By Jess Jarver
From time to time there is a need to go back to the accepted fundamentals of an event. For this reason we present in the following text the basics of sprinting to assist young athletes and novice coaches. The article is an extract from the author’s book Athletics Fundamentals, published by A.H. & A. W. Reed Pty. Ltd., re-printed here with permission from Modern Athlete and Coach.
Sprinting is running at full speed over a short distance. The two major factors that determine the sprinting speed of an athlete are the stride length and stride frequency. It has often been said that sprinters are born and not made. This is only party true. Fast running undoubtedly depends largely on inherited physical characteristics and there are some who are extremely gifted with natural speed. However, there is also room for improvement for the less gifted through efficient training to develop running technique and leg power.
There appears to be no particular body type ideally suited for sprinting. Successful sprinters come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from the lean and tall to the short and muscular athletes. Nevertheless, all have two common qualities – they tend to be powerful and possess great leg speed.
It is important to note that, according to sport scientists, the best age to develop leg speed is between the ages of seven to eleven years. By the time the youngsters are thirteen to fourteen years old their sprinting patterns must be established. After that it is practically impossible to improve stride frequency and further progress depends mainly on improving strength to increase stride length.
At the same time, it is equally important to note that early and narrow specialization, in order to succeed in competition, must be avoided at all costs. Forced specific sprint training might bring short-term results but failure and stagnation later. The wise approach in the development of young sprinters is to improve movement speed by participation in running games and for them to learn an efficient sprinting technique before the age of fifteen. Specific training begins after that and, provided the foundation is well built, should bring good rewards.
Most children develop a very natural and efficient sprinting action on their own. Regretfully, however, such natural action is often spoiled by poorly trained oaches, anxious to establish a prototype action without understanding the basic mechanics of sprinting and individual differences. No two athletes are identical in looks, nor are their needs and weaknesses. It is therefore essential to concentrate on the development of a running technique that is based on sound mechanics to fit individual requirements.
Points to be observed
1. All actions of the sprinter take place in a forward-backward plane. This means that: feet must point straight forward, not outwards or inwards;
a. knees must travel forwards and backwards, without moving in or out; and arms, bent at approximately 90° at the elbow, must move virtually in the same plane with the legs.
2. The forward movement of a sprinter is achieved by the legs driving backwards behind the body. This means that:
a. the drive must be complete with the knee and ankle joints fully extended;
b. the lower leg must not reach forward to land ahead of the body;
c. at the completion of each stride the contact with the ground is made by the ball of the foot; and
d. whenever compromise is required between leg speed and leg drive, it must be in favor of the driving action.
3. A perfect balance is a must for a sprinter. This means that:
a. the shoulders and trunk must be steady to avoid twisting action;
b. the head must be kept in a natural alignment with the trunk; and
c. the trunk is virtually upright and there should be no forward bend from the hips.
4. The sprinter has to avoid tension at all cost. This means that:
a. the jaw and neck must be relaxed;
b. the shoulders must be dropped with no tension in the forearms; and
c. the hands must be loose with the thumb on the index finger and not clenched into fists.
The overall picture the coach is looking for is made up of the following major points:
1. An upright trunk with a slight forward lean so that the driving leg is behindthe body.
2. The forward drive from the leg is completed by a full extension of the hipand ankle.
3. The front knee is high to allow the drive of the back leg to be completed.
4. The leg action is compensated for by a vigorous arm movement.
5. The head is in alignment with the trunk and the body is relaxed.
It appears important to point out that each athlete¡¦s sprinting action is individual. It would be unwise to attempt to turn every sprinter into a carbon copy of the coach¡¦s interpretation of what is an ideal sprinting form. It is therefore unwise for the coach to interfere with the young athlete’s sprinting action, unless it badly infringes the basic accepted mechanical principles.
Of course, there are some bad faults that must be eliminated as soon as possible and the coach has to decide where to draw a line. He has to make up his mind what is relevant and adjust faults in order of priority for corrections. The following describes seven basic faults, four of them postural and three dealing with foot placement:
1. Poor head position, causing a hollow back and restricting forward drive.
- Correction: The head guides the upper body movement. Stress in all runs correct head position with the eyes looking straight ahead.
2. Running with an arm action across the body with the trunk swinging from side to side.
- Correction: Eliminate arm action crossing the centre line of the body. Control arm and shoulder movement, making sure they are directed forward.
3. Bending from the hips with too much forward lean of the upper body, restricting stride length.
- Correction: Stress the correct angle of the whole body. Ask the athlete to make himself tall, keeping the hips high.
4. Upper body leaning backwards with the hips dropped. The athlete is in a “sitting” position and lacks drive.
- Correction: Stress the correct angle of the whole body and introduce driving exercises, leaning against an obstacle or with a partner.
5. Running on the full soles of the feet.
- Correction: Stress an active landing of the feet. Eliminate “sitting” position and insist on keeping the hips high.
6. The foot placement is too wide, the athlete is swinging from side to side and not running straight.
- Correction: Stress bringing the outward swinging leg through in a straight line and a straight forward driving action. Introduce running on a marked line.
7. Toes are pointing out, the running track is not straight.
- Correction: Use a marked line to check feet placement and stress landing on the ball of the foot.
Leg power development: bounding
Bounding runs are among the best leg-power development exercises because the action is similar to sprinting with the exception that each stride is performed in a jumping fashion. For the full benefits to be gained, it is essential to perform bounding runs keeping the following in mind:
1. Each bound should be aimed for distance, not height, to allow fast forward movement;
2. The driving leg should be completely stretched;
3. The drive must be supported by the action of the swinging leg with the thigh at least parallel to the ground;
4. The upper body should remain upright without a bend in the hips; and
5. The arm and shoulder action should be pronounced and correspond to the rhythm of the leg action.
Bounding runs are performed usually over distances of 20-30 meters. According to the specific aim of the performance, the speed component can be stressed by fast action, the strength component by longer bounces.
Typical exercises are:
1. Bounding over obstacles (one series is made up of 10 to 12 repetitions). The distance between the obstacles does not exceed 1 meter in the beginning but is gradually extended.
2. Bounding up the stairs (one series is made up of 8 to 10 repetitions). Athletes bounce several stairs at a time, moving diagonally if possible. Emphasis is on speed.
3. Bounding from line to line (one series is made up of 8 to 10 repetitions). Several lines, different distances apart, are used. The hitting of the correct distances is stressed.
4. Hoop bounding (one series is made up of 8 to 10 repetitions). Hoops or old types, different distances apart, can be used.
5. Bounding set distances (one series is made up of 6 to 8 repetitions). Bounding takes place between distinct landmarks, from tree to tree, football goal to centre line, etc.
Leg power development: driving
Next to the bounding runs, the most common leg power development exercises are pushing and pulling actions that stress the driving phase. Most are simple partner activities between equally strong athletes. As strength is vital in the acceleration stages of the sprint, the exercises are usually performed in various stages of forward lean.
The following points should be watched:
1. Avoid bending of the hips. The hip axis should be pushed forward in each stride.
2. The swinging leg must assist each stride with a powerful knee lift.
3. Arms, if free, assist the driving action, swinging backward and forward.
4. In exercises consisting of one athlete pulling and the other pushing, the resisting partner must not completely stop forward movement. Typical exercises are:
a. Pulling contest (2 to 3 repetitions). Each partner, secured to the other by a rope and pulling in different directions, attempts to reach a line 5 to 6 meters from the starting point.
b. Pushing contest (2 to 3 repetitions). Same as the pulling contest but no rope is used and partners push with straight arms against each other’s shoulders.
c. “Horse” driving (4 to 5 repetitions of about 20 meters). The driver, attached to the “horse”, allows himself to be pulled slowly forward.
d. Running against object (5 to 10 repetitions). The athlete increases the pushing action against a tree or a wall while running on the spot. The exercise can be turned into a contest by counting the number of double strides performed in 5 to 10 seconds.
Speed development I
Gradual acceleration runs, accumulating speed from jogging to fast sprinting, are used for speed development. Because the whole distance is not covered with maximum effort, accelerations help to avoid tension. The following are recommended:
1. Start with runs over 30 to 50 meters, increasing the distance gradually up to 80 to 120 meters.
2. Accumulate speed first by increasing stride length, later by continually increasing stride frequency.
3. Attempt to maintain relaxation throughout the final phases of acceleration. Watch the face, smile and keep a loose jaw. Don’t clench the teeth.
4. Maintain maximum speed for only 20 to 25 meters before deceleration to ‘run out’.
Typical exercises are:
1. Gear change (3 to 6 repetitions) on a track marked every 10 to 20 meters by a flag, indicating the change to the next gear, until top speed is reached.
2. Meet in the centre (5 to 7 repetitions) on a 100-metres-long track marked in the centre by a flag. Partners starting from each end attempt to accelerate so that they pass each other at the flag.
3. Uphill accelerations (3 to 5 repetitions).
Speed development II
Immediate accelerations, accumulating speed right from the beginning, are used to prepare for the start. The distances range from 40 to 60 meters of which only the first 20 to 30 meters are covered in violent acceleration. The remaining distance is used for a run-out with emphasis on relaxation. Correct forward lean to correspond to the rate of acceleration is stressed.
Typical exercises are:
1. Accelerations from walk (10 to 12 repetitions) over 40 to 50 metres. Violent acceleration starts at a marked point and continues for 20 to 30 meters.
2. Catching a partner (10 to 12 repetitions) with one partner jogging about 2 meters in front of the other. Following a signal, the trailing partner attempts to catch the leader within a distance of 20 meters.
3. Racing in pairs (10 to 12 repetitions), starting with a jog and accelerating violently from a marked starting line.
4. All these exercises can be performed from various starting positions, such as standing, walking, jogging, kneeling, lying prone or on the back.