Off-Season Conditioning with Illinois Track

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By: Chad Zimmerman

Perdita Felicien—the most decorated athlete in University of Illinois history. A two-time Olympian, four-time athlete of the year and NCAA record-holder in the 60-meter hurdles. A 5'3" hurdling phenom.


Building an aerobic base for sprinters should be all about short bursts and not long distance.


By: Chad Zimmerman

Perdita Felicien—the most decorated athlete in University of Illinois history. A two-time Olympian, four-time athlete of the year and NCAA record-holder in the 60-meter hurdles. A 5'3" hurdling phenom.

Tonja Buford-Bailey—a threat on all levels. A 10-time collegiate All-American at Illinois, three-time Olympian and second-best 400-meter hurdler in the world after the '95 season. A record-breaking mamma-jamma.

Besides Big Ten titles, NCAA medals, their alma mater and coach Gary Winckler, these track superstars have something else in common—something very significant.

"Perdita and Tonja each realized that training year-round is important—that the conditioning they do in the fall is just as important as the events they run in the spring," Winckler says. "They realized how good they could be by paying attention to their off-season training program."

Entering his 20th season as head coach of the Illinois women's track and field team, Winckler believes that many runners and coaches don't understand proper off-season conditioning. "Too many programs fail to balance anaerobic and aerobic work," he says. "There is either too much emphasis on the endurance aspect or too much emphasis on the anaerobic part, without the aerobic work being involved."

Another common problem, according to Winckler, is sprinters training like marathoners. "Early in the conditioning program, some sprinters focus too much on slow work, such as long aerobic runs or strength work that is not power-related," he says. "Sending speed and power athletes on a 10- or 15-minute run is a death march; it's slow jogging with lots of high impact and low-quality running mechanics. If you're a sprinter using a 10,000-meter runner's stride, you're not doing much for your technique."

Coaching Point: Train with a coach or someone who can evaluate your running form. Stopping at the appropriate time makes for more effective training and reduces risks of injury and overtraining.

Strength and explosiveness are essential to sprints, jumps and hurdles. Developing speed and power for these events requires year-round effort. "If you exclude these elements at the beginning of the training year, then the central nervous system is not being trained as it needs to be," Winckler says.

Fortunately, Winckler does more than point out conditioning problems that plague runners; he provides the solutions.

"We do a lot of our early-season aerobic work on a grass field," he says. "We use a combination of 100-meter to 300-meter runs with short recoveries. The short distances preserve running mechanics while brief recovery times produce the same aerobic benefits as distance runs."

Winckler's team runs intervals at an 80 to 85 percent pace one to two days a week in the off-season. As the season approaches, he cuts the interval sessions to once a week, shortens the distances to make them more like those runs in competition and has his athletes perform power work on the second day. For example, a 200-meter sprinter starts training at 500 meters, but then runs between 120 and 300 meters closer to the season.

"Interval training develops lactic acid capacity, which benefits you in runs over 100 meters," Winckler explains. "The difference between work for lactic acid capacity and power work is that capacity work is 80 to 85 percent of your best time for that particular distance; power work is above 90 percent."

Winckler bases recovery time between reps on a 1:1 rest to work ratio at the beginning of the training cycle and increases it to 2:1 as conditioning progresses. Thus, a sprinter who runs a 400 in 60 seconds requires a 1 minute rest at the beginning of the cycle and a 2 minute rest toward the end.

The Illinois coach gauges the length of a training session on how well his runners keep proper mechanics. "The volume an athlete runs is determined by when her running technique starts to tear down. If the technical aspect of the running is poor, then we'll take longer recoveries or stop the session," Winckler says.

Coaching Point: To avoid an imbalance between speed and strength, evenly distribute your training time. Hit the weights at least twice a week and work speed development once a week in the beginning of training and twice a week as the season approaches. Conditioning is crucial, but balance is most beneficial.


"I'm not a talker...I'm not a talker." It's Beanie's toast to Frank in Old School, but it doubles as Coach Gary Winckler's motivational philosophy. "If you need a pep talk, you shouldn't be working with me," he says.

Instead of a few lines of praise and a pat on the back, Winckler uses runners' time progressions as motivation. He shows an athlete the times she has run and the times others have run in the past. Then he correlates each runner's fall training to her achievements in the competitive season. "If I want to motivate someone in the fall, I'll show her so-and-so's 49-second 400 meter from June. And I tell her the times that person was running in the fall leading up to that season and that she's running very similar times."

So grab a notebook and start logging your numbers. You can use it now to track improvement and in the future to predict spring numbers based on your fall times.

Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock