Interview with Håkan Andersson
I had a pleasure of meeting Håkan Andersson couple of years ago in Sundsvall, Sweden when my team played a friendly game (which we won 🙂 ). I was introduced to Håkan by a common friend Carl Valle, who spoke very highly of him and basically demanded from me to pay the visit to Håkan. Luckily, we played that friendly game in Sundsvall where Håkan resides so I was happy to meet one of the world leading sprint coaches.
Håkan is very humble person and very down to Earth for a sprint coach of such reputation and success. We had couple of cups of coffee and we talked about different subjects ranging from monitoring to RST (repeat sprint training). We agreed to continue the discussions and I am using this interview to pick his brain a little more and to introduce Håkan to my readers.
Mladen: Håkan, can you please tell us something about yourself – who you are, what you do and what are your plans? What are you most proud off in terms of coaching success?
Håkan:It was very nice to meet in Sundsvall Mladen and from now on it will be even more exciting to watch games between our teams since I now know the strength and conditioning coaches of each side.
I’ve been a sprint coach for almost 30 years! My dear wife recons I’m pretty boring person with only one interest in life 🙂 I tell her constantly she is dead wrong since I like both the 100 and 200m…
I’m a trained engineer but I never worked as one and I am making my living from being an officer in the regional Fire Brigade where we serve a population of around 140.000 people, have been in the profession for more than 30 years.
When I took up coaching the shift work being a fire fighter fitted very well with my athletic schedule. I now have more administrative duties and more office hours than before but my employer and working companions have always been very understanding off my sporting life.
During the years I have had a couple of very tempting offers to go professional in sports but I always had the feeling that maintaining athletics my passion and not a profession was the right thing for me.
With only a few more years in the Fire Brigade before I’m entitled to my pension I might reconsider and do a couple of years of professional coaching before I stop working, but we will see I might just feed the birds in the park:-)
It gives me great pleasure to look back at the nineties when our male 4*100m relay team made it to virtually every major finals with the fifth place in Atlanta games and a national record of 38,63 as the definite top result. On a more personal level I’m proud to have coached Peter Karlsson 6.58/10.10/9.98w and Torbjörn Eriksson 20.58 that both were highly ranked in Europe and won numerous national titles but also many other sprinters that I worked with during the years with less talent competing on a much lower level but on a daily basis worked very hard for personal bests that was great accomplishments for them.
Today I’m coaching a small group on which Stefan Tärnhuvud is the fastest, he is a very dedicated young sprinter that has won the national title in the 100m on several occasions. Or goal is to challenge Peter Karlssons national record and this far he has run 10.40/10.33w
I have also been privileged enough to be involved in many other sports but athletics. For many years I did work with a fantastic female swimmer, a true champion and a very pleasant personality; Ann-Karin Kammerling who is a former world record holder in the 50m butterfly and multiple medalists in European, World and Olympic games. I have also been consulting professional soccer, ice hockey and basketball to name a few.
Mladen: Who were your coaching role models and where and how did you get the knowledge?
Håkan: After my degree in engineering I took one year of basic coaching training and after that I did all levels of sprinting and hurdling coaching that were available at the time.
I’m a very lucky man that have always been surrounded by good people but there is one man than has been very important for me as a coach and that is my dear friend Doctor Peter Pitkänen.
Doctor Pitkänen used to be the head pathologist at the main hospital in Sundsvall and I never forget the first time he rang me up. It was the same evening that Ben Johnson won his first major 100m title in 1987 and I guess that the excitement of the Rome final made him want to discuss sprinting.
At the time I had been retired from sprinting for a while and was coaching some local teenage sprinters and Doctor Pitkänen wanted me to coach his young daughter and so I did for some time before she lost interest due to all the stupid things we did to her, but that is another story…
Doctor Pitkänen didn’t say much for the first couple of months but one day he spoke out. “Everything you do is basically useless and you have no clue what you are talking about” was his very strong opinion about my training regime and me as a coach. At first I was hurt and upset of course I thought that 10 years of practical experience being a decent sprinter myself and all the courses I had been taken had to account for something.
After a couple of self reflecting nights I told myself though; “the doctor is right”! I really didn’t know what I was doing and everything I had been doing up to that date in terms of coaching, basically stemmed from some pretty poor courses and my own practical experience.
I went back to the dear doctor and asked him what to do. “You have to start reading the literature and learn from the best” was his very straight remark. “Read what? I have read all the books regarding athletics that are in the Swedish language”. “That is not what I mean” -was his prompt reply!
One week later he came back with huge stack of peer reviewed papers on which I couldn’t even understand the abstracts of. He had also by hand translated the entire book by the Finish Professor Anti Mero’s: “Nopeus- jnopeuskestävyysharjoittelu” (Speed and Speed Endurance training) from 1987. The book contains nearly 300 pages and is an outstanding manual in terms of sprint coaching literature and in my opinion still to this day the best book ever written regarding sprinting. It has only one problem; -it is written in the Finish language that is absolutely hopeless to understand for anyone but the Finns.
Guided by doctor Pitkänen I little by little got more and more interested in sports science and with his assistance I contacted and visited a lot of scientists. I must say they were all extremely patient with my ignorance and I felt that every day was a learning experience.
My personal communication with Anti Mero was very rewarding. I also learned a lot from late Carmelo Bosco that eventually became a dear friend and great mentor until he sadly passed away in 2003.
In the last decade I had the great privilege to get to know and discuss a myriad of interesting topics with his incredible knowable student Doctor Marco Cardinale that now is working for British Olympic Association.
I was also terrorizing names like professors Atko Viru, Yuri Verkhoshansky and of course the Swedes; Bengt Saltin, Alf Thorstensson and Per Tesch to mention a few.
During all this years I also had the privilege to be involved in some Sports Scientific projects regarding speed, power and strength, both in able and disabled sports. It was a great way to gain new and deeper understanding in a lot of things.
Sports science doesn’t have all the answers though and the embarrassing fact is that it doesn’t even know what really differentiates Usain Bolt from a 10.5 sprinter, except externally measurable variables like simple anthropometric data, split times, stride length and stride frequency.
While engineers are designing 1000m tall buildings and doctors are making outstanding advances in medicine we still don’t know exactly why the speed drops at the end of a 100m race or why one can’t lift a maximal weight twice etc. etc.. There are virtually hundreds of unsolved questions and in many ways sports science in comparison to other scientific disciplines are still in the dark ages.
Besides all this I still prefer to if its possible to build my training philosophies on some sort of scientific foundation.
Peter Pitkänen also encouraged me to talk and learn from other coaches. I took his advice and tried to talk to everybody I met at seminars, competitions or directly true personal communication.
During the years I have met and I am still meeting many brilliant minds in this exciting trade, both inside and outside the country. I have many times been astonished by how open and willing to exchange ideas most coaches are.
Learning from others mistakes and openly accept critique from friends is a great way to learn. I have been very fortunate to live in a country where most coaches’ nowadays are more than very willing to share their ideas and have very little prestige.
Outside Sweden I have really enjoyed spending time with Finland’s “doctors of sprint”; Petteri Jouste and Tapani Keränen. I’m sure that those two would have produced World and Olympic Champions if they would have coached in the right environment.
Among all the coaches I’ve meet around the world there are a few that I feel stand out. My Dutch friend Henk Kraijenhof is probably as close to a genius as you can be and the most holistic coach I ever met.
Norwegian biomechanist and veteran coach Leif-Olav Alnes is another master mind in sprinting that has also him become a close friend of mine. Alnes has and still coach some very competent sprinters but his main accomplishment has to be the transformation of a Norwegian tractor Geir Moen into a world class 200m sprinter. Moen won the indoor World Championships 1994, European Championships in Helsinki in 1994 and made the World Championship final in Goteborg 1995. Simply outstanding effort by a very hard working athlete and a very clever coach.
Being married to a Canadian I always felt I had find out more about Charlie Francis and his theories despite the turmoil after the Olympics 1988. Charlie has with no doubt had a great impact on modern sprint coaching and I find it very interesting that many of his theories correspond well with a lot of the information that I got from professor Mero’s book from 1987. I definitely don’t think that Charlie would have gotten some of his knowledge from Finland but I have a feeling they both got influences from the former DDR.
Since Charlie took the wrong path we will never find out how fast his athletes would have run without the misuse of performance enhancing drugs. I sometimes feel it is big a shame since in my book it goes without saying that it has to be sprinters in the world talented enough to outrun Peter Karlsson Swedish record of 10.18 with a pretty big margin without any drugs what so ever. I am 100% sure that you can do amazing things without any drugs at all and I have a gut feeling that is exactly what the Jamaicans are doing and I sincerely hope the future will not prove me wrong.
The generation of Swedish superstars; Olsson, Bergqvist, Kluft, Holm, Wissman, Kallur and others was a great personal relief and for me the ultimate evidence what is possible to win medals drug free on the condition that you believe and are being surrounded by people that believe that it is possible to success without drugs.
Physical talent is important of course but without a strong mind that isn’t worth much. Swedish record holder Peter Karlsson was talented of course but 11.41 at the age of 18 is not exactly considered a world class sprint talent. I have to remind you though that Peter Karlsson’s main talent was to find in his extremely powerful mind not in his muscles…
Mladen: In creating a world class sprinter, what is more important: nature or nurture? Or how important is training compared to genetics and what can be used for talent identification? How did you manage to create world class sprinters from such a small athlete pool like Sundsvall? We are talking about Sweden, not Jamaica :)?
Håkan: I would not go as far saying world class but I feel we have done OK with the resources we have had. In the 90th there were quite a lot of guys in Sweden training hard to be a sprinter. We have not been able to repeat that success in the 2000 though. It’s hard to pin point why but I think that the main reason is that we have failed to attract the few sprint talents we have to the sport and instead they have been choosing football, ice hockey and other sports with better finances and more attention.
Sprinting is definitely a genetic game and if it was possible to choose parents that choice would be much more important than the choice of coach.
It is somewhat surprising that we still don’t seem to understand why the fastest man usually wins the 100m. Meaning; if you compare the maximal velocity that a sprinter reach in a 100m in comparison to his competitors, it usually correlates very well with how he places in the race.
With this in mind it is tempting to follow the principle of Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands that are the foundation for sport specific training.
The problem with specificity in sprinting is that it is virtually impossible to run at maximal speed in training though. Maximal sprinting is also very taxing on the organism and can only be executed in fairly low doses, doses usually too small for an adaption to take place.
When I was a sprinter in the 1970th we were influenced by the American school with lots of speed endurance at sub 90% intensity with over distance training ranging from 150 to 500m even for us short distance sprinters. At the time we had almost no indoor halls in the country so the majority of or running was done outside even during the coldest months. We did train hard but the results were far from impressive…
The big change for us was when indoor facilities started to pop up here and there and everywhere, making it possible to ran fast even in winter.
I’m a strong believer that sprinting is a technical event and the movement has as the physique improves be rehearsed over and over again until perfection. If you use repetitive sprints of 60-80m at 92-98% intensity instead of the longer sprints you can do impressive volumes with a technique that resemblances maximal velocity pretty much without fatigue. Of course you also have to incorporate starts, shorter accelerations and some longer runs in your protocol, but those alactic anaerobic repetitive sprints has been the “bread and butter” for sprinters for a long time.
Sweden is a fairly small country and sprint talent is fairly rare. The ones we do get are usually not so gifted in terms of maximal speed capacity and for them this kind of training has been proven to be more effective for their speed development than the longer sprints. Good acceleration and great maximal velocity is definitely the name of this game. Some coaches around the world still put a lot more emphasize on longer sprints than we do but perhaps their talents are so gifted in terms of speed that they can afford to do so, we certainly can’t…
For a while we did too high volumes without enough regeneration and the results went backwards. The introduction of higher volumes of tempo running partly solved that problem.
One has to be careful with all endurance training for sprinters though, it has to be well balanced. That is the activation of AMP-activated protein kinase thru excessive endurance training may inhibit signaling to the protein-synthesis machinery especially in fast twitch fibers by inhibiting the activity of mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR) and its downstream targets.
Mladen: What role does the general strength training plays in speed training for sprinters? What is the role of special strength exercises or apparatus? As far as I know late Charlie Francis used strength training for general work and sprint work on the track as specific/special work only. Not much ’special strength’ training, like squat jumps, etc? What is your opinion on this? Do we see circular causation here – where improving strength one improves speed, while on the flip side if one improves speed he also improved strength? Who is first – chicken or the egg?
Håkan: These are some very interesting and important questions! First of all, in my opinion it is impossible to find exercises outside the track that even remotely resemblances sprinting in terms of movement patterns, angular velocities, nerve signaling, force production patterns, force productions times and you will definitely don’t find any in the weight room! That doesn’t mean that “off the track” exercises are a waste of time! There are many exercises that are excellent all depending on the character of the athlete and what you would like to achieve.
Heavy lifting is for example great for recruitment of large motor units and many plyometric activities probably even exceeds sprinting in terms of level of force production, recruitment and discharge rate of motor units.
Should weight training differ between a highly talented a lesser talented subjects? Yes I believe so! I don’t think a very talented sprinter that might possess 80% or so of fast twitch fiber has to worry much about muscular development. On the contrary hypertrophy of his muscles will produce larger muscle cells of predominately fast fibers. If he combines his strength training with high intensity sprinting in a proper way he will develop power and specific neuromuscular pathways that will improve his sprinting ability. In simple terms; a highly talented sprinter will probably do well with bodybuilding type of resistance training and sprinting alone, while lesser talented sprinters and female sprinters might be better of choosing power type training with a high neural drive and short force production times that hopefully will selectively stress fast twitch fibers to grow without much hypertrophy of existing slow twitch. More stressful yes but I don’t think that you have many other choices.
Does speed also improve strength? Who is first – chicken or the egg? I believe that this idea was popularized by Charlie and I ‘have on many occasions been surprised how well some athletes are able to maintain maximal strength and power sprinting as the main stimuli for pretty long period of times. My belief is that these qualities can be maintained pretty well with sprinting due to the fact that sprinting is great stimuli of CNS and fast twitch fibers. But improved no I don’t believe so, at least is that my experience working with drug free athletes.
An important consideration in terms of weight training with heavy loading stimulate mTOR and remain the androgen receptors open of primarily fast twitch fibers and thereby hypertrophy. Seems fine but there is also evidence that excessive heavy resistance training seems to alter MHC IIX to IIA as seen in elite weightlifters (Fry et al. J of Strength and Conditioning 2003 17(4) 746-754).
Should be an disadvantage in sprinting and other high velocity sports but this is probably less of a problem if you train limited volumes and are using a properly periodized system.
Mladen: What is the key difference between training a beginner for sprint event (i.e. 100m) compared to advanced or elite athlete?
Håkan: I think there is a general consensus and I agree with that it is important to emphasize general qualities and the development of work capacity before you introduce high volume of high intensity training. In some regards it’s a matter of holding back instead of pushing the development of speed to much with children and beginners.
The child’s natural stages of development must also be respected and the fact that some qualities like technique and coordination are very receptive to training at certain ages and that should be taken into consideration. I would like to stress the importance of early development of jumping coordination and elastic strength. If plyometrics can be used as a safe and effective way of development of specific strength later on in the career.
Mladen: What aspect of race is more plastic – acceleration, maximal velocity or speed endurance part? Where does the average team sport (mixed sport) athletes fit in?
Håkan: If you compare maximal strength capacity to the different stages of the acceleration curve one find a much higher degree of correlation at early than latter stages.
To keep on accelerating up to close 12m/s and over with a ground contact close to 80ms that is the trademark of today’s world class male sprinting is not easy. To reach 12m/s you have to be able to keep the net overall impulse positive and accelerate for up to 60m. To do that you have to posses extremely reactive and elastic strength qualities that in my belief is greatly limited by genetics and only partly trainable.
Since the movements are slower in the start and early acceleration I also find it is easier to work on technical details there than in full flight where I believe you partly have to improve the technique by improving as mentioned above; reactive and elastic strength.
The ability to keep on accelerating beyond the initial stages is in many cases very difficult and time consuming. Speed endurance on the other hand is rather easy to improve. Maximal sprinting for distances longer than 20-30m hardly exist in any other sport than sprinting and players in team sports can in my opinion concentrate more on development of initial acceleration and speed endurance.
Mladen: Can you outline your philosophy of sprint training in short? Do you utilize short-to-long or long-to-short? How do you periodize the season, what areas are you working on and how do you organize them in both short-term (week) and long-term (month, year)?
Håkan: I guess that you can call it short to long since I emphasize acceleration in the fall and maximal velocity and speed endurance in the spring.
The system I’ve been using for mature athletes for many years resemblances the concept by Verkhoshansky, where small amount of compatible training goals (usually 1-2) are being developed in one specific training block. Other qualities are being trained as well but in moderation and to an extent that they don’t hamper the development of the main training goal in the block. For young athletes I would use a much more diverse training system.
Mladen: What about sprint mechanics? Can you ’coach it’ or do you address the underlying constraints (strength, mobility, etc) so the more optimal mechanic emerges on its own? What can be coached and what can not? Do we need to ’push’ certain model (stereotype) for all athletes, including team sport athletes? What is the role of the drills in speed training (A & B skips, wall skips, etc).
Håkan: Sprint mechanics can be altered but as you are indicating technique is sometimes limited by strength and mobility and not much can be changed until those issues has been dealt with. A simple example is children’s inability to lean over when accelerating; they simply can’t produce enough force to counteract the gravity in such an awkward body position. There is not a uniform technique due to the fact that sprinters come in all form and sizes but there are certain elements of technique that characterizes top sprinters and those should be used as a model. There is definitely a value with common drills but it seems like they sometimes take too much space in some programs.
Mladen: Speed qualities seems to be very small influenced with training. When it comes to team sports, would the time spent at speed work be more wisely spent on other aspects of physical preparation, like strength and endurance? And we both know that within team sports strength and conditioning coaches don’t have a lot of time to train the players.
Håkan: You are right it is probably a waste of time for a team athlete to try to develop maximal velocity by maximal bursts and full recovery. Team athletes are better of concentrating more on development of acceleration, maximal speed and speed endurance thru repetitive sprinting plus strength and power training. Repetitive sprinting as not the best way to maximize maximal acceleration and maximal velocity but for team sports it is safer, time saving and a more effective way.
Mladen: What are you thoughts on the modern monitoring tools like HRV, jumping mats, reaction time, grip strength etc. In your experience what seems to correlate with a day to day performance (readiness) of the athletes, or what is actually worth monitoring?
Håkan: I’m a big fan of testing and a have been using Muscle Lab and the Estonian state of the art timing system IVAR and some other testing systems for many years. But, it is very hard to find tests that correlate well with the competition results. For me as a coach it is invaluable since it’s a great way to more objectively valuate how the athletes are responding. I mainly use different types of strength and power tests to monitor how those qualities are developing in different periods, we also use lactate testing’s sometimes. For the last 1.5 years we have added HRV recordings with the iThlete system. At first I wasn’t totally convinced but I must say it has proven to be very easy to use, reliable and adds more info to the sometimes rather blurry picture regarding regeneration.
Mladen: How do you see the sprint world in the next decade or so? What is pushing the times – better training, better technology or better drugs? Are we close to the ’human ceiling’?
Håkan: The Greeks ran the Olympic Games for more than 1000 years. They had professional athletes, professional coaches and the games were so important that they even put wars on halt to run the games. Modern professional sports is 50-100 years old depending how you define it. Some years ago I had the pleasure of visiting the Olympic museum in Olympia. At what level were the Greeks competing after 1000 years? Hard to tell since FAT wasn’t invented then there are no traces of results lists J One thing at the museum stuck me. It was a big sandstone with the inscription “Bybon son of Pola lifted me over head, the stone weighs 150kg that is about the same weight as the biggest stone used in the Atlas lift at the strong men competition! Perhaps we haven’t got so far in 2000 years…
If sport science is underdeveloped that is nothing compared to training theory and practical execution, there is so many things we can do better before we even remotely have to think that we are reaching the genetic ceiling. Can you imagine if we are to continue competing as long as the Greeks were doing!
I think that it is a great need of better communication between sports and science and with science I don’t mean only sports science there are many disciplines that could have an impact on sports.
Communication between coaches is getting better and I think that all the new ways to communicate will have a great impact in that respect. I still remember sending faxes to Tim Jackson in Australia when I was coaching him in Australia for a couple of season. Today our communication would have been so much easier and I would even have been able to watch him train online, can you imagine what difference!
I’m perhaps naive but I think that humans can achieve amazing results without any drugs at all but we have to train smarter. I think that we have a pretty good idea about what to do to get fast but we are still struggling big time regarding when to train and at what doses to prescribe. I think that tools to monitor athletes Physical and physiological status will definitely help athletes and coaches.
Mladen: Thank you for the insights you shared in this interview Håkan and I hope I will see you soon again. Good luck in your endeavors.
Håkan: It was my pleasure and it will be very interesting to see what you will do with the Hammarby football Club traditionally has labeled as a technical rather than a physical playing team.