Carlin Isles. Olympic Dream
Olympic dreams, the NFL, professional sprinting, Carlin walked away from all of them for the love of Rugby. Coincidently, there is one thing that Carlin has that all sports want, his speed.
It was freshman year in college when the football and strength coach challenged Carlin to run the 40-yard dash. It was also when Carlin realized his incredible talent. His freshman year, he recorded his fastest times in the 40-yard dash putting up numbers such as 4.13, 4.19, and 4.21 seconds. The fastest time was 4.24 seconds, held by an NFL professional football player at that time. Currently, Carlin's times are as fast, or I should say faster than Usain Bolt's 4.22 second 40-yard dash time. Nevertheless, after two years in college, Carlin realized it was not for him and decided to take on a career using and studying velocity and speed.
He moved to Texas and became a professional sprinter. The Olympics were approaching, and he was inspired to try-out for the USA Olympic team. His speed was fast enough to qualify him for the Olympic trials in 2012. However, to make the team was a real challenge. By analyzing and evaluating his speed against his competitors, he knew that he did not have the result to qualify for the team. The USA Olympic team only takes the top three times. And, mostly, this occurs by only tenths of a second that prevails the winners.
Carlin did not give-up. Dedicated and determined, he was searching the internet looking for sprinting techniques to make himself faster to try and make the USA Sprinting team and accidentally discovered a rugby video. It was at that moment, his professional mindset and life changed, thinking he could use his speed on the rugby field. For Carlin, "Speed is speed, it is how you use it that matters. When you can run fast, it opens doors to many sports". He contacted the coach of the USA Rugby 7's team, and the next day, they invited him to try-out in Aspen, CO. Excited, frantic, scared, and upset, he packed up everything and drove to Aspen from Texas. Despite all his emotions, he knew deep inside, it was the right decision. Knowing nothing about Rugby, he embarked on a journey.
In the beginning, Carlin outran everyone on the pitch. It was somewhat comical, like watching the coyote trying to catch the roadrunner. But, like in every sport, players and teams learn to catch you. And, just the same, through constant research, video analysis, and knowledge, Carlin learned to fight back by juking and countering the defense that was built and enforced to stop him. "Just as they learn to stop me, I learn to go around them."
As Carlin was settling into his successful rugby career, which he helped bring a lot of attention to the sport, to become the fastest growing sport in the USA, he was approached by the NFL. In 2013 the Detroit Lions contacted Carlin with an awesome proposal. "I accepted the opportunity because I love football and knew I could go back to rugby if it did not work out." He signed a futures contract with the Detroit Lions practice team, leaving the rugby pitch behind. After a few months, he was unhappy with his decision, understanding he was a player in progress for the team. Carlin, like a child, wants and needs to play and run fast. It was at this time he left the NFL to become the free-roaming Thoroughbred back on the rugby field.
"Rugby gives me the freedom to run the length of the field and be creative and not have to run a certain pattern or certain way. The coaches train you at practice, but when you are running full tilt with high tension, you are left to react with your instincts and reactions. I love that! No designed plays, just creativity on the field, and it is awesome when you see it work and score."
Carlin's Tips on How to Improve Speed Performance.
To be as fast as Carlin, you probably need good genetics. But, he says his tips will improve anyone's speed dramatically. "You never know how fast you can be. You have to research and apply your knowledge. If you know just a few sprinting techniques and understand muscular stiffness, you can instantly be faster. Anyone can run fast, but how you train dictates your speed potential. Just running and sprinting down the field is not going to make you faster". Carlin does not follow stereotypical exercises. He develops and uses what makes him fast and pertains to sprinting. He extensively researches everything he can do to maintain and progress his speed.
Carlin Isles hits 37 km/h at the Cape Town 7s
Strength is essential for speed and force production. However, Carlin says, to be fast, you need to be specific when it comes to sprinting and force production. Your speed and explosiveness depend on it.
First, you have to understand what exercises work best.
Carlin says most times, people do exercises that inhibit them from sprinting faster, for example, using machines and exercises that don't produce force. He focuses on Power Cleans, Box Jumps, Deadlifts, Alternating Box Step Ups, Walking Lunges, etc. Anything that helps him produce force into the ground. Carlin told me the team does Olympic lifts all year long. But, there are different times of the year they work heavy for strength and lighter for speed.
Secondly, Carlin says, "get stiff".
"Muscular stiffness is the foundation of explosiveness". What Carlin means is, the stiffer your tendons and muscles, the more spring you get from your tendons and muscles. When tendons and muscles stiffen, they produce elastic qualities similar to springs. And, when they impact the ground, it is like compressing a spring. "The harder you put your foot onto the ground, the faster your foot will bounce back up. The stiffer your muscles and tendons can become, the more force you can push into the ground to recoil with speed".
Another excellent example of what Carlin is describing is similar to bouncing a basketball. The harder you slam the basketball with force onto the ground, the higher the ball will bounce. On the other hand, without stiffness, it is like impacting the sand. There is no spring or recoil.
One of the best ways to develop the muscular stiffness Carlin mentions is from slow eccentric tempos. "The more stiffness you develop, the springier tendons and muscles can be." This will make your concentric contractions more reactive, stronger, and faster. Besides, slow eccentric tempo training will prepare you properly for fast eccentric movements using the stretch reflex and Stretch Shortening Cycle.
Carlin had also mentioned that ankle stiffness is essential and critical to transfer force from the ground to the leg muscles effectively. He says ankle stiffness is essential for force production when sprinting, cutting, and faking.
Thirdly, and the biggest mistake, you can't always lift heavy.
"Lifting heavy works against speed because it slows you down. You need to know how to make your strength fast". Carlin is referring to speed training when you lower the weight between 50 and 75 % of your one-rep max. Let's take 100 as your strength factor and lower it 50%, that's 50. Now, after strength training, your strength factor is 160. Now, when you cut that by 50%, that's 80. So, using 80 as your strength factor produces more force for speed. "Many people are strong but don't transfer it because they are too caught up with strength and numbers. You got to let it go. You can't go heavy all the time. You need to stop and transfer it. Understand as weight increases, velocity decreases. As the weight decreases, velocity increases".
Carlin explained to me there is great knowledge in understanding and strengthening the mechanisms that pertain to sprinting. These mechanisms are functional pieces that make the motor run.
When you sprint, your power is produced by your hips, which is why Carlin focuses a lot on gluteal activation exercises, like Hip Bridges, to maintain a strong neutral hip position. The neutral hip position is important to utilize force properly and prevent injuries, specifically in the hamstrings and ankles. Poor hip position decreases stability, in-turn affecting the spine, knees, and ankles, and specific muscles needed to absorb and transfer force. Also, a neutral hip position allows the leg muscles to fire properly, especially the hamstrings and prevents the spine from collapsing forward while sprinting.
Lean and Fall Technique – Stumble Reflex
Carlin practices a lean and fall technique that makes your body react, activating something called the stumble reflex. Basically, when you trip, you throw your foot and hands out in front of you quickly and unconsciously. When you lean and fall, fast-twitch fibers contract through this reaction that increases the power in the nervous system to accelerate.
Cross Extensor Reflex (CER)- Attack the ground
When you extend one leg fast, the other leg reacts fast by lifting the knee. And, when lifting the knee fast, it causes the other leg to stiffen fast into extension. CER will help with downward foot acceleration. "How fast you lift your knee and stomp your foot makes a difference when sprinting. When you lift your knee, keep your toes up and push your whole foot onto the ground".
Carlin likes to use a big resistance band that goes around his foot and shoulder to train, pushing his foot fast to the floor.
Speed Drill/ Force Application
High Knees - Dribbling
When you do this, try to maintain a cadence of your run, lifting your knee-high and putting the foot back down quickly. Carlin says you can use a resistance band around your hips to pull you back when running in place. The tension from the band will make your legs react faster.
Sprint Like A Pro
Alternate short and long-day sprints to develop sprint power and endurance.
If you are a beginner, do some sprint conditioning and strength training first for some weeks before you incorporate maximal power sprints into your routine. You will get injured and strain a muscle if you don't. This routine helps build strength, conditioning, and endurance all at the same time, exactly what is needed in Rugby.
Day 1: Short Meters- 100% effort (2-3 times) (2-3 minutes rest after each sprint)
- 10-meter sprint
- 20-meter sprint
- 30- meter sprint
- 40-meter sprint or Overspeed sprints four times (40-meter Overspeed sprint is sprinting down a hill as fast as you can)
Day 2: Long Meters - 85% effort (2-3 times) (1-2 minutes rest after each sprint)
- 80-meter sprint
- 70-meter sprint
- 60-meter sprint
- 100-meter sprint
I like to train Burpees in between sets of sprinting because when tackled on the pitch, you have to have enough energy to explode back up from the pitch to your feet quickly.
Flying 60's, build with flying 30's first.
Take full rest for 5 minutes and do 5-6 times. Build up to do 100-150 all out 90-95%-2 times.
Carlin says sled pulls are his primary source of training because they are sprint specific. "I don't squat in my training. Sled pulls are safer and more effective. Sled pulls work best because it programs the muscles and motions specifically for sprinting, and I can train many mechanisms and body angles with sled "drag. Carlin said that from all the sled training that he does, his squats are just as strong. He goes back every so often to squat just for the fun it. And, that's how he discovered, why squat, when the sled works best.