How fast is fast enough? Are you happy just keeping up with the play or do you strive to be the first to the ball, the first to the next contest or the only one to beat the timing system on testing day?
Every sport requires different athletic capabilities, but one thing remains a constant…speed kills!
Let’s begin our sprint training journey with a look at what sprint training actually incorporates…
What is sprint training?
Sprint training is an often overlooked aspect of physical performance training for most athletes. True sprint training involves understanding how an athlete moves and developing a strategy to improve on weaknesses whilst continuing to develop strengths.
Sprint training incorporates a series of drills/exercises designed to mimic the patterns we see in athletes whilst sprinting. Take a field sport athlete for example, to sprint towards an opponent, they must first get in to the correct body position to accelerate off the spot followed immediately by appropriate arm and leg mechanics.
We can simulate these unique positions through the use of running form drills and pay special attention to certain characteristics such as limb angle, posture and stability.
To start with, sprint training must address fatal flaws in an athletes technique and improve on these through static position development. Only once the athlete has improved these positions without movement, can we add a dynamic aspect to the drill. We have managed to elicit substantial improvements in our athletes running form from spending at least 30 minutes per week on sprint training.
So where do we start?
Performance assessment and video analysis
Completing a performance assessment that provides you with specific and personalised feedback of baseline measures; flexibility, mobility, stability, posture, speed, power and running gait, is the best place to start to improve your speed.
Through the analysis of these measures, a performance coach can give you a thorough understanding of what limits your speed, power and agility. Every athlete is different and only once we have accepted this as coaches and athletes, can we make real progress.
Some athletes will find relative strength levels their limiting factor in producing power and speed, whereas many will find a lack of stability during movement their limiting factor. A performance coach has spent a long time learning and developing their ‘coaches eye’ to immediately distinguish an athletes limiting factors.
The use of video feedback is not a new concept, however how it applies to an athlete and their movement signature can significantly determine results down the track. Frame by frame analysis can be deceiving as coaches often over emphasise small problems. Watching the video in real time or with a small decrease in frame speed is the best option as we gain a real time understanding of the athletes movement capabilities.Do you have time to assess your own movement signature? Try out our simple measure below:
Analyse your acceleration technique
Let’s spend a minute now analysing our own technique and discovering the key areas we can improve on.
Film yourself accelerating as fast as possible over 15 – 20 metres. This should be from a stationary start. You will need to film from three locations and have a friend/parent do the filming:
- Behind the athlete (video should focus on hips, ankles and knees)
- Side on to the athlete (stand at least 7 metres back from the athlete at the 7 metre mark of the sprint)
- Front on to the athlete (stand at the 20 metre mark, slightly to the side)
Use a smartphone for this task that allows you the ability to scroll through frame by frame. We are going to look at three to four key items that fit our acceleration model for each video.
1. Line of push back straight under hips (no dropping of hips / movement of knee)
2. Recovery of leg under hip
3. No lateral dropping of hips (shown in photo)
- Angle of attack
- Extension (Seen in photo above through the back leg)
- Front side mechanics
- Arm drive (Seen in photo above with angulating arms)
- Arms not crossing midline
- Knees not crossing midline
Basics of Sprint Training
If you search through literature, websites and even your physical education course book at school they’ll all explain the benefits of a warm-up and why we do them. To recap some basic points:
- Increase of heart rate
- Increase of blood flow to peripheries (arms / legs / skin / muscles)
- Increase ROM (range of motion e.g. in hips)
- Increase and improve muscle recruitment
- Prepare the brain for exercises
The last point in particular is one we would like to touch on. “To prepare the brain for exercise…”can we expand and take this further to become “To prepare the brain for performance…”
How often do you as an athlete turn up to training when the weather is cold and just do not want to be there? You get told to warm-up and you half-heartedly go through the motions to keep the coach happy. Your first skill orientated drill is sub-par, you can’t get in to any rhythm and you’re beginning to get frustrated.
Take this and apply it on game day, too often we see teams get blown apart by their opposition in the first 10 minutes due to a lack of preparation.
We need to warm-up with INTENT!
Intent to get the most out of the warm-up, intent to execute the drills correctly every time and intent to prepare the brain for performance.
Now that we have covered why warm-ups are important, lets explore the benefit of performing a systemised movement based warm-up that not only prepares us for exercise but also acts a daily movement screen, assessment tool and is pivotal to the execution of correct sprinting/running technique.
A movement based warm-up breaks down key components of correct sprinting/running technique and provides an opportunity for an athlete to develop these components daily. At ACE Performance we progress our athletes through a 6 – stage warm-up protocol that is constantly assessed and refined by our coaches in every session.
The warm-ups follow the same pattern with varying degrees of difficulty across levels:
- Arm drive / shoulder mobility
- Foot strike mechanics x 2
- Rudimental running form drill
- Advanced running form drill
- Lateral movement
- Hip mobility
- Backwards component / posterior chain recruitment
These seven components serve as a daily movement screen for both coaches and athletes. As coaches we look at how the foot contacts the ground, how the hips and shoulders work in tandem, whether the athlete is ‘guarding’ a specific movement and the list goes on.
As an athlete you should be assessing some of the following:
- Is there any pain through this movement
- Am I compensating due to tightness / dysfunction
- Does this feel the same as it usually does
- Am I performing these movements with intent
Once the athlete has completed these seven initial components, we work through ROM in the lower limbs and upper limbs:
- Leg swings forwards / backwards (hamstrings / quadriceps)
- Leg swings side to side (groin / gluteals)
- Donkey kicks (Lateral hip mobility)
- Forward and backward arm circles
The final components of the warm-up include drills that are much more aligned with the final product such as progressive run throughs and power expression drills.
Depending on how ‘ready’ you are to work at a maximal (90-100%) intensity, your run through should progress from 50% (speed) up to 100% over the duration of a few run-throughs.
Power expression drills are included to increase rate of force development (how much power you can express in the shortest amount of time available) and timing of this force application.
On the next page we’ve included a breakdown of our 6 warm-ups, with warm-up 1 being the most basic and progressing through from there.
These warm-ups work very well in preparing your brain for exercise/performance, however it is up to you as the athlete to apply the INTENT.
MOVEMENT PREPARATION SKILLS
In highly competitive sport, it is becoming difficult to find the competitive advantage, which will differentiate one athlete from the rest. Sprinting has developed from being a sport unto itself to being a key performance indicator for many court and field based athletes.
The importance of well-trained sprinting and agility in any sport cannot be underestimated as speed may be what differentiates one athlete from the next. The ability to rapidly accelerate through varying distances, hold a high speed and then decelerate efficiently is of upmost importance for running sport athletes.
Moreover the ability to repeat these short bursts of speed many times in a game, training session and across a week is paramount for high performing and injury resilient athletes.
Some of the main benefits for developing movement mechanics of an athlete are:
- Increased running speed
- Improved acceleration ability
- More efficient and economical technique
- Less soft tissue injuries
- Improved recovery times
- Improved agility
- Faster reaction times
Now that we understand the importance for creating skilled movers within sport, the question is…how do we become a skilled mover?
Lets start by breaking down the main components of movement within court and field based sport:
- Upright running
- Change of direction
- Walking / jogging
Unless there is a stoppage in game or a reason for play to halt, players are generally moving around in some form. Different sports have different requirements of their athletes. Take basketball for example, all players are expected to move from one end of the court to the other end as play unfolds. However in a sport like Australian Rules football, there are many different positions that have different running requirements, some players work within a set area whereas other players are free to roam the full field.
Keeping this in mind, one thing stands true for all of these athletes. Those who can beat their opponent one on one in regards to speed and agility are looked on more favourably by teammates, coaches and fans.
To assist in our analysis of running mechanics we are going to break down the ACCELERATION phase of running into some key landmarks that we wish to attain. Before we do this however, we must stress the importance of understanding that we are delivering a ‘model’ that we look to develop our athletes from. Not all athletes move the same or have the same technique so pick and choose wisely as to which parts are important for your development.
NB: This model has been adapted for developing athletes new to running form drills. For more skilled movers, a much more individualised approach must be taken.
ACCELERATION – MODEL
Feet/Ankles – During the initial acceleration phase weight bearing occurs on the ball of the foot. If the foot lands flat, out in front of the body, deceleration will occur and result in increased support phase time and decreased stride rate.
Knees – The focus of the front cycle is to get the knee parallel with the hip (approx. 90°) and achieve triple flexion (hip/knee/ankle). The faster and more powerful the knee drive, the faster and more powerful the push back phase will be.
Back Cycle – The heel should make a path straight up to the buttocks. Simultaneously the hip flexes bringing the thigh to parallel (90°). Failure to achieve heel to butt will decrease leg turnover and therefore decrease speed.
Front Cycle – To achieve optimum propulsion from the push off phase, the athlete must, on contact plant their foot underneath their hip. Quite commonly, athlete’s plant their foot in front of their hip and have to ‘claw’ their way through the stride.
Hip Stability – Hips should remain square to the sprinting target and avoid lateral dropping or hip rotation. Rotation or dropping of the hips adds pressure to the lumbar spine and can lead to complications such as stress fractures.
Hands/Arms – An athlete can generate great amounts of power from their arms that will translate into their leg patterning. An athlete’s arms are used in coordination with their steps to keep the body square and develop maximum power. The most efficient way to do this is the encourage use of the arms in line with the shoulder (i.e. not crossing the midline) and generating power angulating at the elbow (i.e. the elbow closes in front of the body and opens behind the body).
Knees – Must be in line with hips rather than opening or crossing the midline. A direct line of knee drive will limit hip and back rotation.
Neck – Head position must be relaxed and still. Head must be in line with the spine and not cross the midline of the body. Neck and upper back/shoulder injuries can begin from the extra stress caused by excessive movement of the head.
UPRIGHT RUNNING – MODEL
To best understand the concept of upright running in field / court based sports, we can define it as ‘the point at which an athlete is no longer aggressively accelerating and is calculating their next impact on the game’, basically this is all running during a game that does not involve jogging, accelerating or decelerating.
We need to understand this as our body moves differently in upright running than when we are accelerating. There are less forces acting on the body, less energy expenditure and it provides a great opportunity to position ourselves better within the game.
If we use the analogy of a hybrid car, our acceleration phase is when the petrol is used in the car whereas our upright running phase is when the electric motor kicks in to save petrol. This is the best and most important time for us as athletes to preserve some energy to be able to run out games better.
So what are we looking for in an efficient and economical upright running model? Here are a few key items:
- Relatively stable hips – our hips should oscillate slightly as we run but there should not be any prominent dropping of the hips, forwards/backwards rotation or tilting of the hips.
- Striking of foot on ground – our feet should land close to or slightly in front of our centre of mass (the point directly below our hips)
- Strong torso – from our hips to shoulders we need to ensure we have a strong torso that can balance the power generated in our hips with the need for our upper body to counteract rotation. No slumping or ‘hung shoulders’
With the upright running model being slightly harder to analyse on an athlete, we’ve included some screen shots of athletes in action with efficient and robust running mechanics
With the duration of pre-season training in many sports starting to lengthen and a higher emphasis placed on ‘conditioning’, especially in field-based sports, it is paramount to develop efficient and robust mechanics to prevent the early onset of overload injuries. The difference between the top runner and bottom runner in many teams is more based on movement mechanics rather than a physiological factor such as VO2 max.
This concept goes against conventional thinking and may ruffle a few feathers. Improving an athletes ‘conditioning’ level is important, the longer they can run at a high intensity, the better they should perform later in the game. However there is too much of an emphasis on improving this one physiological attribute and not enough on improving the athletes’ ability to move effectively. Train all systems of the body to work together in harmony!
If we use our car analogy again, take an old American muscle car with a big V8 engine, it provides a lot of grunt but quickly uses up petrol and isn’t great in the corners. Swap that for a new European V8 with exactly the same size engine, which is much more efficient, has improved cornering and ultimately less likely to break down if pushed hard. This is exactly what happens with many athletes in the pre-season.
Build yourself in to becoming an efficient and economical athlete who can tolerate the loads expected in the pre-season. This can be achieved by developing your movement patterns through acceleration, upright running and deceleration.
There is no one size fits all approach, but rather aim to tailor your movement skills to your body, level of experience and sporting requirements