When Coach Keith Ferrara got his first university strength and conditioning job, he literally had to build his program—and facility—out of a storage closet. Read on to discover the six essential steps he took to successfully build a collegiate sports performance program from scratch.
By Graham Eaton
We absolutely can teach speed—contrary to what the color commentary guy on Monday night football may spout for effect to the masses. High school sport coaches work with athletes at a very important time in their athletic careers when they often come into our hands extremely raw. With proper coaching and consistency, our athletes can rise from the most inauspicious of beginnings.
But coaching means more than having a few drills and exercises in our repertoire. It is multimodal, and we need to be comfortable with an array of tasks. Giving explicitly clear cues, for example, or sometimes saying nothing at all. Filming and giving athletes feedback at their level is tremendously useful to help them understand the changes that you’re hoping to take place. Certainly, drills that are very close to the task of sprinting can prove useful.
While these ideas go a long way to help athletes develop, the process is not instantaneous. Coaching is often an exercise in patience.
Speed Evaluation: Whole Movement Observation and Feedback
For this post, I opted to highlight my work with a developing athlete who has real potential entering his junior year. He’s on the cusp of the varsity lineup and somewhat mirrors the reality of our day to day experience as high school coaches.
During our first two sessions, I filmed his running at maximum velocity and during his acceleration phase. The sessions were free of feedback to prevent any premature influence, so I centered my efforts around some very simple cues based on what the video told me. I noted the athlete needed two very simple things.
First, he needed to learn to relax at maximum velocity. Using a kinogram and the five positions of maximum velocity, especially at maximal vertical projection (MVP) and touchdown, I observed his lack of peacefulness. He was straining, and his strike segment lacked hamstring extension, which possibly contributed to a reduced stride length.
His issue was simple but very important. In a post about the ALTIS Kinogram Method, Stuart McMillan and Dan Pffaf wrote:
Neutral head carriage, with eyes looking directly ahead. The human body is an inverted pendulum subject to imbalance through improper head position, and that impacts weight distribution further down the chain. Therefore, if the head is out of position, there will be an impact in lower-body joint dynamics. Athletes who throw their head back or push their chin forward create imbalanced forces. In the upright running cycle, the head should be held in neutral alignment with the cervical spine. Understand that any deviation from this will also negatively affect lumbar vertebrae position, and possibly pelvic alignment.
Indeed, at full speed, my athlete’s pelvis was rotated too far forward because his head moved out of position further up the chain.
Video 1. A flying sprint is a cornerstone of running mechanics as it serves as a reference goal for acceleration and submaximal locomotion. Video and constantly audit technique over the course of a career.
Second, I had to address his acceleration phase, which lacked violence, or “splitting without the rip.” His rear arm extended very long and slow while his heel dropped excessively upon ground contact. His neck was bent forward to create the illusion of driving forward. I opted to start with a remedial two-point start to rework accelerations from the ground up so he could learn how to push.
Derek Hansen has said, “Poor arm swing can quickly weaken posture and negatively impact the delivery of both horizontal and vertical force into the ground. Having the arms free to swing powerfully is critically important for proper sustained acceleration on the way to top speed.”
Video 2. Errors in arm action may seem to be problematic, but wait until those flaws actually cause efficiency issues to address it. How the upper body connects to the lower body depends on the athlete, so individualize as much as possible.
Thoughts on Cues
Cueing is an oft-debated topic on social media. It’s easy to dismiss or argue the validity of certain cues depending on your own experiences. No matter what the cue is, if it elicits the desired response, it’s always correct in that scenario with that athlete. Cues are sometimes taken too literally by people for whom they are not intended.
For example, I’ve recently seen the cue “run tall” debated. The argument is that running too tall will reduce ground reactive force and lead to slower running times. However, if an athlete flexes at the waist too much or leans back at max velocity, this cue could correct the problem. If you don’t think this is an issue with your athlete, the cue to run tall could be redundant and change something for the worse.
I recently cued an athlete to pretend they were riding a bike when performing dribbles. Another athlete didn’t respond to this cue; he needed “pretend it’s a rainy day, and you don’t want to get your sneaker toes wet in the puddles.” Silly? Perhaps, but each created positive changes in the respective circumstances.
Admittedly, I’m guilty of over cueing athletes at various points in my career. Those cues pushed some athletes into a conscious state of running and, thus, some level of “paralysis by cueing.” Even if cues are correct or near and dear to your heart, they don’t guarantee immediate change. I’m getting better at using consistent cues even if they take time. One of my favorite cues lately when doing plyometrics is “high as possible, as fast as possible.” Nothing fancy, but easily understood. Sometimes asking questions such as, “Can you go higher for me? Can you go faster?” are excellent cues.Most athletes respond better to simple, repeatable cues to keep them confident and allow for better rehearsal, says @grahamsprints. Click To Tweet
Language is complex, and any given utterance might be interpreted in different ways. There are specific things you can say to athletes that put them in the best position to “get it” and succeed. With the athlete who is the subject of this post, I opted to keep the cues very clear and simple. I find most athletes respond better to simple and repeatable cues to keep them confident and allow for better rehearsal. If they can use a cue readily without being any less automatic in their rehearsal and effort, it’s probably a successful, or at the least, useful cue.
To help my athlete keep his head more neutral in hopes of running with a more relaxed, upright posture, I rolled with “Eyes in front on the hunt.” I have used “Eyes to the horizon,” but on the hunt felt more appropriate as it conjures an image of relaxation with a quiet intensity. Peacefulness, in this instance, is more akin to a predatory cat stalking prey than a yogi.
For acceleration phase cues, I used combinations of the following:
- Bang-bang. This cue implies pushing without over pushing and employing violent arms and quick hands. His arms tended to be long and slow backside, which is the antithesis of the violence needed during acceleration.
- Aggressively push your hips and sternum toward the finish line. The cue helped this athlete displace his hips without over flexing at the waist while keeping a long spine throughout.
- Give me some violence. I used this cue if his start seemed to lack some “umph.”
After all of this, he showed noticeable improvements.
I find, however, that we need to exercise some patience here. For all of the aggressive, bang-bang, violence cues spoken, we could have solved many of these issues by putting some weight on a bar. He’s definitely not strong enough yet. We addressed his squat mobility in the summer program I run at Crossfit133 in Georgetown, MA. We were slow to have him increase the loads on traditional strength exercises like the squat and deadlift because of these issues.For all of the aggressive, bang-bang, & violence cues, we could have solved many issues by putting some weight on a bar, says @grahamsprints. Click To Tweet
I know there has been much debate online recently. It’s easy to cherry-pick examples of elite athletic freaks like Kevin Durant or a sub-10-second 100m runner and say that weight room strength doesn’t work or isn’t necessary. But stride lengths get longer when sprinters apply more force to the ground.
In my experience, increasing strength is one of the factors to increasing force against the ground in developing athletes. This is especially true when:
- an athlete sprints routinely
- lifting doesn’t impact the sprint work (using low reps on main lifts, great technique, and lots of rest)
- the goal is not gaining mass
- correct posture is prioritized when performing all sprint tasks
Indeed, it would be hard to convince me that this athlete, who sprints several times a week, would not also benefit from increasing his mass-specific force. I’ve found that improving upper body strength experience helps to counterbalance out of the blocks and gives athletes confidence to project violently. Moving ahead, I encouraged my athlete to get back in the gym and work on adding general strength while continuing to sprint two to three days a week.
Hybrid Exercises for Proficient Movements
Again, saying something doesn’t necessarily make it or so. Rather than simply speaking things into existence, I often pair drills that are equal parts drill and actual movements. These hybrid exercises get us away from timing every rep and put the focus on performing movements with the most proficiency possible on a given day.
For my athlete, I switched up the acceleration and max velocity main sessions and potentiating exercises every two weeks and implemented some ideas from Christian Thibaudeau’s Neurotyping work. Without going too deeply into it, Christian advocates matching an athlete’s neurological profile to the training program they perform.
From observation and personal experience as a teacher, I decided that my athlete best reflected the 2A type. Thibaudeau has said, “With a type 2A everything works, but nothing works for a long time.” Variety did seem to be our best friend during our work together. Doing things in two-week blocks was just enough time for him to realize improvements while staying motivated by variety.
I prefer to include items that push athletes close to—or at—motor skill failure periodically as a challenge and also provide a subtle ego stroke for the athlete. An athlete who feels good is more open to trying progressively harder things and is more motivated to push through even when they’re not initially successful.
Here are some of the items I programmed for my athlete in addition to my typical doses of dribbles and wicket runs.
Board Acceleration to Overhead
This is a great way to work on lower body mechanics without the arms. The board (hurdle top), or in this case a broomstick, serves as a great tactile cue to keep the spine long during acceleration. It also encourages athletes to feel themselves rising in a rhythm. With every step during acceleration, the shin angle changes until the shins are vertical during max velocity.
I often have athletes who keep the same torso position on multiple steps and create an illusion of staying low but end up really off balance. Others are fully upright by the fourth step but keep their neck bent to create an illusion of driving forward.
This exercise makes it easier for them to avoid early vertical shins and flat foot contacts. It also lets me see if they’re transitioning appropriately from their start to upright running. Indeed, I liked the improvements I saw with my athlete and found it was a useful drill to help both acceleration and maximum velocity.
Video 3. Removing the upper body or challenging the athlete with and without arms requires experience. If an athlete has technical problems, adding challenges or changing the dynamics may or may not work for them, so be vigilant.
Skip and Switch Flys
To set up a peaceful entry into the fly reps from the start, my athlete often used a skip and switch fly. The skip is a good way to force an athlete to bring good posture into the rep. As speed is built and maintained, the skip lead-in combined with the rhythmic transition and leg switch adds another challenge. The more powerful the skip, the easier it is to switch the thighs into a fast sprint because of the increased vertical displacement. I cue an athlete to think about making a well-timed step over a wicket hurdle and continuing with a seamless transition from the skip. Although we usually did not time these, a timing system could be worked into the practice.
Video 4. Skipping can look good, but may not transfer unless the athlete is aware of what is happening in time and space. An athlete who fails to get their knees up is not necessarily weak or deficient in hip flexor strength, they could have a coordination issue.
There have been studies on the effects of combined downhill and uphill sprinting and how effective they are on top speed, and I devoted two weeks of training to the downhill portion. It’s a valuable teaching tool for handling high-speed travel rather than any peaking or stride length trick.
Obviously, the over-speed aspect of these runs could positively influence step length since the ground is coming at the athlete faster and in a different way. Chris Korfist has talked about plyo-soidal training and how changing surfaces can challenge the lower limbs to become stiffer and perhaps allow the athlete to bust through plateaus.
I continued to use the “eyes in front, on the hunt” cue as well as “fast as possible, smooth as possible.” I encouraged my athlete to start in a rhythm and build up fast while staying in control. To get the point across, I pantomimed a basketball on my finger then progressively spun it faster and faster until there was nothing left to do but maintain the control. The sound and cadence of the build-up were important so that the last ten meters were near peak, controllable velocity. After doing a few reps, he was ready for the ground and running fast on the track.
Video 5. Strange environments often wake up athletes or strain them psychologically, perfect for those that need to execute on-demand. Be creative, as athletes need to get out of their comfort zone.
Standing Triple Jump
The standing triple jump (STJ) addressed a huge need for this athlete. In our first week together, his standing triple measured at 18′-8.” By the end, his best was still only around 20′-7,” and we can attribute some of his improvement to learning the movement and becoming more proficient through repetition.
We slowly built a tolerance to controlling downward velocities in addition to scaling to more difficult reactive strength index jumps, such as drop jumps. Indeed, one study found that drop jumps were more closely linked to VMAX performance, and “such forward cyclic horizontal jumps would develop effective specific strength in the extensor muscles of the legs for the drive phase of the sprint stride.”While horizontal jumps don't correlate much with maximum velocity running, the shin angles achieved at the jump's start could help with a block start. Click To Tweet
So while horizontal jumps might not correlate heavily with maximum velocity running, it does seem that the shin angles achieved at the start of the jump could help with a block start. Carl Valle has said, “I see a strong relationship between this test and early acceleration because the takeoffs from both the dual leg jump and the bounds afterward include forefoot projections of the ankle complex and deep knee angles in general.”
When we first started using the STJ, this athlete had a lot of trouble pushing off both feet and would step out like he would in his two-point start. By the end of our work together, he was marginally better at using both legs. In the second of two pictures above, his arms are timed to contribute more to the jump. Perhaps improvements in timing here can have a more global effect on his sprinting.
I did not overuse this test, and I laid ground rules that he had to land and stick the landing in a squat. I cued him to imagine “jumping into the ski boots on a snowboard” when landing safely on the foot tripod. Moving forward in his training, I prescribed more mobility, general strength, and hip extension work. His lack of violence and hip extension at the start seems to correlate strongly to his acceleration phase, where we initially had a more difficult time moving the needle.
Video 6. Jumping or plyometrics are more than just power. Those that struggle to control the timing or range often show similar issues at full speed.
Rhythmic Rise Drill
This a stationary drill, and to be honest, I don’t love pure arm drills. Many other drills let athletes experiment dynamically and self-organize with cheek to hip arm action. However, I would say this is more of a torso drill than an arm drill.
I told my athlete to assume a starting posture similar to a block start with a parallel stance. Once in the athletic posture, he slowly extended while rising in a rhythm. For every arm swing, the torso rises. I cued him to keep a long spine and not to rush the rise nor maintain the same torso position during the arm swings.
This is definitely a case of a concept in isolation rather than an authentic application, but it gave him a reference point. He would often get ready for an acceleration rep by rehearsing this drill. Toward the end of our work, I started seeing a slightly stronger post-up position during the start with a more powerful arm drive.
Video 7. The athletes you train may just need rudimentary drills to get an understanding of what they need to do if they are new to a concept. Don’t be afraid to regress to make progress.
Learning to Learn
One of the first things I want to do with all of my athletes is to improve their general athleticism, which includes skipping, hopping, and moving well generally in all planes. My best sprinters are usually my best general movers. With developing athletes, I find it best to sprint often while progressively pushing them closer and closer to failure with their motor skill exercises, as needed.My best sprinters are usually my best general movers, says @grahamsprints. Click To Tweet
Whether on the track or in the weight room, I want to make the athletes as receptive to cues as possible. The more movement that the athlete is exposed to, the more options both of us have when attempting to fix something. It’s very easy to cue someone into a state of conscious confusion when they have not experienced the most rudimentary of tasks due to their low training age.
The foundation of acceleration and the concept of pushing starts with basic drills, such as the isometric post-up drill or a skip for distance. Teaching the athlete awareness of the ground’s interaction with the foot and how to use the big toe joint to let the shin drop and act as a lever to project forward doesn’t always happen at full speed. Some submaximal rehearsal seems to go a long way with my athletes, especially when paired in a complex with maximal work.Submaximal rehearsal goes a long way with teaching acceleration, especially when paired in a complex with maximal work, says @grahamsprints. Click To Tweet
Likewise, for maximum velocity mechanics, there are plenty of drills that help my athletes run better. I’m not saying these items are a magic wand you can wave and instantly have a team of all-state performers. Yet, if good posture has proven to be important during sprinting, then it should become a habit because habits are hard to break. Skipping, bounding, dribbling, and even jumping jacks are all opportunities to get better. If your best athlete can run 10.5, this strategy may be unnecessary for them.
By all accounts, my athlete has made tremendous progress in this area. It was fun to see him become more confident and use the general drills as a motivator and learning experience.
Video 8. Drills can be a way for athletes to become a better learner or a sponge. Limiting drills as corrections to inefficiencies is a bad idea.
Case Study Update
After all of this work for eight weeks, we saw some improvements. His 10m average velocity went from 20.15mph to 20.53mph, and he looked much better doing it. Moreover, this speed was up from 19.28mph at the end of track season (about 15 weeks).
During this time, his rep consistency was the most impressive improvement. When we first started training, hitting 20mph was a possibility on a good day, and by the end it was a definite on every rep.
Looking at an updated kinogram, I could easily see why. Although at touchdown he’s not exactly hitting the vaunted position of four knees together, his head and pelvis are more neutral and relaxed. His arms do look better and have more of the parallel positioning sought in this phase. It probably won’t be until he attains significantly higher velocities that these positions will change.
We cannot expect or force developing athletes to hit the positions that Usain Bolt has. For now, this athlete’s ability to run faster with better posture without being overly conscious of it is a huge step as he develops the neuromuscular coordination necessary to run fast. In the past, it proved easy to accidentally cue and shift this athlete into too much of a conscious mode of thinking while sprinting.
Video 9. Various approach runs can help take an athlete from one stage to another. Working on cone drills works if you know when to allow a set of errors to clean up while others are in hibernation.
In addition to his maximum velocity, he also improved his 40-yard time. He began with a starting time of 5.23, and by the end of the eight weeks, he ran a 4.96. Both measurements were taken with the Freelap timing system. We can attribute some of this improvement to his maximum velocity improvement—when an athlete is getting faster, they’re also getting to top speed more aggressively and in a better position to run fast.We need to consistently develop both maximum velocity and acceleration at the high school level, says @grahamsprints. Click To Tweet
There has been some debate recently about the need for acceleration development in developing athletes. We need to consistently develop both maximum velocity and acceleration at the high school level.
Over the course of the sessions, it appeared he had a subtle change in the violence and displacement of hips, but to be honest, there’s still lots of potential for growth here. Moving forward, he needs to work consistently, watch videos, and celebrate his improvements, no matter how small.
Video 10. Young athletes need fresh acceleration runs and repetition. So long as an athlete is going fast and is making progress, don’t sweat specific angles and positions of higher performers.
Options Are Good
As I’ve said, coaching is not a one size fits all endeavor, as many roads lead to Rome. Best practices are just that—best practices until something breaks down and doesn’t work. Coaching high school athletes often requires us to be well-versed in simplifying concepts. Sometimes the most powerful things we can do are to keep our athletes confident and repeating things until they become better. The specificity principle holds true when it comes to speed. To get better at something, you have to do that thing.
Slowing things down for the athlete in the form of similar tasks or general drills can allow for adequate rehearsal of maximal concepts in a submaximal setting. I recommend these be placed as close as possible to the specific sprint tasks of the day where they can bring maximum subconscious intent.
Above all, it’s important to be patient with athletes as they develop. You can’t force your athletes to hit world-class sprinting positions just because you know it’s correct. Professional athletes give us a glimpse into what the best in the world do, but at 11 to 12m per second, movement is a different breed. It’s foolish to believe you can always speak things into existence. Sprinting, like anything in athletic development, is a process—and a very individual one at that. Whether you say more or less, always meet the athlete where they are.