If you were to ask any question about sprinting technique in team sports, you would more than likely start a big debate. While most arguments lead to a conclusion, unfortunately, most discussions revolving around running mechanics in team sport simply muddy the water.
I have asked a lot of smart people how they view the value and practice of running mechanics, and the responses I’ve heard are mostly disappointing. I suspect an agenda, because if they aren’t confident about their situation or ability to improve technique, the value of running mechanics is seen as a threat. Conversely, a lot of track coaches are used as solutions to running mechanics in team sport, but they don’t have enough experience outside athletics to actually improve speed and efficiency in team sports. A few speed experts—the minority—have the knowledge and experience to impact the game, and I will share my thoughts on the matter in this blog post.
I know for a fact that athletes can improve running kinematics and performance later in their career, and I admit that sometimes it’s just fine to leave things alone. If you are curious about how linear speed can raise game speed, this article will be both controversial and helpful.
Common Arguments – The Fair, the Weak, and the Deceptive
Overall, coaches on both sides of the sprint technique and performance debate push a lot of personal agendas. A track coach will always defend their value; they are indeed correct, and team sport is a very demanding responsibility with limited time and resources. So, you will see a lot of bad arguments stagnate for years, mainly because each side focuses on single points rather than seeing the big picture.
Instead of writing a biased article, I have listed rationales for both sides. Here are some fair points from the “technique is limited and of poor value” crowd in team sports.
- Athletes with no formal technique training sometimes have very good technique.
- The best athletes in the world seem to be nearly as fast as sprinters.
- At elite levels, the chance of changing technique is unlikely and may not actually improve the odds of winning.
- Team sports have less training and preparation time than Olympic sports.
- The demands of play may create styles of running that help improve game tactics.
Now for the other side of the debate: those who believe that technique matters for all sports and improving linear speed can help find a winning edge. Most of the speed coaches who have track and field backgrounds or use materials from sprint coaches will make a case for the following:
- Linear sprinting mechanics are commonly expressed in many game situations and sports.
- Faster athletes tend to help either create space offensively or close it defensively.
- Athletes who work on form often get faster without a reliance on resistance training.
- Chronically injured athletes who have the right coach seem to get better because of technique improvements.
- A long-term investment in running mechanics is possible, even with few resources such as time and energy.
So, who is right? Well, it’s not exactly easy to address the points above, as they are often generalized and taken out of context. To be fair, the main debate is how much return on investment would occur in terms of winning if linear sprinting mechanics were trained seriously in team sports. Most of the detractors are coaches for soccer, American football, basketball, and other field sports. I will cover those perspectives and more with a few shorter passages, as it’s not as simple as how many minutes of wickets a week will help win a World Cup.The main debate is how much return on investment would occur in terms of winning if linear sprinting mechanics were trained seriously in team sports, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Sprinting Technique – A Modern Pandora’s Box
Let’s start with the biggest piece of the argument: How much does technique matter for speed and injury rates? If you look at the science, the answer is very little to none. At first glance, it looks like I could stop here if we only make conclusions based on the current research, but the contrary evidence isn’t really available. The reason is that, by nature, elite speed athletes are a limited population, and how they became elite isn’t well-documented for science to understand.
Many of the Nordic hamstring researchers make great points that if the world’s best technicians—sprint coaches, to be specific—still have athletes with hamstring injuries, then what should we expect from strength coaches who may not have as much time or knowledge on the subject? The problem with that point is injury rates with a raised ceiling (increased velocity) is not a fair comparison. When an athlete learns to sprint faster, the risk of injury will likely slide along with them. Running with better technique may result in the same speed with less risk, but often the athlete improves speed and mitigates risk slightly. Running mechanics affect the statistical game everywhere in a very unpredictable manner.
Another point that we must consider is the location of the athlete along their genetic ceiling continuum. Athletes running 10.3 m/s are not hitting the extreme limits of elite sprinters who are pushing 12.2 m/s plus. Nearly all team sport athletes can get faster, so the submaximal velocities of team sports, even at maximal efforts, are not the same as peak velocities at all-out efforts in track. When a coach works with an athlete who is at their maximum limit, they are unfortunately forced to play with fire, and getting burned is part of the game. Mitigating risk as much as possible is important, but if you want to get faster, you must take necessary risk.When a coach works with an athlete who is at their maximum limit, they are unfortunately forced to play with fire, and getting burned is part of the game, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
With winning and losing sometimes being a game of inches, the enhanced speed of athletes is a necessary part of the game. While the amount of time to spend on both the skills and physical abilities is an unknown, ignoring raw athlete speed is foolish and unproven. As long as there is the potential to get faster without unreasonable requirements, it’s only logical that teams should investigate the probability of getting existing athletes and future athletes faster from modifying training. Note: I will cover the application to address injuries and performance later, but this section’s purpose is to inform those who are either skeptical or threatened by the topic.
I will simplify the debate further. If you are not comfortable with training and sprint theory, track and field is an inconvenient truth and it’s scary. Due to the clarity of what success looks like, chaotic sports have less control and sometimes less education for improving performance. Even today we see a lot of team performance staff uncomfortable with the basic principles of training that are found in foundational courses for Olympic sports. Instead of being organized, track and field is still in a silo with many sports, but the good news is this is changing.
Unfortunately, judging by what is posted on social media, we are still far away from real progress. It’s great that we see support for using sprinting to get athletes faster, and the fact that the strength and conditioning profession uses electronic timing now is a step forward. Still, let’s not celebrate the standard of a bar level that is at our shins when we have so much to do.
The Mother of Speed Sports – Athletics
Linear speed is a gross capacity characteristic of athletes. The ability to run fast in a straight line is valuable, and it’s strange how the raw ability to move at high speed is seen as uninteresting to many performance and medical staffs today. When you watch American football, you see athletes expressing athleticism with countless highlights, and if you dig deeper, most of those players have a great background in track and field. Sprinting and hurdling are great enablers, but when the team sport season comes up, track and field seems to get cast aside. I am very biased with track and field, not just because I am a fan, but because I have seen more growth due to participation in the sport in the offseason than from speed training in team sport practices.I have seen more growth due to participation in track and field in the offseason than from speed training in team sport practices, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
So why is track and field cast aside? I blame track and field. If we did a better job internally, we would be respected externally. For instance, look at the NFL’s “fastest man” challenge—we saw more hype there than with most 100-meter duels during the Diamond League. Money is power, so the other sports look to track and field as a disposable sport to help feed more excitement into their stadiums, and it’s working.
I have yet to see a star track athlete from another sport (read, made), but plenty of track athletes have made the leap to other sports to contribute to them. Look at the vast numbers of high school and college football players who leveraged their spring track season or even indoor season to become faster and more dynamic on the field. Football is getting smarter, and this is why the TFC with Tony Holler and Chris Korfist sells out.
The Antifragile Myths and Misconceptions
When I see the terms “robust” or “resilient,” I often observe just the opposite: light loads, low velocities, and mongrel exercises. In all honesty, robust and resilient are now the new functional training terms, and while the movements and theories are not as silly, running around doing weird and strange exercises won’t necessarily help an athlete stay on the field. Along with the ACWR (acute chronic work ratio) being a little suspect, we need models based on history, not economic theory or conveniently crude load models based on arbitrary statistical calculations.
The ACWR and antifragile concepts are not the real issue or problem—it’s the reliance on both concepts that leads us astray. The human body can adapt wonderfully to an enormous amount of stress, be it chemical, emotional, or mechanical. What is strange is that many proponents of antifragile theories believe that hamstrings and other anatomical areas don’t build up protection from running mechanics that are considered risky. If an athlete gets hurt during a period where they seem to be in the safe sweet spot, running mechanics may be the cause, showing that gross mechanical load metrics need more granularity and validity.
Load management is not going away. It seems now, instead of trying to understand the problem with injury mechanisms, teams would rather do nothing and hope that resting means an athlete will be less exposed to risk. This may work temporarily with some, but if rest is best, then why are so many athletes simply not able to stay healthy with any type of load management strategy? Playing your stars less in the NBA works when you are a great team and have the luxury, but if you are a football team, this doesn’t happen, and practices need adjusting.If rest is best, then why are so many athletes simply not able to stay healthy with any type of load management strategy? asks @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
What is amazing is that all of the antifragile discussions popular years ago seem to be strangely quiet when the rubber hits the road. The good news is more in regard to high-speed running and being resilient. How much, what sequence, and who are the best candidates for additional or modified training is up to the coach. My concern is that coaches simply like to add more “stuff,” looking to create an insurance policy instead of taking away or changing other variables. You can add without subtracting, but you need to think long and hard about how fatigue and mechanical stress will interact with team practice. It’s not easy, and it’s very tricky to do during a long season.
Running Mechanics for Performance and Injury Reduction
Several coaches have asked me what the relationship between injuries and running mechanics is, and I’ve pointed out that the faster the athlete, the smaller the margin of error. General thermodynamics doesn’t illustrate humans perfectly, but higher forces and contractions tend to cause more acute injuries. More chronic type injuries are cumulative, and this is cloudy, but we still don’t have enough good information to make strong conclusions.
Jurdan Mendiguchia has done some great work building a framework to properly evaluate athlete function and injuries, but most of what I see is that an athlete needs to have the recovery mechanics match their stance phase force expression. I am not saying it needs to be perfect, but overstriding and poor stiffness tend to recruit the muscles around the hip in a way that is hard to sustain without really good fatigue management. Plenty of athletes have been managed well with training loads for years. You can have a general load of the quality of work be well designed, but you may not be able to manage a local muscle without tight precision.
Here are the problems I tend to see with sports, and it is not always possible to fix them with drills or manual therapy. We all speculate, but we don’t know what causes the change: the exposure time or the coach.
- Overall tightness or specific regional or muscle tightness.
- Excessive backside mechanics with insufficient knee lift.
- Poor stiffness and excessive vertical drop.
- Poor knee lift recruitment patterns that overload synergists.
- Foot motion that increases possible overload to the foot up the kinetic chain.
- Common reaching or overstriding with corresponding arm carriage issues.
- General poor upper body patterns that interfere with lower body balance.
Most of the time, the old adage from Dr. Norman Murphy of “when performance decreases, injury sometimes increases” is especially true with running mechanics. Obviously, gait analysis with kinetic data can improve the chances of properly seeing cause and effect, but overall, when you improve mechanics, the risk of injury will decrease provided that you factor in the effort and velocity. Maximal effort and higher speeds may cancel out the decline in risk, but plenty of athletes have reduced their rate of injury while improving speed.The goal is to work on running mechanics to improve efficiency without chasing outcome effectiveness too much, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
There is no guarantee, though. Many athletes will get hurt after working on speed in the offseason, so the goal is to work on running mechanics to improve efficiency without chasing outcome effectiveness too much. By all means, get faster, but don’t fix all the issues with strength and power. Fitness may get an athlete faster and teach them to be more balanced, but a tired athlete running fast still rolls the dice because of the nature of human limits.
What You Can Realistically Do With Running Mechanics
Now for the reality check—attempting to improve sprint technique with team sports. There is no mounting evidence that supports elite programs, but that is not due to failure, it’s due to lack of really trying. Let’s be honest: The more talented an athlete is, the less likely they will be tinkered with, since athletes with good genes are coddled. We may not be able to overhaul an athlete, but we can focus our attention on the academy level and do it right there.
I am not giving up on adult athletes, as I do think it’s possible to improve their running mechanics since I do it myself, but working one-on-one with an athlete in the offseason is hardly the same as trying to manage a group of players during the season. Most of the changes will come from addressing warm-ups and adjusting resting patterns. Because most teams don’t devote time specifically to general training, it will be very difficult to make changes. Still, fight for change where you can, as we see plenty of athletes taking their warm-ups seriously, even when they look a little odd.
You should base the realistic expectation on time and athlete engagement. If an athlete is motivated but you don’t have fresh legs and the clock on your side, not much will be done. If an athlete is with a guru or private coach, this could be a major gift or a curse, so it’s about education and evaluation with video. Yes, at the end of the day, video enables a coach to not only see kinematics (technique), but if you use all of the tools correctly, you can see how velocity changes with technique changes. Sometimes, perhaps most of the time, just working on technique with purpose will clean technique up. When an athlete concentrates and puts effort into upright running and acceleration, time rewards those involved.
A good, recent example comes from soccer. I will admit, my interest in soccer is not only due to it being the world’s most popular game. Clearly, it’s a business move for me to help the sport, but I actually played it and enjoy the beauty of it. I based my article on the problems with American soccer on a few athletes I worked with this past summer. We didn’t have much time to train, but we made the most of every repetition and made huge improvements in speed that showed up on the athlete tracking readings.
Even athletes who were not training with us got faster from utilizing practices and games as small windows of speed opportunity. No drills, no special exercises, just knowing that a few extended bursts with absolute rest add up over months. Also, an athlete experiencing change or corrections live and in person is a huge benefit, as they are able to take on their own technical responsibilities remotely if a coach can’t be there.
Finally, let’s talk about what exact velocity and technique changes are possible, and what may not be feasible. Many athletes will be stubborn to change, and during a big play an athlete will always go to their comfortable running technique, but this isn’t all the time. I have seen some athletes purposely go to a running strategy they learned in practice and have it work, as they were confident in the coaching. This could sometimes backfire, as high intensity with unstable mechanical qualities can cause some complications and injury, but the opposite is usually the case. Most of what I see is an athlete learning to relax at high speeds because they feel like they have a plan.
Maybe what we say is not valid, but if an athlete is confident, they are comfortable, and if they are comfortable, they are likely a natural runner. You can be loose and stiff—meaning you can have rapid stiffness during foot strike while relaxing quickly in and out of the stride. This pulsating pattern requires an athlete to be in control and know when not to force something. In past years it took seasons to teach this, now it takes sessions.
I completely realize that a team sport athlete doesn’t need to be perfect or moonlight as a competitive sprinter. What drives me nuts are the common beliefs that you can’t change athletes at all, and that linear sprinting has poor value in team sport. We don’t teach athletes relay exchanges or how to high jump, but track and field works now, and it has always worked in the past. There is a limit, and it comes with the territory of training, but giving up or blocking the knowledge of the sport from helping other team sports is dishonest.
Play the Cards You’re Dealt
It’s fine to be honest and accept that improving running mechanics is not a huge return on investment and is also a hard job. Still, we all know that sports training is a terrible but necessary commitment, as you put in a pound to get an ounce.It’s worth spending a lot of time refining movement at all levels, as quality locomotion is the backbone to team sports, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Training will never be effective with advanced and/or older athletes, as they have already hit a genetic ceiling. Don’t give up, just know that it’s worth addressing, and never force a change that seems not to jive with an athlete. Athletes may not need or even respond well to technical changes, but it’s worth spending a lot of time refining movement at all levels, as quality locomotion is the backbone to team sports.
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