Charlie Francis

“Ben was the youngest kid in our club, and at first he couldn’t beat anybody. But he refused to be discouraged, and showed up every day. His status began to change after Dave McKnight gave him a pair of used spikes. Once liberated from those high-top anchors, Ben became a different runner.” – Charlie Francis, Speed Trap

I think sprinting has a place in training for middle and long distance running once the foundations have been put in place to do so. I have written about this before on the Run Project webpage (link below) so I won’t get into more details on that in this post. Instead I want to focus on the now infamous Canadian sprint coach Charlie Francis.

Francis coached Ben Johnson to the Olympic gold in the 100m at the 1988 Seoul Olympics in a world record time of 9.79 seconds. Ben subsequently returned a positive drug test for the banned steroid stanozolol. Francis talks frankly about the doping culture in track and field in the 1970’s and 1980’s in his book Speed Trap and the interesting fact was that they knew the IOC had a test for Stanozolol which is why they had always previously used the faster clearing steroid Furazabol. What people often forget is that Francis coached athletes to over 30 national records during his coaching career. He did so in a country that provided little in the way of financial support to track and field and with athletes from poor communities.

Doping aside Charlie Francis redefined North American sprint coaching. He learnt from the Eastern Europeans that there was a key difference between muscle fatigue and central nervous system fatigue (amongst other things as well). The latter required at least 48 hours to recover from which meant that the traditional approach of doing all-out sprints every day was leading to overtraining. Instead he introduced the concept of easy and hard days, on easy days the sprinters would focus on tempo type work (200 – 350m at 75% effort) and calisthenics while on the hard days he would do very low volume but high effort level work with long recoveries. Athletes were known to take between 10 and 30 minutes recovery between all out sprints.

Francis also changed the approach to periodization. Historically, North American sprinters performed some form of aerobic base phase before being introduced to higher intensity sprints. The problem was that during this transition period athletes often got injured. Francis’ answer to this was to stop with the aerobic base phase of slow jogging and instead train acceleration, max velocity and speed endurance at all times of the season. Of course these attributes were prioritized at different points in the season but Francis firmly believed that if athletes were getting stiff post workouts then he as the coach was doing something wrong i.e. introducing too much new stimulus into the system without the athlete being adequately prepared. He also taught himself how to assess the muscle tone of his athletes through massage. He understood that to sprint at the highest level, particularly during track meets with multiple heats, an athlete needed just the right level of muscle tone which they could alter using a combination of massage and warm-up to ensure that the athlete peaked in the final and not in the earlier heats. For the ill-informed sprinting at the highest level is an incredibly technical sport with a massive margin for error – in a race that finishes in less than 10 seconds you can’t afford to make mistakes.

What I admire in Charlie Francis was that he redefined the way sprinters were coached. He coached in an era characterised by widespread doping and consequently has probably never been given the recognition he deserves as a coach. What I also find interesting is that there are similarities we can draw to the coaching style of famed Italian long distance running coach Renato Canova where a number of different ‘characteristics’ or ‘layers’ are being trained simultaneously. Francis again reminds me that coaching at the highest level is about problem solving, we often get stuck on the different coaching philosophies of a Lydiard, Cerutty, Bowerman and Igloi etc. and forget that each were in essence solving for the same problem, just with a slightly different lens.  The bottom line is understand the demands of the sport you coaching (Francis was at one point ranked 5th in the world for the 100m), build your philosophy accordingly and then adapt it to the constraints of the athlete and their environment.

For anyone interested in learning more about Charlie Francis I would highly recommend both Speed Trap and Charlie Francis Training Systems – both are available on Amazon.