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The need for speed

Mike Henson

“You hate to stereotype people, but a lot of people look at rugby players as meathead pub guys. In fact a lot of them are deep thinkers and complex guys, Renaissance men. Jonny is one of those.”

Jonny May has been called a lot of things. “Stalker” was England team-mate Joe Marler’s joking assessment. “Delightfully weird” was defence coach Paul Gustard’s. Danny Care claimed that he thought May was possessed by the spirit of a chicken.

But Dan Pfaff has a different take. The 59-year-old American is one of track and field’s most revered coaches. In 1996, Donovan Bailey won 100m Olympic gold, setting a new world record under his guidance. In 2012, Pfaff helped British long-jumper Greg Rutherford confound expectations to join Super Saturday’s gold rush. This year, Paralympian Johnnie Peacock is one of those he is readying for Tokyo.

In total, his athletes have won 10 Olympic medals and set five world records with Pfaff meticulously ironing out microscopic kinks in their technique in the background.

And over the few months, he has been helping May make the same marginal gains.

“The initial goal for Jonny was how can he keep his speed quality high and get a little bit faster,” explains Pfaff. It soon went a lot deeper.

Dan Pfaff
Dan Pfaff has trained some of the fastest athletes in the world

Over a series of weeks, videos were uploaded from England’s Lensbury base and downloaded across the Atlantic in Pfaff’s study in Austin, Texas. 

Pfaff marked up each, showing moments and movements where May was operating at maximum efficiency and, on other occasions, where energy leaked away rather than propelling him forward.

And that’s when he noticed it. A slight glitch. A minute imbalance. The trace of something in May’s past that was holding him back in the present.

“He was actually quite good but there were some asymmetries that were a little bit concerning to me,” explained Pfaff.

Many speed coaches would look through May’s medical record and be drawn to an entry on December 2015.

It was then, in a Twickenham clash against Harlequins, that May tore his anterior cruciate ligament – an injury that can set a limit on a player’s speed for the rest of their career.

Jonny’s shoulder had been treated but I came at it with new eyes and a different conditioning and strengthening plan. Long story short, as the shoulder function got better the running mechanics cleaned up

But Pfaff was interested in something else.  Something apparently innocuous.  A shoulder ‘stinger’. It kept him out a couple of Leicester games in 2018, but nothing more.

“Injuries seldom just affect the epicentre,” Pfaff continued. “They are like a puzzle. You may note a problem in an area, but there are always co-conspirators and compensations that have resulted over time.  

“Jonny’s shoulder had been treated but I came at it with new eyes and a different conditioning and strengthening plan

“Long story short, as the shoulder function got better the running mechanics cleaned up.  

Jonny May
A stinger injury in 2018 gave Dan Pfaff a clue to make Jonny May even faster (Photo by Malcolm Couzens/Getty Images)

“He was trapped with solutions he had made to compensate for the injury. 

“He was unaware of it until we pointed it out with side-by-side video analysis showing the ideal movement pathways. Once you get a certain degree outside that bandwidth you increase injury risk and limit speed. Jonny is a smart guy, once it was pointed out, it made total sense for him.”

May has got it for a number of years. 

Athletics was among the slew of sports he practised as a schoolboy. 

He didn’t just sprint, but also took on the tricky technique of pole vault. 

When he was recovering from his knee injury, May took a multi-disciplinary approach again, heading to the stateside performance centre overseen by Olympic legend Michael Johnson to strengthen the joint and refine his style.

Mike Henson

As an emerging talent, he sought out speed-specific work with Marlon Devonish, winner of a 4x100m relay gold with the British squad at the 2004 Olympics.

When he was recovering from his knee injury, May took a multi-disciplinary approach again, heading to the stateside performance centre overseen by Olympic legend Michael Johnson to strengthen the joint and refine his style.

Pfaff admits not everybody in rugby is as open minded. Such fine details can get overlooked amid the blood and thunder of a season in full swing.

“You get a lot of blowback from coaches who say rugby players are not track athletes,” explains Pfaff. “These coaches say their players need to change direction, collide, tackle, so they will disregard running economy. 

“I think that is an over-simplification. A lot of rugby players undergo that initial acceleration phase where there is no contact or change of direction.

“These guys, whatever the position, are truly accelerating in a natural fashion for two, three or four steps before they have to deal with collision or change of direction.

“I think it is important to know what is good movement in that situation. I think you are leaving money on the table if you don’t.”

Pfaff advocates “micro-dosing” speed-specific work into packed professional training schedules. A burst of three or four short accelerations after warming up to focus minds on running technique is one suggestion.

How much of it will stick in a players brain when they catch a kick, see tacklers bearing down and have to assess passing options and scan for backfield space in a fraction of a second?

Jonny May
Jonny May is put through his paces at Clifton College in 2019 (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

 Maybe more than you think. Certainly more than if you don’t train it at all.

“In my experience, if athletes don’t know what to do in an unchallenged environment, the odds of them doing it in a challenged environment are not very high,” added Pfaff.

“We have a saying. You have to know the rules before you break them. Then you can start working out how far can to move away from the ideal without compromising output or increasing injury risk.”

How good could May be if he didn’t have to compromise? If he had chosen to pursue athletics instead of rugby as a youngster.

His 100m personal best is reportedly 10.7 seconds. Pfaff believes with a few months specialisation he could be a “national class 100m sprinter”, but that May’s real calling would have been as a multi-eventer.

“ Looking at his GPS data, lab results and how he plays the game, Jonny is a unique hybrid – like a decathlete,” he said.

“He has the ability to sprint very fast, he can sustain speed and he has the ability to repeat those over and over. Be it 100m, 200m, 400m he has the capacity and probably the genetics to do them all well.

“What level he would be at would depend on desire, coaching, motivation.”

He wouldn’t fall short for a willingness to experiment and push the envelope or himself. 

Jonny is curious. He is always reading, researching, questioning, talking to people – always seeking an edge. That is my experience of championship guys across sport: they want to have a PHD-level understanding of their event.

Dan Pfaff

While other England players wear weighty timepieces, May opts for a bog-standard Casio watch because it makes it easier to time his stretching routine. In the past, he has maximised the two minutes he spends cleaning his teeth by standing on one leg to strengthen his core and improve balance.

Pfaff says such quirks are why he has reached the heights he has already. And they will pay further dividends as the 31-year-old enters the final years of his career.

“Jonny is curious. He is always reading, researching, questioning, talking to people – always seeking an edge,” added Pfaff.

“That is my experience of championship guys across sport: they want to have a PHD-level understanding of their event. 

Jonny May
Jonny May’s speed helped him score on of the great individual tries against Ireland last year (Photo by David Rogers – Getty Images)

“Whether it is sports medicine, therapy, rehab, training, speed, tactics, strategy. life management, metal resilience, whatever 

 “Jonny had bias, misconceptions and myths that he had held on, like we all do. But we re-examined and drilled down into those because what worked for you at 20 might not be the best for you at 30.

“At 20, you can live, train, act almost anyway you want and survive the wash. If you look at elite athletes at 30 you see a common behavioural shift. 

“They are more serious about diet and nutrition, they get more massage and therapy, more focused in the weight room and off the pitch work, we see a shift in how these guys manage their career. 

“Jonny is very advanced in that.

“I have worked with athletes from the NFL NBA, NHL, Major League Baseball, PGA golf and have for decades. And I would say he is in the 90th percentile in terms of being a student of his event.”

May’s a student rather than a stereotype certainly. A sprint-speed egghead rather than one of rugby’s meathead pub guys. 

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