Dan Pfaff shares world class coaching wisdom

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American athletics coach Dan Pfaff recently shared some of his thoughts on training techniques and methods to Swiss National Hammer Coach Martin Bissinger. 

In a revealing series of interviews, Pfaff, who takes an usual approach and coaches athletes from a variety of disciplines talks about how sprinters, throwers and jumpers can employ common training techniques, the importance of intensity in training and how to improve the performance of older athletes.

One of the points the coaching-guru discussed at length was intensity of training, and how techniques such as circuits and mobility work succeed at first because they are new and the brain and body takes time to learn them.

However, once learned fully, they become involuntary and less effective. He also spoke about the effect this can have on recovery time between training sessions, particularly among throwers. Changing your routine or trying something new can lead to higher levels of fatigue and muscle soreness leading to longer recovery times.

Pfaff also sees medicine balls as playing a big part in the training of shot putters and discus throwers, as they can help with movement and help aid anatomical defects and imperfections.

The multi-disciplinary coach, who achieved Olympic success with sprinter Donovan Bailey and Greg Rutherford, is based in Phoenix, Arizona, and was director of the Lee Valley high-performance centre in east London between 2009 and 2012. 

A number of top-class British athletes have recently left Pfaff’s coaching care, citing a desire to return to the UK as the reason. He has provoked controversy among UK athletes previously when he claimed many of them were being injured unnecessarily from poor training and vowed to improve their lifestyles.

Key performance indicators (KPIs) are used in Pfaff’s training. He uses them to look at where an athlete’s performance is at various stages of their careers, and training is adapted to concentrate on where the athlete is performing well. In the interviews, he expressed surprise that not many coaches review their athletes’ performances after every competition, and neither do athletes themselves.

Too many of them rely on short, unstructured debriefs but don’t spend enough time analysing things in full. Using KPIs works well for older athletes trying to get back to performance levels they experienced at the peak of their careers, as they can examine where their areas for improvement lie, and tailor training sessions accordingly, Pfaff explained.

Earlier this year, Pfaff was appointed education director and jumps coach at the World Athletics Centre in Phoenix, USA. He was appointed to the posts in recognition of his 40-year career in athletics. Among the athletes under his tutelage will be world-record 110m hurdler Aries Merritt, up and coming American 400m hurdler Frankie Wright and GB’s number-one pole-vaulter Steve Lewis.

Some of the other topics Pfaff discussed with Martin was work capacity and maximum speed work. He explained that doing specific training for your event was the key to success, so if you are a shot-putter, you need to train to throw a shot-put further, not work on the treadmill to improve cardio vascular capacity.

Likewise, it’s important to understand fully what work capacity is. Most sprinters, he explained, are only capable of six flat-out speed runs in a session, with one or two able to complete nine, so there is no point making them do more than that.

For speed work, Pfaff believes it’s vital to think about what is the most appropriate distance to use for different athletes. An international standard 100m runner will most likely hit top speed at 60m, so speed runs of 50m–70m are what’s needed, while for high-jumpers runs of 30m–40m are perfect.

You can read the full interview here.