At 5-foot-1, 103 pounds, MaryBeth Sant doesn't look like your average sprinter.
That's just fine by her, because when the gun fires, she's anything but average.
Sant, a 24-year-old professional track athlete, was the top-ranked sprinter in America coming out of Valor Christian High School (Highlands Ranch, Colorado). A two-time state champion in the 100 and 200 meters, she was named a Track & Field News All-American following her senior season.
Sant attended the University of Oregon, a school synonymous with speed, but early flashes of brilliance were overshadowed by multiple stress fractures and a diagnosis of osteopenia—a condition where a person's bone mineral density is significantly lower than average.
The debilitating injuries and associated rehab led Sant to contemplate walking away from the sport altogether. But after transferring to Colorado State University with a refreshed body and mind in 2017, Sant proved she had plenty left in the tank.
In January, she clocked a 7.18 60-Meter Dash—a CSU school record that ended up as the fifth-fastest time of the indoor season by an American woman.
Sant now has her sights set on winning the event at the 2020 USA Track & Field Indoor Championships, which would net her a birth in the 2020 World Championships.
For as impressive as Sant is on the track, she may be even more extraordinary in the weight room.
"She's one of the strongest athletes I've ever coached, pound for pound," says Brian Kula, Sant's personal trainer and the owner of Kula Sports Performance. Kula also serves as the head track and field coach at Valor Christian, where he coached Sant.
For starters, Sant can hoist three times her own body weight on a Trap Bar Deadlift.
"I kind of have a strength index I work with on Deadlift. I've never had a three-times-your-body weight athlete—she's one of the first ones who's hit that mark," says Kula.
"Last week, we box squatted 355 for a set of three. (We use a shorter range of motion), but for her to just even load 355 pounds on her little back is incredible."
The weight room program Kula's devised for Sant is similar to the one he uses with Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey, another Valor alum, and it also has some clear parallels to the regimen Barry Ross utilized to help mold Allyson Felix into one of the most dominant sprinters in history.
One key principle: Sant almost never performs more than three reps in a set.
This keeps her training focused on enhancing strength and power at her current body weight. If she were to veer more into hypertrophic volume, which is considered 6-12 reps per set, the result would be higher amounts of muscle damage and little-to-no boost in max strength or power.
After each heavy set, Sant, who boasts a 30.5-inch Vertical Jump, performs a plyometric movement to take advantage of the post-activation potentiation effect.
Sant also rests at least five minutes between heavy lifting sets.
"What I think is the biggest thing in the weight room is the full recovery between each set. There's a lot of movements we do that are really important for out on the track, but I think having that full recovery really helps (replenish) our ATP and our nervous system," says Sant. "A lot of other coaches and programs will bulk their athletes, they think rep after rep and set after set is what makes you stronger. For me, I can attest to this, it just makes you bulkier. That's not necessarily going to make you faster on the track."
Kula also looks to manage Sant's total time under tension by, among other tactics, having her drop the trap bar from the top of her deadlift rather than slowly lowering it back to the ground.
Sant, who believes that she feels fastest when she's at her strongest and most powerful, has been working up to her impressive weight room numbers for years. She first began lifting heavy her sophomore year at Valor.
"The type of lifting she's done has always been for strength and power," says Kula.
"I was a scrawny little girl," Sant recalls of her early experiences in the weight room.
"I was pretty intimidated by heavy weight—I was like, 'I can't do this, what the heck?' But as time went on, I realized I was capable of a lot more than I thought I was in the weight room…I'm definitely most proud of my Deadlift and Squat. I surprise myself sometimes."
Kula believes Sant's tremendous force output and her unusually high stride frequency—glued together by stellar mechanics—are what makes her such a speed demon.
"She applies so much force into the ground. Think about it—she can pull 300 pounds off the ground, but her chassis is 103 pounds. It's like a feather with a V8 engine," says Kula. "Then her frequency, she's at about 5.43 steps per second. Which, if I can get a kid over 5.0, I'm thrilled. Coming out of high school, she was in the the 5.30 range, and Oregon didn't even believe it. They were like, 'Ah, that's not possible.' Then they tested her for themselves and were blown away by her frequency."
A typical training week for Sant follows this general guideline:
- Monday: Bounce-Fire Series, Acceleration Work, Lift
- Tuesday: Off
- Wednesday: Hill Runs, Lift
- Thursday: Off
- Friday: Bounce-Fire Series, Max Velocity Work, Lift
- Saturday: Short Sprints, Bounding
- Sunday: Off
The Bounce-Fire series, which Sant performs every Monday and Friday, is a group of drills Kula prescribes to any athlete in the business of running faster. Much of it is built around the concept of punching the ground with your feet to propel yourself forward rather than trying to pull yourself along.
"(These drills) have been developed over the last 20 years. Basically, our whole premise is teaching kids to push through their feet. It's kind of an overlooked area of sprinting. We all hear the coaching cues of lift your knees and things like that, but we really focus on pushing through the ground. We developed a whole series and a progression of walking to snapping to bouncing where we're really working on dorsiflexion and being on time at the point of contact—we're not reaching early and causing breaking forces," says Kula.
"We can drill them for 20-25 minutes and feel like we've gotten an entire workout in. It's a little bit taxing on the system, because we're asking them to do it at at 95-percent-plus effort…It's one of our staple special sauces."
One current point of emphasis is Sant's right arm swing. She's long had a tendency to bring it across her mid-line during sprinting, which is inefficient. Sant says the Bounce-Fire series is an opportunity to rep a cleaner arm action hundreds, if not thousands, of times in a relatively short span, and she feels it's paying off.
A second focus is her stride length.
Kula believes stretching out Sant's stride length just a tad could be enough to shave a tenth of a second off her 60-Meter Dash this coming indoor season. Considering the top five finishers in the event at the last World Indoor Championships were separated by just .13 seconds, that's significant.
One tool that can help make it happen are "Wicket Runs." Using a formula that accounts for Sant's leg length, Kula can determine the ideal spacing for a set of wickets (mini hurdles) for her to run over.
"We'll take those out anywhere between 14 and 18 strides and work some top-end work on Fridays," says Kula. "She has sub-11-second talent (in the 100) with her frequency and all that stuff. It doesn't matter how big she is—there's been little girls that've run under 11 seconds. But we've got to figure out the stride length component right now."
On Saturdays, Sant, along with the Valor Christian track team and any other pros Kula happens to be training, head to Red Rocks Amphitheatre at Red Rocks Park, 10 miles west of Denver.
The colossal bleachers inside the venue make for a killer bounding workout, as traversing from one platform to the next in a single step requires some serious power. And for the 5-foot-1 Sant, the challenge is even greater.
"It's one of the most challenging workouts I think I've done," says Sant. "I really, really have to focus on being powerful."
Rest is the pillar around which everyone else is built in Kula's system, as an athlete can't run their fastest, jump their highest or lift their heaviest if they're worn down. "Junk reps" are the enemy. By keeping the overall volume low and scheduling three days of rest per week, Sant's able to attack each workout and consistently chase new PRs.
The re-union between athlete and coach only occurred in August, but Sant's already seen meaningful improvement. The recipe of lift heavy, run fast and rest often is working.
"We tested two weeks ago, and that kind of opened my eyes and made me excited. Physically, I feel great. Mentally, I feel even better," says Sant.
"I feel like I get 1,000 times more out of these workouts than just going every day and running and doing things to do things…I feel like I've been missing something that will get me to my full potential or that very next level. I think this is what's going to get me there."
Photo Credit: MaryBeth Sant, Brian Kula
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