The best sprinters in the world apply large amounts of force in short periods of time at maximum velocity. I believe it is the ALTIS program that has said, “Apply force in the right way, at the right time.” I have come to love this quote because the subtext here is that there is more to it than simply mashing the ground with reckless abandon. Speed and rhythm are not mutually exclusive terms. In this article, I cover how we develop the sometimes-vague ability to hold and create rhythm with drills and cues.
Getting Started with Rhythm
Instead of getting wordy with long-winded origin stories or rationale for rhythm work, let’s get started. Here’s a video of one of our former standouts, Diego Fernandez. I love this video because, although he has gone sub 1.00 in the 10m fly (22.5 mph,) he looks effortless and at peace here. He has attained maximum velocity and then he maintains a rhythm. His chest is projected slightly forward, his pelvis is neutral, and he is upright without being too tall, which can make the ground reactive force low. His arms are free of tension, while his legs look ready to strike. Because of his posture, limb timing, and rhythm, he is ready for the ground before he even gets there. He will not be as compliant in the lower limbs at touchdown. Posture. Rhythm. Timing.
Video 1. Mike Young has stated that when posture is correct, movement of the limbs is often correct. I agree, and you can see how lower body mechanics fall into place when the pelvis is square.
If I had four sprinters this talented who put the time in on this, we would win a state championship every year. We start early in the year with acceleration complexes and begin timing flys in some capacity shortly thereafter. We don’t do flys with full run-in until a base of accelerations has been laid. I think patience is important because I am not coaching elite sprinters.
I am not just interested in an athlete’s improvement from week 1 to week 2. They could improve their top speed just because they were more motivated or timed their acceleration better. We will celebrate it, of course, but I’ve had some athletes run solid fly times gritting their teeth with red faces. Fast, but not sustainable or extendable.
Three-Bucket Position Iso Hold and Captain Morgan Hops
I love wickets. Most of my sprinters are really bad at wickets, at least for a while. Running over wickets requires that you run fast enough, with good enough posture—and therefore, good lower limb stiffness—to have enough vertical displacement to switch thighs with terrific timing. It is the speed that creates the short ground contacts, not actively trying to achieve short contacts.It is the speed that creates the short ground contacts, not actively trying to achieve short contacts, says @grahamsprints. Click To Tweet
I will do wickets, but not in the first few weeks, and even then, probably not with the JV group. If it is rhythm with ground reactive force we are trying to develop, then I think we need to check some other boxes first before my beautiful wicket garden ends up trampled to bits. If I provide context with some other items first, I usually find wickets come more naturally.
I sometimes use cones or chalk lines, but athletes are often still unable to self-organize and harmonize stride length and frequency. Wickets are a force application tool, not a means to artificially increase stride length. Getting athletes to understand that they shouldn’t tiptoe or mash the ground takes time. Apply force in the right way, at the right time.
First, up is the three-bucket position iso hold popularized by Dr. Ken Clark. It is pretty simple.
- Imagine a bucket of water on your head.
- Imagine a bucket of water on your knee
- Imagine a bucket handle around your foot.
This gets them into a pretty decent starting position.
- Neutral head and “cheetah eyes.” (I stole this cue from Coach DJ Brock of Acton-Boxborough H.S.)
- Thigh parallel to floor.
- Ankle cocked ready for the ground, toe slightly behind knee.
- Think about the stance leg glute and foot being connected and wired together and try not to be too tall.
If athletes cannot hold this isometric position for a decent amount of time (say 30 seconds), and they start shaking uncontrollably, they are not ready to do wickets well. You cannot have rhythm, timing, and thigh switching in the midst of weakness and dysfunction. I encounter MANY athletes who cannot hold this position without shaking after five seconds. I suppose, over time, there would be marginal improvements if they just keep hitting the wickets, but I prefer to get out in front of things rather than work from behind after doing things poorly. Let them have some success first. If nothing else, this becomes a reference point or teaching tool when they do dynamic drills.
For a little twist on this, you can progress to Captain Morgan hops. I prefer hands on hips so they can feel their pelvic positioning. I have heard the cue somewhere to think about the pelvis itself as a bowl full of water. This variation begins the process of acquiring rhythm. The athlete should take remedial baby hops forward, without being too “toe-y.” Again, they should be actively trying to feel the glute working with the foot on the ground. This allows them to stay upright without being too tall. I usually like them to do a few reps about 10 yards in length on each leg.
The glute medius in the stance leg usually gets a nice little workout in addition to our weight room work. The glute med is responsible for stabilizing the hip joint and helps alignment of the pelvis and knee. The glutes are really active on the ground during sprinting, and weak glutes can cause back pain and knee issues.
Video 2. Isometric three-bucket holds and Captain Morgan hops are great entry-level items, as well as ways to screen for weak athletes. The hops begin the process of developing rhythm and add a dynamic twist to an isometric hold. Same goal, different task.
You can actually see the athlete in the first clip self-organize and reposition the toe under the knee. This allowed her to feel a little more stability in her stance leg and keep her foot in the raised leg more ready for the ground.
The Captain Morgan Hop and Switch
This will be the first drill that requires the athlete to switch their thighs with correct timing. The athlete should assume the same position as the previous drill. I now ask them to hop-hop-hop and switch. I often give them a rhythm to follow to aid in the patterning and timing of this switch.
The execution of this drill seems simple, but it sets up some of the items I will get to later. It is important to note that the stance leg is actually going to be the trigger that cues the swing leg to strike. I find when the stance leg heel lifts, if the swing leg begins to strike simultaneously, the thigh switch is clean and forceful. If this is mistimed, the switch becomes stompy and some postural deviations and compensations occur.
Video 3. The athlete, while rhythmically hopping, is able to crisply and forcefully switch her thighs. Note that the stance leg cues the swing leg to strike, not the other way around.
This is a very general drill. Before I lose you because you think I am giving some gimmicky drills, understand that the end goal is to dribble and use wickets effectively, do a great block start, and run at top speed efficiently. To do all of these, timing and switching of legs takes place. I am willing to dive in at the athlete’s entry point, but most high school athletes need progressions to this by making their body care.
We still sprint weekly, but if I place these items near the main session, perhaps my point is a bit clearer without major fatigue. Remember: The goal is to have short ground contacts that don’t lack force. Punch the ground with the sweet spot of your foot.
A-Switches for All Speed Athletes
These can be done with mini hurdles or without; my preference is without. The advantage of the mini hurdles is that they provide a visual cue for when to self-organize and punch the ground. The athlete is also required to hold the isometric position while hopping dynamically. Ideally, the stance leg hops should be small and as close to midfoot as possible.
A couple drawbacks I have noted are that athletes sometimes move away from neutral head position and look at the wickets. They also extend at the knee slightly more and deliver a strike that is “toe-y.” Spacing ranges from 4–6 feet, depending on how long an athlete can stay in the three-bucket position.
I prefer regular A-switches for this reason. It’s not about just adding chaos for the sake of chaos, but when an athlete is ready for more. The wicket variation may look more appealing, but keep an eye on its execution. It is merely a thing to help upright running mechanics or to at least understand them.
To me, the A-switch is the first item that really starts the journey of dynamically progressing to wickets and dribbles. The execution has a double tap between switches. This allows my athletes to really lock into a rhythm. Once an athlete can do this, it becomes pretty easy to progress them to stepover runs (dribbles) or boom-booms.To me, the A-switch is the first item that really starts the journey of dynamically progressing to wickets and dribbles, says @grahamsprints. Click To Tweet
I have had success teaching athletes dribbles out of an A-switch because their slack is already reduced, instead of loosely cycling their legs on their tiptoes. I have had lots of athletes do mistimed boom-booms, which gives them less time to prepare for the ground, and thus, less stiffness and bad posture. I am all for learning and self-organization, but I want to put them in a position to succeed.
Video 4. If an athlete can do an A-switch with good rhythm, they can probably do stepover runs. Note the timing of the limbs and that the swing leg is not moving first.
If you still want to add another level of chaos, I have experimented with 1-2-3-3s. These are an A-switch variation. They’re the same thing, but they look different and are fun. Fun can be a goal. I have also called the boom-boom the left-left, boom-boom-right-rights. Often, athletes have trouble with the rhythm right away. To this, I say good! This isn’t an early-season task, but we will give it a go eventually.
Basic Jog Dribbles and Stepover Runs
For all of the reading and video-watching I have done, the best technical advice on the execution of a dribble came from a 10-year-old student of mine. He saw me watching a wicket video during snack time and asked me what I was watching. I replied that it was a sprint drill. He said, “It looks like they are riding a bike with their toes up.”
When you think about how your legs are ready for the next push on the pedals on a bike, and how your feet switch but still stay in rhythm, it makes sense.
Of course, at recess I asked him to show me. You can learn from anyone. He was instantly better at it than most of my high school athletes.
Video 5. As a progression from A-switches, stepover runs or dribbles put the emphasis on frontside mechanics but allow enough backside to set up the front. There is a nice concentric circle motion visible.
Note the heel-to-toe action upon strike. This allows the athlete to punch the ground and roll through the whole foot without being too stompy. A dorsiflexed ankle keeps them ready for the ground once again. I see a lot of these done on tiptoes. The goal is still to apply force with an appropriately fast ground contact time as a result of the speed and rhythm. Think of it as purposely stunted sprinting.
There are several benefits to these.
- Easier than setting up wickets.
- Can be done at ankle, calf, or knee heights or as bleeds from ankle up to knee. This is a great screening tool or plan B for an injured or tight athlete. It gives both of us great feedback on how we may have to alter the plan.
- Great meet day warm-up tool in a bind. Cut the fluff and get to the meat if the officials are rushing the athletes.
Here are a few videos of my athletes trying some different variations. One of the athletes in the video mildly strained his hamstring after competing in four meets in two weeks. I primarily used dribbling to progress him back to higher intensities and he still ran a school record in the 400m. He was able to stay in control and regain confidence at different heights. We did rhythm dribbles first, focusing on the switch, and then added speed progressively from calf to knee.
Video 6. You can do dribbles for rhythm or speed, with full arms or hands at waist. Either way, the athlete needs to be ready for the next footstrike, so cue them to eliminate slack. Dribbles are an excellent way to learn proper frontside action without being too long on the backside.
I only utilize low calf up to the knee dribbles and not ankles. I get strange outcomes when coaching ankle dribbles, so I need to get better here. It is harder to see the switch, but it would be a perfect addition to setup or recovery days. Again, think about them as a tool. It is a drill to run well at different amplitudes and partial ranges of motion.
Just like when you are goblet squatting, at some point if you want to barbell back squat, you have to do it, even if it is a partial range of motion. We still routinely sprint fast, so you can do both. I love using A-switches and bleeding them into dribbles. Again, the tasks are different, but the intent is the same.
Med Ball Unfolding Jumps for Fluid Coordination
I have to thank Carl Valle and Blaine Kinsley (Director of Baseball Strength and Conditioning, Arkansas Razorbacks) for showing this exercise on Twitter. When I first viewed it, I could see a lot of similarities to acceleration and block starts. This has a lot of potential as a useful item on days I teach acceleration concepts. I love using exercises like this, not just to potentiate the CNS, but to also provide a reference point in close proximity to the main session. Feel, then do.
Rhythm isn’t just a max velocity concept; it is also critical during acceleration. There is more to it than projecting maximally with violence, although saying it this way can help.Rhythm isn’t just a max velocity concept; it’s also critical during acceleration. There’s more to it than projecting maximally with violence, although saying it this way can help. Click To Tweet
Everything is general work to a track and field coach except the actual track workouts. Although I don’t experiment in the weight room with Bosch concepts, Frans Bosch has influenced some of this experimentation with movement drills and sprints.
I am not a world-leading biomechanist, but I understand that by making general work harder, the specific work may become less daunting. Antifragile pertains to the mind as well. Failure is a good thing, especially if athletes are close, and they are motivated to hit a position.
I had both of the athletes in the video below start overhead and then do a quick eccentric hinge action. They both retained excellent posture and began the jump by leading with their chest. The first athlete started from a kneeling position to further push his comfort level. He responded quite well. In super slow motion, I see several key performance indicators that later translated to an improved block start.
- Excellent posture.
- Torso and shins drop together. Note the positive shin angle.
- He looks like a mousetrap, loaded from glute to feet and ready to go.
- Lower limb stiffness is excellent, and he pronates and finishes through the big toe. I see an athlete getting to the most advantageous part of his foot at the right time.
This athlete spent a lot of time in the weight room before coming to me, and his block start is rapidly improving, as you will see later. Half of this is getting him confident enough to have his legs behind his center of mass and knowing when it is time to “go.” This exercise is great because, if they time it wrong, they get the sense that it felt off. It slows down acceleration, but not as much as a sled pull. While we still work toward top speed goals, he is able to accelerate effectively with rhythm that will pay dividends as his training age increases.
The female athlete did not start kneeling. This was her first time doing this exercise, and she volunteered to be filmed for the sake of this article. She is very strong and has run over 19 mph on our Freelap timing system. She is not a great accelerator. What I see in this slow-motion video aligns with that.
- Great posture and hinge. It’s no surprise, as she has a very strong upper body and lifting experience.
- Leads more with hips than chest.
- Doesn’t get as deep of a shin angle and doesn’t take advantage of being patient to get to the ball of foot and pronate (sneakers an issue?). Arms are mistimed as a result.
However, for her first time doing it, I was pleased she got out of her comfort zone. She would absolutely get a benefit out of continuing items like this or even a basic broad jump in an acceleration complex. Timing it better would yield more power output in the jump itself. Oftentimes with plyos, jumps, and med ball work, I’m not worried about the so-called “transfer.” Just getting a kid comfortable with generally expressing more power is the first step before I worry about specifics and drawing parallels to acceleration. Working through being uncomfortable here will allow her to have a better block start.Just getting a kid comfortable with generally expressing more power is the first step before I worry about specifics and drawing parallels to acceleration, says @grahamsprints. Click To Tweet
This is pretty advanced, so take your time getting there. As an analogy, there’s no need to rush to a weighted Bulgarian split jump if their Bulgarian split squats need work. Both of these athletes progressed to these exercises and did so safely.
Video 7. Unfolding med ball jumps are a great way to teach patience in acceleration. Letting them feel when to “go” in a fun manner can allow them to practice acceleration KPIs in pieces with more confidence.
Skip and Switch Buildup Flys for Connected Speed
I rarely do my fly work from a static start. In top speed work, I want them to focus on their speed, posture, and rhythm and not worry about overcoming inertia. It’s safer for the muscles and easier to progress to max speed with a skip or lead-in start.
A new favorite of mine lately has been the skip and switch fly. To me, it is an early prerequisite for sprint-float-sprint work. An athlete builds into a maximal skip for distance without rocking or changing their sprint posture. The key is MAXIMAL so that there is enough vertical displacement to seamlessly transition into a rhythmic buildup or eventually a fly. I sometimes call out, “Boom, boom, boom, pow!” The “pow” is the moment when they time the step and continue to a sprint without dropping velocity.I rarely do my fly work from a static start. In top speed work, I want athletes to focus on their speed, posture, and rhythm and not worry about overcoming inertia, says @grahamsprints. Click To Tweet
Sometimes I just take a visual cue like a chalk line or wicket and put it in their hands. I can tell them what to do, but they have to figure out when and how to do it. If they are not projecting peacefully and maximally off the inside edge of the foot, they will feel it, and you will see it. A lot of times, high school kids are uncomfortable or shy doing things maximally. Some of the athletes below could benefit from just skipping for distance as far as possible first, which I often include on acceleration-themed days.
Skip and switch
Video 8. Speed and rhythm don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Skip and switch flys help athletes set up a peaceful and powerful entry into a maximum effort sprint without straining and gritting their teeth, which can make fly sprints a nightmare from the start.
Here’s an exchange with one of my athletes after her skip and switch fly:
Athlete: That felt weird.
Me: It looked weird.
Athlete: I’ll fix it.
Any chance I have to remove myself from cueing, I take. Again, they have to figure out when to go because it feels right. Once they race, they are on their own anyway. Opportunities to fly solo aren’t the worst thing in the world.
Rhythm Can Be General
You can start the process of this when the athletes are young. I have had the opportunity to work with athletes ages 6–30. I don’t teach 10-year-olds everything that a high school senior does, but we skip and hop in different rhythms. Unless I think a young athlete is ready and understands that they are not just a green obstacle course, I will probably leave the wickets in the trunk of my car.
Sometimes a song comes on and the music is perfect for them to do the exercise to. As long as it is age-appropriate, laying a nice base of general movement skills can pay off in the long term.
Video 9. Hopping, skipping, and bound work have endless applications, including some Fortnight dance moves. Calibration is half the battle, so meet the athletes at their level and progress from there.
The older athlete in the video improved in bounding in one session. When strength isn’t the issue, I am going to go out on a limb (pun always intended) and say most people just don’t know how to time their limb movement correctly. I had him time the foot strike with the arm swing flapping back, then coming in closer into the ribs while just marching and walking. Then we progressed to baby vertical bounds the same way, again trying to let his arms contribute. The “use it or lose it” and “it’s been a while” refrains hold true here.
Other simple tasks to do include crawling and jumping jacks. There are a lot of variations of jumping jacks, such as seal jacks, front jacks, rotational jacks, and Highland flings. These don’t make someone into an elite sprinter, but any good athlete can start here.
I remember being at the Weston Twilight meet and seeing some fast sprinters do some crazy dance moves like the BlocBoy shoot in the above video. Perhaps they can do it because they already have stiffness and rhythm. If I have a chance to do exercises like this and single leg skips with my athletes, I will. It isn’t immediately transferrable, but it is at least an indicator of talent. Making someone more athletic is always a useful thing.
Rhythm Is Universal – Apply the Methods Selectively
All of these words and items just to say that rhythm is teachable and important. Rhythm and timing are applicable to all sports. No matter what type of training beliefs you ascribe to, there is value in this.
Eliud Kipchoge displays rhythm when he runs a marathon. Usain Bolt and Antonio Brown look rhythmic at sub-max speeds in their warm-ups. Go on YouTube and watch them.
You can run any rep distance with appropriate rhythm. Here are videos of two of my athletes running with appropriate rhythm and speed for their individual workouts.
The first athlete is running split 300s at roughly 80%. He has a history of stress fractures in his feet, so I prefer the split rep and turf. He is finally getting comfortable with running.
Video 10. Regardless of rep distance, athletes can display appropriate rhythm for the task. Submaximal work doesn’t have to be junk reps. Learning this can help mechanics at max effort.
The second athlete is running 200s at race pace, fast and relaxed (25 seconds).
Video 11. Rhythm isn’t about slogging through repetitions just to say you did it. No matter the type of workout, it can be appropriately rhythmic.
Tempo running by nature is about rhythm, hence the word “tempo.” Especially when you think about the 200m and 400m, there needs to be some attention to rhythm in training, so sprinters arrive at the 150-meter and 300-meter marks relatively unfatigued. But I am not saying run 350, 450, or any rep distance just for the sake of doing it. If you believe in it, then get there first and with the appropriate athletes, but it can be run well with technique close to race level.
Again, the overarching goal is still to run as fast as we can and extend a high percentage of that maximum effort for longer.Our goal is to look for things that can help athletes understand that there is nothing beyond top speed except losing their rhythm, says @grahamsprints. Click To Tweet
Our goal is to look for things that can help athletes understand that there is nothing beyond top speed except losing their rhythm. We can’t only sprint, but we can’t do so much other work that our track work is watered down.
Video 12. An athlete’s timing and rhythm are set up from the moment the gun goes off. Even though acceleration phases are short, getting to that second step ready and in an advantageous position with good stiffness is key for a great transition to upright running.
This runner does a great job of switching thighs and staying relatively stiff by letting his shins drop and not exhibiting a lot of compliance. He pushes hard away from the ground without over-pushing, and there is triple extension without making it seem jumpy or artificial. If you take a picture of someone doing a block start, most know what the post-up position looks like (line from heel to shoulder and head), but it also depends what they did to get there and what comes afterward if it was useful or not. His low heel recovery and glute pushing is looking better. I haven’t coached him into or out of anything.
We have also done a few short hill run sessions, which force stiffer low limbs since the ground comes more quickly under the center of mass than if it was flat. Now that this is in place, we can begin adding blocks while adding new challenging things, but always working on our speed.
After all of this, perhaps wickets are an option. If you think about the progressive spacing of wickets from short to longer, the concentric circles move from low calf up to full knee. Dribbles are just wicketless wickets with a slightly different footstrike.
I am much better at coaching small groups or one-on-one in a focused setting than big groups during track season. It’s hard measuring wickets for so many abilities and deciding who does or doesn’t do them. In the past, I have done wickets in the first week. This was a big mistake. The idea of something being useful is not always reality in your reality.
If you coach high school track, your job is hard just because of the logistics of multiple events, space constraints, equipment, and abilities. It will probably be a better experience for you and your athletes if you keep things simple and decide on a logical place to start.
Likewise, you may find that certain things I have mentioned in the scope of this article are beyond or unnecessary for your athletes, and that’s fine too. No need to do iso holds all the time if your athletes are healthy and strong. I always experiment and add accordingly.
Once I see something has run its course, I eliminate it during the season as well. Come championship season, we may stop doing a lot of this because the athletes are already great at it. My job out in Byfield, Massachusetts, is to coach what I see and make athletes who sometimes have no business running into state qualifiers and into adults who love fitness.
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