Sprint technique and mechanics are the fundamental gatekeepers of performance. You may be capable of producing all the force in the world, but if that force is not applied optimally at the right time and in the right direction, that force output capability is essentially wasted.
This should be no surprise, as many of the great coaches of our time have consistently spoken time and time again on the necessity of optimal mechanics, and research has even been done to show that how you apply force is far more important than how much force you're capable of producing.
Tom Tellez was once asked, "If you could only keep one aspect of your training program, what would it be?"
His response? "Technique."
Now, talking technique is great and all, but few top-level coaches are very out-spoken or public about what they feel is optimal from a biomechanical standpoint. As such, this article seeks to clear the air and give you actionable advice on what to look for in sprint technique, and how you can improve your mechanics or that of your athletes.
What this article will cover:
- What are the various phases of a sprint stride cycle.
- What are the primary focal points of optimal technique.
- Tips for spotting problems in technique, and ideas on how to fix them.
Before we start, here are some terms and abbreviations to know:
- Toe-Off: The moment your foot is no longer in contact with the ground (T.O.).
- Touch Down: The moment your foot comes into contact with the ground (T.D.).
- Blocking: The moment a limb reaches the end range of motion, such as your thigh at maximal hip flexion or your arm at the top of the arm swing.
- Stance: The time while your foot is in the ground, from touch down to toe-off.
- Flight: The time while your body as a whole is in the air.
What are sprint mechanics?
Sprint mechanics are essentially the sum movement, positioning, and posture of all your body parts as you sprint. From the knee drive to ground strike, torso posture and arm swing, all of these factors fall under the category of sprint mechanics.
How are sprint mechanics broken down?
Sprint mechanics can be broken down into a number of phases, all of which take place in the stride cycle while you sprint.
1. Residual Phase
The residual phase of the sprint stride cycle is the time between toe-off and the forward acceleration of the thigh. This is one of the most subtle aspects of sprint form, and arguable one of the most important as it can make or break the next stride cycle.
2. Transition Phase
The transition phase in sprinting is the time between when the thigh blocks at the high knee position, and when the thigh begins its negative (downward/backward) acceleration toward the ground.
3. Ground Preparation Phase
The ground preparation phase is the period of time that the thigh accelerates toward the ground, up to the point of touch down.
4. Front Side Ground Phase
The front side ground phase is the period of time from when touch down of the foot occurs, to the point at which you reach mid-stance where the center of mass is directly over the base of support (the point on your foot which is supporting the body).
5. Back Side Phase
The back side phase of the sprint cycle is the period of time from mid-stance (center of mass over the base of support) to toe-off.
Sprinting is cyclical - problems can often be traced back somewhere in the cycle.
As humans, we often have the tendency to see a problem and try to fix it right then and there. While this may work in other areas of life, it falls short when trying to change aspects of sprint mechanics and technique.
Because of the cyclical nature of sprinting, we can only achieve positive outcomes if we look at the stride cycle as a whole to see what is going on. When looking at your videos or the sprint technique of someone else, be sure that you look back in the stride cycle in order to determine the root cause of a given issue.
Make sure that when you try to analyze someone's sprint form that you are looking at the entire cycle holistically, not simply looking at what looks off at first-glance.
Big Picture: What do fast people do well?
While there is bound to be some level of difference between athletes at a given performance level, there certainly are some key things which really fast people do really well, that slower people tend to lack in their sprint mechanics.
1. Fast sprinters produce large forces in short amounts of time.
The fastest sprinters in the world produce force at a very high rate. Optimal ground contact times for maximal velocity sprinting is said to be around .08 seconds, and during this short duration of time elite sprinters can apply upwards of five times their body weight in force at ground contact.
2. Fast sprinters time their movements with a high degree of coordination.
Most people who go out and sprint look relatively dis-coordinated - and they are. Elite sprinters are able to coordinate very fast movements in various directions at the same time, and are able to move through space in a manner which allows them to strike the ground effectively with high forces in the proper direction. Not only do they spend small amounts of time on the ground, but they also project through the air in a way which optimizes their flight time to be around .123 seconds.
3. Fast sprinters minimize lag-time during residual and transition phases of sprinting.
People who run fast, because of their fast rate of force development and high levels of autonomic coordination, minimize lag time in these two important and intertwined phases of sprinting. Slow people push and let their leg lag behind them, while fast people punch the ground and then reverse the leg forward without any wasted time or movement. They also do this during the transition phase, where we see the thigh coming up and going back down without any appreciable period where the thigh is stuck at the high knee position. These two actions happen simultaneously, not consecutively. Being able to effectively scissor the legs back and forth is imperative for optimal sprint mechanics and performance.
4. Fast sprinters exhibit high stride frequencies without sacrificing technique.
The fastest sprinters tend to have a stride frequency of around 5 strides per second at maximal velocity, with a total stride time of around .2 seconds (.08 ground contact time + .12 flight time). Less talented sprinters may have high stride frequencies, but they achieve this by cutting range of motion short or minmize force application into the ground. Increasing rate of force development and optimizing coordination are two key factors when it comes to improving one's stride frequency.
5. Fast sprinters do not wait, they anticipate movements and attack what is next in the stride cycle.
Fast people do not react to the ground, they anticipate it. The mechanics of the ground strike in elite sprinters are initiated from the top down, and really this is a result of the aggressive thigh pop forward which creates an intense stretch-shortening cycle action as the knee rises to its maximal height.
When we swing a hammer, we don't wait until we feel the nail to apply force. Instead, we apply force to the hammer while it is in the air, and this force then gets transferred to the nail without you trying to push the nail into the wall.
Similarly, sprinters with optimal sprint mechanics anticipate the next stride, and pop the thigh forward at the moment they feel their foot on the ground (or even slightly before). Since there is a latency period or lag time between when you feel a sensation, send a signal to move, and then actually move, fast sprinters prepare for the next phase so that their timing is on-point. Athletes who push when they feel their foot on the ground over-push, and those who drive the knee when they feel toe-off occur tend to have their leg cycle skewed to the back side.
6. Ground contact and flight times are consistent across high performing sprinters.
While there is always some inter-athlete variability, there generally are consistent time frames in which fast sprinters are on the ground and in the air during the sprint. At maximal velocity, ground contact times drop to around .08 seconds, and flight times hang right around .123 seconds. In less talented sprinters, ground contact times can reach .09, .10, and .11, and flight times can reach .160-.200. To see where you or your athletes are at, take note of high speed video analysis to see how long they are on the ground and how long they are in the air.
If ground contact times are above .1, it is likely that the athlete has poor rate of force development qualities, or that they are reaching too far in front of the body and pushing for too long on the back side of the body. If flight times are longer than .160, the athlete is likely projecting too vertically each stride, which can be caused by excessive breaking forces at touch down or simply that the athlete is controlling projection in a way which is oriented too vertically.
Analyze the athlete and look at any trends that exist between one side or the other. Athletes will run faster if they are relatively balanced from limb to limb, and as such it is wise to analyze whether or not discrepancies exist between the legs and their respective ground contact or flight times.
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What the key mechanical factors needed to sprint fast?
Now that you have a basic idea of the phases of the sprint cycle and some ideas into what fast sprinters do which slower people do not, let's delve into what it is that you as a coach or athlete need to seek in the sprint mechanics of you or your athletes.
Here is a breakdown of some of the big-ticket items we need to be aware of with regards to optimal sprint mechanics and technique.
1. At toe-off, the thigh must immediately move forward.
One of the characteristics of sprint mechanics which separates fast and slow sprinters is the length of the residual phase - the period of time from toe-off to positive (in the direction of the sprint) displacement of the thigh.
Slower sprinters tend to show negative thigh displacement after toe-off (pushing back while in the air), and moderately fast sprinters tend to show a period of lag where the thigh doesn't go anywhere before it starts to drive forward into the next stride.
When people are running fast, they put force into the ground for a short period of time, and then abruptly reverse the direction the thigh is moving from backwards (punch/push) to forward (thigh pop/knee drive). When analyzing the stride cycle of an athlete, this is where you should start. Why is this important?
First of all, the downward stroke of the front-side leg is dependent upon the forward and upward movement of the leg that just applied force to the ground. When athletes lag on driving the thigh forward and through, the body must balance that with lag on the front side as well. The leg that is to strike the ground on the next stride is essentially stuck up and in front of the body until the back side leg starts to move forward.
Second, negative thigh displacement during the residual phase of the sprint stride tends to indicate the athlete is pushing for too long, which skews the entire leg cycle to the back side. When this happens, we see athletes with high, butt-kicking heel recovery and a low, crashing front side ground strike. Since the angle between the legs at maximal hip flexion and hip extension can only be so much, staying on the ground too long and keeping the leg behind the body tilts the entire body's posture forward, forcing the athlete to fall into their next stride. This causes deceleration at ground contact, further lengthened ground contact times, shin splits, and hamstring pulls. We want none of that.
One way to think about sprint mechanics is this regard is that we want a scissoring or switching action of the legs where both legs are moving in opposite directions at the same time, not a consecutive stride pattern such as left leg, then right light.
Optimal Cue: Athletes should aim to pop the thigh forward in anticipation of the ground contact phase. By the time they feel their foot on the ground, it is too late to try and produce force. Instead of telling them to "push" behind them, tell the athlete to pop the thigh forward.
2. After toe-off, the foot moves more forward than it does upward.
Once force has been put into the ground and foot has subsequently left the ground due to the aggressive thigh pop forward, the foot of a fast sprinter should move forward rather than straight upward. While the foot will certainly rise as it approaches the opposite knee, we want to see a gradual rise instead of an abrupt vertical movement which is seen in butt-kickers as depicted in the following image.
The easiest way to see if someone has either over-pushed, crashed into the ground on their previous stride, or are trying to pull their way down the track with their hamstrings is this stereotypical butt-kick of excessive back side mechanics. If you see this in yourself or your athletes, it is time to have a discussion on how to sprint.
In the picture above, you can see that I have over-pushed, which tilted my entire body's posture forward. Also, excessive pushing and muscle activation on the back side leads to the high heel recovery. On the contrary, the image below shows that when you pop the thigh forward at toe-off and pull the foot through, you get a lower heel recovery and a more horizontal shin as the knees come together. This results in a quicker transition into the next stride, as well as adding horizontal force in the direction you intend to go - forward.
3. At maximal hip flexion, the foot should be below the knee.
At maximal knee flexion (the peak of knee drive, a.k.a. the transition phase), the foot of the swing leg should be directly under the knee.
If the foot is behind the knee at this point, the athlete likely over-pushed and skewed the whole leg cycle backward. In this case, the athlete needs to be instructed on how to pop the thigh forward sooner, as they are waiting until they feel the ground (which is too late).
If the foot is in front of the knee at this point, it is likely that they are driving the thigh forward with too much activation of the quadriceps, and not enough activation of the psoas. This athlete needs to be taught what it feels like to pop the thigh forward using the psoas, not the quad, and would likely benefit from a reflexive performance reset.
4. Arms should block at the shoulder, showing front-side separation & back-side elbow flexion.
A common set of issues we see with sprinters is that their arms block too low, too close to the body, and they show back-side elbow extension. A fully extended back-side arm indicates the athlete has over-pushed on the previous stride, or in some cases that they are focusing too heavily on karate chopping backward.
Since shoulder/hip, elbow/knee angulation is intimately tied together, keeping your arms in too close to the body can negatively affect how your legs function (and vice versa). If you are having trouble with over-pushing, or a lagging residual phase after toe-off, take a loot at your arm swings. Work on creating separation between the elbow and the chest, as well as the hand and the shoulder. Many times, getting the arms out in front and away from the body can help with having a faster residual phase and more prominent front side mechanics.
In the picture above which talks about foot position at maximal hip flexion, you can see that the front side arm shows separation/space between the elbow and the torso, as well as between the hand and the shoulder. On the back side, the elbow is beyond 90 degrees but less than 180 degrees, which is a sweet spot for the elbow angle on the back side.
5. The leg strikes downward (and slightly backward) along the long axis of the body.
From the first to the last step of your sprint, the leg's path toward touch down and ground contact should be along the long axis of the body. Whether you are accelerating or running at maximal velocity, the leg should strike along the long axis of the body (think of a line drawn from the knee of your push leg up through the crown of your skull).
During acceleration, your forward-leaned whole body angle creates horizontal displacement. You are creating large horizontal forces relative to the ground, but relative to your body you are essentially striking vertically. As your whole body angle rises, your ground-relative strike will become more vertically oriented, but relative to your body not a whole lot will change. As your body angle rises through acceleration and you approach maximal velocity, the goal is to essentially overcome gravity and allow momentum to carry your body horizontally down the track.
Do our legs contribute to horizontal displacement during maximal velocity sprinting? Sure, but a lot of that horizontal displacement is due to the momentum generated during acceleration, where you were able to push horizontally down the track due to your forward oriented body angle.
Since gravity is stronger than air resistance, we need to overcome gravity through an aggressive ground strike which is downward from the top of the movement and slightly backwards just prior to ground contact.
6. The foot contacts slightly in front of the center of mass at touch down.
After driving the leg downward and backward toward the ground along the long axis of the body, the foot should contact the ground slightly in front of the center of mass. At this point, the knee of the swing leg should pass the knee of the support leg as it swings forward toward the high knee position and transition phase.
When athletes strike too far in front of the body, they undergo large braking forces which add time to ground contact and skew the leg stride cycle to the back side. Because it takes time to absorb large breaking forces, athletes who reach in front of them end up over-pushing, as they can't generate force until they've overcome the large braking forces experienced during their inefficient touch down onto the ground.
7. During mid-stance, the knee bends minimally (slight amortization), and the swing leg passes over the support knee.
As we near the end of the stride cycle, the center of mass passes over the support leg just prior to toe-off. As this happens, the knee of the support leg will bend minimally as it absorbs the force of touch down. During this time, the shin of the swing leg should be split down the middle by the support knee, as the shin passes over the support knee on its way toward the next high knee on its swing forward to maximal hip flexion.
When an athlete exhibits excessive knee bend on the support leg when sprinting, they likely lack eccentric knee extensor strength, and would benefit from a progression of heavy eccentric work which is then progressed into plyometrics when their body is ready. Also, excessive knee bend can be a result of contacting too far in front of the body, so it is important to look at the structural and technical factors which contribute to a given issue with sprint technique. Some athletes might lack joint stiffness and muscle strength, while others simply run poorly and need to have a better understanding of the theoretical technical model which they should be striving for.
Following this phase, we arrive back at the residual phase and toe-off, where we once again pop the thigh forward and initiate the next stride.
Tips on how to effectively coach sprint mechanics.
Focus on one technical aspect at a time.
Throwing the kitchen sink at yourself or your athlete is a recipe for disaster. The quickest way to run slower is to overthink your movements, and as such you should avoid using more than one coaching cue or adjusting more than one bio-mechanical aspect at once.
Choose your words wisely.
When cueing, choose your words wisely. Some athletes hear "push" and they end up staying on the ground too long, and would instead be better with a "punch" cue. Consider that words have a temporal quality attached to them, so the words you use should indicate that the athlete needs to be quick and abrupt with their movements, not long and slow.
In the case of knee drive, cueing someone to drive the knee up often tilts their pelvis backwards, where as a "pop the thigh forward" cue tells them to launch the thigh in the direction they're trying to go, and the body will then regulate range of motion on its own.
When in doubt, give zero instruction and simply observe.
The ultimate goal of sprint training is to repeat quality efforts to the point where the athlete can sprint well without having to think about it. If you were being chased by a lion, you probably wouldn't intellectualize the angulation of your arm swing, but you would surely run as fast as you could to try and survive.
Fast sprinters run fast without thinking about it. They may have one focal point they hang on to, but beyond that, the only way to run as fast as you possibly can is to enter a flow state where your body is operating and your human, analytical mind is not. In the area of optimizing sprint technique, you are sometimes better off taking note of what is going on and letting the athlete's mind and body figure things out on their own for a while. After you have narrowed down what is going on and what it will take to change it, you can then go about making slight modifications over time.
Coaches who simply throw a bunch of jargon at athletes usually have no clue what they're actually talking about, so they say a bunch of stuff to sound intelligent. Instead, wait for the right moment to speak, and otherwise keep your coaching thoughts to yourself until that moment arises.
Tune in to rhythm & breathing pattern, and utilize sound as a lens through which you analyze sprinting.
Fast sprinters have mastered the rhythmic qualities of sprinting, which is why they're able to time movements and minimize inefficiencies such as lagging a residual phase. Everybody can cue into rhythm, and as such it follows logically that rhythm would be a great tool to use to convey ideas to athletes on how to run faster.
People who try too hard when they sprint tend to make loud, tense noises when they breathe (think "ah-ah-ah").
People who crash into the ground each step make noises at ground contact which are akin to sanding with low grit sandpaper, as this is essentially what their foot is doing as it slams forward into the ground each step.
People who lack aggression or power output have quiet steps, and can signify that not enough force is being put into the ground.
Whatever the case, utilize rhythm and sound to gain insights into what is going on with the athlete, as well as a way for the athlete to observe their movement from their point of view - inside the body.
Take slow motion video from multiple angles.
While you must be able to rely on your eyes and ears during practice to analyze technique, taking slow motion video will allow you to analyze sprint mechanics when you aren't at the track, and will give you ideas on what you should work on during your next session.
Taking video from the side is quite useful, but note that you should take video from frontal and 45* angles as well. Each viewpoint will give you different insights as to what is happening with the athlete, and you might see someone from one perspective which couldn't be seen from another.
When it comes to sprint mechanics, there are certain landmark positions and sequences of movement that are required in order for an athlete to run as fast as possible. By minimizing wasted movement, orienting the body properly, and rapidly applying forces in the right directions and at the right times, athletes can improve their times and reach goals that they previously would have never achieved.
Please share this article with someone so that they can benefit from it. Thanks for reading!
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