Curved sprinting is not just for track sprinters—it’s part of a lot of sports and is a great training tool. If you are interested in finding a better way to train your athletes, it’s time to rethink speed as being either linear or change of direction. Surprisingly, not much information or discussion on the value of curved running exists online or in print. I am even surprised I did not bring up the topic years ago, as it’s one of those subjects you know is important, but never seem to devote enough time to.Curved running or sprinting is not just for training; it’s also a great diagnostic tool if used properly, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
In this article, I cover the topic in enough detail to ensure that you can make smart decisions in training and even rehabilitation. Curved running or sprinting is not just for training; it’s also a great diagnostic tool if used properly. Coaches should see that the opportunity to use curved running is enormous, and adding a few runs selectively can make a difference in any training program.
Is Curved Running Important in Sports?
A good question coaches will ask is: What is the value of training specifically to handle the centripetal forces an athlete receives when running in a curved path? While curved running is a skill, it’s also an event that definitely matters in sports. Baseball offense running, for example, is not really a straight diamond base path, as athletes run in a curve when they “round” the bases. Watching American football fans hold their breath when a running play attacks the end corners to gain vertical progress shows the value of sprinting in a curved path.
Turning the corner is not just for NFL athletes—it’s also important for other sports such as soccer. The most graphic illustration for the value of running a fast curve has to be the clip shown in video 1 below of Gareth Bale years ago, as it was one of the most devastating plays. Bale is one of those talents who can change a game dramatically, and some of his plays have made history. We know how dangerous he was during Champions League play and his monstrous bend run years ago.
Video 1. One of the most graphic examples of curved speed happened five years ago with Barcelona and Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey Final. Gareth Bale is known for his sprinting velocity, but this play is a timeless testament of how speed truly kills.
Several coaches, such as Paul Caldbeck, have spent some time doing analysis of their field sports and realize that curved running or sprinting is in a limbo between linear speed and agility. It’s unique enough that it deserves attention, but just how much attention is the current debate.
In track and field and sprint cycling, there is a lot of awareness of a curve during the construction of tracks, especially indoor venues that demand banking to keep athletes from shooting off the track. I am always amazed that athletes don’t run off the side of open indoor 200m venues such as Harvard University’s Gordon Track. Sprinters know how to run and turn left, and coaches have for years instinctively run the other direction to keep some sort of balance for their sprinter’s health. Now research is looking at the same concept for team sport athletes.
Track and field events are an obvious example of athletes being forced to run in a circular path. The problem with interpreting the 200m is that the curve is not the same for everyone. An athlete in the outside lane (lane 8)—usually a slower athlete—has a stagger that is radically different than the athlete’s in lane 1. The same situation occurs with the sprint relays, mainly the 4x100m, when the sprinter on the outside of the track is blind.
Michael Johnson was forced to run from lane 8 and not only won Nationals but dropped a fantastic time in 1992 qualifying for the Olympics. His story of determination inspired our school’s record-breaking relay when were forced to run blind from lane 8 as well. Years later, Wayde van Niekerk set a world record with an “outside smoke”—a good reminder that if you are in the race, you definitely have a chance to win it.Just so it’s clear, curved running is a must for sprints and relays, but also for team sports that demand a run that is rounded, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Just so it’s clear, curved running is a must for sprints and relays, but also for team sports that demand a run that is rounded. If you are a sprinter and want to be competitive in the 200m, knowing how to run a good bend matters. Athletes who are in field sports that require a few curved sprints should be prepared to handle the rigors of that type of sprinting if they train correctly. Before we dive into workouts or teaching progressions, it’s important to understand the underlying principles of curvilinear sprinting, so let’s get into the science now.
What Does the Science Say About Sprinting on a Curve?
The science of bend running is a very complex process of biomechanics. Simply put, we are not fully aware of what goes on at high speed, and adding a curved path makes it even harder to understand. If we throw in banked tracks, grass surfaces, cleats or spike interaction, change of direction needs, or a ball into the mix, things can get confusing. This section summarizes the research findings more than it shows how to use the science, but it does include a few points that will enable coaches to better apply the knowledge we have.
Just so we are all on the same page, a curved sprint is one that can maintain a running gait that’s very similar to a straight path. Turning is not the same as running a bend or curve, as the change of direction requires a change in mechanics that resembles a break from cyclical running. Coaches often get frustrated, as scientists reference the term “turning radius” of drills or use evaluations like the Illinois agility test interchangeably, and athletes employ sprinting mechanics that are similar enough to running to cause confusion. If it looks like normal fast running, then it’s likely curved sprinting.
Coaches should know that muscles and mechanics change when you run correctly into a bend or curve. Strides adjust to handle the forces and the body leans to keep up the velocity as much as possible. Various small adjustments to contact times and joint kinematics occur, but the key takeaway is that coaches need to know how to manipulate the curve radius and incoming velocity into the bend to fully leverage the unique physiological responses.
In addition to the body mechanics, those who are injured or want to reduce injuries should take note of the forces throughout the body and make adjustments if possible. Examples of at-risk areas are the fifth metatarsal in soccer and muscles of the legs in sprinting. We do know that the body appears to make morphological adaptations to curved running, as the psoas of the outer leg seems to be affected for some reason. Again, this study is about correlation, so we can’t assume more than the right psoas is overloaded and adapts with a great cross-sectional change over time.
It’s fairly obvious that the left and right legs have different roles during curved sprinting, and the biomechanical demands can be seen in the research from the foot to the torso. Generally, the inside leg acts as a frontal plane stabilizer (eversion-adduction strategy), while the outside leg’s role is more of a motion controller in the horizontal plane using a rotation strategy. I wish more EMG research was done on the muscle groups to confirm our own muscle activation experiments, but the information we collected supported the curved sprinting kinematic information found in the video research.
Expanding on the differences between the left and right legs, the sprint technique research points out that the centripetal forces affect the ground contact times, stride distance, hip motion, and leg adduction and abduction angles. Experiments on sprinting with additional load found that the ankle complex is essential to managing forces of curved sprints, leading the researchers to recommend further exploration of training the plantar flexors.
By now, you are likely thinking curved runs either sound like an opportunity or are too complicated to worry about. That’s actually a good thought process either way, as yes, this stuff is not as simple as just “sprinkling curved sprints” like a seasoning when cooking. Don’t give up on the science—just read the studies at your own pace and don’t skip to find exercises or shop around for drills because it requires time.
From the research on leg kinetics and kinematics, the outside leg does a lot of the work during the sprint, and each side is asymmetrical. We know that a good curve runner is one who is able to maintain their kinetics and kinematics, not one who is adaptable. Not allowing the curve to disturb rhythm is what separates a “good” curve runner from a “poor” one, according to the research on track sprinters. Experiments using wedges inside of shoes have been very intriguing to the cleat and spike manufacturers, as they showed some benefit when orthotics were placed at strategic locations. Based on the evidence, a small but significant boost in speed is possible if a plantar wedge is used as an intervention.We know that a good curve runner is one who is able to maintain their kinetics and kinematics, not one who is adaptable, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Adding a ball into the equation makes it even more complicated, but a Brazilian study on curved dribbling is very intriguing for several reasons. The main two questions I have are obvious: How much does skill interact with talent, and can general sports performance training take a skilled athlete higher? Down the road, we will know more. Right now, it’s likely that the Illinois agility test is the smallest radius I would recommend so that the athlete still maintains linear running mechanics. I don’t like combining skill work with curved sprints or similar patterns. Again, my preferences may not suit your situation, so you will need to experiment.
In summary, the science of curved sprinting clearly shows that the loading to the body is indeed different, and specific preparation for the forces encountered does matter. You don’t need to have the latest athlete tracking system or force analysis, but you can see some very interesting data today from coach-friendly equipment including IMU wearables. A lot of great researchers are working hard to unlock specific details of how athletes manage curved maneuvers on the field or track, so hopefully we will be able to provide better training and support for athletes in the future.
Testing the Curve Velocity with Video and Timing Systems
Christopher Glaeser, the owner of SimpliFaster, explained to me the value of testing curved speed for relay selection in the 4x100m. Of course, a lot of psychology and gamesmanship exists—not to mention politics—with relay selection. Also, coaches need to know more than just an athlete’s speed and ability to pass a baton; they really need to know if an athlete will respond well if they are forced to make a change to another leg.
Over and over, I have seen athletes look great for specialized relay positions—something I had to do for years when squads were small—but interchangeability for sprinters is key for long-term development. I don’t have a solution for the Team USA relay issues of late, but if I had to start a system-wide solution, I would focus on relay development at the middle school level. I don’t know if flying 35 meters (400m hurdle spacing marks) are the future, but I am sold that a curved fly is something to think about for relays and general team sport athletes.
Not to make things complicated, but timing the speed of a curve is a little tricky. This is because the math is not easy to calculate without knowing the dimensions of the curve or measuring the actual path of the sprint. If you are testing and measuring velocity, audit the lengths even if you are confident that the construction is accurate. Even motion capture reliability was evaluated for data quality, so video and electronic timing must be carefully controlled and set up.
Track venues are known to have problems with the accuracy of measurements and several athletes have found times to be suspiciously low or high from some bad trigonometry. When measuring velocity, coaches and researchers compare the length of the sprint as well as the differentiation from a straight-ahead run. The most glaring problem with race and training evaluations is that nearly every coach has, at best, 130-140 meters of straight track distance. This means it’s very hard to compare straight-ahead distances and curved runs. Some coaches claim they use the curve to get into higher velocities, but the world records on flat 200s don’t demonstrate a clear advantage, likely because it’s psychologically strange for a seasoned sprinter to run without a curve.
Video 2. Curved speeds will always be slower than linear speeds, but the more prepared athletes will be better able to match their straight velocities. Don’t assume or rely on the eyeball test, as some athletes who look fast are just taking a lot of steps because they lack eccentric abilities in their opposing leg. Using Swift Performance timing takes curved sprinting to a new level.
A test that will be popular is the circle sprint, whether from a standing start or with an athlete flying in. An athlete usually hits their peak velocity early, as it’s hard to accelerate in a short curve, but adding a run-up length of 5-15 meters is a great way to improve speed through the circumference of the center circle of the pitch. Currently, we don’t have a great coefficient, ratio, or metric of choice with curved sprinting speeds, but we do know the faster the better, on average. Countless testing ideas come to mind, including using basketball courts, but I prefer the standard and safe center circle with athletes, as it’s universal in dimension, and cleats enable an athlete to have the right amount of traction.
I realize the research on curved running will expand and improve the evaluation process, but don’t wait for the test to come to you—design your own. I have an incremental speed test that keeps adding another 2-5 meters of acceleration until the velocity peaks out at the same speed as the previous rep. Most of the time, an athlete and coach will know intuitively how much they can handle with centripetal force, and simply getting some work in is likely enough for most programs.
Workout Designs That Make a Difference
This section is in no way complete, but it’s a great start for those wanting to do a better job with curved running. Coaches who are not involved with track events should read the first part of this section, and sprint coaches should read the second part for general preparation needs even if they are not training team sport athletes. Simply put, both team and track coaches can benefit from learning from each other. Most of what I learned is actually from high jump, as I managed to extract a lot of information from a conference champion who certainly made me look good in an event I am not an expert in. In fact, just working on the approach made me a better sprint coach.
The use of simple tempo running still matters today, even in a world where minimalism is worshipped by some coaches. If the runs are fast enough, you can challenge the body enough to create a training effect, and I usually have athletes use a wide radius when doing repeat 200s on the grass. I rarely do straight runs unless the athlete is learning how to run with better mechanics, and after a season under their belt we graduate to longer distances.
Video 3. I love grass running in a “U” shape for athletes who need conditioning, including sprinters who need to be better runners. While I am a huge fan of high-velocity running, winning the long game orthopedically means you can’t live on a track and a steady diet of speed all the time.
I realize that practices elicit nearly the same conditioning benefits of interval running, providing time to develop skills. Still, only playing the game comes with pattern overload baggage that tempo running can alleviate. A nervous system may theoretically recharge within days, but tendons are not that quick to regenerate.
The needs to get an athlete fit for a game and teach basic running mechanics are why I think Tom Tellez was right about training at slower speeds. It’s not that I think running relaxed will do everything, but only doing short sprints paints an athlete into a corner. Some gentle introduction to curved running is a snap with a few sets of tempo running, and just adjusting the width of the curve and the speeds requires virtually no strain on coaches.
Soccer Midfield Sprints
My bread-and-butter workout for curved sprinting is simply running the circular path of the soccer midfielder. Nearly all high school fields have the pitch painted properly, and coaches can invent countless variations. It’s rather easy to create tests and the size is perfect for many purposes, such as rehabilitation and performance training. Several research studies are underway as you read this, so I expect this specific dimension to be an important standard in the future.My bread-and-butter workout for curved sprinting is simply running the circular path of the soccer midfielder, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Video 4. An easy solution to getting athletes familiar with running a curve comes from the center spot and penalty arc seen on every field. The size and painted lines make it just too convenient not to use.
It’s far easier to adjust the running speed into the curve than change the radius without a lot of prep work. Sometimes it’s worth spending time with cones and other markers for athletes; most of the time, though, coaches need to spend their time coaching and instructing athletes. Remember to test right and left directions to see if a deficit exists between sides and make sure the average speed isn’t too far off from linear velocity.
Don’t stress out if an athlete isn’t perfectly symmetrical or if a gap exists between their peak speeds for straight versus curved abilities. The goal is to be better and make improvements, not be perfectly balanced immediately. Giant hula hoop runs are small in diameter and encourage excellent footwork, and they are great for some athletes who lack movement competency.
I am aware that some coaches will argue that running in staged “agility” courses is not much different than speed ladders, but keep in mind you need to physically prepare the body for more dynamic and spontaneous activities later. If the athlete’s brain attempts something it’s not prepared for creatively, expect possible bad habits or even injury. I recommend that coaches come up with a ratio of preparation to practice, meaning know how much general training is necessary to support the near chaos of playing the game. Think about how to construct teaching sessions as well, as the wear and tear of instructing an athlete to move better still needs to be taken into account with load management.I recommend that coaches come up with a ratio of preparation to practice, meaning know how much general training is necessary to support the near chaos of playing the game. Click To Tweet
Video 5. When you zig and zag with curved running it’s sometimes called serpentine running. Slaloming between cones or visual markers is useful for exposing athletes to necessary foot strikes that prepare them for games. Tom Nelson Training is one of the best training options in the mid-west, and produces great athletes year after year.
I spoke about movement variability in the past, but to me, this is programmed variability that is purposeful. Randomness is great, but only if it has some guidance. Adding serpentine runs to a program is prescriptive but still expressive. I believe simple cone drills that allow athletes to weave between visual markers are not outdated; they just need some intelligence behind them.
The best example of a key difference between choreographed and reactive work is if an athlete is “swerving” to avoid an opponent or not. If they are spontaneously moving away from another athlete, they will have a rapid spike of force in their plant foot and reaccelerate versus a smoother approach, such as a long play or scripted run in American football. I understand that much of the training theory on agility and movement requires reaction and more open-styled environments, but those are great when the athletes are prepared. I love tag and other exploratory games for athletes, but if they are unfamiliar with the necessary locomotive strategies, those who need foundational skills seem to struggle and reinforce odd and ineffective movement.
Now comes the final step for team sport athletes. It’s what I call “controlled chaos,” and you should only use it during narrow time frames, such as preseason. Team coaches can use it for other purposes, such as rehabilitation and replacement for practices, if they want to instill aggressiveness without the constraints of rules and strategy.
Controlled chaos is about using games of tag or other activities that really drive the athletic brain into full throttle. My first and only rule with this type of training is to make sure it’s safe and properly programmed, as any degree of competition or intensity with randomness will increase risk. Fortunately, the right exercises and routines will reduce unnecessary risk to near zero if planned intelligently.
Video 6. Controlled chaos is what I call sport-specific training. It’s not practice, but it’s hardly general preparation either. I only allow for two weeks a year of it, but I have found that if you have done the off-season training and finish with some practice-like training, injuries in the first two weeks are zero. This video from Keir Wenham-Flatt is a great example of adding just the right balance of specific training that transfers to the game.
Sure, a bunch of luck has happened for me over the last three years with low injury rates, but I do know that mixing in some sporting action with the ball or rehearsed practice improves player performance. Sprinting-based obstacle courses or short curved drills engage athletes and appease team coaches. When you give or share resources with a team coach before the season, they are indebted to you and more likely to work with you. I don’t promise that the relationship will not be one-sided, but it’s a good gesture that tends to give back more than a coin flip in return. Scripted runs are just traditional drills with a little performance juice in the equation—such as adding more time away from the ball—but still look a little like practice.
Of course, other techniques and options exist for training, and curved sprinting doesn’t need to be a clean and perfect circular pattern. A small bend and slight change of direction can be just a few steps, but keep in mind we want to keep the soul of the workout similar to straight-ahead running, just not have the path be linear.
Can You Use Curved Running for Return to Play?
I love curved running for rehabilitation, as it challenges the ankle and offers a lot of ways to attack the recruitment of the medial and posterior muscles of the leg. I worked in the Northeast most of my career, so my experience with curved sprinting has been mitigating the imbalances from indoor track. I have found that hamstring and other soft tissue injuries occur slightly more frequently from too much sprinting with tight bends.I love curved running for rehabilitation, as it challenges the ankle and offers a lot of ways to attack the recruitment of the medial and posterior muscles of the leg, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
As mentioned earlier, running clockwise or in the opposite direction has not helped so much that it dramatically resolved the rate of injuries, but it does seem to reduce the severity of injuries. Lateral knee pain seems to be the biggest complaint for long sprinters when doing too much curved running, but we certainly need more clinical experimentation and research here.
To manage stress and progress safely, I prefer increasing speed to decreasing the radius of the run, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Curved running for team sports starts with tempo sessions with slow velocities and uses a larger radius to ease into the loading. To manage stress and progress safely, I prefer increasing speed to decreasing the radius of the run. My rationale is simple: Athletes can lean and mitigate a curve far better than they can learn a step pattern that may be a bit artificial or foreign. Serpentine runs are great because they can be slowly expanded in both speed and attack by reducing the linear spacing and adding lateral width.
I have yet to use resistance cords or lines such as the Vertimax Raptor or Exer-Genie much, but I am sure the idea will take off after someone cracks the code. Scott Meier has likely already done enough to solidify harnessed sprinting with curved patterns, and his training sessions are excellent. Graham Eaton, like some coaches who have curved walking paths to help with elevated sports venues, sprints up the incline bend.
Video 7. A simple Exer-Genie set at maximal force is a good way to get athletes to run in a curved path early without adding too much demand on the body. Using a football goal post is a clever way to get running in at various radius lengths.
My main recommendation is to be patient and don’t jump too fast, as many injuries that come from cutting or similar can be hard on the body. Linear sprinting and strategic plyometrics will do most of the change of direction preparation, and adding curved running is a perfect finisher. You still need to practice and play the game, so don’t expect any curved running test to be a deciding choice to discharge an athlete.
If you are hesitant to add bend-style training into your program, good! Respect the forces that the athletes experience and experiment with slow and incremental methods and you should be fine. Like any return to play process, be reasonably cautious but don’t live in fear.
Give Bend Sprinting a Try
Today, you can really see coaches addressing curved running with workouts that have a purpose, rather than sessions with “sprinkled”-in training. In the past, I would barely include curved running because talent seemed to find a way to do it well, but as the sporting world has improved, it’s time to raise the skill of curved sprinting. If you are serious about athletic development, remember that progression is not a neat process. Ideally, every step of the process of learning to get faster would be easy, but like any art, the challenge is making what we know will help athletes work with different talent levels and abilities.
Don’t feel stressed to have a perfect program—remember that simply addressing the need to expose athletes to curved sprinting scenarios is enough to make a difference. Just add a few thoughtful choices within the training year, and curved sprinting sessions will make a significant impact on transferring raw speed to the field or track.
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