How to improve your sprinting speed
Patrick Beth provides a few tips that will help you improve your sprinting speed.
Drive Phase - Do not force yourself to stay low
The drive phase happens right after you react to the starting gun. Your initial 8 -10 steps are considered your drive phase. The biggest problem seen with athletes in the drive phase is that they know that staying low will create better exit angles to set up the ideal acceleration phase. The problem is that athletes are trying to stay low.
When athletes try and stay low, they usually hold themselves down by breaking at the hips. This will limit the amount of force you can apply to the ground and leads to poor acceleration. Let your upper body unfold naturally. You want to keep a straight line from your back ankle to your head. Staying low will occur if you are already strong enough.
Since the acceleration phase (0-30 yards) is associated with a higher stride frequency than at maximum speed, athletes concern themselves too much to be quick with their legs. So, instead of driving out and being powerful, athletes are 'spinning their wheels'. Make sure when you are running the 40 that you are getting a triple extension (ankle, knee, hip) and that you 'feel your feet behind you'. If you are getting the sensation of your feet driving well behind your centre of mass, then you know you are finishing off your leg drive to be as powerful as possible. If you try to be too quick with your legs, you will not be using your full strength to drive out and although you might feel a little faster because your legs are moving quicker, you will have a slower time and not set yourself up to be in the best possible position.
One of the hardest things about running is trying to stay relaxed while you run. Most athletes first think that to run fast that they have to run hard. They associate running hard with trying to create as much tension as possible. You can tell quickly if an athlete is too tense, just by looking at their facial expression.
If you see an athlete with a tight face, their eyes will be squinting, teeth are mashed, and you know that they are trying too hard and are forcing themselves to slow down. If you see an athlete with their cheeks flopping up and down as they run, you know that they have mastered the relaxation technique and are getting the most out of their sprinting.
I remember sprint coach guru Charlie Francis saying that you must 'let the speed come'. You have to let your muscles work for you and not against maximizing your speed potential. This is a tough concept to learn and MUST be practiced if you want to get the most out of your speed. Other things to look for if you are running tight are clenched fists, elevated shoulders, and a shortened stride.
The arms play a significant, yet overlooked, role in sprinting and speed development. Without specifically and regularly addressing proper arm mechanics within your speed training program, full speed potential will not be realized. Today we will address this issue so that we can continue to make improvements on the athletic field.
The role of the arms is to stabilize the torso so that power can continue to be efficiently transferred through the hips. This ability to transfer power effectively through the centre of mass not only improves the rate of acceleration but also facilitates reaching maximum velocity, maintaining those top speeds and reducing the rate of deceleration. So, as you can see, the arms both directly and indirectly influence the ability to run fast.
Now let us get into the specifics of improving our arm action.
When running, it is essential to keep your hands relaxed. Think about holding a potato chip in each hand. No matter how hard you run, no matter how tired you get, you cannot clench your hands so that the potato chip breaks. This is a good way of thinking about how loose your hands should be at all times when running. When you start to clench your fists tightly, that tightness spreads through your forearms, biceps, shoulders, neck, and face. Once you tighten up and lose range of motion in your arms, it reduces stride length, which is difficult to get back without burning a lot of energy.
While sprinting, it is crucial to get a full range of motion with the arms. Remember, speed is a product of stride length and stride frequency. Stride length and frequency are determined, in part, by the motion of the arms. If you are lazy or passive with your arm action, you are limiting your potential for speed.
Your front arm angle should be between 60-90 degrees at the elbow, and your back arm should be between 90-120 degrees, also at the elbow. If your arm angles fall outside of this range, your running mechanics will be negatively affected. In short, you will run slower and get tired faster. When running, an arm swing should be initiated at and through the shoulders. It would help if you thought of your elbow as being locked in place.
The elbow angle should only change slightly, as a result of elastic response. The range of motion with the arms should be hip to cheek. That hand clears the hip in the back and comes up to about cheek height in front. Much more than that, in either direction, will result in over-striding which, as mentioned before, will cause breaking and can lead to strains, pulls, and tears in the muscle.
When running, emphasis should be placed on driving the elbows down and back. When runners fire their arms straight back, without first driving them down, it often leads to bunched-up shoulders, which causes tightness and limits the range of motion. It is important to focus on driving the arms back as they are recovered elastically by the stretch of muscles in the shoulder. So, do not drive your arms up and forward because the stretch reflex will bring them forward anyway.
Another aspect of arm action is to avoid lateral deviation beyond the sagittal plane. This means that when they are brought in front of you, your arms should never cross the midline of your body. Your right arm should stay on the right half of your body, and your left arm should remain on the left side.
When you move your arms laterally, across the midline of your body, you rotate your hips which burns much-needed energy and makes you run slower and get tired faster, all for no reason other than laziness and lack of concentration. Remember, you compete as you practice, so you cannot expect them to be fixed in the competition if you do not correct technical issues in practice.
This drill can be practiced either in a group setting or alone by standing in front of a mirror. Stand with the feet between hip and shoulder-width apart. Bring your weight forward onto the balls of the feet. It would be best if you were far enough forward that your heels are slightly off the ground, but not so far forward that your toes curl to maintain balance. It is this slight, 2- 4-degree lean that is ideal for simulating sprinting. Start with one arm forward, 90 degrees at the elbow, and one arm back, also 90 degrees at the elbow. Perform this drill following the guidelines presented in this article.
Mastering proper arm action is a function of knowing what to do and then repeating the proper pattern until muscle memory makes it the new natural pattern.
Hands: Open vs Closed
Cueing the hands can be a touchy subject. Some coaches believe that having your hands open is the best way while others like a closed hand for their athletes to use while running.
First, I would look at the athlete. If they look as if their shoulders/arms are staying relaxed and are not crossing the midline, you should not cue this athlete too much with the hand technique. There are so many other cues and techniques to work on to worry about their hands if they do not seem to be causing a problem.
If your athlete is not staying relaxed in their arms and shoulders, then I would address the hands. Usually, if the hands are wide open with the fingers and palms are straight, the forearm tends to be flexed. This causes tension in the arm and the upper arm and shoulders, and as you know, this can affect the elasticity of your muscles, causing you to fight yourself as you move. The same thing can happen when you make a fist and try to run. Holding your hands clenched causes your forearms to be tight, and you will run into the same problem as the 'open' hand.
I teach in between both of these. You want your hands to stay relaxed. I am sure you have heard this saying before to 'pretend you are holding a potato chip in your hand and do not want to break it'. You can feel your fingers almost bouncing up and down as your run. This is the type of relaxation that should carry the rest of your arm up to your shoulder. Keep the hands loose, but not open.
Another thing to note is that looking at the top receivers and defensive backs, they never run with closed hands because they want their hands to be as soft as possible to catch a ball. If their hands are closed, their arms will be tight, and it will take more time to open them and create the soft hands they are looking for.
We touched a little on stride frequency; now let us get into stride length. Your optimal stride length should be about 2.5-2.7 times your leg length (measured from the crest of your greater trochanter to the floor).
While optimal stride length is important, I would stay away from certain exercises to try to increase it. Excessive downhill and over-speed running can cause problems with your running technique. If the slope going downhill is too much and being pulled fast during over speed work, your legs start to create a braking action. This is where your foot is plantarflexed (toes pointed down) in front of your centre of mass to try and stop that speed. So, you are fighting yourself and controlling any speed you are trying to create. This can not only cause damage to your hamstrings but can also create neuromuscular integration problems.
Flexibility (dynamic ranges of motion and static stretching) and strength & power training (which will also help joint stabilization) are the best ways to reach your optimal stride length level.
Other Sprinting Tips/Cues
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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 motivated coaches and athletes' knowledge base to enhance athletic performance. He is a Performance Consultant certified by the National Strength and Conditioning Association (CSCS), the American Council of Sports Medicine (HFI), and the National Academy of Sports Medicine (PES). He is a USA Track and Field Level II Coach in the Sprints, Hurdles, and Jumps.