Andre De Grasse, Stuart McMillan, and Sub-Max Training

Tony Holler Coaching Blogs 7 Comments

American distance coaches are dancing in the streets. Matthew Centrowicz shocked the world by winning the 1500 in Rio. Mike Newman of DyeStat tweeted that no American had won the 1500 since 1908, the same year the Cubs last won the World Series. Later, when Paul Chelimo of the U.S. Army won silver, Illini Cross Country Coach Jake Stewart tweeted, “Did we just become the best distance running country in the world?”

Yes, distance coaches from sea to shining sea probably doubled their mileage on their Sunday morning run, pushing the pace so they could watch the Olympic Marathon.

Before you distance coaches get too giddy, let’s not forget that 16 of the 36 distance medalists (800 meters and up) have coaches currently under formal investigation or federations in breach of anti-doping rules. When we worship millionaire athletes, we set ourselves up for disappointment.

I love every track & field event, but the sprints are my favorite.

Distance coaches found another reason to celebrate this week. Andre De Grasse won silver by training slow. Yes, the coach of Andre De Grasse informed his 8,430 followers on Twitter, “For those of you who think you have to sprint maximally to get faster – not once all year did Andre De Grasse sprint at maximal speed …”

There you have it. Stuart McMillan has given every distance coach in America something to smile about. Running is running. Distance runners run 400 meter repeats. Sprinters run 200 meter repeats. Old school sprint coaches will also exchange high fives. All that SPRINT FAST TO GET FAST was a hoax perpetuated by lazy sprinters and the coaches who enable them.

In a follow up tweet, Stuart McMillan went on to add:

… rhythm, timing, technique, coordination, fluidity, flow, etc. – all abilities that can be improved via sub-maximal sprinting.



I’m happy Stuart made no mention of conditioning, tempo runs, speed endurance, VO2 max, or building an aerobic engine. There’s no talk of grind, grit, or mental toughness. I like rhythm, timing, technique, coordination, fluidity, flow, etc., but I also believe you must train fast to run fast.

Stuart McMillan is probably a great guy. I’ve read his stuff. By his pictures, Stuart looks counter-culture. I love that. I may look like a conservative, but my mind is definitely rebellious.

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Stuart McMillan

Stuart McMillan is the Performance Director at ALTIS, also known as the World Athletic Center in Arizona. McMillan has coached dozens of Olympians who have won dozens of Olympic medals. Many people would consider Stuart McMillan the world’s greatest sprint coach.

I’m just a coach at high school in Illinois, but I disagree with the world’s greatest sprint coach. Stuart McMillan may boast of sub-max training leading to a  bronze and silver medal for Andre De Grasse, but I respectfully disagree. Is there room for differing opinions here?

First, let’s look at Andre De Grasse. About four years ago, Andre De Grasse was a high school basketball player at a suburban Toronto high school. He was talked into running the 100 meters at a track meet his senior year. Andre ran the race in basketball shorts, basketball shoes, and no starting blocks. People laughed. Then Andre De Grasse shocked those in attendance running 10.90. Who was his sprint coach? Who taught Andre De Grasse the rhythm, timing, technique, coordination, fluidity, and flow needed to run 10.90?

The story of Andre De Grasse reminds me of Donald Thomas. Donald Thomas was a basketball player at a very small college. He played on Lindenwood’s JV basketball team. One of Lindenwood’s track athletes bet Thomas he could not clear 6’6″ in the high jump. With no experience and no training, Donald Thomas cleared 7’0″.  A couple years later, Donald Thomas won the World Championship in Japan, jumping 7′ 08″.  Good coaching!

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Back to the subject of Andre De Grasse. De Grasse went from Toronto to Coffeyville (Kansas) Community College before attending USC. Andre De Grasse shocked the world running wind-aided times of 9.75 and 19.58 to win the NCAA 100 and 200. Those wind-aided times (+2.7 and +2.4) ranked as the 7th and 6th fastest times in the history of the world in any conditions. How fast were De Grasse’s wind-legal times?

  • 100 meter 9.92 in the 2015 World Championships
  • 200 meter 19.88 at 2015 Pan Am Games

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Enter Stuart McMillan. Andre De Grasse joined ALTIS at the end of 2015 (December). Nine months later, Andre De Grasse became an Olympic star at the age of 21.

  • 100 meter in 9.91 – bronze medal winner
  • 200 meter in 20.02 – silver medal winner

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Training at sub-max speeds focusing on rhythm, timing, technique, coordination, fluidity, and flow made Andre De Grasse faster? What am I missing here? In 2015, De Grasse ran 9.92. In the Olympics he ran 9.91. In 2015, De Grasse ran 19.88. In the Olympics he ran 20.02. And, don’t forget, De Grasse ran wind-aided 9.75 and 19.58 as a college student at USC.

I’m not picking a fight with Stuart McMillan. I would pay $100 (or more) to have a beer with the guy. But how can Coach McMillan boldly claim that sub-maximal training made Andre De Grasse faster?

Was Andre De Grasse healthy and successful in Rio? Yes! Maybe Stuart McMillan had a conservative training plan. Not a bad idea. Actually, I may have played it safe too. I really didn’t believe Usain Bolt would repeat. How has Usain Bolt defied age? Nine months ago, if someone would have asked me to pick the top Olympic sprinter at Rio in 2016, I would have picked Bolt … if healthy. If not, my pick would have been Andre De Grasse. Anyone who did not see De Grasse as Bolt’s heir apparent was not paying attention.

I blame the top-notch sprint coach from McKendree University for getting me all fired up. Brandon Murphy, former Illinois Class A 100 & 200 champ (10.90, 22.22) from Macomb, messaged me about the McMillan tweet. Yes, Brandon, without you, this article never gets written.

Here was my response to Coach Murphy, “If you and I had a raw 21-year old sprinter who had run 9.75, we would have a good chance at producing  a 9.91 sprinter after a year of training.”

I was agitated all day. Usually when I send Chris Korfist a three question text, he returns a one word answer. When I sent the McMillan quote, the always parasympathetic Chris Korfist got fired up

“Stuart McMillan has a guy (De Grasse) who is at the limits of what a human can run and needs fine tuning. We have kids who are a long way from there neurologically. In fact most people are a long way from there. If we trained our kids sub-max, the ceiling would stay low. A cheetah is a cheetah. But to get a warthog to run like a cheetah, that is different.” – Chris Korfist

A cheetah is a cheetah. But to get a warthog to run like a cheetah, that is different. – Chris Korfist

Coaches are allowed to train their athletes however they choose. Every athlete is different in their response to training. What works with one sprinter may injure another sprinter. I respect the training methods of Stuart McMillan, but I will never train high school sprinters like he trained Andre De Grasse.

Who gets credit for producing great athletes? Oregon Track & Field tweeted a quote from the Washington Post, “Oregon produces Olympic runners like Kentucky produces NBA players.” Produces? I say bullsh*t. Kentucky recruits and attracts future NBA players. Oregon recruits and attracts future Olympians. Jim Calipari is a terrific coach. Oregon’s track staff might be the best. However, I believe talent is nurtured and fine-tuned, not produced.

This year I may coach one of the fastest freshmen in the country. Plainfield North has an incoming freshman who ran a wind-legal 10.81 to win AAU Nationals. 10.81 set a record for boys 14 and under. Who gets the credit? God? His AAU coach?

If I take an incoming freshmen who runs 10.81 and he runs 10.80 nine months later, should I take credit for his success? Will I tweet about how my “train fast to run fast” program created a 10.80 sprinter? Does my training produce elite athletes, national champions, and Olympians?

I will take credit for our track schedule, our uniforms, and our team culture. If we over-achieve in the 4×1, I might brag about our hand-offs. I will not take credit for elite talent.

I am thankful I work with teenagers. Working with professional athletes would not be fun for me. Andre De Grasse turned pro nine months ago and signed a contract with Puma for 11.25 million dollars. No matter how clean the athlete, professionals never escape the dark cloud of performance enhancing drugs. Big Sport tweeted “Of the 30 fastest 100 meter times, 21 are by athletes who’ve tested positive for drugs. The other 9 are all Usain Bolt.”

The fact that Usain Bolt has passed every drug test does not keep people from wondering how an island of 2.7 million people can dominate the sprint world. Texas has 27 million people.

Remember, many athletes passed their drug tests only to be found to be cheaters later. The list is long. See Lance Armstrong. The internet is full of conspiracy theories concerning Bolt’s association with Angel Hernandez who used to go by Angel Heredia when he was a BALCO chemist. I’m not accusing Bolt of anything, but if he’s dirty, that tweet by Big Sport becomes ominous. By the way, Angel Heredia once told Germany’s Der Spiegel, “The difference between 10.0 and 9.7 is the drugs.”  I didn’t say that, Angel did.

I had a blast watching Olympic track & field. I can’t wait to experience the Olympic bump this year in high school track & field. I can’t wait to train my sprinters with rhythm, timing, technique, coordination, fluidity, flow, and especially, max speed.

Comments 7

  1. Tony,

    We sent 2 incoming freshman to an Altis Camp this summer run by Mike Boykin using similar ideas to McMillan. Our guys where taught stride and foot patterns and upper body mechanics. I spoke at length with Mike afterwards and he talked about max speed being a necessary evil. Came across very similar to your “Max-Speed is a poison” thoughts. While De Grasse might not have done max speed work, I can tell you Altis does believe in it. Mike talked about a lot of form work and successful mechanics, not 6×200.

    1. My son went to the same camp that Chris’runners attended and Chris is spot on about what Altis believes. BTW, another great article Tony.

  2. Great article again Tony. I believe if Bolt is an American he is a football or basketball athlete with his height and speed.

    1. Post

      If in the Chicago area, Usain Bolt would have played basketball year-round. He would have been a mediocre player but that doesn’t matter. AAU basketball is king and 6’5″ guys play basketball 12 months a year.

  3. Great commentary, Tony. Those of us who have seen the results of low volume peak speed training with our non-elite high school sprinters can bear witness to its efficacy. And for the truly gifted athletes that I’ve been lucky enough to coach, maximal speed work was the difference in moving from just another fast California kid into the ranks of the nation’s best.

    I can guarantee that DeGrasse benefitted from a steady diet of max speed work from Caryl Smith while at USC. I have a former athlete who is a freshman there now, and they were running fast from the get-go. And Oregon’s sprint program is based on the same philosophy. So, until I see that someone shows significant improvement in the sprints with sub-max training and “extensive tempo” work, my athletes will train fast with low volume and full recovery. It’s worked pretty well so far.

    1. Post

      I love it when coaches comment on articles, especially when they agree with me! Ha. Actually it’s great when they disagree, too.

      I saw Brian FitzGerald speak three times at the Iowa clinic seven years ago. He was terrific. Most of what I know about energy systems today was first introduced to me by Brian. We were able to reconnect at the Glazier Clinic in L.A., where both of us were speakers.

      Coach FitzGerald coached multiple sub-41 4×1 teams using the underhand pass. He once had a team run 40.69. Coach Fitz coached some pretty good girls, too, including Marion Jones.

      If you ever get a chance to see Coach Fitz speak, jump at the chance.

  4. Hi Tony!
    It seems like there is a group that fits the “likeminded coaches” noted below:

    The following review of my approach to speed training was highlighted in John Cissik’s major two-part speed article that appeared in the NSCA Journal several years back:
    “It should be noted that not all track and field coaches agree as to the usefulness of
    technique drills in the acquisition of speed. Jakalski (2002) advocates a different
    coaching approach.
    As opposed to better stride length and stride frequency through the
    leg swing drills used by many, Jakalski advocates that improvements in stride lengths and frequencies are determined largely, or perhaps entirely, from the ground force applied
    during the stance phase.
    These constraints would lead to slower velocities and that the focus of technique training should be on skipping and bounding drills to help improve the force against the ground and the rate of force development (9).
    Jakalski (and other likeminded coaches) feels that many of
    the technique drills, especially the A and B drills, have limited value and may actually
    artificially constrain a sprinter’s technique.
    These constraints would lead to slower velocities and that the focus of technique training should be on skipping and bounding drills to help improve the force against the ground and the rate of force development (9).
    While the focus of track coaching education in the U.S. is on improved technique and
    efficiency (see (5) for more information on this approach) Jakalski and other likeminded
    coaches present a glimpse as to where the field might go one day.

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