Drills have been around since the dawn of athletics. Every year new things come into the fold and catch the eyes of everyone. Often old drills get repackaged, repurposed, and renamed. I’m sure some older coaches who’ve seen it all scratch their head when things come back into existence. Since coaches have been getting results with these basic items for years, it would be foolish not to pay attention to the classics, teach, and implement them as best we can. Coaches often reach out to me and ask for the best sprint drills to do with their athletes. My answer is always, “It depends.” It depends on:
- The athlete’s experience.
- How comfortable the coach feels and how well they can teach. If the coach doesn’t feel comfortable demonstrating the drill, they can show a video or have an athlete do the drill.
The best drills are the ones done correctly. Once that happens, figuring out how to use them becomes a bit more clear. The drills in this post are delightfully simple and have withstood the test of time.
Overview of the Drills
It’s important to note that the only good drills are the drills done the right way in the context they were intended. In this article, I’ve taken care to give credit to each drill’s origin as well as clear guidance on how to perform them. When it comes to drills, coaches should also have some bandwidth as to what meets the criteria for acceptable technique with their drills. I will, however, stop athletes if their form breaks down or they don’t take it seriously. No athlete will do the same thing in the same exact way, but drills performed poorly time after time serve no real purpose.
Although no drill is exactly like sprinting, each of these drills needs to look good and shouldn’t be performed robotically. Even when it’s not textbook, I’m never in a hurry to fix something that looks good. Athleticism means doing things right without thinking too much about it. Of course, it can take a while to flow this subconsciously.
The athlete should also know why they’re doing the drill and when they might use it. As a coach, it’s important to get my athletes to buy in and take most things seriously. Coach Ryan Banta, who penned The Sprinter’s Compendium, advocates using different hand and arm positions as well as loads when doing drills to give variations that can motivate the athletes.Being a good sprinter is about more than having trained energy systems. For all the exciting drills out there, we can get more out of the old ones. Click To Tweet
Being a good sprinter is about more than having trained energy systems. For all of the new and exciting drills that make the rounds, I think we can get more out of the old stuff. I know I occasionally post something eye-catching, but the truth is 90% of our results come from 20% of our items combined with the workouts.
While there are naysayers to including drills in athletic development, plenty of studies have pushed their value. Numerous studies have found that starting slow and progressing to drills nearer the end-range of an athlete’s abilities can help motor learning. An A-skip is not at the far end of Usain Bolt’s abilities and would likely serve as nothing more than a warm-up drill; it would not contribute directly to his world-class speed any more than a heavy squat would.
Two studies have found:
- Technical skill development for speed involves specific drills designed to isolate and combine joints to rehearse a series of sensations that establish the exact motor pathways.
- Drills also create patterns of movement, and if performed numerous times correctly, will lead to more efficient neuromuscular patterns.
The first drill is the A-skip. I chose not to write about the A-march because I find most athletes perform it with some proficiency. Gerard Mach was a Canadian sprint coach in the 1970s, and his ABC march, skip, and run series is still used by many coaches today. It’s interesting, though, that a quick Google or YouTube search for these simple drills often produces many different variations. For a coach who’s trying to learn technique, I can see why it becomes confusing at times. Coaches implement A-skips in many different ways. While it seems that Mach wanted us to perform these drills as fast as possible, I always say before doing something fast, do it with rhythm.
The A-series doesn’t seem to have been meant for sprint mechanics. Watch a video of an athlete performing it, and it’s easy to see why. One study of A and B drills discovered that “There were significant differences in vertical displacement, vertical velocity, step frequency, support time, non-support time, shoulder range of motion (ROM), elbow flexion angular velocity (AV), trunk flexion, trunk rotation, pelvic rotation, hip flexion, hip extension AV, knee extension AV, ankle ROM, plantarflexion AV, and dorsiflexion AV…It was concluded that the kinematics in the A and B drills were not the same as sprinting.”
This obvious fact shouldn’t deter coaches from using drills that can promote kinesthetic learning because every drill has some degree of specificity to sprinting.
In the A-skip, Mach emphasized the knee lift, which functions as a specific strength exercise for quads and hip flexors. I’ve seen some coaches cue the athlete to step over the opposite knee in a cyclical action, but nothing I’ve read about Gerard Mach says this has to be. I have included some stepping over variations in the video that follows, but to be honest, cueing it this way overcomplicates it for many of my athletes and really dilutes the ground contact quality.
Two common errors I see when athletes perform the exercise are not punching the ground with enough force and having posture that is too upright. Yes, the knee initially comes up, but after that, the ground strikes reflexively lift the opposite knee. A common cue I use with my athlete is “knees up, feet down.” When the A-skip is done correctly, there’s a period where both feet are in the air in a non-support phase. I use the traditional “heel up, knee up, toe up” cue as well, but the secret is the “toe up.” When athletes keep their toes up to the top of the inside of the shoe, their ground strike is better. To prevent early plantar flexion, I like the foot contact to be as close to midfoot as possible. Another assistant coach I work with, Tyler Colbert, has the athlete think about where the spike plate is located and strike there; there’s certainly a reason for its location.
As far as posture, I usually have them start “hips up and forward.” This is a good entry point for discussing posture and what works best for each athlete. As with most drills, if the athlete is too straight up and down, I find their foot reaches for the ground. I cue them to have some forward lean where they can get to the sweet spot of their foot and have good ground reactive force.
The A-skip is just one of Mach’s drills. Let’s use it to get our athletes stronger in the right places and promote neuromuscular adaptations that can make them better sprinters by teaching it correctly.
Video 1. These athletes are still very much learning, but all display acceptable A-skip technique. As they do them more often, they will no doubt groove the patterns even better.
The last piece of Gerard Mach’s A march-skip-run series is the A-run. I have fallen in love with this drill this year. Like the A-skip, the key to this drill is doing it fast and striking the ground hard. I still like my athletes to start with their hips up and forward to give a slight forward lean.
I’ve found that cueing “knees up, feet down” is helpful and prevents them from covering too much ground, leaning back, and thus reducing impulse. When done correctly, the heel should come to the hamstring before being driven back down under the hips. I sometimes call these “sprinter high knees” when coaching my athletes for simplicity. They are not the same thing as high knees, as high knees only focus on lifting the knees rather than what occurs on the ground.A-runs are a good sprint drill in a warm-up before acceleration & max velocity work and as a finisher to intensive tempo work, says @grahamsprints. Click To Tweet
I’ve had good results using A-runs as a sprint drill in a warm-up before acceleration and maximum velocity work. This drill has a lot of value when included in completion runs as a finisher to intensive tempo work. For example, if I have a kid who’s having trouble maintaining posture and relaxation at the end of a 200m race, rather than immediately panic and increase volume or another training stimulus, I’ve found it helpful to have them do 150-meter reps plus a +30 to 50m A-run. This allows them to run a quality 150m rep before they start carrying the kitchen sink and, after a brief 30-second rest, to finish with an A-run focusing on excellent finishing form. It’s certainly an exaggerated display of mechanics at the end of a race, but it forces them to dorsiflex earlier and advantageously contact the ground. Moving forward, we’re going to use this heavily in our program.
Video 2. The A-run is a useful tool for teaching exaggerated sprint mechanics. The focus is on core strength, front-side mechanics, and getting the foot over the knee and then down with force under the center of mass.
Lots of coaches have moved away from using the B-skip, and I’ve been among them at times. Mach designed the B series to focus on foreleg extension. In a recent post on Twitter, Coach Keith Whitman of Lutheran West High School lamented the epidemic of warm-up drills done poorly at track meets. He’s not wrong. He noted seeing B-skips looking like lazy flicks and A-skips done with pointed toes. I think it comes back to the fact that, again, it’s not a form drill.
Many coaches say that the B-skip teaches unwanted reaching or casting out excessively and risks hamstring pulls. This assumes that the athlete can’t separate a part from the whole. Triple jumpers and hurdlers are two types of athletes who do extend their foreleg quite a bit in their respective events. In both events, they drive their thigh up to the A-position where, at the apex, the foreleg is extended and clawed with control back under the hips. Executing the B-skip is done in much the same manner. It’s an A-skip with a foreleg extension. I find leading with the heel keeps a neat, cyclical loop and better foot contact on the ball of the foot.
Some coaches feel there’s an injury risk associated with B-skips. I’ve had my share of hamstrings injuries in the past (not because of the B-skip), and after including the B-skip, I can say it’s given me some needed confidence in specific hamstring strength.
Like with the A-series, Mach advocated doing these fast. I would argue that if an athlete does a funky A-skip, adding the B-skip without marching first is probably not a great idea. When an athlete lacks mechanics and coordination, almost everything has a risk. Moving forward, I do think there’s room for the B-skip in a hurdler’s and jumper’s inventory, but I understand why many coaches don’t use the drill or feel it’s unnecessary.
Video 3. The B-skip is a good tool for hurdlers and jumpers, who extend their foreleg quite a bit in their events.
Straight Leg Bounds
Most coaches are familiar with straight leg bounds—sometimes called scissor bounds or primetimes after Deion Sanders’ touchdown celebrations. Many top college coaches use them heavily for an abundance of reasons. While I must confess I can’t find the origin of this drill, it seems that many coaches who are disciples of or cite Tony Wells as an influence lobby for its usage. This may be because the drill is in the realm of bounding, which was a Well’s staple and can be a great way to be explosive even during general prep phases of training.I love straight leg bounds; they teach developmental athletes how to use hamstrings & glutes to apply force into the ground, says @grahamsprints. Click To Tweet
I love this drill because it teaches my developmental athletes how to use hamstrings and glutes to apply force into the ground. All speed athletes use these muscles to generate power through hip extension. I find them to be not only a nice mechanics drill but also a nice specific strength exercise. Getting stronger here can mean faster sprint times and also plays a part in reducing injuries.
To get the benefit of this drill, we must perform it correctly. I find numerous errors that I try to help my athletes with.
- They perform the drill while leaning back excessively, and they look like the singing frog in the Looney Tunes cartoon performing his routine.
- They are too concerned with being fast or quick rather than letting great ground contacts under the hip cause horizontal propulsion.
- Legs don’t come up to about 45 degrees. I find this ROM allows them to prepare for the ground better and deliver a better downward strike and essentially pop away from the ground. The emphasis should not be on kicking upward.
- Not keeping the toes pulled to the top of the shoe to make sure toes are not pointed. Telling them to lead downward with the heel but strike close to midfoot also helps.
Early in the season, when my athletes are shaking off the cobwebs, this is a terrific option to get a safe level of a sprinting stimulus along with shorter acceleration runs. I’ve also used it as a completion to a lactate type workout.
On the Complete Track and Field website, Kebba Tolbert has some great programming available regarding straight leg bounds in different contexts. (It’s under the General Prep & Specific Prep video. This particular segment on straight leg bounds starts at the 13:45 mark.) I recommend checking it out rather than randomly programming the drill. As always, once you understand how to do a drill correctly, you begin to understand how and when to use it.
Fast Leg Drill
Here’s a drill that’s been around forever, but I never see it done anymore. The amount of timing and athleticism needed to complete this drill is a great measuring stick of your athletes’ coordination. To be honest, I have largely avoided this drill with my most of my athletes because it is quite challenging. I do love the unilateral work done in isolation.
The best way to teach this is to use a smaller straight leg bound/shuffle to set up the fast leg cycle. I would allow your athletes to act intuitively and decide when to step over the opposite knee. This lets them focus on getting the heel to the hamstring and stepping down over the opposite knee. A common error I see is that athletes will sometimes move out of good posture into hip flexion when cycling their leg. Hips should stay up and forward (stay tall) through the entire drill.
The key to the drill is this: the timing of the legs needs to be such that one leg is coming back under the center of mass into a position of full support while the other leg/heel simultaneously comes up before being driven down under the hips. Cueing the athlete to keep their toes up in the shoes prevents a floppy foot contact.
Does this mean someone doing the fast leg drill will learn speed and suddenly set school records? No, but it’s a great ROM drill even if it’s exaggerated. It’s certainly a great way for an athlete to pass the eye test. It can show who is improving on their neuromuscular coordination on some basic level. Make no mistake; this drill in the absence of a good sprint plan may not mean very much at all.
Video 4. In this continuous variation, it’s easier to see the synching of the shuffle leg and the cycle leg. As the foot returns to full support under the hips, the opposite leg drives down over the opposite knee.
I have to say that I’ve called this drill ten different things. My first encounter with it came from a Swedish drill video in a program called Lauf-ABC, which translated means Running ABC. I’ve spent some time translating articles related to the Lauf-ABC method, and it appears to be a Swedish derivation of the Mach series for distance runners seeking to dip their toe into the coordination and sprint world. I heavily recommend any distance runner just hitting the road for miles to implement the entire Lauf-ABC drill list into their training regimen and see what sticks. They advise 2x a week for about 10 minutes to start and market it as a way to optimize muscular control and clean movements. They do advise a complete install and not an occasional dabble. I think we’re already providing our athletes with huge neuromuscular demand, so as sprint coaches, we can sometimes afford to cherry-pick intelligently.
As far as the Prellhopser, I can’t say if this is the origin of the drill, but it does have the best in-depth explanation. And it’s probably the one drill I use the most. In addition to being fun to say, translated Prellhopser means “bouncer.” When done right, it’s easy to see why.
The instructions from their program are to jump off with both legs, pull one knee, and land again. Keep both feet parallel and land at the same time and then pull the other knee in an alternating fashion. I mostly agree with this description, but I’ve found it easier to focus on getting the feet down together by concentrating on getting the elbow down. Although ground contacts should be relatively short on the ball of the foot, I have a lot of fun asking my athletes to go quicker, higher, or further and watch them manipulate the resultant ground contact. To go higher, the contact is longer. To go quicker, the ground contact is brief but lacks force. Ultimately, I find it teaches them something about harmonizing the ground contact time and forceful pop into the ground.The Prellhopser is the drill I use the most. We use it as a sprint drill, a technical buildup run, and as a way to stay loose, says @grahamsprints. Click To Tweet
I love including this as a sprint drill on speed days, and we can easily bleed it into a technical buildup run. I know my athletes love doing a few sets of these in between lactate capacity work to stay loose, and it’s proven to be an excellent choice on the meet day after being herded into long race lines.
Video 5. Both feet need to hit the ground at the same time and in a parallel stance. Pop away from the ground by driving down with the arms and legs.
Simple, Not Easy
Especially now in the middle of the Coronavirus, our athletes must continue to work on their athletic development and speed. It’s important that they have some sense of normalcy and routine. I know not all athletes will have access to terrific facilities. The beauty of these drills and sprints is they can do them in most places. Most of these could easily be implemented in any maximum velocity or acceleration day. If we are to hope for autonomy during this hiatus, then perhaps we should have our athletes repeat things. Most of the drills should be done for no more than 10m.
Mechanics and posture are important in sprinting, and I can’t say that drills are the full answer any more than certain exercises in the weight room are. Drills are one part of designing a complete program that includes sprinting, plyometrics, and lifting.
I’ve heard it said that anything works with developing athletes. If that’s the case, why not spend some time polishing the basics? After all, the best drills and exercises an athlete can do are those they can do safely and correctly right now. Don’t get caught up in the latest hype. We can worry about pushing them safely toward harder things and perhaps getting a better effect down the road. When they do the drills right, your athletes have a fighting chance!
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