While there are many great coaches putting out helpful information on sprinting and how to run faster, I think we should simply look at what goes into sprinting. There may be others putting out this information in different terms than I do, but this is how my brain works and hopefully it makes sense to some of you as well. Let’s determine what aspects go into sprinting and how to improve them.
I think of sprinting as being made up of three components, which is obviously very simplified. The three buckets I use are:
This is not necessarily a way to profile athletes, like neuro-typing or pushers versus pullers or many of the other ways we categorize athletes. I think pretty much all of these are useful as long as we realize most individuals are not just one thing or another but instead are on a spectrum. These tools can be used to identify an athlete’s strengths and weaknesses, and the way I break down sprinting can potentially be a useful tool as well.
Strength, or force, is needed in sprinting to horizontally displace our center of mass. Literally, you need some type of strength to push or pull your body forward. The person who can produce 10 Newtons of force into the ground will move faster and move their body more than the person who can only produce 1 Newton of force into the ground, assuming these two have the same body mass. I could bore all of you with some basic laws of physics, but I think we should all understand that if there is no force being produced, the runner will not move.
One important thing to consider is this should focus more on relative strength. While running, the athlete is fighting gravity pulling on their body mass. If you decide an athlete needs to get stronger, but they gain weight and muscle mass in the process, is that going to be beneficial? Are they going to be able to push their body mass better now, or did it really remain the same?
Barry Ross’ book Underground Secrets To Running Faster might have been the first time I heard this expressed. He wrote at length of the need to improve mass-specific force. You have to be able to move your body weight against gravity. Strength training is great for helping to produce more and more force. Now, a heavy squat might take five seconds from start to finish—a long time to produce force—but while sprinting, the athlete only has fractions of a second to produce force into the ground.
So, being able to produce high amounts of force relative to body weight is definitely important, but only the amount of force that an athlete can produce in one-tenth of a second really matters. An important strength quality to look to develop is power. Power is equal to force multiplied by velocity and takes into account strength and the amount of time the strength is produced.
The main production of force will come from the hip while sprinting, but the knee and ankle both need to be strong and stiff to transfer that force from the hip into the ground. I think of this like I think of playing pool. All of the power used to push the pool cue into the cue ball comes from your arm—specifically, your shoulder. The pool stick itself needs to be strong and stiff in order to transfer that force into the cue ball and move it. If the pool stick is stiff, but not strong—like a dry spaghetti noodle—it will transfer force well but break easily. If the pool stick is resilient, but not stiff—like a cooked spaghetti noodle—then it will not transfer much force, but it will be more difficult to break.
Some of the best methods I use to improve power pair together a strength movement and a speed movement. In the weight room, this could look like a heavy trap bar deadlift for 2-3 quality repetitions—moving as fast as possible—followed by a vertical jump. Use a movement that focuses more on strength and pair it with a movement that focuses more on moving quickly. On the field, for a more running-specific pair of exercises, I like to pair heavy sled or prowler pushes with free sprints. In my experience working with NFL Combine athletes, both of these examples have been staples in our program to help improve power and ultimately improve sprinting speed.To be a fast sprinter, athletes need to be strong relative to their body weight, produce force quickly, and be strong & stiff down their whole leg to transfer that force into the ground. Click To Tweet
To be a fast sprinter, athletes need to be strong relative to their body weight, produce force quickly, and be strong and stiff down their whole leg in order to transfer that force into the ground.
Being elastic typically refers to the stiffness of tendons—elastic athletes are your bouncy, long, and thin athletes. You can see their Achilles tendon pretty much climb from their ankle all the way up to the back of their knee. Strength and elasticity are two common ways we coaches categorize and profile athletes. I think it is, overall, a decent way of doing it; again, realizing they are all on a spectrum and need a balance of training both strength and elasticity.
How do you train elasticity? It is done primarily through plyometrics. Any bounce type of exercise will favor working the tendon over the muscle. Faster movements = more tendon, slower movements = more muscle. Low-level plyometrics like pogo hops, skipping, and line hops are a great way to build a foundation of elastic strength. More advanced exercises like bounds and depth jumps are great to maximize elastic strength.
It is a good idea to utilize low-level plyometrics early in the training cycle to prepare the tissues for the more advanced plyometrics yet to come. Then, progress your athlete from a simple A-skip to alternating bounds and even into assisted alternating bounds. Each progression will increase the amount of force put into the ground and have decreased ground contact times. The faster the ground contact time, the more the athlete is relying on elastic components of their tissue to transfer force into the ground.
Elasticity is important for maximizing sprinting speed because tendons help to transfer force into the ground effectively and efficiently, and they give you “free energy.” Tendons are like rubber bands. A brand-new, straight-out-of-the-pack rubber band is tight and stiff and can get shot across the room by stretching it an inch. That is what you want out of your tendons, minimal stretch or effort needed to go far. An old rubber band found between the couch cushions that is stretched out and loose needs a lot of pulling in order to get shot just to the other side of the room. The more we can improve tendon stiffness and elasticity, the more the athlete can take advantage of the free energy of the tendons and put force into the ground quickly, which we already know the importance of.
The last component I think about when coaching sprinting is technical. One part of this is how running should look, or the shapes an athlete should make while running, and the other is the direction in which they apply force. These two pretty much go hand and hand.
We all have an idea of how sprinting should look. Whether it’s the first step of a sprint or once an athlete is 40 yards down field, we coaches should have an idea of what the sprint motion should look like. I think we all agree that in the start and early acceleration, we should see more of a forward torso angle and more of a piston-like action in the lower leg; then, as they reach max velocity, we should see more of a cyclical motion in the leg and upright torso. Throughout the entire sprint, we want to see a relatively big arm swing, at least behind their body. You may have different ideas or more specific motions you want to see in your athletes, but I think we can agree on these.
Using something as simple as your phone camera to record sprints to more easily see the positions your athlete achieves while sprinting is an effective tool. After you determine what positions need improvement, use drills that get the athlete into these motions. Want more knee lift? Try A-skips. Need more cyclical motion? I like butt kick skipping drills or any clawing and pawing type of techniques. Something as basic as a standing arm drill, working on swinging the arms like they would while running with an emphasis on throwing the hand behind them, is effective to improve that motion.
If there is a certain range of motion you want the athlete to be able to achieve while running, but they cannot get into position, the best way to help them achieve it is with a medical professional: a physical therapist, athletic trainer, massage therapist, or whatever discipline you believe in. Let them assess the issue and what techniques are needed to open up the desired range of motion. Yes, maybe stretching, foam rolling, isometrics, or other strategies may work, but I have always been a big believer in using medical professionals and different specialties when needed.
The reason certain ranges of motion are important to sprinting is that they help provide the direction in which force is being applied. Meaning, if you want the athlete to move forward, they better be able to apply force in such a way that it moves them forward and not in a different direction.You can apply all the relative force you want and as quickly as Usain Bolt, but if it isn’t being applied in the correct direction, it does you no good, says @Steve20Haggerty. Click To Tweet
We know that, especially in the start of a sprint, force needs to be applied horizontally, but if an athlete does not have the ankle dorsiflexion range of motion to maintain a forward lean and push backward into the ground, then they are going to stand straight up. If you want a big hip flexion range of motion so the leg has more time to travel back toward the ground forcefully, then they better have adequate hip flexion ROM. You can apply all the relative force you want and as quickly as Usain Bolt, but if it is not being applied in the correct direction then it does no good.
By improving strength and power, elasticity with plyometrics, and technical mechanics, you can expect to see improvements in sprinting speeds in your athletes. In this most recent NFL Combine and Pro Day season at Bommarito Performance, we saw an average improvement of .3 seconds in the 40-yard dash, with the best improvement being .6 seconds.
I hope this makes sense to you all. I believe these concepts not only carry over to sprinting, but also jumping, throwing, swinging, punching, changing direction, and pretty much every sport movement. The athlete needs to be able to produce adequate force in the necessary amount of time and in the proper direction.
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