Hopefully, the title of this article has already pissed off and confused many of you. Now that I have your attention, let me justify my thoughts and beliefs about the necessity of including running drills in your program.
As context matters, this is my world: coaching predominantly invasive team sport athletes (Aussie Rules Football, softball, rugby, and handball). I’ve more often than not experienced that neither the ability to execute any running drills (wall drills, A/B/C-marches/skips/bounds, dribbles, scissor runs) nor the qualitative improvement of those drills shares any relationship with sprint performance. So, I started to question how executing one skill has the potential to improve another skill.I’ve more often than not experienced that neither the ability to execute any running drills, nor the qualitative improvement of those drills, shares any relationship with sprint performance. Click To Tweet
We all agree that speed, or the ability to cover a given distance in as little time as possible, is an utmost crucial feature in many sports. Hence, many methods, traditions, and ideas prevail around this topic. With the increasing amount of information we share nowadays via a multitude of channels, it seems like we get to see a new running drill that “magically” unlocks the secrets of speed on a daily basis. This not only “muddies the water to make it seem deep” (Friedrich Nietzsche), it concomitantly increases our inability to see the forest for the trees when it comes to speed development. We urgently need a call for simplicity.
I think it is presumptuous to argue we need to break down a sprinting motion into its parts, learn or relearn the isolated patterns through part-practice, and put it back again into the whole motion. Despite the recent and increasing deterioration of humankind’s physical integrity, bipedal locomotion at a high velocity—aka sprinting—is the most fundamental movement pattern developed through a million years of evolutionary history, which not that long ago was essential to survive. So how can anyone not be able to sprint correctly?
The Emergence of Running Drills
The Polish sprint coach Gerard Mach initially designed running drills (A/B/C-marches/skips/bounds) to increase the work capacity of key sprint-specific muscle groups as regular speed work wasn’t possible due to adverse weather conditions in the winter and a lack of other resources. So, because actual sprinting wasn’t possible, athletes needed other methods to ensure (what we now call) adequate chronic workloads of sprint-specific capacities up until weather conditions allowed outside work again at meaningful volumes.
After several extrapolations and misinterpretation of this original idea, we now face a multitude of fancy-looking drills that some training professionals believe will manifest a certain sprinting technique and lead to better sprint performance in the team sport athlete. However, we subconsciously substitute the kinematic sequencing of the sprinting motion with actual sprinting performance. But what is good for track athletes must be good for any other athletes in an endeavor to improve their speed characteristics, so the drills are being blindly applied in team sports in the hope of a similar effect.
We all agree that the particular gains one individual gets from a distinct gym program won’t necessarily work for another person to the same degree. Yet we assume that a small—likely negligible—part of a holistic track program shares a causal relationship with the manifestation of track athletes’ superior sprint performance and therefore must be equally effective for an entirely different context and cohort of athletes, while ignoring all confounding variables.
Further, we must be aware and acknowledge the representative heuristic when evaluating the sprinting performance of our athletes. With that said, we tend to subconsciously compare our athlete against an archetype biomechanical model of sprinting (usually a sagittal plane view) and regard distinct kinematic features of high importance (think high knee position), which we then try to impose on our athletes. However, all we do is just drill them into a robotic and uniform sprint pattern derived from the same set of drills. It doesn’t seem like a step towards antifragility to me. Also, why do we feel obliged to enforce a change to what has been developed over long periods of time?
Your Current Technique Is Your Best Technique…So Far
In simple terms, we know that movement is a function of the organism, the task, and the environment, as defined by Newell decades ago with his simplistic conceptual framework of human movement. There are other important constraints influencing the appearance and time course of the movement forms that occur at the psychosocial level, but our industry doesn’t highlight them. Action selection can be conceived as a result of the interaction of task, organismic, and environmental constraints in relation to the psychosocial attributes (figure 1).
Just because the current movement solution is allegedly the individual’s optimum doesn’t mean that it cannot be improved, says @DanielKadlec. Click To Tweet
Further, the “constraint optimization” concept states that the behavior of a biological system at any time will always be optimal for the specific confluence of constraints acting on the individual system, as evidence from theoretical and evolutionary biology suggests. So, we must assume that the current movement solution (sprint technique) is the individual’s ideal; however, this is not necessarily related to an optimal performance outcome (better sprint times). But as athletes mature and go through sophisticated training programs, we’ve all seen improvements in sprint performances that come in the presence or absence of kinematic changes. Just because the current movement solution is allegedly the individual’s optimum, doesn’t mean that it cannot be improved.
Therefore, our job as coaches is to increase an underlying and possibly insufficient capacity and/or give them opportunities to practice not-yet-experienced motor patterns and thus unlock new possibilities in relation to time. Or, in other words, facilitate the magnitude and timing of each muscle’s force production. As learning often involves breaking out of initial stable states, we cannot expect this to be a linear process. Now, you could argue for the need to shift potentially suboptimal attractors in order to engrain new ones.
Further, we need to agree that any physical improvement can only manifest itself within the limits of the individual’s adaptative capacity. While everybody can get faster, not everybody will be fast due to the limits of their organismic constraints as we need to acknowledge the inherent variability in anthropometrics and arthrokinematics between individuals. As highlighted previously, not everyone can attain the performance or motor pattern that their subconscious mind tells them to aspire to, independent of how much time and energy they invest to do so. Just because some athletes do attain those shapes, it doesn’t mean everyone has the same potential to get there. Hence, let’s all stop trying to force individual athletes into the same robotic patterns.
For argument’s sake, let’s assume there is indeed a technical flaw and we have correctly identified it. We then need to ask ourselves: What potential do we have to change or hopefully improve the athlete’s movement pattern while optimizing performance? What amount of resources (time and energy) will it take to optimize it? What methods are the most efficient to do so? Despite the complexity and uncertainty of this question…the answer most likely can’t be running drills, as they simply cannot provide a meaningful overload, as we’ll see next.
Running Drills and the Principle of Overload
We all know one key element to elicit any desired adaptation is the principle of overload. Therefore, we must impose demands that are greater than in the skill that we want to improve. Overload can take the form of any characteristic of force production, such as the peak moment applied around the joint, peak external force applied, size of the external resistance moved, rate of force development, power output, or movement velocity achieved.
Before digging into some detailed biomechanical evidence, let me raise this question: How can an activity done at 2–3 ms-1 (in some drills, maybe up to 5 ms-1) come anywhere near the mechanical demands of another activity done at around 10 ms-1? This inherent difference in resultant ground force production entirely refutes the notion that we can improve any physical capacities. Any claims that running drills have the potential to overload any physical capacities mainly responsible for lower limb stiffness and/or ground contact times are, thus, laughable.Any claims that running drills have the potential to overload any physical capacities mainly responsible for lower limb stiffness and/or ground contact times are laughable. Click To Tweet
Another argument for the implementation of running drills is their claimed potential to facilitate improvements in rhythm, fluidity, relaxation, smoothness, and/or co-contraction (have any of them been somehow quantified yet?); hence, provide a coordinative overload or an idea how the movement should look. Without going down the rabbit hole of motor learning and skill acquisition, there is more than enough evidence questioning the presence of not just general coordinative abilities but also a transferability between—what I’d like to emphasize—inherent different skills. While sprinting is dominantly a reflexive, innate, violent, and subconscious activity at 100% effort, the aim of all those running drills is to consciously hit and experience several artificial kinematic patterns at 20–50% of maximal velocity.
When we look at tables 1–3 (derived from @DebsSides’ PhD thesis—I recommend it highly!), which describe the kinematic characteristics between a sprint and three different running drills, we see there are more significant differences than similarities. Therefore, we must really question whether running drills have the potential to provide any overload. Finally, we also know how important fun and enjoyment are for skill acquisition and motor learning—never, ever, have I witnessed any athlete enjoying or at least not hating doing any of those drills…
Simplicity Is the Key to Brilliance
Ultimately, only sprinting itself has the greatest potential to improve sprint technique. When you are not moving at around maximal velocities, you are working on an entirely different skill set while inherently undershooting mechanical demands. So, if you want to get better at the skill of sprinting, you have to practice that particular skill. Specific adaptations to imposed demands 101.The major part of my speed training approach is to rely on mainly maximal sprints to promote the desired adaptations in the skill and capacity needed to hit faster and faster velocities. Click To Tweet
Hence, the major part of my speed training approach is to rely on predominantly maximal sprints to promote the desired adaptations in the skill and capacity needed to hit faster and faster velocities. In general, the sprint is the first exercise that goes into the training plan and the very last one that gets cut. As the rate of adaptations slows down over time for each method, and the law of diminishing returns manifests itself, athletes need exposure to other specific yet variable enough methods.
We know from motor learning and skill acquisition research that task variability (differential learning and constraints-led approach) and implicit communication strategies (instructions and feedback) are beneficial in order to maximize learning and retention. Therefore, we need to deliberately add different methods alongside appropriate cues to challenge the current abilities and ensure a continuous progression in sprinting performance (table 4).
I have successfully cut every single running drill from my program independent of the sport I’ve worked with. My athletes haven’t yet experienced any adverse effects, says @DanielKadlec. Click To Tweet
Because “tolerance is a proof of distrust in one’s own ideals” (Friedrich Nietzsche), I have successfully cut every single running drill from my program independent of what sport I’ve worked with. After the most general warm-up to increase HR and muscle temperature in the key muscle groups, I usually jump straight into (max) speed work. My athletes haven’t yet experienced any adverse effects.
Most likely, there will never be an RCT to test my hypothesis, so we need to rely on evidence from other sources and common sense—both areas just don’t have any meaningful and logical arguments for the implementation of running drills in team sports. In addition to reason and evidence, “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” (Antoine de Saint-Exupery).
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