Demystifying assisted sprinting: Four perspectives with the 1080 Sprint

Even the most mathematically rigorous and technologically savvy coach has to concede a certain amount of defeat when it comes to assisted sprinting.

You can have the most precise timing gates and sync them up with your video system for flying 40’s. You can calculate the coefficient of friction for your turf, factoring in humidity and how many days since the last rain, so you know exactly how much force an athlete is expending for his sled pulls. If you’re so inclined, you can kit your players up in smart shirts for real-time physiological data as if you were coaching Gattaca FC.

But then comes assisted sprint day, and you’re breaking out the rubber bands and pulleys.

Until the 1080 Sprint, coaches had no way to control or quantify an assisted sprint. As a result, misconceptions proliferated while few protocols made their way into the world.

Assisted sprinting became synonymous with overspeed. Because people thought it made an athlete move at supranatural speeds, they concluded it was dangerous. Minimizing the risk therefore meant minimizing the amount of such training. And so it was introduced – paradoxically – only in the competition phase of a season in advanced athletes.

This stalled the development of assisted sprinting. Here are four ways to think about assisted sprinting beyond the conventional, er, wisdom.

1. Assisted sprinting reduces load, it does not give speed

Assisted sprinting does not mean pulling an athlete faster than they can go on their own. In both performance and rehabilitation settings, assisted sprinting can reduce an athlete’s contribution to running at a given speed, at or near their top-end.

“I don’t want to tow my athlete at a faster speed than they are capable of running. I know their top-end speed, so they run at 90% effort and you give them the other 10% with the 1080 Sprint,” says Vern Gambetta.

“Train for that goal speed. Do a certain percentage of your work at the goal tempo, but keep it relatively short so you’re executing technically correct.”

Gambetta applies the same approach for assisted sprinting in team sports. These athletes often come into training situations with a lower capacity for sprint work given the demands of their sport and their training history. And because mechanics and conditioning make up a smaller percentage of their overall training load, assisted sprinting introduces efficiencies to the conditioning programme.

“Soccer players, for example, they have to get close to top speed from a standing start. The assistance gets them through early acceleration to top speed so they can now feel top speed. This makes the acceleration more meaningful.

“Baseball players are often limited in how many reps they can do at a high enough speed to feel good mechanics, simply because they don’t even run 30 yards except to first base.

“Assisted sprinting enables them to run at a more relaxed pace, but we can give them more of it because we’ve taken that last 10%. We can work at their top speed without them expending the high neural demands of top speed running. Assisted sprinting is now a tool for increasing volume of work at top speed with the desired mechanics.”

Gambetta’s perspective mirrors Rick Franzblau’s work with Clemson University’s baseball team. Franzblau uses variable assistance over 25-30 meters and constant assistance for 55 meters as two stations on a three-station circuit. The athletes improve their acceleration in tandem with their mechanics, a common deficiency among baseball players.

2. Assisted sprinting has a place in every microcycle

Many coaches would be loath to introduce a new skill or stimulus in the final stages of a season. Any new stimulus – particularly a high-intensity stimulus – brings with it soreness, and the risks of an unexpected response. On the other hand, if a stimulus is so potent that its eleventh-hour introduction is a competitive advantage, why not train for the stimulus and extract as much value from it across the season?

Yet many coaches avoid assisted sprinting until the competition / peaking stages of the season. At a time when the overall priority is minimizing training and psychological stresses, coaches introduce a new stress on top of the intrinsic stresses of novelty and skill acquisition.

“Top-end speed is a skill. The East Germans called it ‘fast coordination.’ If you don’t practice it you can do all the acceleration work in the world but you are not going to expand your ability to maintain that speed,” Gambetta says.

Even for coaches willing to add assisted sprinting to pre- or early-season programmes, they labor under the question of how to prepare their athletes for the first assisted sprint session.

“Mistakenly, some of my colleagues and I have reinforced this notion that you have to do resistance before assistance,” Gambetta admits. “My thinking has evolved and I now think the biggest mistake we make is leaving top-end speed for later. The body doesn’t segment itself – you need to train all components all the time but in different ways. You need to work on top-end speed in the first microcycle.

“This doesn’t mean you start out running 10 x flying 30’s, or that you do the whole workout assisted. You just need to touch on top-end speed, because that’s what you’re trying to get to – the most important part of the race.

“Set the athlete up so they are in a standing start, but pull them up to speed over the first 20 meters with assistance. That way they don’t have to work hard to reach that speed, and then you gradually increase the distances. At first, maybe they only hit 8-12 meters at top speed, and then they glide and coast.”

Gambetta points to “two great sprint coaches no one has ever heard of” to illustrate how assisted sprinting has its place in every microcycle, starting all the way back with youth athletes. Brian Fitzgerald at Rio Mesa High School (California) and Joe McNab of Notre Dame High School (CA) have long used assisted sprinting as a key part of their training. Gambetta notes how these coaches train assisted sprinting as a skill. Ninth graders do very little, but as they gain proficiency they progress to doing more.

Top-end speed has a place in rehabilitation and injury prevention as much as it does in training for performance. Once assisted sprinting becomes a means of reaching – rather than exceeding – top-end speed, many of the perceived risks fall away.

3. Assisted sprinting is the mirror image of resisted sprinting

The 1080 Sprint at Xceleration Sports Performance Labs does not provide Matt Neel’s athletes with resistance or assistance. His 1080 Sprint applies force in the direction of movement or against the direction of movement.

Whether those forces assist or resist the athlete depends on how Neel cues the athlete to respond, regardless of the direction of movement. Force in the direction of movement can reduce the loading on the athlete, or it can induce a greater eccentric response. Force against the direction of movement can increase the concentric effort, or it can limit the speed to shift the athlete to a safer part of the force-velocity curve.

“During the season, when you want to get some metabolic conditioning and you want them to run near maximum velocity you may be a little bit hesitant to have them running a lot volume at that maximum velocity. We found a small amount of resistance or speed limiting with the 1080 Sprint was really beneficial in allowing people to hit max velocity without really reaching it. They get the same amount of work, but they stay in that safe zone.”

“If you think about someone getting an ACL repair you’re doing a lot of rehab to get them strong, and sometimes they get even more powerful and stronger than before. But they don’t have the coordination to handle the velocity they can achieve. So what really limits their ability to sprint longer distances is handling that velocity and having the coordination to do that. It’s a great time to allow them to build up their coordination while limiting their speed.”

All speed training is a matching of force and velocity over a given distance. Just as Vern Gambetta recommended reducing the load to facilitate running precisely at maximum velocity, Matt Neel increases the load to create a margin to maximum velocity. These are mirror image reflections of each other. Resisted and assisted sprinting do not have to be quantitatively different activities. Keeping with Matt Neel’s perspective, they exist on a continuum and one passes smoothly into the other.

Sprinting is one of the last activities to cover both sides of this continuum. The absence of precise assistance methods and an established body of work perpetuated this neglect, to the athletes’ and the profession’s detriment.

“To me there’s no debate about it,” Gambetta says. “You have to do a certain amount of resistance and assistance with your sprinters. It’s just like how a thrower throws slightly overweight and underweight implements to develop the nervous system so you don’t develop a dynamic stereotype. You only need 20-30 meters to see the benefit.”

4. Assisted sprinting framework: Develop, test, share

For all the reasons we mentioned at the beginning, assisted sprinting is a neglected part of the coaching repertoire. While there are any number of protocols and frameworks for resisted sprinting (along with nearly everything else), coaches do not have an established body of work to build from or fall back on. Depending on your perspective, this is either very exciting, slightly worrisome or completely off-putting.

If you’re in the first category, you’re in the right place. Develop a framework for integrating assisted sprinting into your program, refine it over a season and share the outcomes. The 1080 Sprint offers the two critical attributes necessary to make a useful contribution to the discussion and the profession: reliability and repeatability. Thirty meters of assistance decreasing from 5 kg to 1 kg is the same on a 1080 Sprint fresh from the factory in Sweden as it is on the 1080 Sprint at Clemson in South Carolina. The precise control on the amount of assistance and the similarly precise data output allow for convenient and reliable comparisons across a season or between athletes – yours and others.

Gambetta recommends a starting ratio of 2:1 between resisted and assisted workouts. Applying Bernstein’s idea of “repetition without repetition” gives coaches the flexibility to balance training variation and constant load patterning. “6 x 30 at the same load will give the same stimulus as 2 x constant, 2 x variable and 2 with release.”

Joseph Coyne spoke favorably of the 2:1 ratio on the Just Fly Sports podcast, as well as the concept of consistency through variation.

“The heaviest concentration that we used… was two resisted and one overspeed sprinting session in a seven-day microcycle. Sometimes we also alternated between 1080 Sprint on one of those days – something overspeed – then following up with acceleration with a sled to add in some variety. It’s a variation to that resistance.”

Coyne and Randy Huntington derived their assisted sprinting framework by applying weight training principles to the track. Their use of “peak-power weight” in the gym set them on the search for a “peak-power weight” on the 1080 Sprint.

Conclusion

These suggested starting points based on talks with Vern Gambetta, Matt Neel, Joseph Coyne and Rick Franzblau are exactly that: 1) Suggested. 2) Starting points. They created their early protocols by applying what they knew and what they were already doing to the new technology of a 1080 Sprint. They combined their experience with sleds, bands, pulleys, free weights and hundreds (thousands?) of athletes to take their first steps towards putting assisted sprinting with the 1080 Sprint on par with those other methods and tools.

Most importantly, the athlete and the goal shaped their use of the technology. As advanced as the software is, the 1080 Sprint cannot and will not tell you what to do.

Final word to Gambetta: “It all comes down to coaching and reverse coaching. What’s the goal? Now coach backwards from that. The key to run fast in the 100 meter is to run fast at top-end speed. I’ve been coaching too long to put restraints on athletes. If we do a good job with programming, the risk is very low.”