Stu McMillan– Coach and CEO at ALTIS. Formerly based in Calgary, Canada coaching winter sport athletes from 1998-2010. Became sprint coach with GB Track & Field athletes in 2010 until end of London games 2012. Moved to Phoenix, Arizona and started Altis 2013.
Kevin Tyler- Altis President (and former Head of Coaching at UK Athletics)
Dan Pfaff- sprint coach
Andreas Behm- hurdles coach
John Godina- throws coach
How did ALTIS come about?
”John Godina had set up the World Throws Center, with a vision of setting up a training centre but also he saw this big gap in the profession, especially in North America of coaching track & field events. So he started his company World Throws Center as a vehicle to educate throws coaches but also as a training centre to coach elite throwers.
But his vision was always to expand that out into all of the other event groups within track & field. Within an hour of their first meeting John had offered Stu a job to help him build what they were going to call the World Athletics Center, which was rebranded as ALTIS in 2015.
The vision was to offer a more professional track & field coaching service and second to that was to offer a professional coach education service to other track and field coaches. So from the get go we have always believed in the co development of coaches and athletes.
In the first year we had 7 athletes on board, the second year we have 23 athletes, the following year we had 65 and the year after that we had 108 and by that time it was getting a little bit too chaotic. So from an operations stand point so we reached out to Kevin Tyler who at that point was lead sprint coach for University of Oklama, to help us with the day to day operations.”
What is the vision for ALTIS over the next 5-10 years?
”We started off as a track & field company that wanted to do some education. Now we are an education company that also does some track & field. When we started off we had this in house coaching programme, the Apprentice coach programme, that we are probably best known for, where every month that we are coaching people we are visited by 10-15 professionals from all over the world.
Now when we started that programme in 2013 80% of the people than came to visit us were from track & field, and now every month we have 20-30 people come visit us and 80-85% of them are from other sports, so it is less and less track & field, and that has been part of our strategy moving forward. The reality is that track & field is a difficult sport from which to try and operate and sustain a for-profit business within. There just is not the money in these some of these smaller amateur sports.
I don’t know what the next 5-10 years will look like but we are trying to lead some of the change and doing a better job of helping educate the younger coaches coming through navigate their way through the chaos of the coaching profession.”
Where do you look for inspiration from the education side of the business to have more impact on the industry?
”With age, often, but not always, comes wisdom, so you are better able to synthesis your way through all the disparate and conflicting information so we see our role as trying to make sense of it all. So first and foremost we see our role as taking these perhaps 100 conflicting ideas and synthesis it into what is truly important.
Where we get the inspiration for that I think is maybe two or threefold. First and foremost is my primary mentor Dan Pfaff who can take really complex information and reduce it to a sentence or two that makes sense for a person who doesn’t have the wisdom that he has.
Second a great friend of mine Jon Beradi who build Precision Nutrition who saw the noise in the nutrition space and didn’t want to be a part of it, so he started an online digital nutrition education curriculum. So I take a lot of inspiration from what he built and how he built it, communicating it in a way that made sense to everyone in the space whether they are just starting or whether they’ve been in the space for 10 years plus.
Third is EXOS, which is the building in which we house ourselves, and we are so lucky to have this relationship with Mark Vestegen, and how they have built their system.
Do the underpinning characteristics of speed differ between track & field and other sports?
”Backing up a little bit, the question to ask yourself is, is speed a primary limiting factor in the sport you coach? If the answer is yes, then where is it within the hierarchy of KPIs (key performance indicators) within that?
If it is one of the top ones, and you determine that it is an important factor in your sport then it is contingent upon you to understand that. A decade ago it was all about the strength part of strength & conditioning, and very little about conditioning. And within strength it was really only about what happened in the weight room, just around Olympic lifts or Power lifts, and it was very reduced and it didn’t have a great transfer over to what the sport is.
The role of an S&C coach was really about getting an athlete in front of me more stronger and more powerful, and if I do that then I’ve done my job. But over the course of the last 5-10 years we have begun to think a lot more about ‘transference‘ and is the work I’m doing transferring over to the sport in which they are performing? So then that becomes the objective.
It is pretty evident that most S&C coaches don’t know a tonne about speed development, or mechanics or any of those things around speed. It is changing, and there is a greater respect for it and I think it stems from a better understanding of the role of the S&C coach and knowing it is more than getting them bigger, faster stronger in the gym. The strength components are much easier to measure, and therefore much easier to justify our positions or roles within the performance team.
But to answer your original question, I don’t really see much of a difference. The underpinning things that are important to getting athletes fast are important whether you are getting them prepared to run a 100m or whether you are preparing them to play rugby, basketball, or American football.
It’s just where in that hierarchy of KPIs do those speed qualities exist? So in track & field for example, the mechanics of how an athlete moves down the track is really important. It’s a primary factor and it is one of the most important factors in determining whether that athlete succeeds. Is it as important for let’s say as important for an offensive lineman in American football, no! But it is more important for a wide receiver to move mechanically sound, then yes! For an offensive lineman I wouldn’t spend a tonne of time teaching him how to upright sprint but I’d coach them enough so that he doesn’t hurt himself when he has to do these stupid NFL combine tests!
At what point do you move away from isolated sprinting to a more contextual environment for a team sport player?
Well that’s the big question obviously, and it just goes back to that question about transference. It’s no different from what we are doing in the weight room. What are we doing in the weight room by doing a power clean, or a squat or a reverse hyper? Do we do any of those things out on the field, no we don’t do any of them, so they are so many generations away from from the athlete actually does on the field.
It’s very funny to me and curious to me the argument from technical coaches who tell me, ‘well my athlete doesn’t get upright, he only accelerates so why are you teaching them to upright sprint?’ So I say, ‘well does your athlete clean 60kg on the bar and put it on their shoulders on the field? So why are you getting them to do that as well?’
That being said, it’s still a very valid question. Working back from the sport we need to be able to justify every piece of the preparation programme whether it is sprinting, lifting weights, jumping or throwing. We need to be able to justify it. Going back to the previous example, if you are a premier league footballer or a wider receiver in American football then the need to teach someone how to sprint properly becomes more important.
Then the question becomes content versus context. You’re probably not going to be thinking about your technique while you are actually moving around the field. You might be subconsciously aware of it, but you’re definitely not consciously thinking about driving your knees up or using your arms etc. But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be working on that from a less contextualized standpoint away from the confines of the game.
What I say, and what my argument is, probably the more experienced you are the longer you’ve been in a sport, the longer you’ve been moving a certain way, the less time that we as professionals should spend trying to change that way of moving or improve/perfect that way of moving. But if you’re a 12 yr old soccer player and you can barely move your limbs with any efficiency or force then it is part of our role to try to teach you how to move properly.
Are you thinking about sprinting when you are playing a team sport?
”I always share the story of me playing soccer and I remember vividly having a one on one with the defender. Now this was my second stint playing soccer as a 30 yr old having retired from the game at 24 yr. I hadn’t changed anything else in those six years apart from spending a lot of time learning how to run faster and more efficiently. As I push the ball past him, my brain just goes somewhere else for a split second and I lock into my sprint technique thinking about leaning forward, head down, pump my arms, then as soon as I get by him, my brain locks back into the sport and off I go again.
Now the ecological dynamics people say it is always an interaction between the task and the environment. Well, it’s not always. Sometimes we use these fundamental skills that we develop in other areas of the physical preparation, whether that’s jumping, or running or squatting. Sometimes we use them as metaphors within the confines of the game, and you refer back to all the training you have done and for a split second your brain goes back into a fundamental skill before you lock back into the game.
When, where and how do you incorporate speed sessions into Youth athlete programmes?
”Firstly, it depends on what you mean by youth? Are you talking about an 8 yr old or perhaps a 15-16 yr old? Have they started to specialise in their sport? Generally what you will see if you look at a playground with a group of 8-10 yr olds running around, most of them run a lot, sprint a lot and they are pretty efficient in how they move. It is probably getting a little bit worse as they play less but generally it’s pretty good. If you look again at that same group 5-6 years later, most of them are no longer moving well.
If they are 8-12 yr old you are probably doing enough sprinting within their play already, now you may have a few that are not great movers who you might want to say okay, twice a week for 10 minutes we are going to work on making you a little more efficient in the way in which you move. But the training may be enough if they are running around and sprinting.
Now when they are 15-16 yrs the technical demands are playing a much greater importance than the relevance of some of these other things like sprinting, such as doing small sided games and having less and less opportunities to open up and run. So I would encourage coaches, for whom this is your case, to provide your athletes with opportunities to open up and running and sprinting. It doesn’t have to be a lot, just work it into your warm ups and do 5-10 mins sprinting, say three times a week.
Sprinting in warm-ups
On a related issue of warm-ups I find it totally baffling having watched some Premier league soccer warm-ups that the players will not do any sprinting during the warm-up. Sure they’ll do 4-5 step bursts or some really sloppy strides but not once do they do any actual sprinting!!
And as far as planning it into training days, look at what the technical plan is for the training session. If the plan is going to do a lot of sprinting, we’re not doing any small sided games (SSG), okay well then I’ll just put 3-4 x 20-30m sprints at the end of the warm-up. Or if we are doing mostly SSG today then we won’t open up a lot so I’ll have to work more sprinting into the warm-up and do 5-6 x 20-30m. The take home is not so much how we do it, but that we do it! We’ve gone too deep into the specialisation of the sport and the technical demands of the sport, and started to ignore the capacity demands and the strength, power and speed and how people move!
At Altis we look at three different speeds, slow, medium and fast velocity. We have three planes of movement- forwards, sideways and backwards. And we look at three arcs- short- medium and long arc (with a long arc being the entire body is working fully). When we get together as a group we will do something to hit all nine components over the course of a session.
What is your philosophy of what goes on in the weight room (both for track athletes and then secondly as team sports)?
First and foremost, we always start with the sport and the athlete as individuals. So understanding the athlete is primary.
So the first question I ask is, why is this athlete in front of me good at what they do?
I then design my programme towards whatever is it that makes them good at what they do (strengthen strengths). So if they are good at what they do because they have got really good force producing capabilities, then I’m going to spend more time doing, relative to other things closer to when they need to compete well, on force producing abilities. So I will train them towards that kind of work. Now that’s for elite sprinters.
But if I’m working with a 14-15yr old I’ll still ask the same question, why is this athlete in front of me really good at what they do, but I’ll spend more relative time filling in the gaps at what they are not good at.
They are super strong- so I’ll do stuff in the weight room to make them super stronger. And when they are competing I want them feeling good about themselves- doing things they are confident in and comfortable with.
Philosophically as a coach, we tend to see a weakness in an athlete and they say, ‘if only I could improve this weakness, this athlete would be so much better.’ I worked with a speed skater in Canada who for almost four years leading into the Winter Games 2010 was one of the best sprint skaters at the time, he had the World record, he had won a number of world cups.
In the year leading up to the 2006 Winter Olympics the coaches and physiologists decided there was a gap here, I think we can make this athlete better if we spend more time on building his strength endurance. Now he was really pretty dominant on the first lap, and he was even pretty dominant on the second lap but tended to drop off a little in the second lap. So in the Olympic season, you can guess what happened? he lost his mojo, he lost his top end speed because we only have finite amount of stuff we can fit into the envelope, so by working on more strength endurance stuff around the second lap, that took away from what actually made him, him, what made him good! And because you took away stuff that made him feel really good about himself he started losing his confidence and started competing less well.
Now I think he went into the games and didn’t even medal, maybe 5th or 6th where he went into the games and the previous quadrennial period as the dominant skater! So this is a little lesson to think about when to work on strengths and when to work on weaknesses. We need to be really careful on where we spend time working on things where athletes aren’t very good at. How does that make you feel psychologically if you just go into every training session doing things that are hard and you feel you suck at? You can just become a totally different person.
What is your process in determining the exercises in the weight room that have the biggest transference into sprinting?
Part of that is just experience, having access to literally hundreds of athletes in Calgary and put them into little boxes and try stuff out and over the course of that time we figured out so much of what can transfer and what can’t. But now that I’m working with 10 athletes who are all hoping to go to the Olympic games it doesn’t give me much opportunity to trial and error.
We know that for example, there isn’t a high degree of transference between say a heavy back squat and running fast. That may be surprising to some of your listeners. If you look at the eight finalists in the 100 m sprint and you ask yourself how much these guys can back squat. Now some strength coaches will look at the story of Ben Johnson who apparently did a 600 lb back squat the day before the 1988 Final and that’s kind of become the bedrock of their understanding of the relationship between strength and speed. Where he was an anomaly. If you look at the the eight sprinters at the final in Rio (2016) there wasn’t one of them who could of full back squatted over 150 kg. I had one of them (the Bronze medalist) and he couldn’t back squat 60 kg!!
So strength as we typically define it in the weight room as ‘load’ is not transferable to speed. Now some governing strength abilities within that do, so eccentric RFD is very important, so can you find some exercises within the weight room to develop that ability within strength that transfers a lot better!
Werner Gunther was in the Swiss bob sled teams and I got the chance to watch this guy train over the course of a winter. Around the same time in 2001 I watched a guy called Adam Archuleta who lit up the NFL combine that year, and his metrics tested out of the roof! Now his trainer at the time Jay Shrayder did a lot of drop catch work with a really overloaded fast eccentric component as a part of his strength. I also listened to D Schmidtbleicher who found within his research it was that the stretch was the most important part not the shortening, it was the first ‘s’ in the SSC (stretch-shortening cycle). What I took from that was that we have a finite amount of energy available to us so we can choose to say do hurdle hops or depth landings. We can probably do more depth landings if we don’t have to worry about the concentric component (the second ‘s’), than we can full hurdle hops so it is a little bit more efficient.
So taking what I learnt from these three athletes around 20 years ago I started working with my athletes what I eventually called reflexive eccentrics (Reflexive Eccentrics. Term used to describe low-load, high-velocity eccentric (
which is taking a weight 40-70% 1RM and then dropping explosively into a catch position. So for a squat, if you’ve got an athlete that does 200 kg for 3 reps then we put a 100kg on them at drop into a half squat explosively for 3-5 reps. Be as quick through that eccentric portion as you can. This is the part of the work that we do in the weight room that has the most transference and then what we do is try to identify the specific exercise that that type of work transfers over the most for each individual athlete. So we category athletes upon the way in which they move, are they double leg or single leg dominant, or are they push dominant or pull dominant? So if we have an athlete that is a double leg push athlete we will do a lot more double leg squat movements. Whereas if you have an athlete who is a single leg puller then the exercise we would be doing more in the weight room would be say for example, a single leg RDL.
How do you categorize the athletes into the full buckets (double, single, push or puller)?
Observe and ask questions
I watch them! Now that is not a good answer for a young coach because a young coach doesn’t have the experience or the eye to see that this is how the athlete moves, but I actually challenge coaches to do this.
The easier one to observe is if they are anterior chain or posterior chain dominant. If the sprinter has big glutes, big hamstrings, big calves, long Achilles, he/she is almost certainly going to be a puller. They pull themselves down the track. On the other side of the equation, if you have someone who has big quads, chest, shoulders, triceps, and a little bent over the waist chances are they are a pusher.
Also, ask an athlete which athlete they prefer. If they prefer a squat they are probably a pusher, and if they say Dead lift chances are they are a puller. Also then ask them if they would prefer to do it on leg or two legs? They are always going to choose the one they are best at, because that’s their bias. If they are not sure, you can get them to try and see what movement they are more comfortable with, and use our philosophy of moving towards their strengths.
Arcs and fascial chains
This goes back to what I said about asking the question about why are they good at what they do?
- Are they super stable in performing BIG OPEN SHAPES? Big arc person vs. small arc person? Big arc is perhaps more fascially dominant and small arc is perhaps more muscularly dominant
- Snatch is full chain arc (foot to overhead), clean is medium chain arc (foot to shoulder)
- Super tall really skinny fascial dominant athlete might be good at overhead back MB heaves but not so much at underhand forward heaves
Top 5 Take Away Points:
- Identify limiting factors – is speed a primary limiting factor in the sport you coach? If the answer is yes, then where is it within the hierarchy of KPIs
- Content vs. Context- how much impact can you make on sprint technique out of context from the game?
- Opportunities– give athletes opportunities to open up and sprint as part of their weekly training
- Importance of eccentric strength- this is the type of strength that has higher transfer to sprinting
- Observation skills- watch them move and ask questions. What they like is what they are good at!
Want more info on the stuff we have spoken about? Be sure to visit:
You may also like from PPP:
Episode 217, 51 Derek Evely
Episode 207, 3 Mike Young
Episode 192 Sprint Masterclass
Episode 87 Dan Pfaff
Episode 55 Jonas Dodoo
Episode 15 Carl Valle
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