Developing your speed (part 4) - Step over, drive down
In the fourth of seven articles on speed development, Patrick Beith explains how to improve running mechanics and speed.
Doing it well takes practice. You can get better at it, or make others better at it, by changing the way you use your muscles. The primary 'running muscles' are the gluteus and hamstrings. Athletes must learn to employ those muscle groups when performing speed work.
When doing any type of speed work, your athletes must learn to step over the opposite knee and drive the foot down into the ground so that it lands underneath the hips with each stride.
You understand the simple fact that speed is the single most important component of success in every sport. It seems like some people are born with it, and some are not. Well, I can tell you right now, no matter how fast or slow you think your athletes are, they can get much quicker.
Speed is a skill that can be taught. By training the body to move in specific ways, every athlete can make significant increases in their overall speed, which means the speed and success of the team as a whole can quickly take them to the next level.
When developing your athletes' acceleration skills, it is important to work on two key elements: mechanics and real speed work. In terms of mechanics, your athletes must perform the speed drills that reinforce the 'step over, drive down' principle.
The purpose behind having them perform these drills and exercises is to reprogram their neuromuscular system to fire the muscles in the patterns that produce greater force and therefore greater speed.
Most athletes have never been taught to run the right way, so they are very inefficient. One common technical problem is when athletes are swinging their arms across their body instead of firing the elbow down and back. Another major issue affecting the vast majority of inexperienced athletes is called 'reaching'. This occurs during the recovery phase of running when an athlete allows the foot to travel out past the opposite knee. The result is that the athlete's foot reaches and lands out past their centre of mass, causing a breaking action.
Watch your athletes when they practice or go watch some film of them competing. As they run, check or pause the video as soon as their foot touches the ground. If it is out past their hips instead of directly underneath the hips, they are 'reaching' and running slower than they are capable. Additionally, they are placing great stress on their hamstring because the muscle is not working in the way it is meant to. So, if you see hamstring pulls, lower back problems, calf or Achilles strains in your athletes, especially as the season wears on, there is a good chance that part of the problem stems from poor running mechanics. One way to start to fix this problem is by giving your athletes cues to think about during practice. They will begin to reprogram their movement patterns and immediately get faster.
For example, to fix the reaching problem, cue them to 'step over the opposite knee and drive down.' Other ways to say this are 'run through tall grass' and 'run through knee-high water'.
Greater speeds are produced by applying more force to the ground. By learning to drive the foot straight down, landing underneath the hips, athletes will make the most of their existing strength levels and reduce injury.
The next element to consider when developing the speed hidden within your athletes is making sure you are doing real speed workouts with them. Speedwork is defined as 2 to 8 seconds of high-intensity work followed by full recovery. That means they must rest at least 2 to 3 minutes between each repetition!
Running at full speed is taxing on the Central Nervous System. If the body does not recover fully, athletes will quickly break down and lose the ability to move in the optimal patterns. If they try to sprint in a state of fatigue, they will not improve acceleration or top speed. They will only get better at running at 85-90%. These workouts have a time and a place, but they will not make your athletes faster.
Think about how you are training your athletes. Do your workouts accomplish the objective you are aiming for? Are they getting enough rest between intervals? Are their running mechanics sound? Are you experiencing a high volume of injuries? These are all issues to consider when evaluating your current program seriously.
Because most sports involve short bursts of speed with low-intensity activity, followed by short bursts of speed we will focus on acceleration development. Learning how to overcome our body weight and accelerate to full speed as quickly and efficiently separates starters from benchwarmers, champions from 'also ran'.
Here is a sample speed session, focusing on acceleration, development. Cue athletes to get up as quickly as possible.
We like to have athletes start in various positions starting from the ground because they require the athlete to generate more force than a regular standing start.
Be sure to cue your athletes to 'step over and drive down'. During acceleration, the feet should land directly underneath, if not slightly behind, the hips. Drive the elbows down and back and stay relaxed. If your athletes are straining and fighting to move faster, they are only slowing themselves down. Think about how relaxed an Olympic sprinter looks while running.
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About the Author
Patrick Beth is a co-owner of Athletes' Acceleration, Inc, a company devoted to performance enhancement whose mission is to improve the knowledge base of motivated coaches and athletes to improve athletic performance. He is a Performance Consultant certified by the National Strength and Conditioning Association (CSCS), the American Council of Sports Medicine (HFI), the National Academy of Sports Medicine (PES). He is a USA Track and Field Level II Coach in the Sprints, Hurdles and Jumps.
The following Sports Coach pages provide additional information on this topic: