Updated: Aug 17, 2020
When I think of the most exciting passages of play in professional sport, Cyril Rioli chasing Lewis Jetta down the wing during the 2012 AFL Grand Final comes to mind. I also think of Josh Addo-Carr leaving opponents in his dust as he runs the length of the field for a try. Or even being transfixed upon the TV whenever Usain Bolt was racing at the Olympic Games.
When you’re a kid it’s a battle amongst you and your friends to see who is the fastest or who has the bragging rights as being the fastest on your team. Speed has always been a desirable physical trait.
This translates to the sporting arena as well. Having greater speed can lead to athletes scoring more often (3), being involved in more scoring chains (2), being drafted higher (10), and earning more money over the course of their careers (16).
However, for a long time athletic development in Australia has often neglected dedicated speed training for non-track athletes, particularly at sub-elite and local levels. At training, you’re always told you need to be getting fitter. You’re always running laps and doing time trials during the pre-season that make you regret your choice of a pie and iced coffee for lunch.
If you weren’t naturally fast there was almost a mindset of “so be it”. You didn’t do any drills to get faster. I don’t want to understate the importance of being fit. Conditioning has its place and it’s incredibly vital to be able to run out a game until the final siren or whistle. However, going for long, slow runs is only going to make you better at long, slow runs.
There’s no reason why you shouldn’t be incorporating dedicated speed training into your session, particularly when success in a majority of field and court sports is predicated on the ability to produce short, sharp bursts repeatedly. The best time to include speed training is right at the start of a session after an appropriate warm up!
So, what makes someone fast?
Ultimately, speed is determined by stride length and stride frequency (8). There are several factors that can influence stride length and frequency such as:
Strength and power expression
Posture and mobility
Unfortunately, there isn’t much we can do to change our genetics. We can, however, make sizeable strides in improving speed by focusing on technique, strength and power.
A mixed methods approach, which involves sprinting, plyometric exercises, and resistance training, shows the greatest improvements in speed (13, 14). In isolation, sprint training alone can make you faster (6), however, plyometric and resistance training complements this well to unlock your full speed potential.
This blog post will be primarily focused on practicing sprinting and optimising technique, but keep an eye out for part two where we explore how improving strength and reactivity (via plyometrics) can improve speed.
It's crucial to practice the skill of sprinting as it’s the only exercise that induces sprint-specific hamstring muscle activation (17), and consistent exposure to maximal running speeds has a protective effect against hamstring injuries (7, 9). Hamstring injuries are the most common injury to occur during sprinting (12), which can be a dangerous predicament when hamstring injuries are so common in team sports (11).
It's important, however, that athletes and teams do not shy away from sprinting due to fear of injury. Your sport is going to require you to sprint and if you avoid sprinting during training you are waiting for disaster when it comes to actually playing your sport. Therefore, an appropriately managed speed training program for team sport athletes is vital to reduce the risk of hamstring injuries during sprinting.
Most importantly, you can improve speed just by sprinting (6)! This occurs as sprinting:
Increases the ability of the lower leg muscles and tendons to store and release elastic energy (1)
Increases the size and rate of motor units sent to the muscles by the central nervous system (1)
Improves overall coordination (1)
Sprinting is also an opportunity to work on technique. Everyone will have their own unique running style so there isn’t one “correct” technique necessarily, but there is a general model to abide by that will get you out of your own way and sprinting faster.
Being able to accelerate quickly is arguably the most important component of sprinting as a majority of field and court sports are typically played over short distances (0-30m) (5). Being quick off the mark can put you in a better position to succeed in your sport – whether it's beating your opponent to the ball, intercepting a pass, chasing down an opponent or making a quick single.
“Head to heel, strong as steel” or more simply “long and strong”
To start a sprint, we need to exert large forces into the ground to overcome inertia. To do this, it’s imperative to adopt a forward lean with our torso and have our shins at a forward angle relative to the ground to allow our legs to work as “pistons”.
A nice straight line from the ear down to the heel is ideal. “Head to heel, strong as steel” or more simply “long and strong” are two terms I like to use. It’s important not to be too hunched or upright through the torso, and not to rise into an upright position too abruptly. Rather, we want to rise gradually as we increase in speed. All of these factors will ensure that we are in an optimal position to maximise force production and forward propulsion.
Drills to improve forward body angle:
Wall drills – standing on an angle up against a wall creates sprint-specific force application back into the ground. Perform a march, switches, or runs. You can see some examples here
Band resisted A-march, A-skip and run – to overcome the resistance of the band, you are forced to lean forward and push hard into the ground
Falling starts – lean forward until you lose balance, then accelerate forwards
"Push the ground away" and “drive the legs”
As mentioned above, we need to produce large forces into the ground to get to top speed as soon as possible. A high knee drive is required as it winds the leg up like a spring for the glutes, quads and calves to push the foot back into the ground. This enables the legs to operate like pistons and generate high amounts of force (4). Two cues to use are to “push the ground away” and “drive the legs”.
Drills to improve knee drive:
Wall drills – same from above with the addition of a high knee hold for 5-10 seconds
Hill sprints – the hill is a constraint that forces the foot to rise higher to clear the ground, thereby increasing knee height
Piston run (high knee run)
"Think hip to lip!"
“The arms drive the legs”. The hand should be up close to the mouth/cheek when coming forward, before driving back behind the hip. Think hip to lip! The elbows shouldn't be locked in at 90°, but rather extend as the hand goes behind the body. Imagine hammering a nail behind you.
Having a powerful arm action and rearward elbow drive is key to promoting optimal knee drive and leads to greater force applied into the ground. A strong arm drive is also important as the arms act as a counterbalance to prevent excessive rotation through your torso (some rotation is good) which minimises energy leakage.
Drills to improve arm drive:
Hill sprints – greater arm swing needed to assist with increased knee height required
Top Speed Technique
The foot strike is arguably the most important part of your running technique to perfect. There are two key things to consider with the foot strike. The first, is that we are striking the ground with the midfoot rather than the heel. A heel strike is not ideal for several reasons as it:
Increases braking forces while running which will slow you down
Increases the force absorbed by the knee and tibialis anterior muscle on the shin rather than the calf which has a greater capacity to store and release energy
Increases your ground contact time which will result in a slower stride frequency
Running on your midfoot minimises braking forces, allows for shorter ground contact time and places the ankle complex (calf and achilles) in a position of biomechanical advantage to be able to spring straight off the ground.
The second thing to consider with the foot strike is that contact with the ground occurs while the foot is close to being underneath the body’s midline. If you over-stride there will be:
Longer ground contact time because the rest of the body has to catch up to the leg before peak loading
Less chance of landing on your midfoot, instead landing on your toes, or forefoot. This takes the calf and achilles out of a powerful, sprung position
Greater strain on the hamstrings to have to pull the leg through into extension (15)
Drills to improve foot strike:
Wicket run – using appropriately spaced mini wickets/hurdles forces the athlete to self-organise their limbs into an optimal foot strike. Great for athletes that tend to over-stride
Dribbling – running so your foot clears ankle height before progressively increasing to knee height. A good drill to teach athletes to strike the ground under their midline
Triple Flexion and Triple Extension
"We want our foot sprung, not floppy!"
When triple flexion or extension is mentioned, it is referring to the leg - specifically, the hip, knee and ankle. Triple flexion ensures that the leg is coiled up like a spring and places the leg in a great position to generate high amounts of force and push down into the ground.
We want to see good hip height, knee height to be a little bit below parallel (high knees can slow us down), and importantly a strong, sprung ankle where the toes are almost pointing straight ahead. If the toes are pointing down to the ground it takes the calf and achilles out of its best position to produce force when the foot hits the ground. We want our foot sprung, not floppy!
On the other hand, triple extension is important because without it we are unable to take full advantage of the energy generated by our huge glute and quad muscles coming out of triple flexion to propel ourselves forward.
Drills to improve triple flexion and extension:
A-series – march, skip and run. Provides an opportunity to hold good postures while producing triple flexion
Wall drills – in addition to the wall drills previously mentioned, you can do a calf raise while performing a high knee hold to get extension of the back ankle
With the heel recovery, we want to minimise the gap between the heel and butt while in peak loading. The larger this gap is, the longer it will take for the foot to swing around into the next stride. A faster heel recovery, or small gap, will result in a greater stride frequency.
Drills to improve heel recovery:
Wicket run – same as above. This drill is great to improve heel recovery as it forces the athlete to quickly whip their leg back around to ensure their next foot strike is before the hurdle
The same principles as the arm drive in acceleration occurs here. Importantly at top speed, a strong arm drive creates extra “lift” which increases flight time and in turn stride length. The arms acting as a counterbalance is even more important at top speed as there should be much less rotation through the torso compared to during the initial acceleration phase.
Drills to improve arm drive:
Pocket run – a great drill that I've stolen from the crew at Core Advantage. One side of the body remains still while the other side goes through normal running mechanics. Teaches the connection between elbow and knee drive on one side of the body
Note: none of these drills should be done in isolation. Any “corrective” exercise you do with the aim of improving your sprinting technique should be followed by the thing you’re trying to fix - sprinting!
There you have it. That’s TRIAX’s guide to optimising running technique for speed.
Keep an eye out for part two where we will run through how to improve your speed via strength and plyometric training, as well as provide a complementary program!
Anything you think we missed? Let us know via our social links below.
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about the author
Strength and Conditioning Coach
B. Ex&SpSc (Hons) | ASCA L1
Available for individualised online coaching
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