Charlie Francis - Speed Trap
Ben Johnson (above) at his peak: 9.79 world record. Coached by Charlie Francis, Johnson was the fastest starter in history. He stood 5-11, weighed 180-pounds with a 6% body fat percentile. He was capable of bench pressing 352 lbs for 10-reps and 400 x 1
As is my habit, I reread good books. My wife thinks this is crazy, a sign of my defective personality. ‘How can you reread a book where you know all the punchlines?’ She considers this a complete waste of time. I learn so much more during a second reading. Most recently I reread one of the best sports books I have ever read, Charlie Francis’ Speed Trap.
This is a candid, thoughtful, truthful book written in 1990 by the most demonized coach in all of sport. Charlie Francis was the man behind the disgraced Ben Johnson. He was Ben’s coach for eleven years and the man that introduced Ben to performance enhancing drugs. Charlie and Ben’s sin was to get caught doing what everyone else in the world was already doing.
The book is a great read. Charlie Francis was first and foremost a real sprinter, he won the three Canadian national championships in the 100-meter dash. He ran an electrically timed 10.3 and made the 1972 Canadian Olympic team. Essentially self-taught, the book rolls through his exciting career as an international level sprinter. He came to know the top European sprinters and coaches of the 1970s.
Charlie Francis gives a harrowing account of being one building over, housed with the Canadian team at the 1972 Munich Games when Black September struck the Israeli athletic dorm. He saw the tragedy unfold from his balcony.
He transitioned to coach. He was a natural coach. Not genetically gifted, in his own career he had to study harder and train longer to overcome his genetic superiors. Charlie Francis fought hard in his own athletic battles. First and foremost, Francis was smart. He riddled things. As an athlete, he had to coach himself. He became his own lab project, his own ongoing sprint workshop.
Francis morphed his quest to become the best possible sprinter into becoming the best possible sprint coach: he had no backing. All he had was a mountain of knowledge and incredible empirical experience garnered from his own career. His strategic and tactical thinking made him an ideal coach. Plus, he was a people person and the sprinters respected him for his three national titles.
Charlie Francis began working with teenagers, all living in Canada and 90% with Jamaican parents. Charlie Francis had innovative ideas: he drilled technique, understood the need for strength and extracted an amazing amount of secret knowledge from his contacts with Iron Curtain coaches.
Charlie Francis took the sum-total of all he knew and created a method. His thinking was fluid and organic, he was always looking to improve his current methodology. He mercilessly quizzed the best sprint coaches in the world (all behind the iron curtain) on how they trained their athletes. He began churning out regional and national champions. Then Pan Am and Commonwealth Games champions. Finally, world champions and world record holders. Francis absorbed four takeaway points from his talks with the state-supported Iron Curtain coaches, physiotherapists, masseuses and athletes….
- Train all out: only by working up to and past current limits does a sprinter get faster. All out speed, like nitrous oxide, is available for only 3-7 seconds.
- Train all out less: classically, sprinters trained “all out” in every training session. Because they were never fully recovered, they were unable to increase top end speed.
- Consider the CNS: elite coaches factored the Central Nervous System into the recovery equation. Optimal top speed requires a fresh CNS. Longer rest between reps and sessions.
- It was impossible to win without performance enhancing drugs: Francis used minimal dosage and monitored results: on the track, in the weight room and in body fat percentile.
Many of the contentions that Francis was discovering in the mid-seventies and early eighties were identical to the conclusions arrived at the same time in the embryonic sport of powerlifting.
- Train all out: powerlifters discovered that only by assaulting the barriers of their current capacities were those capacities increased. All out effort can have many benchmarks.
- Train all out less: my mentor, Hugh Cassidy, slashed power sessions from thrice to twice. Furnas and Coan reduced from twice to once a week, as did Karwoski, Jacoby, etc.
- Consider the CNS: lifting at 100% of capacity in the squat, bench press and deadlift is body-shattering and CNS-shattering. The CNS must be fresh for optimal performance.
- It was impossible to win without performance enhancing drugs: lesser men that used drugs beat better men that demure. That PE drugs worked was uncontestable.
All out speed and all out strength have many, many similarities. For starters, there is no speed without strength, which is why strength is the undisputed King of the five bio-motor attributes (speed, strength, endurance, agility, flexibility) strength bleeds over into speed.
Ben Johnson was nobody special. The son of a Jamaican telephone lineman that still lived in Jamaica, Ben lived with his mom and five siblings in a two-bedroom apartment in a tough section of Toronto. Ben’s older brother Eddie was a young sprinter that was good enough to find Charlie’s Scarborough Optimists track and field club, training at York University Eddie had to convince Ben to participate in a workout. Charlie was less than impressed: Ben was 15 and “looked 12.” When Ben began working with Charlie, he was 5-foot 3-inches and weighed 93-pounds.
Francis had a squad of 30-sprinters including Tony Sharp, a muscled-up 15-year old, 170-pound man-boy that ran an official 10.4. The top female on Charlie’s squad was ranked 2nd in the world in both the 100 and 200. Ben was a late bloomer. Each year he grew and improved. In one nine-month period Charlie noted Ben grew six inches in height and added 40 pounds. His appetite was “alarming.”
Charlie Francis recounted an episode from a road trip his team took to Tennessee. “I had a refrigerator in my hotel room. Ben came by every day to make half a dozen ham or roast beef sandwiches. He’d eat these in-between his regular meals. On one occasion he consumed an entire family bucket of KFC chicken (18 pieces of chicken, six biscuits, large coleslaw and mash potatoes) at a single sitting – and then ate a banana split.” His metabolism “was on tilt; his every other thought seemed to be of food.”
Charlie Francis was an international sprint insider. It was impossible not to notice the masculinization of East German and Soviet women and the hyper-masculinization of the iron curtain men. In every sport that required strength, from high jumping to sprinting, from high hurdles to broad jump, eastern European athletes were muscling-up, en masse. What was going on? It was state-supported doping, the sanctioned usage of anabolic steroids.
Being “on the juice,” using steroids, as astutely Francis observed, was a training aide, not a performance aide. Using testosterone allowed athletes to train harder, longer, more often and recover quicker. When combined with elite-level training, being on the juice accelerated fat loss and accelerated the acquisition of lean muscle mass.
In 1972 steroids were (largely) unknown, ignored, and perfectly legal. There was nothing illegal about being on performance-enhancing drugs. There was no drug testing until 1972 and even then, the testing was poor. One thing became apparent: national, world and Olympic-level athletes had to use performance enhancing drugs to be competitive. Period.
When testing was instituted, the game shifted to how to beat the test. An extreme example occurred at the 1976 Montreal Olympics when the Soviet Union docked a ship, fully outfitted with a medical lab and a staff of doctors, specifically to beat the Olympic drug tests. The same cadre of mysterious men that supervised the drugging of Russian athletes now tested every Soviet athlete on the floating hospital the day before they competed.
The athlete went to the ship and was tested. If the urine was dirty, remedial procedures were instituted (usually a diuretic masking agent) or the athlete was suddenly listed as “injured” and a clean athlete substituted. The Russian bench was so deep that substitutes usually had no problem winning the gold medal. This was the sprinting reality that confronted coach Charlie Francis. If the whole world was natural, Charlie’s small, elite group of Jamaican/Canadian sprinters would likely be the best in the world.
But the whole world was unnatural. It was a world where, if any of Charlie’s sprinters wanted to win, they would need to start taking performance enhancing drugs. Charlie never pushed the choice on anyone. He didn’t have to. A topflight athlete that competes at the highest levels will grow frustrated being beaten by lesser men and women that take drugs. That athlete is faced with a choice: resign oneself to getting beat or quit - or get on the drug bandwagon and wreak havoc. A lot of alpha’s chose the latter.
Drugs, and perfect training turned Ben Johnson into a human machine: at his peak he weighed 180-pounds and could bench press 352 for 10-reps and 400 for a single. He was an awesome squatter and credited lifting to giving him the quickest measured male start of all time.
Charlie’s quest and learning curve had me nodding my coaches’ head. Top European coaches were resting their athletes for longer periods between sprint reps and between “all out” sprint sessions. Charlie concurred. “I conducted all our speed work at 100% of my runner’s capacity – and since my runners always had adequate recovery periods between 100% speed workouts, their capacity was consistently high.”
Francis elaborated. “My theory is simple: sprinters need to train at race pace both to imprint the higher speed on their muscle memory and to acclimatize their muscles, tendons and ligaments to the demands of all-out running,”
The East German’s opened Francis’ eyes to “two-dimensional thinking,” viewing the problem - not only of one of muscular fatigue and recovery - but also central nervous system fatigue and recovery. The theory being unless the CNS is fresh, there can be no true 100% sprint effort. It is a physiological impossibility to produce a true 100% effort with a fatigued central nervous system. Western coaches were unknowingly burning out their athletes.
How long does it take to recover between all-out sprint reps? How long does it take to recover from an all out-sprint session? This was the 64-dollar question. Ultimately, everyone is different and has differing rates of recovery. Francis wanted his sprinters recovered and fresh in two dimensions: muscular and CNS. Fresh and rested athletes created the possibility of breakthrough sessions.
The book is a mixture of athletic insights, hardcore coaching techniques and tactics, personalities and high-level competition. It is about the quest to increase raw human speed and how, if you want to run with the big boys, everything is considered; body biomechanics, pharmaceutical alchemy, strength training, nutrition, massage, psychology. This candid book documents the rise of Ben Johnson and relates how he and Francis morphed Ben into the fastest man in the world. He got caught. Dumb ass. He should have had his own hospital ship.
About the Author
As an athlete Marty Gallagher is a national and world champion in Olympic lifting and powerlifting. He was a world champion team coach in 1991 and coached Black's Gym to five national team titles. He's also coached some of the strongest men on the planet including Kirk Karwoski when he completed his world record 1,003 lb. squat. Today he teaches the US Secret Service and Tier 1 Spec Ops on how to maximize their strength in minimal time. As a writer since 1978 he’s written for Powerlifting USA, Milo, Flex Magazine, Muscle & Fitness, Prime Fitness, Washington Post, Dragon Door and now IRON COMPANY. He’s also the author of multiple books including Purposeful Primitive, Strong Medicine, Ed Coan’s book “Coan, The Man, the Myth, the Method" and numerous others. Read the Marty Gallagher biography here.