Developing Athleticism For The Soccer Pitch: Interview with Track and Bobsled Olympian Craig Pickering

craig pickering sprinter.jpeg

With an illustrious career as a track and field sprinter and bobsledder, Craig Pickering knows about speed and power development. He won the European u-20 Gold over 100m, European u-23 Silver over 100m, European Indoor Silver over 60m, and a World Championship Bronze medal in the 4x100m relay. Over a seven-year span he went to four World Championships, one Olympic Games, and three European Championships. His best time for the 100m was 10.14 seconds.

The Mens Great Britain 1 team - (Joel Fearon, Bruce Tasker, Stuart Benson and of course John Jackson) with Craig Pickering training in 35 degree heat at the Olympic facility at Formia in Italy (near Naples). Fantastic facilities, great staff, and the mens team in full effect!

After some challenges with back injuries, Craig took up Bobsled and in 2014 was selected for the Sochi Winter Olympics. He became the 8th British athlete ever to be selected for both the Summer and Winter Games. Currently, he provides health and wellness advice on nutrition and stress management to corporate companies as well speed education and workshops for all levels of athletes. His website is He was kind enough to answer some questions on training, so lets get to them…

1. There is a video of 60m World Record holder Christian Coleman squatting 445lbs (not too deep Many other fast sprinters are incredibly strong, while others, perhaps who are more top-speed dominant, are reportedly not (ie. Lemaitre, De Grasse). For a good start and acceleration phase, just how important is the force side of the curve?

Craig: If we look at Newton’s Second Law, then we can see that Force = Mass x Acceleration, which we can re-arrange to Acceleration = Force / Mass. This means that, if we want to accelerate better, we need to either a) produce more force, or b) reduce our mass. Based on this, it's clear that strength is an important component of the acceleration phase.

Of course, this is nuanced; for elite sprinters, they need to be able to produce large forces at high speeds (>8 m/s); for footballers, this is slightly less relevant, as they don’t necessarily hit the same speeds. Additionally, as contact time is important in maximum velocity sprinting, sprinters need to be able to produce this force in a shorter period of time; here, absolute strength/force production is less important than rate of force development.

Finally, in male sprinters we typically see the largest performance improvements in the few years after puberty, when their strength levels improve considerably; this suggests that there is at least a minimum level of strength required for fast running.

2. There are some researchers who believe the high mass specific forces occurring in very short time periods during top speed sprinting are determined by what sprinters do in the air to set up a good foot contact. These qualities include good knee lift, strong hamstrings for absorbing eccentrically (why to use nordics), and powerful hip extensors at high velocity (explosive hip thrusts, jump squats, and kettlebell swings). Others seem to place more emphasis on what is happening when the foot is in contact with the ground (ie. Barry Ross heavy deadlift approach). Surely there is an interplay between the two, how would you articulate this relationship as it should determine how we train?

Craig: If you want to run quickly, then you need to be producing a lot of force against the ground. There are two ways to do this; firstly, we can produce this force via our muscles when our foot is on the floor, or, secondly, we can have our foot moving at a very high speed once it hits the floor. For elite sprinters, it is, of course, a combination of the two. So, ideally, you want to have a large range of motion in which to accelerate the foot towards to ground (requiring good front side mechanics); you want to be able to accelerate the foot downwards (requiring good hip extensor strength); you want to contact the ground in the optimal position (requiring good sprint mechanics), you want to be able to absorb and reuse much of the force you apply (requiring good foot and ankle stiffness), and you want to be able to produce force quickly (requiring an optimal level of strength and power).

So you want to work all those aspects of performance, but depending on your training periodisation model and athlete development for your priorities. What is clear is that you need some aspect of maximum strength training, some aspect of technical sprint training, and some aspect of plyometric training for the stiffness and power aspects, along with some exercises that promotes force production at high velocity.

3. In your article "Fat Doesn't Fly" for Freelap USA, you mention that comment "A good fluid and food intake strategy in the 48 hours leading up to competition can comfortably lose 2kg in weight (although not fat), so why potentially sabotage a good performance?". Can you please elaborate a bit on this strategy?

Craig: When we eat food, it obviously sits in our digestive tracts for a period of time. Athletes tend to consume plenty of vegetables and high fibre foods, which can add further bulk here, as well as potentially slow digestive performance. Because fibre doesn’t enhance performance, we don’t need it acutely, and given that it potentially adds weight, it might even slow us down. So following a low fibre diet for 2-3 days prior to a race can, through experience, reduce bodyweight by 1-2kgs, which, at the highest level, might be important. Additionally, you likely don’t need to be optimally hydrated to run 100m quickly; you just need to be hydrated enough. By limiting fluid intake, its possible to be at this optimal level, without carrying around extra fluid in your stomach or bladder, which again can add extra mass. I’m not saying you should be dehydrated, but I am saying that you don’t need to drinking 2-3L per hour prior to a sprint race. You wouldn’t compete with an extra 2kg strapped to your back, so why consume 2kg worth of fluid prior to a race?

Mat’s note: Running a few short sprints throughout a track meet versus playing a 90 minute soccer game will have vastly different fluid requirements, especially depending on the weather. With that said, I have consumed too much water which has led to poor performance (either being heavy or maybe there is some other negative effect with having too much fluid in the body), and I have also been dehydrated which is a risk for muscle pulls and definitely decreases in output. Point being, be cautious and find the fluid intake where you feel and perform best.

4. In the same article you mention that carbohydrate is ergogenic for high intensity performance. Eating strategies such as the ketogenic and carnivore diet are all the rage these days and some athletes are reporting less inflammation and muscle/joint pain, and that they are able to maintain muscle mass and simultaneously lose body fat. What is your opinion on this and if and when a does athlete utilize carbs, what sources do you recommend utilizing and avoiding?

Craig: A low carb diet is great for reducing body fat and inflammation, two issues which are likely important for the vast majority of the population. However, and I speak from experience here, a low carbohydrate is a terrible way to prepare for high intensity exercise, especially repeated high intensity efforts. As a minimum, I’d suggest that sprinters and those undertaking sprint training consume some carbohydrates before their high intensity efforts; personally I like porridge, but things like rice, and even bread, are probably fine given that the energy is going to be used pretty quickly. If you’re looking to lose weight, then following a low carbohydrate most of the time will help, but you need to adequately fuel your high intensity sessions if you want to improve.

Mat’s note: this is the eating strategy recommended in Soccer Dominance

5. You wrote a fantastic article on tapering for the sprints, and I think there are a lot of takeaways that can be applied to any sport. The seasonal demands for soccer is different with more frequent competitions. If you were a coach where you had one match a week on a Saturday, how would you set up a weekly schedule that includes a speed/power component, lifting, high intensity match play/fitness, and lighter technical and tactical work?

Craig: Soccer is much more difficult in this aspect; you’re much less likely to see a large accumulation of work similar to the 12-16 pre-season phase undertaken by most athletes, but you compete much more, and for longer - for example, most athletes compete from June to September in perhaps 15 competitions, whilst English Premier League teams have around 50 games (including cups) from August to May. So, in football, each week is a balancing act between optimising recovery, and optimising training adaptations. One of the best examples of this is the tactical periodisation model, which has a built in physiological stabilisation component (i.e. the work done is more or less the same per week, without any peaks). In general, this is Sunday off, Monday recovery, Tues/Weds/Thurs as the hardest days that include physical training, and Friday as a final run through. It’s important that the physical training is considered in conjunction with the on pitch training; you don’t want the hardest physical session to occur on the same day as the hardest on pitch session. From a strength perspective, I’d recommend higher load maximum-strength style training earlier in the week, with high intensity but low volume lifting done later in the work, even acting as a potential primer in the days close to the match.

6. Outside of some of the fastest NFL athletes, female sprinters run faster times than almost any ball sport male athletes outside of NFL athletes. Similarly, female Olympic lifters can out-lift most ball sport male athletes. There are several anecdotes including my own experiences, where U-15 boys team will defeat a Women's national team in soccer. With your passion and knowledge about genetics, DNA, and several other fascinating topics, why do you think this is the case?

Craig: f you want to get good at something, then have a natural aptitude for this, and do it often. Female sprinters are faster than pretty much any non-sprinting male because they have a natural “talent” for sprinting (be that genetics, attitude, upbringing, or a combination of all), and they do a lot of sprinting - i.e. they become hyper-specialised. Compare this to a non-sprinting male; they probably don’t have the same natural talent (otherwise they would be elite sprinters), and, if they’re involved in team sports, have to train other aspects of performance, so don’t sprint sufficiently to get the same training effect. So it’s completely unsurprising to me that an elite female sprinter would be quicker than most males!