Sprint Training: Be Powerful, Not Quick

Posted: April 15, 2013 in Speed, Training
Tags: , , , , , ,

As anyone who has been to a Pro Day or a professional tryout will tell you, the first thing on the agenda is always sprinting. In football, it’s the 40 yard dash. In baseball, it’s the 60. For a lot of guys, this first test will make or break their chances of making whatever team it is they’re trying out for. If you’re running your sprints at a college showcase or combine, this is your first chance to impress the college coaches in attendance, and also your first chance to make them ignore you the rest of the day.

No matter what sport you play, having a good 40 or 60 time is extremely important. High school guys can win or lose college scholarships based on their times, and college guys stand to gain or lose potentially millions of dollars as professionals. If you’re trying out for a baseball team and the coaches aren’t impressed with your 60 time, you probably won’t even be allowed to hit. You’ll just be unceremoniously dismissed. Since such a premium is put on foot speed, I have a lot of young athletes that come to me wanting to “get faster.” The first thing I do when I get such a request is to watch them run. What I see on their first uncoached sprint is usually not super great. Some kids naturally have really good sprinting mechanics, but for every kid with “good” mechanics, there’s 10 more that look like they’d have been gobbled up by natural selection if we were back in the Stone Age.

If you can't outrun this guy, you don't get to live

Pictured: “natural selection”

I imagine that before humans took their current place at the top of the food chain you wouldn’t see too many people with bad running mechanics, because those people would be dead. Faster humans could get away from predators more easily, so they got to live longer and have more babies, who also turned out fast because of their genetics, while the slower folks just got weeded out by whatever horrific predators were around back then.

Whatever this is would certainly qualify...

If you can’t outrun this guy, you don’t get to live

But now that humans no longer have to run away from (or after) other animals to survive, we as a species have no need for perfect sprinting mechanics, and most of us now have to learn how to sprint like our lives depended on it.

In this post I talked about how important hip extension is to sprinting speed. If you can’t extend your hips powerfully, you’ll be going nowhere fast. Improving hip extension during sprinting pays big dividends when the guys in polo shirts, Oakleys, and ball caps pull out their stopwatches and clipboards. One quick way to clean up a guy’s sprinting technique and force him to extend his hips is to make him take less steps during his sprint. Now, I’m not saying that you should be bounding across the field with the longest stride length possible, but subtracting a few steps – especially during acceleration – can be extremely beneficial.

A lot of the athletes I evaluate have a common problem: they try way too hard to make their feet go a thousand miles an hour. At first glance, it would make sense that the faster your feet are moving, the faster you must be running. But really, if you’re taking a bunch of choppy, short steps, you’re expending a lot of energy and not going anywhere. What’s more important than revving your stride frequency up to the red line is driving your feet back powerfully and extending your hips as much as you can. When I’m teaching this, I tell my athletes to be powerful, not quick. Quick feet are fine for lateral agility drills and such, but for sprinting, we want POWER.

To see what this looks like, let’s look at some video. One of the guys I train (Brendan) is a sophomore football player who’s gearing up for his junior season. For him, this is probably the season where he’ll be getting the most looks from the most coaches, and he wants to be as fast as possible so nobody makes a John Harbaugh face while he’s running his 40.

That is a look of sheer disapproval

That is a look of sheer disapproval

Here’s two videos of Brendan running a 10 yard sprint. Which one looks faster to you?

Sprint 1:

Or Sprint 2?

In Sprint 1, Brendan’s feet are moving fast, but he doesn’t seem to be accelerating very well.

In Sprint 2, he looks to be accelerating much better.

But why is this happening?

Here’s a photo of the moment right before his left foot comes off the ground in his 2nd step:

Sprint 1:

sprint hip extension

Sprint 2:

hip extension sprint

Look at the difference in hip extension. In Sprint 2, he’s extending his left hip more effectively and getting more power in his stride. In Sprint 1 he’s not fully extending his hips and his speed is suffering for it. Watch the video again and you can see it looks like he’s trying to rush through his strides instead of driving through each step. Luckily, Brendan is extremely coachable and has good body awareness, because all it took to get him to make that change was me telling him to “take out a step.” In Sprint 1, he takes about 7.5 steps to go 10 yards. In Sprint 2, he takes 6.5 steps. By forcing himself to take out a step, what he’s really doing is forcing himself to take full, powerful strides instead of short, choppy ones. Most kids aren’t able to make that adjustment without additional coaching and drills, but Brendan’s one of the gifted kids who could have stayed alive in the Stone Age. Granted, his technique still has some minor flaws, but I think we can all agree that it’s pretty good overall.

If you’re a young athlete looking to improve your 40 time, stop trying to quick. Be powerful instead. Try improving your hip extension during your sprint and see if you can “take out a step” too.

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