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Time Trials for Dummies

With a title like that, I guess it’s clear this is not a scientific piece of work, but rather an article for beginners that aims to “popularize” the sprint/against the clock race, an arcane one for rookies.

As far as I know there are no other specific works about the TT, apart from Paolo Marcelloni’s excellent analysis in his book “La Tecnica del Pattinaggio in Linea”, but that text is written in a profoundly scholar Italian… gibberish for the non erudite.



I’ll do my best then to describe this kind of race from a general point of view for non-specialized readers, trying to mention at least superficially all its aspects, without getting too deep into the more complex facets.
Please bear in mind that this text is about individual sprint time trials (200-300 mts) not the recently introduced team time trials, which of course needs an entirely different article.

Definition

I’ll give you my own personal definition of TT: to me this is the queen of races, since I deem it the epitome of technical perfection, accomplished by pure physical strength. While in endurance races there are too many factors that can affect the outcome (determining the victory of skaters that are not necessarily the best or the better trained), in the chronometric races not only wins he who goes faster, but the one that commits no mistakes. As Mr. Del Valle >> says, this is a race that you can win or loose in any given moment. If dominating long distance races is an art, doing a perfect TT requires the mathematical precision of an engineering project. If that wasn’t enough, consider that we are racing here against our most terrible rival: ourselves.
In addition, let me point out that this was always my favourite race, because it gave me enough free time to devote to more productive activities… For instance, instead of spending hours in a track, lap after lap inhaling farts and getting smacked again and again like all those endurance masochists, I could gladly entertain their bored girlfriends under the stands. Or sabotage the private property of certain hateful judges.

Some history

In our sport, chronometric TT are relatively recent. Their appearance on the international scene is by the end of the seventies; before that the only sprint race on the menu was the 500mts individual pursue, a glorious race that I would love to see implemented again. Afterwards, for a couple of years the 500mts individual TT was raced, to give place subsequently to our beloved 300mts…. Being the 200mts a fresh invention, which some malicious critics affirm was contrived by the Italians to keep getting medals by Duggento at Worlds. They may even be right!
Let’s observe something peculiar: on inlines, it took more than a decade to improve quads records. During the eighties and depending on the track, Italian championships boasted times between 26 and 28 seconds (yes, I was there too)… except a couple of natural phenomena like Antoniel and Galliazzo (Oscar, the older one), speeding around 25 seconds.
The 24 seconds/track world record on 300mts marked by the great Luca Antoniel (with whom I was lucky enough to compete and train sometime), was only broken by Duggento in Zandvoorde (Belgium, 2002). The ladies record on quads still holds from the eighties…
What’s the cause of this paradox given the evident mechanical superiority of inlines? Essentially, I believe there are two factors involved: the highest initial acceleration that was achieved on quads, and technique, that for inlines started to be perfected after years of study only by the end of the nineties. We’ll see more facts about the subject in the next paragraphs.

Sprinters are born, not made

Given the metabolic (energetic) mechanisms involved, the conditional abilities (pure sprinting, speed strength) and explosive reaction that are being thrown during the race, our TT could be compared to the 100/200 athletic sprint. But the motion complexities of a skated sprint are exponentially superior: even if the athletic race requires the mastering of a certain technique, it is a matter of fact that running belongs to the natural motion skills the human body has by birth… as opposed as skating.
It is also a scientifically demonstrated fact that a person is a good athlete by birth: in sprinters’ case, it is even more so. The long haul resistance, physiological processes, technique and tactics: all of the above can be trained by any racer, whichever their specialization. But there’s a non trainable variable, which invariably sets apart good sprinters: the higher percentage of “white (fast) fibers” in muscle tissue, in relation to the percentage of “red (slow) fibers”. It is a fascinating topic, to learn more about it read the following articles:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muscle
http://cwx.prenhall.com/bookbind/
http://www.teamoregon.com/publications
As it is, natural born sprinters are so from the factory: it’s a question of genetics (although the hereditary implications are not well understood yet). Just check who wins almost any athletic sprint race nowadays: black runners, the human beings with the highest percentage of white fibers. In the future I wouldn’t be surprised if the best sprint exponents come from Africa and the Caribbean countries… whenever they master the technique and apply proper specialization.

As you may have guessed by now, TT is not only a matter of muscle mass, explosive reaction and pure power. The concept is splendidly illustrated in the slogan that Pirelli had in its ads a few years back (not by coincidence featuring Carl Lewis’ images, see here>>): power is nothing without control. In our case, “control” can be referenced to a flawless technical execution, which can be achieved only after years of practice, constantly bearing in mind that technical progression in speedskating is an infinite process. In fact, there will always be room for improvement, and living proof of that is Mr. Duggento, capable of breaking his own record even years after the first one.
I suppose we can agree on the fact that there has not been another big mechanical revolution like inlines in the recent past, and that the surfaces being used today are more or less the same as always. So where will the improvement come from? Perhaps new training methods and better equipment can contribute to a lesser extent, but no doubt we’ll get better marks by the study and application of a technical model in permanent evolution. I can dare to affirm that we are not even close to the limit skaters can reach on this type of race. Time will tell if my forecast was right or wrong.

When do we start?

A good coach with a trained eye will be able to tell apart from his kids those that could be great sprinters one day, but to start specific training on pre-adolescent age is short of stupid. On this field in particular, more than in any other, the athletes’ competitive life will be shortened with a premature development. That’s why it is imperative to cultivate first the essential motion abilities on children that will allow a good base technique, following the logical progression that eventually will lead to the optimal physical and mental maturity for elite class athletes.
I am one of those coaches that believe in absolute specialization: from 14-16 years old, we will have sufficient clues to locate real future sprinters, and hopefully those skaters will have by then the compulsory structural/mental configuration to endure the pain and sacrifice that goes hand in hand with TT success at world level.
The specialization issue definitely might bring a long debate and a lengthy study, which we can approach some other time. Just let me point out that in general, a young specialized sprinter can opt for marathons further in his career, and he’ll be certainly advantaged over pure endurance skaters (as long as his team can support him properly), while the opposite path have very little (if none) chances of success.

Training methods

It’s easier for me to tell you how NOT to train for TT: by all means you cannot apply the methods of the athletic sprinter! (nevertheless some of its principles might be of use). For starters, we don’t need their muscular mass: let’s remember that our race is based on control, more than on power. Two things we have in common with athletics is the explosive reaction at the start, and that this is an anaerobic (or rather “oxygen free”) type of exercise. Actually, it is anaerobic alactic: lactate production is almost negligible in our race, until its very end at least.
Now, leaving alone further comparisons, I’m going to give here some general lines about the specific training for TT, based on my personal experience and observations from other coaches.

On skates
● Sessions should be conducted generally around sets of short series (not more than 500/600 mts each), with a gradual increase of volume while the season unfolds, but always at maximum or near maximum intensity, plus scarce recovery between series and sets. Remember: this is an anaerobic task!
● The “duck’s running” jumps (skates/knees open as much as you can) with or without forward movement –against a wall or a chum- are good exercises to get a better start.
● A good idea to have a great start and acquire enhanced initial pushes is to practice them uphill: a 5% to 10% inclination is more than enough, since bigger angles will be bad for technique.
● Pursuing the same objective, you can use artifacts like the “parachute” or tether a car tire with a rope to the skater. For good corners’ cutting, Sue Ellis introduced her excellent “techni-cords” (see them here>>). There are many similar ideas and all can be fine, as long as they don’t have a negative influence on the skater’s technique execution (for instance, avoid those sand ballasts attached to the ankles runners use).
● It is imperative to master cutting corners at low speeds, in order to properly execute the gesture at maximum speed. For that, practicing infinite concentric circles with progressively smaller radius and higher speeds is a good aide, paying attention on correctly applying the body weight on the internal leg, the one that directs the orchestra when we’re negotiating the bend. By the way, I’ll never get tired of repeating this: a skater must know to negotiate bends in both senses!

● In my quad times, I adopted a revolutionary idea (back then, at least): to screw up to the frame some pieces of lead. You can image how I moved my feet when I removed that extra half kilo from each skate, after months of training with them! But quads are old news, and I haven’t experiment this concept on inlines yet, as I fear it would negatively affect the skater’s technique. At the most, I opted to mount scooter wheels on a 4x100 chassis: being super-heavy and soft as chewing gum, skating on them it’s like doing weightlifting work-outs, but the skater must possess already adequate technique.


Extra-weight tether: wrong

Dry land drills
● I recommend the use of weights to empower speed strength in legs (short & quick series with light weights and great intensity) especially at the beginning of the season. As we approach the races that represent our objective/peak, we should decrease or maintain at least the volume and intensity of work-outs, excluding them altogether the last week or so before the big event. But please consider this: it is a delicate task, and you’d better know what you’re doing, because weights are yet relatively unknown in our sport. You don’t want o waste your time… or even worse, get injured! Right?
● Many skaters forget about the association aductors/abductors on legs: they really must be developed together, and rather than free weights I think that fixed machines offer less risk to exercise those muscles, since they make them work on a well defined plane, thus avoiding possible injuries. Besides, those muscular groups should be stretched even more than the others (but with much more care), if we want to steer clear from the most common lesions among sprinters: groin strains and osteitis pubis (pubalgy). You don’t want to have any of those, believe me.
● Some coaches favour a theory I find nonsensical: they say it is superfluous to develop at all skaters’ upper bodies in general. In the sprinters case, I find it even idiotic: for instance, what do they think we use in the first stages of the start for balance and some extra thrust? So a few push-ups and/or weights to get some meat in the pectoral & dorsal area, as well as the arms, will do us no bad. I’m not suggesting to just add extra weight to our sprinter’s slick body: remember we are talking about fast strength workouts, not plain mass increase. Besides, we’ll look much better than those skinny and fibrous marathoners…
● Do use the slideboard. It’s an ideal method to learn correct body weight transfer, as well as a good leg training routine. But be careful: an incorrect implementation will reflect in technical or postural defects afterwards, while we skate! If there’s nobody available to correct our errors, put a mirror in front of the slideboard.
● Plyometrics: there’s no point in giving a lengthy explanation, since we all can watch Giulio Ravasi’s excellent videos. If you don’t know who he is, my friend Giulio trained from childhood to world championship Marco Falcone and Simone Bellia. In Rome’s recent FIRS Congress, Giulio gave the most fascinating presentation, a training log for those two fabulous athletes, in which he explained his method in all detail. Please follow this link >>, you’ll find a comprehensive collection of videos showing many types of exercises (see 2º column, 28 videos each sized from 1 to 10 megs).

Technique

As I mentioned before, Marcelloni perfectly describes in his book the technical model widely accepted as the paradigm for this type of race. But given Paolo’s usual erudite style, that text is unintelligibly for most of its readers, and certainly out of reach for newbies. So I’ll do my best to produce a description as simple as possible.
Generally speaking, the modern theory distinguishes three types of technique applicable to different types of race: one for sprints and two for endurance competitions. As for sprint technical perfection, the archetype commonly taken is Duggento (obviously for his numerous world titles and records), although the performances of K. Dobbin, L. Presti and even Joey Mantia are currently being analyzed. In my opinion –not so humble, I reckon-, Joey’s presence at the TT podium in Anyang (just like Chad in his day) demonstrates two things: first that technique really prevails in the chronometric TT; and second that we are still far away from real specialization, hence from the physical limit this race might have. In fact, you should have noticed that the only specialist we really have wins all the time (or get to be in the podium anyway). So get as much pictures and videos as you can from those great athletes performing a TT, then study everything they do while at it. I wish I could include those pictures and videos in this article to explain myself better, but bad hosting services and limited spare time means I’ll have to recourse to text only…
Ok, as Jack The Ripper said, let’s go piece by piece:

Warm up
Perhaps warming up is more important in this race than in any other. Not only we need a warm engine to get the best possible muscular performance in a very limited time (pre-competitive stretching should be mandatory), but it is also necessary to have the maximum cardio-rate possible just the moment we are going to the start line. Should I explain why? Please, do not ask me to write a lot of stuff in vain: I’d rather send you to read the articles below, then come back here.
http://www.thestretchinghandbook.com/archives/warm-up.php
http://www.karenyontzcenter.org/fitness/exercise/13.asp
http://www.specialolympics.com

The start
In theory, the most commonly used system is the frontal inertial start. I said “in theory” because even at Worlds I see a lot of skaters that are not even able to produce more than an attempt at a proper frontal inertial start. Frontal start was invented by Italians in the late eighties (before that, the start was lateral), and its best player at the time was Dr. Patrizio Sarto, a mytical champion which whom I also had the honour to skate with sometime (shoot me… Am I old!). This type of start begins to be called “frontal inertial” when Mr. Duggento improved it: we’ll see how in a while.
Allow me at this time to render my way of explaining this system: I use a 6-phase scheme, that goes from positioning between photo finish lines to take off. Some coaches say there are 8 phases, some say 10. I prefer to keep things simple. Let’s check them quickly:
1º- Positioning: support foot at 45º related to the straight direction, pushing foot forming a “T” with the other (support foot’s last wheel aprox. at height of 3º wheel of pushing foot).
2º- Legs flexion: knees go down a small angle (about 30º), the previous step to “charge the spring” that will make us jump on our first acceleration step.
3º- Push foot separation (“charge the spring”): here I noticed a very common mistake. Most people would let the push foot go way back behind them (even touching the surface with the boot!) without realizing that if the pushing foot is not at the adequate distance they’ll not be able to get the necessary explosive drive for a good start (the spring was not properly charged!). So, how back should I put that foot? Depending on each skater, my rule of thumb is the following: having the support foot at the height gotten at phase 2, the other foot should be comfortably extended FROM that height, without forcing it backwards. Normally that rule gives a separation between skates of 30 to 50 cm, depending on skater’s stature (a meter and a half for Roger Schneider, 5 inches for Andrea Gonzalez).
4º- Get the weight to the push (back) leg and prepare arms. Here, mistakes can be catastrophic, mostly because almost nobody pays attention to the arms position. A bad configuration of arms spells for an unbalanced start, so the arm that goes to the front (depending on which leg we are using as support) should have a hand positioned no higher than the face, while the other one should not be over the line of the shoulder. Those so commonly seen two hands to the front like in a pray make no sense to me! Now, talking about the body weight: having it supported mostly by the pushing leg, it’s like having “charged the spring”, so when we are ready to start we’ll release the spring to the front leg via our mass center: hence the name inertial. What we do is to put to use the inertia produced by our body while balancing forward.
5º- Move back the upper body to the position from where we will violently release it forward, then…
6º- Shoot the explosive weight transfer from the pushing leg to the other (“release the spring”), while launching a “punch” with the hand that was forward. That punch, even if it sounds silly, will give us better stability the moment we are carrying out the first step of the acceleration phase: do not move it higher than your face. At the same time, the arm that was in front should not be swing over the shoulder’s height while moving backwards. Keep in mind that both arms should swing around the lateral plane of the torso during this last phase of the start, otherwise a wrong initial arm swinging will lead to an inefficient acceleration phase.

Some coaches believe that phases 4, 5 and 6 should be done consecutively AND simultaneously; I even observe many skaters that from phase 1 to the take off do not linger more than a couple of seconds. I think it’s a good idea to take a moment to do a full charge of the spring, and to feel comfortable with the starting position, before actually start. Then, phases 5 and 6 of course must be not only consecutively done but flowing one into the other, smoothly.
All the phases must always be done directing the sight to the trajectory we are going to follow.


2 phase: wrong

Acceleration phase
If the start was OK, from the very first steps we’ll need to optimize the initial thrust, extending completely the legs backwards, not lifting them up too much on the forward movement (jumping exaggeratedly) while maintaining a good aperture angle for the skates (and knees). How many acceleration steps should we do before launching to the gliding phase? It depends on the athlete’s leg length and the surface properties.
Generally, on banked tracks the start line rests near the first corner, so it makes sense to delay a little bit the acceleration phase until we enter the bend (that will be taken exclusively along the internal line). In this case the acceleration phase will be prolonged during the first bend with quick and explosive cross-overs, short arm swings and torso still in semi-elevated position. Such phase will be over at the bend exit, when the gliding phase will initiate.
If the race is in a road circuit most probably we will have a nice straight ahead, so the first 3-4 steps will be with elevated torso and short arm swinging. After those first acceleration steps, the torso will be gradually lowering and the arms will follow a larger path, in order to pass to the…

Gliding phase
If the first two phases were performed correctly, the passage to this one will be smooth and easy, and most importantly: at the right time. Right now is when power plays a lesser role than technique during this race: the weight transfer through the sagital plane of the body is of the utmost significance for all the other variables of the push to be right. To explain this mechanism would be off-topic here, but since this aims to be a comprehensive article I should enumerate by chronological order its components:
1- Mass center translation: the skater’s MC moves over the support leg, that’s recovering
2- Landing: body weight lands on leg, skate/knee/hip/shoulder in a perfect line
3- Gliding: just for a moment (20 to 40 mili-seconds).
4- Push-outer edge: through leg abduction.
5- Push-inner edge: through a combination of abduction and quadriceps contraction.
6- Take off of pushing skate, after complete extension.
7- Recovery: return of the pushing skate towards the MC through an adduction of the leg.

Having said that, I would like to offer some advice about this phase:

● Watch the arms! It’s really crucial that their path do not pass –if possible- the shoulder height at the back, and the face height at the front. If an arm goes over those limits, the consequence will be a lateral torso rotation, which causes an inefficient weight transfer and an unbalanced body.
● Mind the landing! Keep the first wheel as low as possible: if you land the skate with your heel (last wheel) first, you’re loosing a few centimeters of gliding, which summed up equals precious fractions of a second vanished. That may also indicate an incorrect extension of the leg (inefficient push).
● Is double-push possible during this phase? Well, the thesis is still being debated by experts. Some of us observed through video analysis that, taking into account the features implied by a weight transfer technique, some of the best sprinters (Duggento, Dobbin, Mantia) while pushing at maximum speeds on a straight course, actually have an instant (measured in mili-seconds) in which effectively both edges are being used simultaneously. The goal would be then to perfect weight transfer at very high cadences, so that an even infinitesimal double push can be taken advantage of.

Corners
I already mentioned how to take the first corner on a banked track… There’s not much more I can add about trajectories in an article like this, since there are as many types of tracks as women, and both have a common but unique way to deal with their curves.
In wide-ranging terms, I can assert that in a banked track we will negotiate the first corner low on the internal line, following a medium/high trajectory on the next (depending on radius and surface). On flat tracks, in all probability we will do better by choosing an external trajectory, while on road circuits bends tend to be large, so it’s best to cut them from the outside to seek a path along the internal line.
Too frequently a race is lost because a bend was badly taken: it would be ideal to test various trajectories on the track we’re going to perform, until we feel OK with them and, most of all, to avoid that bloody lateral slide away all of us did so many times, just out of fear.
Now, talking about the technical gesture, as I noted before it is critical to master cross-overs at low speed, to do it right when we’re flying at supersonic speed. To keep all wheels (from both skates) on the surface until the end of the push, to sit over the internal leg while leaning the body towards the interior of the bend, not elevating the arms over the shoulder line, and keeping the sight on the trajectory to follow are additional ingredients to the necessary ones for a correct cross-over.

Finish line
There’s some controversy about the final phase of the TT; as a matter of fact it’s still not clear to me if it’s better a “hawk” or to keep pushing until the photo finish line is crossed. In my opinion, one has to know with astronomical precision the exact place and time from where to launch a hawk might be really useful in any given track. Otherwise, most likely a badly timed hawk will cost us the race. Yes, extending the front skate can stop the chronometer, but that really implies to cut short a valuable instant of effective push. Besides, do we know accurately from our point of view at what height is the photo finish beam? Because for what we know, the first two wheels of the extended leg might be too high before the rest of the skate disrupts the infrared beam…
Nonetheless, as of today we can’t discard one alternative in favour to the other, until we have more data to process.

Was it clear?

Reading what was written up to this point, I realize that those skaters who never experienced in person all the stuff I was describing, will have some trouble to visualize the various movements and gestures. I apologize to them, with the promise that someday I’ll add a video (or a photo sequence) that shows whatever I was trying to explain with a million words.

Differences between 200 and 300

Of course there are, but we’re entering a super-specialized environment. More than those 100 meters, the race outcome will largely depend on the track’s features. In the shorter one, pure sprinters will likely prevail.

Official World Records

Road - men
200 mts: G. Duggento (ITA) - 16.209 (06/09/2006), Anyang (Korea)
300 mts: G. Duggento (ITA) - 23.68 (02/08/2000), Barrancabermeja (Colombia)
Road - women
200 mts: Maria Laura Orru' (ITA) -18.331 (30/08/2005), Suzhou (China)
300 mts: A. Gonzales (ARG) – 26.791 (26/07/1999), Winnipeg (Canada)
Track - men
300 mts: G. Duggento (ITA) - 24.72 (22/08/2002), Zandvoorde (Belgium)
Track - women
300 mts: S. De Cesaris (ITA) – 26.986 (27/08/1987), Grenoble (France)

These marks surely are fine references; however being rigorous, it doesn’t make much sense to talk about world records in this specialty (or almost in any other) until a true global standard is implemented in terms of track length, altitude, type of surface, curvature, grip, etc.

Tips

Every coach has his “secret weapons”, obviously I am not going to give away mine, but I’m able to offer some basic tips I’ve been compiling during many years:
● Know your track as your own hand. It should be obvious, but it’s not trivial: we must pursue our best personal time not only in our usual track, but in every possible one. Learn to memorize every crack and crevice, every hole or wrinkle… That will open up our mind, leading us to recognize quickly and confront effectively every new track we encounter, which we surely won’t have enough time to test before competition.

● Measure the track in steps. It would be ideal to know exactly how many steps does it take for us to get into the acceleration phase, to cut every corner, even the total of steps/pushes it takes from start to finish. That information will allow us to find the ideal pace/cadence for the perfect TT; in addition it will be a reference to compare us to other athletes and to study a way to improve our mark. As a comparative parameter, take note that top racers have an average of about 80 steps for a 300mts.
● Automatize. The more similar timings are for each series, the more chances we have to improve our personal mark. It’s almost impossible to establish the same mark between several series (statistically the first one is never the best: I’m still elaborating about the reasons for this), but meticulous training will guarantee very similar times between series. On racing day, if we did an excellent time during the qualifications round, I don’t see any reason not to have the same (or preferably better) time in the final round.

● Break down the track in fractions, measuring the times needed to complete each fraction. I.e., at 50mts, at 100mts, at the exit of the second corner, etc.- Then work out goals based on improving times for each fraction, one at a time, instead of pursuing an overall personal best.
● Find a warm-up method that allows to get to the starting line with a heart rate near to the maximum. Never ever start cold!

● Forget about cheating judges and photo finish: that doesn’t work anymore.
● Visualize the entire race, as if it was a choreography or a film. See yourself over and over in your mind’s eye while performing the perfect start, a spectacular bend and a stunning finish. Correct possible errors using different points of view. Reach the point in which you can almost experience the entire race in your head as the real thing, complete with all details like the sun, the wind, the adoring crowd and the hot sexy fans that rush to kiss you up on the podium.
● Visualization will also help with concentration: when it comes starting time, once we reviewed one last time in our brain the race’s details, we can liberate the mind and activate the automatism we thoroughly prepared for so many training sessions, so no external factor can distract us.
● Every fraction of a second counts: maintain the equipment in perfect working order; try not to have any ballast (empty bowels and bladder, possibly far away from inhabitated areas), better yet go to the start hungry, and try to find any aerodynamic advantage (like those “hawk” helmets and new skinsuits made with synthetic “sliding” fabrics).

That’s it. If I forgot any important topic or wrote something you don’t agree with, I’m available to discuss it, with my promise to update this article with whatever observations and enhancements would come out from such arguments.
To conclude this text, I could wish good luck to all the sprinters reading it, but it would be inconsistent with all I have been stating up to this point … As opposed as the other races, luck has an infinitesimal part in a TT victory, being the meticulous preparation, the systematic study of technique and the scrupulous and constant search for perfection all we really need to achieve our best possible times. That is, until genetics start to really count…

M. Bresin
©Speedsk8rs.com


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