In an effort to continually improve the athleticism of our athletes, we as coaches constantly seek faster playing speeds and ultimately greater maximum velocities. Oftentimes, we use methods such as fly 10s, wickets, and overspeed to improve the quality of maximum velocity. In this article, I want to introduce a different concept for the improvement of maximum velocity: deceleration training.
This may sound counterintuitive at first, but it’s an idea I have begun applying with athletes in both my private sport performance facility and in my role as the head strength and conditioning coach at a local high school.
Prior to implementing this deceleration work to improve maximum velocity, all athletes go through 6-9 weeks of acceleration progressions, 3-5 weeks of band- and sled-resisted sprinting, and 3 weeks of maximum-velocity sprinting. This lead-up can be condensed; however, I want to ensure that we are getting the most out of our athletes’ upright work prior to implementing a new training concept. This also helps us see their true maximum velocity to ensure any increases in maximum velocity from the deceleration training are valid.
Rigidity and the Stance Phase in Max-Velocity Sprinting
Max-velocity work tends to be left for track athletes because too many coaches use the argument that agility-based athletes rarely achieve top speed, so there is no need to train it. (We know this is incorrect.)
We are aware of the importance of deceleration training for agility-based athletes; however, what are the implications for acceleration and max-velocity improvement?
When studying the kinematics of sprinting and maximum-velocity running, one of the key areas to look at is the stance phase. During this period—touchdown to toe-off—two things to consider are the hip height above the ground and the lower limb’s ability to maintain rigidity throughout the stance phase1. Studies have shown that the most elite sprinters are able to create immediate rigidity through this limb in order to maintain hip height above the ground and limit the time of ground contact.
This information then begs the question: How do we improve rigidity?
Rigidity comes down to the body’s ability to instantaneously fire a specific (or multiple) muscle group(s), then hold the isometric contraction without giving in to external forces. In the case of max-velocity sprinting, much of the external forces will be due to body weight and gravity. If we can help our athletes overcome these factors, then we are one step closer to improving their maximum velocity.If we can help our athletes overcome body weight and gravity, then we are one step closer to improving their maximum velocity, says @brattainperf. Click To Tweet
As I begin to discuss the sequence of drills later in this article, you will notice that I constantly refer to the importance of the eccentric movement in the drill. An eccentric contraction in the muscle refers to the work the muscle does as it increases in length. As an example, think about grabbing a heavy bag on your counter and straightening your arm to lower it to the ground. The bicep goes through an eccentric contraction. A muscle’s ability to obtain rigidity largely has to do with its ability to control eccentrics so that it does not continue to get longer under the load placed on it.
To help the multisport high school athletes I work with recognize and begin organizing against these external forces, I take them through a series of deceleration drills. These deceleration drills incorporate multiple constraints to yield the desired effects. We constantly work from a state of current strength and success to a state of desired strength and success.
For example, many of the youth athletes (12-14 years of age) we work with have sufficient strength and successful locomotion patterns in upright, low-velocity movements. However, as soon as we alter these positions by either increasing the speed of the movement or decreasing their interaction with the ground (bilateral to unilateral, shortened ground contact), their ability to succeed in the movement decreases.
As we move through the progressions, we constantly seek the position that sacrifices one of their current strengths in order to introduce them to a position of slightly less strength and success to begin to elicit the adaptation. Once completed, the athlete will thrive in both positions and velocities high and low.
Deceleration Training Progression
As mentioned above, we begin each athlete in a position of success prior to implementing foreign positions and movements. Our ultimate goal is to help the athlete control and own every position and movement we introduce before moving to the next step. This deceleration series will manipulate the following factors:
- Ground interaction: bilateral vs. unilateral
- Stance: symmetrical vs. asymmetrical
- Speed: high vs. low velocity
We begin by prescribing an eccentric squat, which places the athlete in a bilateral, symmetrical, low-velocity movement pattern. This is most often a recipe for success. Our athletes tend to recognize this movement and feel comfortable going through it. We start by manipulating the tempo of the eccentrics prior to loading the movement and use the eccentric for 3-8 seconds.
In our deceleration training progression, we start with the eccentric squat. Athletes are familiar with it and feel comfortable executing it. As the athlete performs the eccentric squat, we cue:
- Balance between the heel, first metatarsal, and fifth metatarsal of the foot.
- Tracking knees forward over toes.
- Maintaining tension through posterior hip.
- Upright posture.
- Control through descent.
As we progress through the sequence, we place an emphasis on changing stance prior to adjusting velocities. When velocities increase, athletes often introduce compensatory patterns. By keeping movements slow as we alter the starting position, we are able to observe true control compared to false control.
The second step in the progression is an asymmetrical, bilateral, low-velocity movement. This is an exercise like a split squat, which allows athletes to keep both feet on the ground for increased stability while also reducing the surface area of the foot in contact with the ground. This movement is also performed as an eccentric movement with tempos ranging from 3-8 seconds on the eccentric portion.
The third step in the progression is an asymmetrical, unilateral, low-velocity movement. This could be an eccentric single leg squat or eccentric Bulgarian split squat. Again, the idea is to reduce the amount of interaction with the ground, increasing the athlete’s stability and coordination through the unilateral position while also controlling the speed.
As the athlete moves through the third step of the progression, we cue:
- Balance through the heel, first metatarsal, and fifth metatarsal.
- Control through the limb throughout the descent.
As mentioned in the first step, we manipulate the parameters of the eccentrics prior to adjusting the external load of the movement. Once we have exemplified proficiency in the asymmetrical, unilateral, low-velocity position, it is now time to move to a manipulation of velocities of the movement.
The fourth step of the progression is a symmetrical, bilateral, high-velocity eccentric. This is typically a depth drop in our progression. When athletes perform this drill, we instruct them to step off the initial surface, contact the ground with both feet, and create an immediate deceleration. This means we want very little drop in the squat. The eccentric movement should halt abruptly upon the athlete coming full foot with the ground.
One of the important cues that must also be used throughout the implementation of these drills is the ability to “stick” the landing. Each of the decelerations should end with a “dead stop.” These are not drills where we practice sinking into the final position. Again, the focus here is to improve the ability to maintain rigidity and integrity of the stance leg throughout max-velocity sprinting. In order to do so, we must be prepared and able to create an immediate contraction of one or multiple muscle groups.An important cue throughout implementation of these deceleration drills is for athletes to ‘stick’ the landing or end with a ‘dead stop,’ says @brattainperf. Click To Tweet
Following the depth drops, we move to an asymmetrical, bilateral, high-velocity movement, such as a split drop. This maintains the velocity of the depth drop while also incorporating the reduced stability of the split position.
During the implementation of the split drop, we continue to reinforce that athletes:
- Balance weight between the front and back foot.
- Keep front foot flat.
- Create an instantaneous stop once both feet are completely in contact with the ground.
Following the split drop, we incorporate single leg drops. These single leg drops are very similar to the split drops except for the fact that athletes land on one leg. This drop variation forces athletes to create stability through one leg while also beginning to better understand the concept of single leg rigidity. This will be the most comparable drill to the sprinting stance phase prior to moving into our sprinting drills.
The focus on the single leg drop, similar to the previous movements, will be:
- Balance between heel, first metatarsal, and fifth metatarsal.
- Abrupt halt of eccentric motion when whole foot comes into contact with the ground.
- Proper loading of hip (i.e., knee over toes with no sign of knee valgus).
Following the drop series, we increase the velocity as we approach the deceleration phase by using run-in decelerations. Again, we use the same categorizations on the deceleration that we used in the previous drills, with the exception that they are now all high velocity. We first begin with a bilateral, symmetrical deceleration. This finish position will look like an athletic position, with the hips lowered, weight evenly distributed, knees over toes, and posture upright.
Following the deceleration to an athletic position, we incorporate a deceleration into a lunge position. This finish position is categorized as bilateral, asymmetrical. This position forces the athlete to quickly organize as they approach the deceleration. Upon entering the last step, shown below, the athlete must come to a whole foot stance on the front leg, maintain an upright posture, and approach a 90-degree position in the front knee.
Some of the mistakes we look for in this drill are athletes taking too much time in the deceleration or not being able to control the deceleration. In order to obtain the most benefit from this series, athletes must approach the position as quickly as possible in order to truly load the system quickly. For this reason, an extended deceleration will take away from the desired goal. The second issue I see is athletes who are unable to control the deceleration. These athletes tend to fall forward in the finish position, or you will see the front heel lift as they shift their weight on the foot to help decelerate.
As we move through this progression, you will see the manipulation of parameters around unilateral/bilateral, symmetrical/asymmetrical, and varied speeds approaching the deceleration. By manipulating these variables, we can not only adjust the finish position, but also create different co-contractions throughout the body to maintain structure throughout the deceleration. For example, the glute medius works significantly harder in a single leg depth drop than it does in a bilateral depth drop. This co-contraction, in tandem with adductors, quads, and hamstrings, is crucial when applied to max-velocity sprinting.
In the upright position of the maximum-velocity sprint stride, these co-contractions will happen at an extremely high rate of speed. In order to be most efficient in this contraction-relaxation process, the body should have exposure to it in a much more controlled environment. The series outlined above allows for this control through the manipulation of the parameters. It should also be noted that the options are endless, and you are, by no means, limited to what I have outlined above.
Making Deceleration Training Work
To begin implementing these drills, the athletes must have some level of understanding of the end goal. As mentioned in the beginning of the article, my high school athletes complete 6-9 weeks of acceleration progressions, 3-5 weeks of resisted sprinting, and 3 weeks of maximum-velocity training before we even implement these drills. We typically begin the acceleration drills on the first day of off-season workouts, which allows us to begin our deceleration drills roughly 6 weeks prior to season. This lets us get through a full phase of deceleration training prior to the start of the season. Again, we then have time to retest maximum velocity prior to the season.
In the last year of implementing this deceleration work with our groups, both in the private facility and in the high school, we have seen improved fly 10 times and 40- and 60-yard sprint times, and an improved hip height above the ground throughout upright running.By implementing controlled eccentrics, drops and decelerations, we’ve been able to improve our athletes’ integrity and ability to achieve rigidity in their stance leg during upright running. Click To Tweet
Through the implementation of controlled eccentrics, drops, and decelerations, we have been able to improve our athletes’ integrity and ability to achieve rigidity in their stance leg during upright running. Moving forward, we will continue to implement these drills and many others to keep finding ways to overload the system in varying positions in an effort to help improve qualities of power output, rigidity, and ultimately maximum velocity.
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1. Bezodis, N.E., Willwacher, S., and Salo, A.I.T. “The Biomechanics of the Track and Field Sprint Start: A Narrative Review.” Sports Medicine. 2019;49(9):1345-1364.