Strength Training for the Track and Field Athlete

Years ago I attended a conference in San Diego, California. Amongst the great speakers were several trainers that I met. To my surprise, many of these trainers made a great living as a strength and conditioning coach for a local high school. In fact, one of the presenters used data from training his high school volleyball players. I was really impressed to hear that high schools had strength coaches, but my surprise was quickly deflated when I found out that these coaches worked in California…and Arizona…Miami….. if you’re waiting for me to get to Michigan, don’t hold your breath.

That’s a sad thing, because there are plenty of athletes who live in Michigan and want to excel at their game. Unfortunately, most high schools in Michigan lack any serious strength and conditioning program, and some don’t even have a properly equipped weight room. Strength training for track and field can be a huge benefit for the athlete in a Michigan high school, but it depends on the quality of the program.

Just because you’re exercising doesn’t mean that you’re training. Most high schools toss some dumbbells in a room and call it a weight room. On top of that, some poor soul gets labeled the strength coach and ends up training the kids. All exercise is not created equal, and making a group of athletes train chest and arms will only make them good training chest and arms. Parents also live in fear for the safety of their child. A football coach who is uneducated and inexperienced with strength and conditioning may make an athlete try to lift way too much weight with awful form. As a result, the athlete suffers a major injury and has a bad taste in the mouth for weight training.

However, there is good news. A properly designed strength and conditioning program can help your child athlete excel at his or her game. If two athletes have similar conditioning levels as well as the ability to perform the movement pattern the same, then the only thing that will separate them is their performance in the weight room. Sadly, most athletes think that all they need to do is hit the practice field to get better, but sports science is showing that all athletes, regardless of the chosen sport, can benefit from a well put together strength program.

Track and field introduces a wide range of athletes that can benefit. Sprinters, long jumpers, and even distance runners will benefit from strength training. For one, strength training has been shown to increase what’s referred to as the rate of force development. This means that a strong athlete will need to expend less energy while they run (1). As a result, your child athlete will preserve energy during a long run while having a strong kick if needed at the end of the race.

What many trainers forget is the role of the upper body in running performance. With proper running mechanics, the arms form what is referred to as the golden cross, which is when the runner’s thumbs cross over the sternum when running. Sprinters need strong arm drive, and one of the best exercises for that would be chin ups. Chin ups are also hard for the athlete to perform and sometimes a challenge for the trainer to program, so some personal trainers prefer to leave them out of a program. But hard work pays off, and regularly performing chin ups can help the sprinter produce the force needed to run fast.

Throwers in track and field can also benefit. A shot-putter can benefit from what’s referred to as post-activation potentiation, which means that when you expose an athlete to a heavy stress, they’re able to produce more force to throw a lighter object (2). The same thing happens when you move your furniture. Pick up a light box after moving an old fashioned television set and you’ll feel the difference. Studies have shown that squatting a heavy weight in-between jumps can actually increase the height you jump the second time around. Pretty cool, huh?

You can’t mention strength training without discussing injury prevention. Good athletes spend a lot of time trying to get good at their sport. This means muscles that get overused, imbalances between muscles, and joints exposed to too much stress. Due to plenty of reasons, female athletes have extremely high risks of injuring their ACL – a ligament that helps make up the knee joint. Training that teaches an athlete how to slow down, speed up, and land properly from a jump has been shown to reduce the risk for injury (3). Along with that, strength training can help increase the strength of connective tissue that makes up the joints. For the athletes, it’s a win-win: they’re improving performance while helping reduce the amount of time they spend away from their sport with a bad injury.

Something that the research can’t touch upon is the amount of confidence that young athletes build with their strength and conditioning. In a nutshell, athletes learn that hard work pays off. They spend their time in the weight room and they get to see all that time, sweat, and grit pay off with their results. Some may not see this when you talk about strength training, but this confidence tends to carry over into other aspects of life.

 

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