Loyola University track and field: Excuses are not in the budget

On Friday mornings throughout the winter, Coach Bob Thurnhoffer is one of the first people inside Loyola University’s Gentile Arena. He and assistant coach John DeGrave are there early setting up, ensuring everything is ready to go when the student-athletes arrive for warm-ups.

By the time the arena opens its doors to 4,500 fans ahead of a 7pm tip-off, Thurnhoffer is long gone, his do-it-yourself track dissembled and back in the gear room next to his wickets, 1080 Sprint and assorted other equipment.

Bob Thurnhoffer is in his second year as Loyola’s head track & field coach, and his seventh year with the Ramblers. In that time he has a built a program around resourcefulness and an acute understanding of needs, desires and planning processes.

The Ramblers are track nomads in the outdoor season. Since 2014 they have used an outdoor track owned by the Chicago Park District. Before that track opened, they used a four-lane, 300-meter track at a nearby charter school. During the indoor season – with Chicago’s weather precluding most hope of an outdoor training session – Thurnhoffer takes advantage of the Gentile Arena’s ground-level concourse. He and DeGrave assemble the 1/2-inch thick single-lane track by linking together twenty 15-meter pieces. The final product is more of a square than an octagon, with the longest straightaway being 45-48 meters.

“As a coach or athlete you accept the circumstances you have and make the best of it,” Thurnhoffer says. “Some people may see this as cynical but I see it as healthy. Focussing on what others have or what you don’t have is not productive, and using lack of facilities as an excuse is nothing other than a lack of imagination and resourcefulness.”

Not that Thurnhoffer has any need to make excuses. The Ramblers have set and re-set school records in the short sprints and horizontal jumps several times over since 2014. Among the athletes who spend their winter mornings in the Gentile Arena concourse are three 25-foot men’s long jumpers and two 20-foot women’s long jumpers; a 52-foot triple jumper; three sub-21 second 200-meter sprinters; and the members of Loyola’s 40.5 second 4 x 100 meter relay squad.

Thurnhoffer’s pragmatism and resourcefulness led him to flip the normal procurement wish-list. He knew if his main focus was an indoor track, he would go through several generations of athletes before delivering on that hope. Instead, he looked at what he could do now. How could he bring the coaches and the administration together to show their resolve for this program?

“Having been at Loyola as long as I have I’ve seen many great coaches work towards an indoor facility to no avail. I thought we could get more benefit by turning our direction towards maximizing what we do have through enhanced training technology. I still have hopes to one day have an indoor facility, and I believe our current athletic director is the guy to get it done. But for now we’re finding new ways to enhance what we’re already doing.”

Loyola’s athletic administration supported that vision. Thurnhoffer’s first purchases were a 1080 Sprint and a kBox4. He and DeGrave debated how to attack training with the 1080 Sprint. They experimented on themselves throughout the summer before having their athletes go through a workout. Given the short straightaways of their set up inside Gentile Arena, they turned their initial thoughts to acceleration.

George Petrakos’ writings on maximum resisted sprint load (MRSL) stood out as a clear and easily administered framework to be the basis of Loyola’s first year with the 1080 Sprint. Thurnhoffer and DeGrave approach resisted sprinting as part of their athletes’ lifting program rather than the sprinting program. Each athlete would have an individualized resisted load via the MRSL, as they would for a core lift.

Thurnhoffer and DeGrave started their athletes with a 20-meter run at 1 kilogram of resistance on the 1080 Sprint. He gradually increased the resistance, paying attention to the average speed between 10-15 meters and comparing it to the average speed from 15-20 meters. Once the average velocity leveled off, they set that resistance as the athlete’s MRSL.

On a retest two weeks later, many of the athletes increased their MRSL by 2-3 kilograms. Thurnhoffer attributed this to a learning effect as the athletes developed the basic competency in resisted running. The second test, therefore, provided a more reliable MRSL for the training block.

Since early October, the Ramblers bring the 1080 Sprint to Gentile Arena twice a week. Mondays are a “strength-speed” day, with the primary data being velocity; and Fridays work on “acceleration strength,” with power output the main data.

Both days include a technical potentiation exercise after the warmup to build context, provide an additional movement screen and move the athletes through proper sprint positions. They then do a complex starting with the 1080 Sprint. On strength-speed Mondays, the athletes sprint 30 meters with resistance at 30% of their MRSL. They follow that with an unresisted 30-meter sprint from blocks, and then a vertically-oriented multi-jump exercises. The speed focus carries over into the weight room, where the main static lifts may be cleans from the thigh and kBox 1/4-squats.

Fridays see the resistance come up to 80-90% of MRSL, with the distance dropping to 10-15 meters and the volume decreasing to as low as a single set. The resisted sprint complexes with a drop-in 30-meter acceleration. Thurnhoffer treats the 80% MRSL resisted sprint as the key absolute strength lift for the day, equivalent to a heavy back squat or trap-bar dead lift.

Once the athletes became comfortable with the training and the 1080 Sprint’s output, Thurnhoffer could experiment with using kinetic data as training targets. “Communicating with the student-athletes about the data helped create a higher level of intent within each session. How many guys can we get past 1600 watts at peak power in a 15-meter sprint? How many over 1700? 1800? How many girls over 1000 watts?”

Before the athletes broke for Thanksgiving, Thurnhoffer tested them over 30-meters at 1 kilogram of resistance. He had eight male athletes running faster than 10 m/s at the end of a 30 meter sprint, with the fastest at 10.77 m/s. His two top female athletes reached 9.42 and 9.37 m/s.

“Early on, they got stronger through the movement – special strength. As time went on they understood the force application and the skill of directing the force better – where the body is supposed to line up, the trunk angle for a given load. I think of something I heard Dan Pfaff say: Anyone can exert themselves in a sprint, but can they express that exertion properly? In our team, we saw exertion improve in the early stages, but as time went on they expressed it more efficiently.

“We also experimented with different cues and used the data to see what worked and what didn’t. This allowed for some light bulb moments among the team.”

As winter makes way for spring, Thurnhoffer will be able to take his athletes out to a full-size track. Being able to run longer than 45 straight meters will be a refreshing change of pace for the athletes, and will let Thurnhoffer put his attention towards other training goals.

“The key idea is to progress into 40-50 meters with the 1080 Sprint, because then you can reach the maximum velocity. We’ll experiment with some overspeed acceleration and overspeed sprinting once the weather turns.

“On the jump side, we’re working on a quasi-MRSL for bounding for our triple jumpers. We also plan on getting velocity and power output data for short-approach jumping in our long jumpers.”

After everything he has done with a single-lane polygon around the concourse of a basketball arena, he won’t come anywhere near a limit with 400 meters and multiple lanes to work with.