This article is the last installment the Taking Flight – Speed Training 101 series.  In the previous two articles we covered the factors affecting speed;  the structure and make up of an athlete’s muscles, flexibility, fatigue, stride length and stride frequency and the importance of speed  training.  We also covered technique, the difference between acceleration and maximum velocity running and introduced some of the drills we use to improve an athletes sprint mechanics and overall athletic performance.  In this, the final installment,  we will further describe the drills we mentioned previously and provide some video examples of how to perform the drill correctly.

As we have mentioned time and time again,  an athlete can only run as fast as their technique allows.  These are a few of the drills we use to help our athletes improve their speed and enhance their overall athletic performance, errors we see when athletes perform the drills and coaching cues we use to help the athlete visualize how to perform the drills correctly.

Arm-Swing Drills – The arm swing is an important and often overlooked aspect of technique training.  Important enough that we devoted an entire article on just that subject.  (See Training Tip October 8, 2010 The Importance of Arm Action) During sprinting, the arms act in opposition to the legs serving to prevent upper body rotation, which could lead to loss of balance and timing.  When we coach the arm swing, we emphasize that the arm should pivot from the shoulder with the hands traveling from the hip to the shoulder height and never crossing the mid-line of the body.

There are several progressions for teaching arm-swing technique.  Starting with the drills performed in a seated position and progressing to the athlete performing the drill walking and eventually jogging.  We often have our less experienced athletes perform the drill with light dumbbells or increase the level of difficulty by having them perform the drills while either kneeling or sitting on an unstable surface like a BOSU Balance Trainer or Stability Ball.

There are several common errors we see with the arm swing.  First, an athlete may not swing the arm from the shoulder but may lock the upper arm in place and move only the lower arm.  We call this  “beating the drum.”  This type of arm motion doesn’t allow the athlete to move their arms fast enough during high-speed sprinting.   Athletes should be encouraged to move their arms from the shoulders.  Second, as we mentioned previously, an athlete may swing their arms across the mid-line of the body, which increases upper body rotation while running.  Athletes should be reminded to aggressively drive the arms backward while running.  Finally, an athlete may swing their arms too high (i.e.  hands higher than shoulder height) or the elbows may not cross the plane of the body far enough (i.e. hands do not reach the hip).  This can also have a negative affect on speed.  Athletes should be coached to move the arms “hip low – shoulder high.”

Ankling – As simple as it sounds, ankling teaches the athlete how to lift the feet off the ground and put them back down again during sprinting.  This is important because proper positioning of the foot minimizes the amount of time spent on the ground, minimize power lost into the ground by providing a more rigid ankle joint and minimize injuries that could occur as a result of improper foot placement.

When coaching foot action during sprinting, emphasize plantar flexion as the hips pass over the foot to propel the body forward.  When the back foot breaks contact with the ground, it should be “cast.”  Casting means dorsiflexing the ankle to approximately 90 degrees while pulling the “toe up” toward the shin.  The foot remains in the casting or “active plant” position until it is again on the ground and the hips are passing over it.    In ankling, the foot is driven from the hips, and the outside of the forefoot makes contact with the ground and pulls the body over it.

There are several progressions to this drill as well.  Starting with performing the drill walking, focusing on one leg at a time (i.e.only the right leg performs ankling).  With the left legs stiff, the athlete move forward until the hips have passed over the right foot.  As this happens, the right ankle will go into plantarflexion before the foot breaks contact with the ground.  When the right foot breaks contact with the ground, it should be cast and driven forward from the hip.  The outside of the right forefoot contacts the ground (cast position, “toe up”) and pulls the body over it.  Once the desired distance is covered, say 15 meters, switch legs.  Once the athlete become proficient with this basic ankling drill we add progression that may include a combo drill incorporating high knee action on cue or “single leg run-through” using the quick hurdles.

To work on speed and explosive power, these drills can be performed as straight leg bounding exercises focusing on correct ankle mechanics while getting off the ground as quickly as possible.

The most common error with foot placement is running on the toes or running heel-to-toe.  It’s a common misconception that running on your toes helps you run faster.  The reality is there is not enough strength in your toes to provide the kind of power necessary to run fast.  Running on the toes is a frequent problem when attempting to teach the cast or active plant position and having the forefoot  (ball of the foot) strike the ground first. If the toes contact the ground  it can actually cause the athlete to be off balance while running.   To correct this, stress a pawing motion as the athletes forefoot strike the ground and then pulls the body along.  Running heel-to-toe is also problematic because the structures of the lower limb are not designed to absorb the impact and this can lead to hamstring injuries over time.  Athletes should be encouraged to cast the foot,  “toe up – heel up” and only allow the forefoot (ball of the foot) to touch the ground.  The cue we use to coach casting of the foot (dorsiflexing the foot upon contact with the ground and immediate plantarflexion once the foot breaks contact) is “active plant.”

Heel Kicks – Heel kicks are designed to build upon the mechanics taught by ankling drills.  Heel kicks teach the athlete to bring their heel to the hip immediately following plantarflexion.  This serves to “shorten the lever” so that the mass of the leg is closer to the axis of rotation, allowing for the leg to be cycled forward more quickly while sprinting.

Like the other drills, heel-kick drills start by focusing on one leg at a time.  For instance,  starting with the left leg still, stressing the proper ankle mechanics mentioned above, the athlete draws their heel up under the right hip, then drives the foot down striking the ground with a pawing action and then immediately returns it to its original position tucked under the hip.   As the heel is lifted up, the right hip will flex to about 45 degrees.  This is repeated with the right leg still and the left leg performing the drill.

Athletes with poor flexibility will have difficulty bringing the heel to hip during this drill so we normally proceed the drill with  a warm-up and dynamic stretching.    Also, more advanced progressions of this drill are performed at a jogging pace with the pace gradually quickening as the athlete gets more competent with the drill.  Once the athlete becomes competent with the technique they will find the  increased speed actually makes it easier  for the athlete to bring their heel to hip during the drill.

There are two frequent mistakes seen during this drill.  Probably the most common is athletes performing the drill with their knees down toward the ground.  It should be emphasized that the hips will flex during this drill and that this is important for the sprinting motion.  The goal is not to stretch the quadriceps; it is to teach bringing the heel to the hip during sprinting motion.   The other error we see, is while concentrating on bring “heel to hip” the athlete will lose the cast to their foot when it is brought to the hips.  The coaching cue here is to not allow the foot to “dangle” and that the ankle must remain rigid.

High-Knee Drills – High-knee drills help to teach front-side mechanics while reinforcing casting the foot (active plant) and also helps to condition the hip flexors.  Again, as with the other technique drills, they are initially taught at a walk pace, one leg at a time and gradually progress to a faster pace utilizing both legs.   To perform the high-knee drill  with the right leg, the right ankle will plantar flex as the hips pass over it.  As the foot breaks contact with the ground, it should be cast as the the right knee is lifted high (parallel to the ground).  Keeping the foot cast, place it on the ground slightly in front of the hips so that the outside of the forefoot (ball of the foot) contacts the ground.  In the early stages of teaching this technique we don’t emphasize the arms quite as much to ensure that the athlete is performing the high-knee drill correctly.  Once the hip and ankle mechanics have been perfected we then have the athlete incorporate arm swing into the drill.

There are two common errors seen with this drill.  First, an athlete with weak hip flexors and core muscles may find it difficult to “stay tall” while attempting the drill.   Athletes will often flex the trunk as they try to compensate for their weak hip flexors and core muscles.  The coaching cue here is to remind the athlete to “stay tall” and not “sit down’ during the drill.   The second error is that the athlete will lose cast to their ankle while bringing the foot to the hips.

These drills are the foundation for sprint training.  If an athlete is to run faster they must first run more efficiently so it is important that these drills are performed correctly.  Once mastered they can then be combined into  A Drills and B Drills to further improve the athletes sprint mechanics.

A Drills – A drills combine high-knee drills with heel kicks.  Because they are so similar to the mechanics involved with sprinting, it is important that they be performed extensively when sprint training.    As with the other drills we have already covered,  there are a number of progressions used with the A Drill.

Again, the drill is initially performed as a walk, one leg at a time and progresses to a faster pace utilizing both legs.   When focusing on the right leg, the right ankle will plantar flex as the hips pass over it.  As the foot breaks contact with the ground, the foot should be cast and immediately brought to the hips as in the heel kick drill.  With the heel in contact with the hip, the right leg is cycled forward (with focus on “stepping over the opposite knee”).  As the leg is cycled forward, the knee is lifted high like in the high knee and the leg begins to unfold.  From this position, the foot is driven down from the hips as in the high knee drills.   Repeat the drill in the standing position on one leg  for the desired repetitions and then switch to the other leg.   Proper arm swing can later be added to the mix once the athlete masters the technique.

Once perfected, the athlete can then begin to alternate between the two sides.  More advanced athletes can perform the drill with a skipping motion.

B Drills – B-drills combine the A-drill with an active foot strike.  They are an advanced sprinting exercise that teaches how to apply more force to the ground.  Like A-drills, they are a drill frequently used to improve sprint performance.   Like the other drills we have discussed here, they are first taught using one leg at a time at a walking pace and progress to quicker pace with both legs.  Basically, the athlete will perform the A-drill, however as the leg is cycled forward, the hamstrings are more relaxed.  The combination of the relaxation of the hamstrings and the forward drive of the knee causes the leg to extend at the knee.  The extended leg is then driven down from the hip just like the other drills.

One of the most common errors seen when learning the B-drill is to lean forward while performing the drill.   The athlete should be encouraged to remain stay tall with only a slight forward body lean.  As we have discussed in previous articles too much forward in a sprint will cause the athlete to over-stride and spend too much time on the ground.

Typically, ankling and arm-swing drills are learned first.  Once the ankling and arm-swing techniques are mastered, heel kicks and high knee drills are introduced.  And once the athlete becomes comfortable with the heel kick and high-knee drills they can then progress to the A-skip and B-skip drills.

As we have already discussed,  technique drills are useful for breaking down the motion and developing the various aspects of sprinting.  It most be said however, if the drills are not performed properly and in the proper sequence they could do more harm than good.   Drill performed incorrectly or before the athlete is physically capable of performing them may instead develop and reinforce bad techniques, which will have a negative impact on the athlete’s speed and even lead to injury

These are some of the drills that we use with our athletes to improve their sprint mechanics.  With many of these drill we have adapted variations or combined them with other training devices to make the drill more  intense or  sport specific.  However,  for sprinters, technique drills are helpful, but they are not a substitute for sprinting.   Though technique drills will help develop the various aspects of sprint technique, they are performed at a much slower velocity which means that from a kinetic standpoint they can not replicate what the body actually does when running at top speed.  That is why we use technique drills as a prelude to our speed workouts.

The videos that follow demonstrate some of the drills we discussed in this series – Taking Flight – Sprint Training 101, if you would like additional information feel free to contact us at  jmurdock@flight101ssd.com.

Ankling DrillHigh Knee Drill

A DrillB Drill

 

 

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