Increasing Your Top Sprinting Speed
Increasing Your Top Sprinting Speed
Becoming a faster runner can be as simple as improving your sprinting mechanics.
The more and more I’m around the game of football, the more I realize that speed kills. There’s no doubt that athletes have to be big and strong to compete on the field, but I’ve never seen a great team that consists of a bunch of big, strong, slow guys. Big, strong, and slow sounds like the paperweight that I have on my desk. It’s bold and it looks nice, but it isn’t getting any work done. Speed combined with size and strength is the name of the game and if you don’t have it you’re going to get left in the dust.
When most people think of speed in its simplest form, they break it down into stride length and stride frequency. Common sense tells me I need to improve at least one of these, if not both, if I am going to increase my speed. At first glance it seems to easy, just lengthen out your stride length and BAM you’ll be a faster runner!
NOT SO FAST! Although it seems easy, the result of over-striding outside of your optimal stride length creates foot contact too far out in front of the center of mass, causing a braking action with each step. Yeah… Not very efficient. Instead, you want to work through an optimal range of motion and aggressively pull back though so that ground contact is made underneath the body. The result, continuous forward acceleration of the hips and no breaking action!
So you ask, “If I don’t increase my stride length, how am I going to get faster?” The answer is stride frequency. How fast can you recover your leg and get it back down on the ground? The only time you can put force into the ground is when your foot is in contact with the ground, so if you’re over striding and floating through the air, it’s going to take you longer to get your foot back down to apply force again. Just to be clear here, I am not promoting a short stride but an optimal stride that is different for each individual.
Now that we know speed is about stride frequency, let’s break it down and take a closer look. Maximum velocity running mechanics are all about proper positioning and knowing what muscles you use to get into these positions. These mechanics can be thought of as a cyclical action in contrast to the piston-like pattern you should see in acceleration mechanics, and can be broken down into backside recovery mechanics and front side ground preparation mechanics. Let’s take a closer look.
The recovery phase starts the second the foot leaves the ground. You should immediately begin the recovery process and not allow a long dangling foot on the backside. During this process you’ll want to pull your foot into dorsiflexion which means decreasing the angle between your foot and the leg, so that your toes are brought closer to your shin. Anyone who works with me on speed training will tell you that I cue them on dorsiflexion at least 100 times during a typical workout, because it’s a huge component in increasing top speed for all athletes.
Why? Well, if you run on your toes you’ll have already fired your calve muscles and can no longer utilize them in your drive off the ground. By running in a dorsiflexion position and making ground contact with the ball of the foot (NO TOES, NO HEELS!) you’ll get a nice stretch reflex in your calf and soleus muscle which will lead to a stronger contraction off the ground. This small change will set you up for proper ground contact, and forces your legs to use the gastrocnemius and soleus to help with the recovery.
Now that we’ve pulled our toes to our shins to begin the recovery process, you’ll want to continue to pull your heel to your butt. The goal here should be to recover your leg as aggressively as possible, so that you slam your calf into your hamstring as hard as you can. If your heel is close to making contact with the underside of your butt, you’re doing it correctly. Just check out this video of Usain Bolt and you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about.
Next, you’ll want to step over the knee to set up proper front side mechanics. After stepping over the knee, use a cast and grab technique rather than a reach, plant, and pull method to get the foot back down onto the ground. This will result in a weightless feeling once you’ve mastered the technique.
Once foot contact is made underneath your body with the ball of your foot, the whole process starts over again. The first time my athletes run using these proper mechanics they always come back to me with a big smile on their face and tell me it felt like they were floating down the field. In reality this is exactly what is going on, as you’ll create a weightless type situation with quick explosive pull backs on the ground. The only thing that’ll slow you down is your ability to get your foot back around and on the ground again.
Although it may seem easy at first glance to just lengthen your stride for improved speed, that will actually only slow you down. Top end speed is about recovering the foot and getting it back down on the ground faster than your opponent. Trust me, take the time to learn proper top end speed mechanics, and shift your athletic career into overdrive.
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About the Author
Craig Sowers is the Head Football Strength Coach at The University of Akron. Prior to that, Coach Sowers was an Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach at UCLA and worked with the Bruins Football, Women’s Soccer and Men's Volleyball teams. He is also the Director of the Akron General Sports Performance program in Akron, Ohio and currently oversees two facilities with a third on the way. Prior to Akron General Sports Performance, Coach Sowers served as a Center Director in two facilities for Velocity Sports Performance. While at Velocity, Sowers worked with a number of NFL, MLB, and Track and Field athletes and was selected to be on the Sports Performance Directors Advisory Council where he was Chairman from November 2006 to July 2007. From 2000 to 2003 Sowers served as Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at The University of Texas at El Paso and before that he was a Student Strength and Conditioning Coach at the University of Akron, his alma mater. Over the course of his career, Coach Sowers has been fortunate to work with over 50+ NFL players, 10 MLB players, 8 MLS players, and multiple numbers of other athletes in the NBA, WNBA, WPS, AVP, and USA Track and Field (Including 3 Olympic Medalists). He and his wife (Lori) are Ohio natives and have two boys Bo and Payton.
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