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How to mix in speed work, part 3 – Neuromuscular Fitness and Coordination

Welcome back to week 3 of our series of how to introduce speed work to your training. Last week we covered the basics of why good mechanics are the all important first step to doing speed work, so be sure to check that out if you haven’t yet (link). Once we’ve spent a couple of weeks slowly building in some biomechanical work (drills, striders, etc.), then we can start looking at workouts dedicated to actually improving our actual speed. As we discussed at the very beginning of this series, which type of speed work you need to do will vary from person to person and it’s important to make sure you’re targeting the weakest link in your running game. This week we’ll be looking at our neuromuscular fitness and coordination.

First off, a quick refresher on what it is exactly we’re talking about when we say “neuromuscular fitness and coordination”. While I try to stay away from jargon that folks won’t necessarily be super familiar with, these are two terms I do think are important so that we can differentiate between different types of effects we’re looking for from our workouts. Basically what we’re talking about here is the ability of our nervous system to effectively transmit signals to our muscles so that we can 1) fire the right amount of muscle fibers, and 2) get those muscle fibers to work together instead of against each other.

The more muscle fibers we fire at once, the more force we’re able to generate. Needless to say this is really important when we’re talking about running fast. However, it’s not just about raw power. We need to be able to accelerate quickly as running isn’t just one long continuous push. It’s a bajillion quick pushes over and over again (i.e. each step is its own repetition). Each step needs to have power, but it also needs to be quick enough that we have that “pop” to our step that we’re really looking for if we want to move quickly. Neuromuscular fitness is really about speed more so than power. We’ll be targeting our ability to move quickly in relation to our own body, not just covering ground quickly. The more neuromuscularly fit we are, the better able we are to recruit those muscle fibers and the more quickly we can get them to fire. This results in more explosive muscle contractions, and thus, faster running speeds.

The second part of neuromuscular fitness is the ability to maintain the pH in our muscles and blood stream. Fundamentally our muscles operate similarly to our nerves, by sending an electrical signal cascade down the length of it to get it to fire. To do this, we have to continuously pump charged ions across the cell membrane to reset the ability to get the muscle to fire. But when we’re working hard our bodies can have a hard time keeping up with the buildup of positively charged hydrogen ions in our blood stream, making it harder for our bodies to reset that different in charges between the interior and exterior of the muscle cell. As those hydrogen ions build up in our blood stream it results in acidosis, that “burn” sensation we get when we’re working hard. The more fit we are in terms of our neuromuscular fitness the better able we are to keep this breakdown of our neuromuscular system from happening. That is, we can run faster or longer (or both) before the effect of acidosis set in and keep us from being able to fire our muscles the way we want to.

Coordination on the other hand is our ability to get our different muscles to work together. It’s all fine and good to be able to fire all the muscle fibers quickly, but if they aren’t fired in the right sequence we probably aren’t going anywhere very quickly. It is related to our ability to recruit muscle fibers, but we’re a little more focused on getting different muscles working together than on the nitty gritty of getting them firing at all. Again, the fundamental bit is the ability to send an electrical charge to the muscle fibers, but it’s more about getting the nerves to fire in the right sequence, and quickly enough, to trigger that electrical event at the level of the muscle fiber down the chain.

The AEC morning crew doing drills as a part of their dynamic warm up (and to get coordinated!)

So how do we actually improve our neuromuscular fitness and coordination? Drills and maximal speed efforts. For most of us endurance athletes, our top end speed isn’t going to be limited by the ability to actually generate the ATP (Adenosine Triphosphate) necessary to get the muscles to contract. It’s going to be the ability of our nervous and neuromuscular systems to actually deliver the electrical signal to the muscle to do its thing.

Maximal speed sprints stress the ability of our muscles to fire quickly. They don’t necessarily need to be maximal power (although that can help), but they do need to be quick. High turnover rates, low ground contact time, explosive. The objective is to get all of the muscle fibers in a muscle to fire at once so that we accelerate quickly on each step. We do this most frequently with striders, hitting top speed for 20-100 meters, but not in a way that feels like we’re pushing. It feels more like riding a bike downhill. In fact, getting on the bike is a great way to get some of this stimulus in as we can use the gears on the bike to keep the resistance low enough that our ability to push forward doesn’t limit us being able to keep going at high speed. Coach Joe Vigil, one of the most successful US distance coaches of all time, frequently would make his athletes do downhill sprints so that they could really get their turnover rate up without being limited by the ability to produce sufficient power. This is an especially useful tool if you live at altitude where your maximum speed beyond 5-10 seconds can be limited by your ability to produce ATP.

Short hill repeats can be a great way to stress your ability to move quickly.

Note: If you’re one of those runners who finds that it’s difficult to generate maximum demand without some kind of extra load, try doing your short sprints uphill. The extra force required to go up (and not just forward) can help trigger the nervous system to actually fire the glutes because it’s very difficult to actually get up the hill without doing so. And then we can integrate coordination with neuromuscular fitness in one workout!

The most important part when really trying to focus on the neuromuscular system (and its ability to stimulate a maximal force contraction) is to get a lot of rest between reps. If we can’t generate enough demand on the system to stimulate change, it won’t change. And if we don’t get enough recovery between reps, something else is going to be become the limiting factor, such as our ability to maintain coordination when acidosis sets in or simply having the oomph to keep going at top end speed. At this point it becomes a different (although potentially useful) workout. If you want to challenge the neuromuscular system’s ability to fire all the muscle fibers at once, you have to be able to generate enough explosive power to do that.

Neuromuscular Fitness Workouts


50-100 m maximum velocity sprints with full recovery

Short hill sprints (8-10 seconds) with full recovery

Coordination is similar in outcome, but slightly different in terms of how we approach it. When we’re doing the maximal acceleration sprints often we’re focused purely on the ability to contract a muscle as fast as possible. When we’re talking about coordination we’re focused on the ability to get our muscles to work together. The first part of this is movement patters that increase our capacity to run fast. Drills are a great way to do this. They challenge our ability to get our brains talking to our bodies, reinforcing the movement patters that provide for optimal biomechanics. Which drills we need to do will depend greatly on the individual, as we each need to spend more time working on the drills that help improve the issues with our own individual biomechanics.

I’ve known many folks that have a hard time getting their muscles to fire correctly no matter how fast they’re moving. Short, maximal effort hill sprints (8-10 seconds, the steeper the better) can be a great way to do this. Sometimes it’s easier to get the nervous system to respond and get stuff firing in the right order if you HAVE to do it that way. And you HAVE to fire your glutes and have good mechanics when you’re trying to sprint up a hill.

The second part of coordination is the ability to maintain those motor pathways when we’re working hard. This goes back to the whole acidosis bit. As we’re working hard for extended periods of time the hydrogen ions build up, and interfere with our ability to properly fire our muscles in the right sequence.

Dallas gutting out hard intervals on the track.

These workouts typically involve a lot of high speed running without a ton of rest, just enough to refuel the muscles so they can keep operating at close to top speed. These workouts are typically run at slightly below maximum speed, but are fast enough to flood the bloodstream with hydrogen ions. The real physiological goals we’re looking at in these workouts are 1) being able to buffer our blood pH (so we can stave off the effects of acidosis) and 2) maximizing our aerobic power output. These are the gut busting track workouts that make you want to puke.

The third part of coordination is improving the endurance of our nervous system. Just like with any other system in our bodies, our nerves can poop out on us. This is why our mechanics go out the window when we’re tired at the end of a long race and we’re trying to sprint to the finish. Our central nervous system simply can’t fire correctly to get the muscles to work in the correct sequence. We can work on this simply by paying attention to our mechanics on our long runs, or possibly doing drills when we finish the long run (i.e. challenge the nervous system to operate efficiently when it’s tired). The long run is probably how most of us do this though, even without meaning to. By the time we’re deep in a marathon training block, and we’re practicing our nutrition and hydration strategies on long runs of 1.5-3.5 hours, you can bet the central nervous system is getting fatigued. In fact, the reason why a lot of distance athletes get hurt while training for these long races is that their central nervous system isn’t fit enough to maintain good biomechanics for the entirety of the long run. And just like trying to run with bad mechanics will catch up to you on the shorter runs, if you put in enough miles on the long run after your nervous system is cooked you’ll end up with a problem as well. Generally speaking, you don’t want more than the last 10-15 minutes of your long run to be too much of a struggle to maintain good mechanics. We want to stress the nervous system, not break it.

Coordination Workouts

Motor Pathways – drills, short hill sprints

Buffering Blood pH – medium length high intensity repeats with little rest (3-5 minute intervals at 95-100% effort with 1-2.5 min recovery), long/continuous hill repeats at high effort

Central Nervous System Endurance – long runs, post-long run drills

I realize that today’s post is a bit long, so if you stuck around to the end, thank you. I hope you learned something by doing so. By having a better understanding of what it is we’re doing in our workout at the physiological level we can often get a little more out of the workout (or cut it off when we’ve gotten as much out of it as we can). Neuromuscular fitness and coordination, while similar and are constrained by similar things, are different. And sometimes knowing the difference between the two can help us make more informed decisions about what we need to do when we get around to doing our speed workouts. That being said, there’s nothing wrong with incorporating both into the same workout. In fact, some biomechanical work (including coordination drills) is a great way to start any session. Any time we can improve our mechanics and reduce the risk of injury is a good thing.

As with any other new training technique, always integrate it in small doses. Don’t go out and do 20 x 400 m all out with 100 m recovery if you don’t have the training history to support the workout. You only need enough volume and intensity to stimulate your body to get better. Yes, a bigger stimulus will result in a bigger gain. But if it’s too much it will take you so long to recover that you will have lost any gains you made.

Stick around for next week when we dive into how to develop your muscular power in your speed sessions.

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