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How to Become a Track and Field PT Specialist

by Fallon Heddings


Becoming a specialist in any area of PT is never an easy task. Track and field is an even less common area to become a specialist. But this was my dream. I love to work with track and field athletes and watch them compete at their highest level. Along my journey, I have found some simple steps of action that have helped me find my niche. If you’re interested in becoming a track and field PT specialist, here’s where to start!

Immerse yourself in the culture

Track and field is a special sport. What other sport do you know that lasts 12 hours but the time you may actually compete can be as little as ten seconds? Most sports you have a game for 90 minutes and you’re done. Some events in track and field you get one attempt, some you get six attempts, and others you have as many attempts until you miss three times at a specific height. There are different rules to each of the 18 events in track and field.

As a clinician, being able to talk to your athletes with a good understanding of the event will gain you more respect. Not only will you relate to that athlete on a deeper level but you will also get more trust from them, the coaches, and the parents. Trust is a necessary component for the athlete to fully be engaged in the rehabilitation process of their injury.

What are ways to get involved?

One of the easiest and best ways to get involved is becoming a coach. Whether that is volunteer or paid, being a coach will show you the different aspects of training programs for each event. The training programs are the key to understand when it comes to modification during the rehab process. Many clinicians can teach the rehab process but miss integrating the rehab with training to get them back into the sport faster and stronger.

If coaching doesn’t fit into your schedule as a physical therapist (which I know it often doesn’t), try joining the officiating side of things. As an official you will get to observe the athletes on competition day, where you will see all the different warm-up drills, the different biomechanics of running, jumping, or throwing, and so on. t’s also the one sport where the officials rarely get yelled at.

Dive into the biomechanics

Many clinicians understand the biomechanics of running. Understanding the biomechanics of running is just the first part of the track and field world.

You will have to understand the biomechanics of running, but at multiple speeds. Running at 100m dash you will see completely different biomechanics than someone running the 10,000m run. Put a hurdle in the way and have the athlete run over a 36-inch object at a high speed will require a different biomechanical load on the body as well. Understanding the biomechanical load on the body in each event will help you as a clinician create the best plan of care for that athlete.

The ability to give an athlete the knowledge to help prevent future injury will put you at the top as a clinician. Understanding the biomechanical load of each event also aids in injury prevention. Different injuries are more common depending on the event. The power athletes usually deal with a different set of injuries compared to the endurance athletes.

Where do you learn the biomechanics?

Researching the events yourself is the best but also the most time consuming way. As a PT we should be able to pick apart a person’s gait to tell how they are compensating. Start with running: Youtube videos of sprinters, mid-distance, and distance runners to watch the different running styles. Then dive into all the field events. Some of the most technical events include the high jump and the pole vault. Understanding the biomechanics of these two events will probably take the longest to understand.

If you’re struggling with researching yourself, I can recommend these books:

Running: Biomechanics and Exercise Physiology in Practice by Frans Bosch
Vertical Foundations: The Physiology, Biomechanics, and Technique of Explosive Vertical Jumping by Joel Smith
The Mechanics of Sprinting and Hurdling by Ralph Mann

Network with athletes and coaches

Networking is one of those obvious but crucial parts of becoming a track and field specialist. Talking to athletes, coaches, and parents can teach you a lot. Use networking as a source of learning. Listening to athletes’ fears, problems, and concerns will tell you about the mental aspect of their training, previous or current injuries and how you can help athletes during their rehab process with the mental side of the injury. Talking to coaches will teach you about different training programs. There is no one training program that fits all just like there is no one plan of care that fits all. Parents may also be able to give you a different piece of their child’s injury based on behavior at home.

Where should I network?

Networking on social media is probably the easiest way, because you can sit on your couch and do it. Find running groups on Facebook, or coaches on Instagram or Youtube.

Some groups I like to follow include:

Running Injury Support Group on Facebook
Track and Field Athletes Support Group on Facebook
The Run Experience on Instagram
Michael Drach Training on Instagram

You can also go to courses and conferences made through USATF or USTFCCCA to learn more and network with other coaches.

Find yourself a mentor

Generally, every person no matter his or her avenue in life should have at least one mentor. As a desire to be a track and field specialist, you should look to have at least one sports PT mentor to learn professional and clinical skills. Seek them out while you are in PT school. It’s never too early to start learning more. Look for a coaching mentor as well, to teach you training styles and communication skills with athletes.

Overwhelmed with where to start?

Start with networking and finding a mentor in school. Then continue to research and learn in your free time. And lastly, always ask the question: does it align with my goals?

Track and field PT is waiting for you!

Never listen to anyone who tells you that you can’t be a coach and a PT. It’s 100% possible.

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