Massimo Massaro explains how intrinsic muscular control techniques have played a key role in the UK record-holder’s rise to the top of British women’s sprinting
When I first started coaching with Blackheath & Bromley AC in 2010, my aim was to bring a new perspective to the way the group of athletes with whom I would be working focused on conditioning. At that time, Dina Asher-Smith was 14 and part of this talented group of young sprinters with tremendous potential that now includes the Hylton twins – Cheriece and Shannon – who won medals in the recent European Junior Championships.
We wanted to bring them through to senior level and, while I could see that much of what was being done was very sound, there were gaps in the approach that you simply can’t allow to appear if an athlete is to progress.
From a background in personal training, my specialism was in targeting strength programmes to suit specific needs, not just to increase strength for the sake of it. If you can introduce this philosophy and approach when an athlete is a junior and most receptive to learning, then it is a sound base for the future.
Even at a young age, Dina had exceptional mental strength. She was willing to listen and to take on board the kind of instruction I’d normally give to a senior athlete. Others have observed and learned from her and we now have a crop of new up-and-coming young sprinters like Anastasia Davies who are working to the same method.
With the junior athletes, the plan is always to improve their motor control and proprioception, to seek ways to enhance the joint mechanics and energy systems they need for their event. Ultimately, my job is to make them as fast and strong as possible in order for their coach, John Blackie, to apply appropriate training on the track. If the muscles that are active in sprinting are not active during weight training, there will be no crossover to the track and I have failed.
So it’s a matter of setting in place a programme of testing and evaluating athletes on a highly individual level, looking closely at intrinsic muscular control (IMC) or the way muscles coordinate with each other to fire more efficiently within themselves and addressing the acute and chronic effects of asymmetry that are associated with sprinting. Below is an outline of the approaches we use to achieve this and to ensure junior athletes progress to senior level as planned.
Screening is key
The vital question to ask before we even start prescribing any strength work is whether there is a link between a specific exercise and the demands of the athlete’s sport. Are we producing that which addresses all of the athlete’s needs? This is only possible if all of the muscles engaged in an exercise are working and firing effectively in the athlete’s body – there’s no point in just picking up a very heavy object and moving it quickly. It serves no functional purpose. These are the principles that underpin IMC.
In the preliminary evaluations, I do a series of tests to ensure that before we put external force on the body, we have internal force to cope with it.
It’s not about how much they can lift, it’s about what they can control. I look at flexion, abduction, adduction and rotation at most joints in the body and monitor the stability of their trunk and lower back.
The preliminary tests
A lot of conditioning experts like to screen athletes doing something like a squat, but I prefer to get closer with track athletes. I lie an athlete on their side on the track and get them to lift up their leg laterally in a neutral setting. I examine both legs and note the range of the controlled contractile range they have around the hip joint, measuring the difference with a goniometre.
With sprinters, it’s often the case that abductors on the left leg and the adductors on the right leg are stronger. Every muscle is linked in a chain, and our ultimate aim is to get them all working. Then we will have lift off and the makings of a very fast, healthy athlete.
One of the big complaints among sprinters is that their hamstrings are tight. The common assumption is that it’s simply a side-effect of training, but I challenge that viewpoint. Simply stretching a hamstring repeatedly, as athletes will often do when the muscle feels tight, will just result in improved range of movement around the hips that lasts 10-30 minutes.
I prefer to test the hamstring and some of the hip flexor muscles (such as the rectus femoris) thoroughly. I use tests that involve the athlete holding hip flexion while opposing an external force and assess how much range can be achieved. More often than not, I find that athletes have weaknesses in hip extension and hip flexion muscles as well as through the trunk stabilisers that is causing the feeling of “tightness”.
So many times I see athletes trying to overcome hamstring issues in an inappropriate way. They are actually making matters worse in the long term.
Dealing with asymmetry
Track athletes run the same way around the track, increasing asymmetry of their musculature with every lap they run. It’s essential that the legs, core and upper body are in symmetry on the straight of a track. We focus heavily on this in sessions.
Part of my work with Dina and the other athletes I coach is to activate muscles to allow them to move through all available positions, aiming to maximise the contractile range. This really helps an athlete to regain physical symmetry without adding unnecessary stress to their joints. It means ligaments and tendons can operate effectively without having to deal with excess external forces.
Testing asymmetry applies massively to throwers as well, although the issues are more related to shoulders, lower back and elbows. Distance runners can benefit from working on their physical symmetry, although the adverse effects are often not as evident given that they apply lower levels of force on the track.
I break the season up into blocks. We have construction mode – reconditioning – not load-orientated weight training but movement based exercises.
We build on this, utilising power, strength and speed exercises, progressively increasing load. We gradually move on to explosive strength for the indoor season with smooth transition into the outdoor season. We intensify the training as and when the athlete is ready. Ultimately, we bring in the big compound exercises that exploit and create power and strength such as the snatch and deadlift.
We spend a lot of time rebuilding after a track season or when an athlete is injured. After Dina injured her hamstring during her World Junior 100m victory, we needed to work on reconditioning the muscles to make them stronger than they were before that event. Last September we increased her strength sessions to twice a week, utilising the facilities at Fitness First QVS London and at the Blackheath & Bromley AC club house. It was a case of building back her strength and with that came a rise in her confidence. The upshot? She’s having the season of her life.