By Ken Jakalski, Head Track Coach, Lisle High School.
Back in the mid-seventies I had a chance to attend a clinic where one of the keynote speakers was Will Willoughby, the high school coach of high school sprint sensation Houston McTear, the first prep to run nine flat for 100 yards.
The discussion switched to McTear’s training of Valeri Borzov, the Soviet sprinter who won both the 100 and 200 meter dashes in the ’72 Olympics. During that time period, it seemed as if American track coaches had a preoccupation with just about any Russian “training secrets,” so it was no surprise that the topic turned to the famous “Ukraine Express.”
Coach Willoughby paraphrased something that he recalled Borzov saying about his sprinting performance—that if he ran any faster, he’d “disintegrate.”
That line certainly captured the audience’s attention. Did Willoughby bring it up because he wanted to call attention to what appeared to be yet another example of the typical kind of Cold War bluster that was making its way into the sports world?
It was certain that, whatever Borzov meant, he was going to be held up to some serious American scrutiny. After his ’72 victories, one of the stories Red Smith wrote in the New York Times had the following headline: “The Fastest Human is a Commie.”
But what was it that Borzov actually said?
In commenting to the Soviet sports reporters on his success in the 100 meters final, Borzov noted the he had run at 90 percent of his power. In fact, he thought that might have even been an overestimate.
Imagine how that went over among American coaches.
“I now think I used much less than 90 percent, maybe 70 percent, but if I’d used 100 percent I would have just fallen apart.”
Not quite “disintegrate,” but close enough to wonder what Borzov was really trying to suggest.
In the first chapter of his book, The Athlete’s Clock, author Thomas Rowland hypothesizes how the brain, acting subconsciously, might limit distance running effort to “protect an athlete from the potential risks of overexertion in the form of heat stroke, coronary insufficiency, and muscle tetany.” In this model, Rowland suggests that the central nervous system might be acting to create those intolerable sensations of fatigue that make you “stop with your well-being in mind.” Could the same kind of self-appointed governor limit stride frequency and velocity during sprinting as well?
In other words, forty years before the brain’s role as a central governor was being investigated in the research world, was this what Borzov might have really been suggesting?
Alan St. Clair Gibson and his South African colleagues believe this could be the case. While noting that no direct evidence for this exists, his research team felt that certain observations supporting the role of a CNS governor during maximal muscle contractions might apply to high-speed printing as well.
The possible connection for me was linked to the Bundle/Weyand research, which noted that the greatest decrements in performance occur across those efforts that span the briefest durations.
What we know is that human motor units reduce their firing rates during sustained maximal muscular contractions. To St. Clair Gibson and his colleagues, this suggests that the “decrease in firing frequency may therefore be a centrally controlled mechanism to maintain force output while protecting fatiguing fibers from damage incurred by ongoing muscle contraction and ATP and phosphocreatine depletion.”
There is a progressive decline in power typically observed when a runner completes a series of sprints. These decreases have traditionally been attributed to local metabolic changes, but St. Clair Gibson contends that the decline in performance in repeated sprints is not necessarily tightly related to these factors.
His team’s theory is that the brain may sense that repeated sprinting with fatigued muscles might cause damage. “In response,” notes St. Clair Gibson, “it may deregulate central command to limit force production and sprinting performance on subsequent repetitions.”
So, if such a governor really did exist for high-speed sprinting, what are the things that the governor might actually be protecting? In other words, what would be the “risk” of pushing beyond some apparent upper limit, whether that limit is the 90% or lower, as Borzov suggested?
The risk may very well be musculoskeletal damage. As Rowland notes, “a ceiling of stride frequency during sprinting seems to exist (perhaps beneficially dictated by a CNS governor).” His ending questions are good ones to consider. “Can the intrinsic clocks that dictate cyclical rhythms of leg muscle contraction be convinced to go faster? Should they be convinced to do so? Is it wise?”
If there is a central governor relative to high speed running—and again this is just a theory—are the fastest athletes in the world those who are able to over-ride that governor? And in so doing, might they be choosing to put themselves on the edge of a catastrophic injury?
Beginning with Percy Williams in 1928, author Neil Duncanson’s book on 100 meter Olympic champions is interesting not just for the stories behind the “fastest men on earth,” but for the number and frequency of injuries these athletes sustained at various times throughout their careers.
And yet to accept those risks, what does that say about such athletes? Brooks Johnson once noted the following about the fastest Olympians he’s ever coached:
“They all had a screw loose. There is no way an athlete can prepare in the extremes necessary to make an Olympic team and be “well adjusted.” The simple fact of the matter is, “well adjusted” people do not, and perhaps cannot, push themselves to the limits and extremes necessary to perform up to the Olympic level.”
And to think all this began with a high school coach from Baker, Florida wondering why Valeri Borzov said he might “disintegrate” if he ran any faster…
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Bundle, M. and Weyand P. “Sprint Exercise Performance: Does Metabolic Power Matter? Exercise and Sports Science Reviews 40 174-182 (2012)
Duncanson, Neil. The Fastest Men on Earth: The Story of the Men’s 100 Metres Olympic Champions London, Andre Deutsch, 2011
Rowland, Thomas W. The Athlete’s Clock: How Biology and Time Affect Sport Performance United States, Human Kinetics, 2011
St. Clair Gibson, A., M.I. Lambert, and T.D. Noakes. “Neural control of force output during maximal and submaximal exercise.” Sports Medicine 31: 637-650 (2001)