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Sprinting Form and Technique

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Many of our IFPA Certified Youth Fitness Instructors, Certified Speed & Agility Coaches, Tennis Conditioning Specialists and other Sports Conditioning Specialists have requested additional information on the correct techniques for sprinting.

Since sprinting is the most essential and basic of all athletic movements, I am pleased at the high level of interest and am happy to supply detailed information on sprinting form and techniques.

Please keep in mind that while there is no perfect style for anyone or any body type, proper sprinting form is not a natural act.

There are approximately 200 different details I look at when I train someone to sprint. I will cover the top 50 or so details in this article.

The 40-yard dash has become the single most important test used by professional and college football coaches to evaluate potential players for positions, scholarship offers, and pro contracts.

Other sport coaches are finding the 40-yard dash and its variations equally important. Make no mistake on this, the success of a future in sports (football, basketball, tennis or any sport that requires SPEED) depends on your athletes time in as short a distance as 20-60 yards.

Teaching your athlete to sprint correctly can be the most crucial time you will ever spend.

Our first goal in sprinting is to strengthen core stability, to enable your athlete to use their kinetic chain as efficiently as possible. My students spent two hours/day on exercises to accomplish this goal.

Strength training is conducted every morning utilizing as much core training as possible. The afternoon session focuses on speed, agility, power, balance, coordination, and both aerobic and anaerobic conditioning to increase the efficient use of the kinetic chain.

One philosophy of sprinting is that an athlete’s performance is based on how efficiently the athlete can transfer ground forces through the kinetic chain (foot – ground force generation – to – ankle – lower leg – knee – thigh – hip – trunk – shoulders – arms).

Many coaches look at the efficient use of the kinetic chain as the true source of all athleticism. Therefore, to teach correct sprinting, I start from the ground up. Sprinting has four phases:

I. The Propulsion Phase

1. The toes of both feet should point directly forward or slightly toe-in. Never toe-out! Toe-out causes some of the propulsion energy to push the athlete laterally instead of directly forward.

2. Extend powerfully with the hip and thigh through the knee.

3. Extend powerfully through plantar flexion on the ball of the foot (plantar flexion – toes point). Many coaches teach pushing through the toes. There is little power and no balance on the toes. Power comes from the ball!

4. Push powerfully through the foot to project the body forward.

II. The Drive Phase

1. Requires power and coordination between arm drive and leg drive.

2. Powerful hip flexion driving the thigh up and forward. Both thighs must remain in the vertical plane. Watch carefully from the front and look for any lateral movement in the driving thigh. Lateral movement dissipates energy laterally, instead of driving 100% forward. The support leg, as well as the entire body, should always remain in the vertical plane (correct any and all lateral movements).

The thigh should drive powerfully to a position parallel, or near parallel to the ground. If this position cannot be achieved, (ordinarily because of lack of flexibility or strength) optimum stride length cannot be achieved.

3. Arm drive is essential in this phase. Arm drive and arm frequency control leg drive and stride frequency (the faster the arms drive, the faster the legs move). Arms move opposite the legs. As the left leg drives forward, the right arm is driving forward.

It is important to teach arm drive forward, as well as backward. (Remember the laws of physics: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction). In order to drive the arm powerfully forward, your athlete must drive the opposite arm powerfully backward.

4. Arms should be bent at 90 degrees throughout the sprint.

5. Arm drives forward to a position where the hand is approximately even with nose height.

6. Arm drives backward to a position where the hand slightly passes the buttocks.

7.  Avoid tying-up. Tying-up occurs when both agonist and antagonist muscles (opposing muscle groups) contract forcefully at the same time. For instance, the athlete is trying too hard and contracts the biceps brachii (in the front of the arm) at the same time contracting the triceps brachii (in the back of the arm).

The inability of the over stimulated athlete to successfully relax the antagonistic muscle group results in inefficient arm drive and slower speed.

8. Tying-up can be avoided by keeping the fingers of both hands relaxed and cupped. Tell the athlete to keep his or her fingers lightly together and to visualize holding sheets of paper between each finger without wrinkling the paper.

9. Coach your athletes to understand their ability to relax their muscles quickly, is just as important as their ability to contract their muscles quickly.

10. Arms should swing smoothly and effortlessly from the ball-and-socket joint of the shoulder joint. Tying-up can result in hard contractions of the latissimus dorsi and other muscles. The lat spread can cause the elbows to spread laterally. This creates a shoulder rock that will dissipate the energy of the arm drive out to the side, instead of driving forward.

11. Shoulders should be relaxed and down. If you see the shoulder rise toward the ears, coach the athlete to relax or drop the shoulders.

12. Eyes are focused approximately 20 yards ahead.

13. Head is held neutral in the vertical plane.

14. Jaw is slack in order to prevent tying-up, therefore, aiding the athlete to relax.

15. Keep the ankle locked up (in dorsi flexion) until the landing phase.

16. Hips and shoulders should be squarely facing forward in the direction of the sprint.

17. Maintain strong intra-abdominal pressure (suck the belly-button towards your backbone). This is an essential foundation of all athletic movement.

Intra-abdominal pressure creates a solid wall, that the abdominal and trunk muscles can push against. This enables the muscles of the trunk to quickly and efficiently contract.

Great athletes know this instinctively, all others must be taught, in order to become Great Athletes! Without intra-abdominal pressure, the muscles cannot quickly and efficiently contract and the athletes’ kinetic chain breaks down, preventing optimum performance.

18. Always maintain proper posture: head neutral, shoulders back, down and relaxed, and allow natural spinal curves within optimal postural alignment. (The IFPA recommends that every athlete have a Basic Postural Assessment by a qualified medical expert.)

19. Drill athletes to develop both static and dynamic balance. Sprinting is 5% support and 95% drive.

20. Drill to increase stride frequency rate of leg turnover. Most athletes increase total speed by working on stride frequency.

21. Use the techniques you have developed in your IFPA Certification courses (Youth Fitness Instructors, Speed & Agility Coaches, Tennis Conditioning Specialists and other Sports Conditioning Specialists) to improve running efficiency and to work on sprinting form and technique. My tennis students improved their 20-yard dash time by over 25% within 8 weeks of training by utilizing the exact same drills used in these courses. Twenty-five percent more speed means they get to many, many more balls than they did prior to training.

22. Run sprints at 90-95% of maximum speed. Do not be surprised if some of your athletes sprint their fastest time ever because of greater relaxation and avoidance of tying-up.

III. The Landing Phase

1. Coach the athlete to land on their heels. You will find as the athlete approaches maximum speed, the athlete will land flat footed. At maximum speed, the foot will quickly come underneath the body.

2. Over striding (the foot landing in front of the body) can actually cause a braking action that slows the body down.

3. The leg should extend forward and down with ankle locked in dorsi flexion until contact.

4. The pull-through can be practiced by straight-legged shuffles and cycling drills that teach the athlete the brushing action following contact.

IV. Recovery Phase

1. As the foot leaves the ground, simultaneously: Butt kick (driving heel to buttocks) Dorsi flexion of foot (toes and foot curl up toward shin).

This is essential to transfer energy from the ground, through the legs, and to the hip and thighs. This is also essential to create the shortest lever possible in the leg. (Short levers move quickly picture an ice skater initiating a spin. With arms extended out to the side [laterally], the skater rotates slowly. When the skater begins to shorten-the-lever [by bringing the arms into the body], the skater rotates faster and faster until the skater is a blur with the shortest lever possible [arms wrapped tightly to the body].)

Starting

1. Requires quickness more than speed.

2. Requires focus and concentration – mental toughness. These are highly desired traits for any athlete.

3. Use a starting position appropriate for your sport. Track sprinters use the 4-point stance. Football players use the 3-or 4-point football stance. Tennis players use the 2-point stance.

4. Two-point stance: athlete stands with feet shoulder width apart, feet parallel, toes facing forward, knees slightly inside the toes. Knees should be bent nearly 90, hips in slight posterior pelvic tilt, back straight, shoulders back, head neutral and eyes looking forward (approximately 20 yards ahead). Arms are bent at 90 degress at the sides and weight should be distributed evenly over the balls of the feet, while maintaining ground contact with the heels.

5. On GO, the athlete explodes off both feet, driving one leg forward and the opposite arm back.

6. The Athlete should be nearly falling forward with body lean approaching 70 degrees for the first three steps. The initial three steps will be shorter than the athletes normal stride length.

7. Watch for two body angles. The line should be straight from ground to hip at approximately 45 degrees. The second line is from the hip to head initially at 70 degree forward lean. Both lines must be straight at all times.

8. The athletes will become nearly upright as they approach full speed. For those who have watched Michael Johnson burn up the track, you have probably noticed him full upright and appearing to lean slightly back.

This technique obviously works for him, but it is certainly not recommended for your young athletes. After the first three steps, stride length increases to the athletes ideal length. Athletes must be coached to accelerate all the way through the finish line.

9. World-class athletes take up to 60-70 meters to achieve maximum speed. Your athlete will unlikely achieve maximum speed in as short a distance as 20-40 yards.

General Notes

1. For tennis players, use the 20-yard dash for the majority of your speed work. The average distance a tennis player runs for a shot is 4 meters (less than 5 yards).

2. Twenty-yards is the distance from the baseline to the opposite court service line.

3. Since almost all tennis courts are built on a grade to help with drainage, your athlete can get some over-speed training by running down hill and resisted training by running up hill.

4. Follow the drill work outline in the IFPA Youth Fitness Instructors, Speed & Agility Coaches, Tennis Conditioning Specialists and other Sports Conditioning Specialists courses to correct any form and technique faults exhibited by your athletes.

5. Remember, it takes time to develop proper form and technique. Use patience and encouragement to help your athletes to get it right.

6. In order to make your tennis players the best they can be, you must first make the best athlete they can be. Spend time working on a basic fitness foundation, first to develop athleticism, and then focus on sports performance.

Only then will your athlete be able to develop into the optimum tennis player.

Sincerely,

Dr. Jim Bell,

CEO IFPA