Strength Training for Sprinters with Harry Aikines-Aryeetey
Strength Training for Sprinters with Harry Aikines-Aryeetey
Here at Mirafit we are used to people strength training to become bigger and stronger overall, but what if you want to train to support a specific purpose, like representing your country on an international stage? We sat down for a conversation with Team GB relay star Harry AA to see how he incorporates strength training to support and improve his sprinting.
How do you take the time to invest in yourself and your training during Covid-19?
Your body is your job. It’s different for me, being an athlete, but we’re all athletes in our own way. You have to look after yourself and that’s a 24-hour thing - looking after yourself, thinking about yourself, showing yourself some self-love and giving an opportunity to better yourself. For mental health it is tough because a lot of people sit there and say they’d like to do more and are not happy with how they feel and their fitness levels and what’s been taken away from them, but you can use this as an opportunity to understand yourself more and figure out what drives you and what it is that makes you feel good.
Anyone who looks at your Instagram can tell you love being in the gym. That isn’t something that comes naturally to a lot of people, so why is strength training so important for sprinters?
As good as I look and as vain as I am, I don’t train for aesthetics. It’s important for sprinters to build power and strength in the gym. The forces that I apply on the track are produced in the gym. I’ve been doing plyometrics and I’ve been working with the Weight Sled. I’ve never done a form of upper body building; everything is pretty much supersetted in a certain type of capacity. I do a lot of compound lifts: front squats, back squats, power cleans and the odd snatch, but I’m only in the gym twice a week.
If I want to run very fast on the track, I won’t overload myself in the gym the day before, I will overload myself afterwards to add to the adaptation. I wish more people were exposed to sprint training because it would give them more of the symmetrical aesthetics that most people are searching for. It’s called athletics because it covers the general spectrum of being an athlete. Take someone like Ronaldo – he’s athletic because he’s 6’2”, he can jump, he’s fast and he can do a lot of different sports.
That’s how I see myself; I can jump high, I can run fast, I’ve got good-coordination and all those things help me in different sports. The only thing is that I’m asthmatic so count me out of long distance. If you’re training for a sport, you’re trying to get that little bit more explosive and powerful and that’s where strength training helps if you do it with the right timing, volume, and intensity. As a result, you end up with bigger hamstrings and quads and more explosivity throughout your tendons. It’s a massive form of conditioning as well because you work on the power aspect. I might do some heavy loading via the back or front squats. I can front squat 200kg and I can power clean 170kg but those maxes won’t happen near my competition.
We do a lot of supersetting in the gym, if it is a slower motion with a squat then I’ll do a lot of jumps – box jumps, single leg jumps, skipping, dumbbell standing shallow jumps, jumping split jumps. There’s always something you can do to keep those fast twitch fibres twitching.
How do you build up to doing a 170kg power clean at speed?
I get a lot of people querying my technique on social media because they see me get under the bar and catch it at a quarter squat position. I might start with three or four sets of eight at 80kg-100kg and then it comes down to six and then I’ll happily sit at three throughout most of the year.
It’s about the speed of the bar and the technique. I use a hook grip and you need to focus on ticking boxes – how high does the bar come? How easy does it feel? How wide are your feet going? Is it too much of a struggle? If it’s too much of a struggle, then focus on that weight or come down. You can pyramid it, go up and then drop down for a couple of reps to build the speed back. If you’re struggling at 140kg then drop down to 120kg and it will feel like nothing. Then you can focus on the speed.
I do a similar thing with sled pulls. The sled itself weights 10kg-15kg and then I’m pulling 20kg on top and when the weight is off, it feels easier and quicker and that same amount of effort takes you further down the track because you have less resistance.
How does your strength training fit around your track training?
Monday - acceleration and technical work before going to gym and doing power clean, front squat, back squat, power squat, box jumps and deadlifts
Tuesday - speed and endurance training
Wednesday - a ten-minute run then deadlifts, hand clings, squat jumps, and conditioning circuits
Thursday - acceleration and speed
Friday - endurance training
Weekends - I take the weekends off to recover and be able to go hard again on Monday.
When you’re coming up to a competition do you ease up on the strength training?
In the winter I’ll power clean up to 150kg but now I won’t clean above 130kg because everything’s got to pop and feel light. Ten days out from a competition I might do something fairly heavy to re-spark the system.
You’re like a bullet off the starting block, what’s your secret?
I’m constantly working on my start because that’s one of the aspects of my race that I’m trying to improve. There are some really good starters out there and we’re all built in different shapes and sizes. You have some of the smaller and more nimble guys that can shoot out. I’ve got the power; I just need to make sure I apply it properly and that’s been a heavy focus of mine this winter.
In regard to secrets, it’s just about loading the blocks. You want to feel like you’re going to push off against something and then it’s about thinking that the floor is lava. You’ve got to think of the process like a plane; you need to take off as opposed to just getting up and running.
The moments before the gun is being fired there must be a lot going through your mind.
You’re one of eight people who could potentially win the race and you’re trying to think about doing your best. For me, it’s about staying relaxed and present in the moment. There have been situations where I’m thinking about the latter part of the race when I need to think about now. You have to think about the first few steps.
You’ve got a few stress fractures in your back – how did they happen?
Quite a long time ago. I got my first one in 2006, when I still went on to win the world juniors, surprisingly enough. There are two cracks that will never heal, and I got my third one around 2012/13. My back goes into spasm if I overextend too much or sit for too long. When it first happened, I was in a back brace and had to re-learn how to walk properly and at the end of the process it was tough, but I went on to make my first Olympic team in 2008. I’ve had a lot of injuries; I’ve snapped my semi-tendon behind my knee, but I’ve never really hurt myself in the gym because I’m not trying to max out there.
Instagram recently posted about you with a certain heading. Can you tell us about that?
Instagram put up a post of me, and I quite like it to be fair and I think I might have to take this label, because they labelled me as one of the most athletic beings on the planet. Obviously, I’m not the fastest, because I haven’t got the world record in 100m, Usain Bolt has. I may not be able to jump the highest because there might be an NBA player who can touch something I can’t touch. If there was a decathlon, like I did when setting up the influencer games, I think I’d score quite high across the board because there’s probably no-one who’s as strong as me, who can run as fast as me, jump as high as me, tackle someone as hard as me or be as agile as me. There might be someone that might be better than me at one thing, but they won’t be as good as me at something else, so I quite liked being labelled as the most athletic.
What advice would you give to someone who is new to sprinting? How can they progress?
I don’t think that people sprint enough and that they forget how to sprint. I think hill sprints are a great place to start because it’s accessible, you can do them on grass and it’s teaching you how to accelerate because you have to lean forward and learn how to push, build up speed and carry momentum. What can be quite challenging is that you first need to learn how to get comfortable and work through different distances. You might do twelve sets of 30m, run up and walk down for recovery. It’ll be over quick, and you’ll be building that power and force that helps in the gym when you’re doing your squats and hip thrusts. Every other time you can add on 10m and have three or four sets of that.
It’s about getting your knees in front of you, having your arms in a piston motion and pushing down. You’ll find that when you go to sprint on a flat surface that you’re doing this naturally because you’ve learnt how to build up speed. I would do hill sprints and then transition into sled pulls and then accelerations and blocks so hill sprints are a great starting point for anyone who wants to get into speed work.
What pieces of equipment do you think are essential for a beginner sprinter?
What pieces of strength equipment would you say best complement sprinting?
A bar, plates, and squat rack. Drop Pads will give you a form of reassurance and help you to avoid annoying your neighbours. An ab wheel to work on your core and Plyo Jump Boxes to build explosive power.
If you were going to do another sport that wasn’t sprinting, what would it be?
I’m a Man Utd fan so when I was younger, I would have said football but now I’d say NFL or rugby. I think I have the right temperament for it. I might still give it a go if someone wants to sign me up.
You’re a big music fan. What do you listen to in the gym?
It depends on what mood I’m in but my go to is afro-beats or house. I’m really getting into afro-pop recently.
When your daughter has her first sports day, and you're in the 'dad's race' are you going to go all out and wipe the floor with the other dads? Or are you going to give them a chance?
I’m going all out! I’ve got a nephew who turns nine next month and I don’t let him win anything. They’ve got to understand that it’s okay to lose and that it’s okay to allow other people to have success. He’s smart, which is really good, and it’s about going through that process – he sees me win, he says congratulations and he’ll have the opportunity to do the same at some point.