By Jim Kielbaso
In order to develop straight-ahead speed, the foundation must be laid with proper sprinting mechanics. Once an athlete’s mechanics are sound, additional training methods (strength training, plyometrics, weight vests, over-speed, sleds, etc.) can be incorporated. Without sound mechanics, additional training methods will yield less than optimal results.
The main idea is to create as much horizontal force as possible in the shortest amount of time. Proper mechanics allow an athlete to take advantage of whatever force production capabilities he/she has.
The two basic factors involved in speed are:
- Stride length
- Stride frequency
Optimizing these two factors is the goal of any speed development program, but this is much easier said than done. The following information will help you gain a better understanding of sprint mechanics and some of the common technique errors. Also included are several drills to help correct each of these problems.
It will take a lot of practice for a coach to develop the ability to recognize mechanical errors, let alone choose and coach the appropriate drills to correct them. Take the time necessary to fully understand and analyze sprinting mechanics. Without the ability to analyze this complex movement and provide corrective feedback, a coach is of little use to an athlete trying to improve his/her speed. Also, keep in mind that there will be slight technique variations between athletes. While the technique described here is considered “optimal” by most experts, there are exceptions to the rule.
Olympic sprinting champion Michael Johnson was a perfect example of individual variation in sprinting mechanics. Many coaches remarked that Michael leaned too far back while running. While this may be true compared to most typical examples, it obviously did not have a negative impact on his speed. In fact, many athletes have considered leaning slightly backward because of his dominance.
There are many similar examples and trying to change these exceptional athletes would probably cause more problems than it would be worth. But, for every amazingly gifted athlete who is the exception to the rule, there are thousands of “normal” athletes who will benefit from improved sprinting mechanics.
Does every athlete need to have perfect mechanics? Yes and no. Take an offensive lineman in football, for example. In a game situation, he may never run more than 10 yards in any play. Even during his short sprints, he will probably never open up and run in a way that improved top-end sprint mechanics would help. But, working on acceleration mechanics will certainly benefit this athlete, and if he is ever required to perform a 40-yard dash at a combine, sprint mechanics may be extremely important. If the situation presents itself in a game situation where he needs to run fast, the time spent on running technique may pay huge dividends.
If a lineman can benefit from speed training, just about every other athlete in the world will benefit as well. Even a soccer goalkeeper, who does not typically cover a great deal of ground in a game, needs to have speed at his or her disposal when an important game situation makes it necessary. Because sprint training can benefit just about every athlete, it is important to understand the key concepts involved in teaching/learning proper mechanics.
Some mechanical issues stem from physical limitations that require corrective strengthening or flexibility exercises, but many are neuromuscular in nature – the athlete has simply developed poor technique and needs to re-educate his/her nervous system to perform a different motor pattern.
Many coaches will immediately assume that something is “wrong” and will prescribe corrective exercises, but these exercises will not correct the athlete’s faulty motor programs. Coaching technique and providing ongoing feedback are always necessary when attempting to change technique.