we prescribe. Both in the weight room and on the track because we feel that higher volumes will stimulate the organism to super compensate to a even higher levels. My thought and experience is that an ever-increasing volume of high intensity sprinting will eventually backfire if taken to extreme levels.

If contemporary theories are right excessive volumes of any type of running will push working muscles to express lesser and lesser IIX or IIA/IIX muscle proteins (designed for highest possible speed and power output) in favor of IIA that might be good for 400-800 m running but not well suited for sprinting at >12 m/s with 80 millisecond ground contact times.

Same problem might arise with weigh training since it seems well established that by heavy resistance training the MHC IIX gene is turned off in most IIX fibers, resulting in an elevated proportion of IIA fibers at the expense of IIX or IIA/IIX fibers. I’ve seen many examples of sprinters that in my view exaggerate weight training gradually but steadily get stronger and but unfortunately in many cases also heavier and gradually slower and slower.

Another important aspect is that even though I’m a firm believer in specificity one must understand that even the same volume as previous periods might be more taxing as the sprinter improves. This is probably true regardless if we are talking sprinting, jumping or lifting heavy weight.

All this might not be too much of a problem in a drug-assisted program though.

Carl’s Take ‐ A lot of talk and excitement about profiling players in team sport with the use of non-invasive methodologies as well as advanced blood testing and power testing. I think it’s important to realize that fiber types are just one part of the equation and IIX overshoot (fast twitch supercompensation) is one theory. With the help of Haloview, I have done profiling and even biopsy work for capillary changes, mitochondria biogenesis, and hemoglobin adjustments. What I can say are changes take a long time and are not very dramatic when they do happen. Studies showing rapid improvements over weeks are usually to athletes that are not at their ceiling, so the changes should be reexamined. The use of too much powerlifts and not enough absolute speed will show up on fiber changes over one season, and ballistic exercises seem to help with neurotransmitter changes. I have gradually reduced lifting volumes of squats by 50% and maximal strength is still improving year by year with sprinters and soccer players. Talented athletes with high fiber types need to ensure they are monitored carefully because they are prone to fatigue and appear lazy to the novice coach.

Muscle Twitch Performance

Figure 1: Muscle Twitch Performance of Soccer Athletes

One of the key ways to weigh someone’s fiber composition is through what many call “Adjusted Speed Rating” that incorporates a conditioning test and blood analysis to conventional power testing (see Figure 1). Many athletes who are not in optimal condition and are tested without including hemoglobin and plasma adjustment changes are getting numbers that are out of context. The best way to look at recovery and development is to test twice a year, during the preseason and immediate offseason. Tensiomyography estimates type I fiber, and to get an accurate indication of power one has to blood test and do power evaluation with sEMG. You don’t need a lab to get good data, and I am shocked how many teams have been convinced that doing vertical jump tests with a force plate when better options exist. I have worked with athletes that are like what Håkan calls Springboks, a player with great speed and stamina and profiling enables teams to get better output and less injuries.

Integrating Plyometrics and Sprint Training

Freelap USA — Plyometrics and sprinting conjures a big debate. Some don’t do jumps at all, some are very interested in doing jump work, and some sprinkle it in a program. When preparing for lower leg stiffness what do you do over the long term with athletes to reduce the chance of injuries but push lesser talents to levels beyond their abilities? How specific do we need to be with different phases of acceleration and top speed?

Coach Andersson — Jumping and bounding are powerful exercises, but also carry some potential for injuries. As my friend Henk Kraijenhof the master of one-liners once put it; “Jumping and bounding are good exercises for cats but not for cows.”

Strenuous jumping isn’t usually something that you start with in your mid twenties and just get away with it. If an athlete is inexperience jumper and possess large muscle volume at that age, I usually don’t even consider introducing jumping as a central part of his strength training regime without extended periods of carefully and gradually introduced jumping.

Ideally you start from an early age and progressively build the young athletes tolerance to the tension. In the past I don’t think that coaches had to worry too much about the introduction to jumping, since that was what kids did just by playing and growing up. Jumping just seems to be very natural form of training for human development but we as coaches have to be a bit careful since the children at least in the western world seems to have replaced this types of playing in favor of lots of much less physical activities like hours and hours of TV and computer games. I paraphrase Henk’s statement “modern kids might be cows not cats”, just as the 25-year-old sprinter weighing in at 85kg with no jumping experience.

If introduced, planned and applied properly I thing that jumping is one of the greatest training methods there is for the neuromuscular system. To some extent I also feel that athletes that has grown up doing various jumps are less prone to injuries in the foot and ankle regions.

There is a wide range of different jumping exercises and the trick is to find out the needs of the athlete and how a certain exercise might address those specific needs. For most of my sprinters but not everybody, jumping has been a natural part of their training regime and I feel that everybody that has been able jump has benefited.

When it comes to programming we usually mix jumping before and after lifting and sometimes we do some jumping before sprinting.

Carl’s Take — Gradual introduction to plyometrics is essential, or one will find joints and connective tissue resemble a former NFL player in their 50s. Regressions of jumps in place, stiffness work, and even remedial exercises are necessary now with the modern athlete. Medial and lateral hops are a cornerstone of mine and really does a nice job preparing for more demanding exercises. It takes a lot of guts and patience to refine jump training when athletes are seeing montages of Werner Gunthor (my fault here) but having advanced athletes helps the developing ones see that eventually one will get to the higher levels helps sell the program. I agree that plyometrics is one of the best ways to help athletes decelerate for agility and safely absorb energy for injury reduction purposes.

Maximizing Performance with Meet Selection

Freelap USA — Testosterone and other hormones matter for supporting adaptation, but adrenaline is a huge way to get athletes to push to new levels in competition. The right race conditions is a great way to help athletes if selected properly, could you get into how you see developmental sprinters using meets to get higher outputs?

Coach Andersson — Sprinting is really the ability to swim in a sea of adrenaline while staying relaxed, producing high level of power and proper running mechanics. I think by training in groups with some competitiveness the transfer to a competition setting is lot less dramatic as the arousal feels very natural and familiar.

Ability to handle stress at major competition is easier and seems to come more natural for some than for others. To some degree it probably has to do with confidence and sense of belonging but to a certain extent also with experience I’m sure. For a Jamaican kid that at the age of 13 has at participated in the “Champs” (the scholastic championships in Kingston Jamaica) in front of all his friends and family plus a screaming crowd of nearly 35,000 will probably feel a lot of familiar sensations when he or she enters an Olympic stadium.

Carl’s Take — I firmly believe that 1/3 of performance is the right meet selection. I have seen great coaches with great training programs suffer with stagnation because the wrong venues, lousy competition, and bad stadium vibe ruins the hard work of both the coach and athlete. One of my biggest efforts is to look at European meets and now the American Track League to see how different venues and athletes mix for results. When 1% is the common improvement in a season, you can’t start off in a hole with bad schedules and poor meet selection. It took me years to fully appreciate this as I didn’t do deep analysis until I started comparing the data of all athletes and meets historically, and the answer is crystal clear. Coaches need to think about meet periodization and travel more than ever since the diamond league is more global. Athletes are expanding their travel to East Asia and Middle East, so adjustments must be made to optimize training and competition.

Designing a Strength Program for Long Term Development

Freelap USA — You still do bilateral exercises in training and mix in less conventional options in the weight room. Research is showing that long term adaptions happen from training and this is messy since athletes are doing an array of different modalities to get better. What are some ideas you have with Olympic lifting, power lifting, single leg training, and even corrective exercises that can help coaches with selecting movements to help individualize training?

Coach Andersson — My feeling is that sometimes the debate on the need of specificity in the weight room gets out of control and has not much substantial value. My believe is that nothing we do in the weight room is specific to sprinting in terms of angular velocities, type of contractions, neural activation and recruitment of motor units, etc.

It goes without saying that all facets of training must be incorporated into the sprinters strength and conditioning program and both powerlifting and Olympic lifting are without any doubt useful. A well-rounded training program should not be limited to only these areas of emphasis though but rather incorporated as two components that might meet the athlete’s sport and personal needs. To say that Olympic lifting is more sprint-specific than powerlifting because of the higher bars speed is in my mind nonsense. Even if the maximal bar-speed is higher than in powerlifting the speed is nothing compared to sprinting except for perhaps the immediate block and start-phase.

Powerlifting improves absolute strength that is the foundation for other strength abilities but does probably due to long time under great muscle tension to a certain extent also stimulate undesired hypertrophy. The fact that powerlifting is stressful on a molecular level means that recovery is long and therefor rather difficult to combine with high intensity sprinting.

The main advantage with Olympic lifting is in my mind the high neural drive and the fact that you cover almost every muscle group with just a few exercises. Including many important stabilizing muscles in the core that is developed due to the large amount of overhead lifting and high loads away from the body’s center of gravity. Olympic is despite being taxing on the nervous system easier to fit into the micro-cycle than powerlifting.
Regardless if you decide to use Olympic lifting and powerlifting or not I think it is necessary to ask your self some questions. For example; what level of strength is benefitting to for an individual athlete. Will he be able to transfer an extra 20kg in the power clean into maximal velocity? Will an extra 50kg in full squat be beneficial to for the 100m times or will it just improve the first 30m and slow you down from that point and beyond?

Regarding the use uni- and/or bilateral lifting; to get the most out of heavy and/or explosive lifting I prefer a solid stand on both feet for maximal neural drive and muscular recruitment. By some reason beyond my understanding Olympic lifting on one leg has gained in popularity in Sweden in recent years but to be honest this makes no sense and I haven’t even considered going down that trail. If I’m to do an educated I guess that people fall for the claim one legged lifting are more specific to sprinting since sprinting is done unilaterally.

We do some unilateral resistance training but with them we usually target hip extensors, mainly hamstrings. As for jumping we use both uni- and bilateral types of exercises with vertical bilateral jumps usually dominating for athletes that needs to improve their stiffness and ground contact times.

Carl’s Take — I will be controversial here. I have done jump training and physiological monitoring, and anyone claiming that the CNS reading from Omegawave is summarizing fatigue centrally is fooling themselves or trying to be a guru. Frustrated with false promises of different training schools, I did power and speed tests with full EEG and surface/needle EMG and found that PNS fatigue is underrated. You can be wide or deep with monitoring, as choosing one style of monitoring conjures inaccurate summaries and convenient statistics. I also strongly believe that viscoelastic changes with too much concentric dominate lifts (deadlifts, heavy sleds, and step-ups) kills speed and have the data to back it up. I do add some liftoff work with cleans but eccentric overload is important with weight training and must be carefully managed.

Peter Karlsson 100 meter Career Progression

Figure 2: Peter Karlsson 100 meter Career Progression

Anyone complaining of talent levels in their area can learn how patient development works in the long run. Nothing was more humbling than seeing time after time athletes who are not oozing talent early on produce great times later (see Figure 2: Peter Karlsson 100 meter career progression). I strongly believe that athletes are very plastic and the body is an amazing adaptation machine if training is well organized. Unfortunately dubious claims of 8 week programs are polluting education without evidence to show that the training is actually doing something. I strongly suggest looking at career arcs before judging a program’s worth, and track and field is a sport that can’t hide results.

The Value of Coach and Athlete Communication

Freelap USA — When engaging with sprinters what do you do to help monitor practices live. Instead of talking about technology can you share how experience is vital with person to person interaction? You have had long relationships with different sprinters over the years and what do you think is a good process during and after warm-up to ensure practices are optimal?

Coach Andersson — I think that personal interaction between coach and athlete is crucial when it comes to adjusting training loads and technique. The sprinter is using all his senses while running and that information is an irreplaceable asset if you have an honest and open relationship that can never replace even the sharpest coaching eye.

The speed of movements in sprinting is just to high for us to be able absorb and understand everything that is going on and the fact that we can only view the runner 2D makes it even harder. Filming can help but not even that can replace the athlete’s senses and feelings. To be honest I think there is a lot of verbal nonsense coming out from many coaches in a vein effort to give cutting edge feedback. Certainly we are able to make some helpful observations but what we are observing from the side is just the top of the iceberg and communication is everything. That is why I always liked to work with small groups. I find that 3-4 athletes are ideal, beyond that number I feel that I lose much of my ability to communicate effectively.

Carl’s Take — When it comes to toys (equipment) I have an obsession but none of it replaces the feedback from the athlete and the experience of the coach. Subjective questionnaires are great but nothing beats a coaches and athlete log. Even if it’s 30 seconds, the sensations of what an athlete feels is better than any technology and that should be recorded in some way. Everyone talks about the human element, yet all of the great interaction is usually lost as that data alone must be documented. A great conversation comes from some sort of objective feedback from time to time and the photo above represents one of the greatest examples of great coaching. The human element of long term collaboration and the appropriate use of technology (high speed camera) is symbiotic and not mutually exclusive. A good idea when working with athletes is more communication person-to -person and wiser use of technology and sport science.

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