This is not an article on how to teach someone proper sprinting technique (mechanics), but on components of speed that are needed in order to maximise someone’s sprinting (speed) potential. What I will just mention though (with short explanation), is that proper sprinting technique is the cornerstone of reaching max sprinting potential. In my opinion, it’s about functionally strong core muscles (proper posture…), proper arm and leg work (with strengthening ALL the muscles in a specific way, and adequate mobility of course), and proper foot strike.
Long story short, if you take a look at the cover photo, you see that Bolt has pretty good sprinting mechanics: Proper leg swing work, proper (we guess) foot striking (just imagine the “normal” is actually the “forefoot” striking – from the pic below, besides reducing injury risk – in this way you are utilizing your Achilli tendons the best as well as not losing the stride length which is crucial in competitive sprinting – by pointing your feet forward when touching the ground you will gain a few inches), proper arm work (see below).
In sprinting, the torso is much stiffer (and it’s not good when “wobbling around”). The faster velocity of the legs and more-extended rear-leg position create greater momentum, so the arm swing needs to be more pronounced to counter the effects. To move your feet at a faster rate, you have to move your arms at a faster rate also. To move your arms faster, you have to keep your elbows bent. The fulcrum of your arm swing is at your shoulder. The straighter your elbows, the longer your arms swing as a pendulum from your shoulder, reducing the frequency of arm swings. Bending your elbows shortens the swing and allows you too move faster.
The trick is to shorten the front arm leverage – bending elbows more (see Bolt’s left upper and lower arm) and lengthen the back’s swing arm leverage (see Bolt’s right arm). Long story short, the “Oblique slings” are very important while sprinting – so this small trick can give you a ton of benefits. In sprinting, “arms drive legs”, so (take a look at the cover photo again) the right arm needs to be very powerful because it’s strongly connected to the left leg, and vice versa… If you want to understand this better, search about “oblique slings” (both front and back “functional lines” are important for sprinters), since I need to start writing about the main topic now.
Coaching strength is very important for acceleration, first and foremost. It’s well known that the human body needs strength to move. How much strength we need for sprinting is the question. We definitely know if we are stronger than what our mass weighs, then we can move it better. If we work to improve our strength in order to produce enough force to increase our rate of acceleration and velocity we can become faster. We now know that strength is a critical component in becoming faster (in general). Here we are talking about 80+% of 1RM.
Many coaches and sports scientists came to conclusion that there is no benefit lifting over 2xBW (BW – body weight) when we are talking about big compound lifts like squats and deadlifts (this is only for linear sprinting, probably along with acceleration). This is probably true… Lifting more (over) could be even detrimental when we are talking about sprinting. When it comes to the unilateral work (which is more important for sprinters), you should be able to lift at least 70% of the bilateral load. And, remember, long story short – strength training with a smaller velocity loss per set (and therefore also a smaller number of reps per set) allows gains to occur in sprinting performance!
Coaching power is very important as well (during all the sprinting phases, especially acceleration). Power is how quickly we can use our strength and move an object, in this case our body. Power is extremely important if we want to become faster in general. Strength alone will not make us faster. We need to use our strength and use it quickly! Power is the max amount of force that can be produced in the shortest possible time – think strength expressed rapidly (strength x speed = power). Our training, once we have a basic strength foundation (2BW approximately) needs to consists of power or explosive type movements that allow the body to be moved quickly (while maintaining high levels of strength during training). One fascinating study even showed that performing explosive squats and explosive hip thrusts (both performed with loads that maximize power output, around 60% of 1RM) led to better sprint and agility (30m sprint and COD performance) gains than multidirectional plyometrics (pro soccer players). Don’t take results of this study for granted, there are many factors to consider here as any other study, but at least consider lightening the load and performing 4 sets of 4-8 reps as explosively as possible with around 60% of 1RM (it might work very well). …And, indeed, the growing body of evidence suggests that training with a greater proximity to muscular failure leads to inferior improvements in athletic performance measures.
Coaching speed and quickness technique training is often dismissed by many strength coaches in favor of the above mentioned strength and power training. Their theory is if we just get them strong, then they will naturally be faster. This might be true to some degree, however you cannot replace technique training with strength and power work. Athletes need to be trained on how to position their body in order to be most efficient when moving (in general). If you want to be faster, you need to sprint (in terms of speed development) as well! At least there is no higher intensity (in every sense) than sprinting. It’s also shown that sprinting reduces common injuries like hamstring pulls i.e.
Conditioning is the one area that becomes lost in the speed equation. Of all the other components previously mentioned, conditioning is not directly associated with improving speed movements (it is just if we are talking about prolonged sprinting – which is then not max sprint). However, some of the most exciting and important plays are made at he end of games when fatigue becomes a factor (linear sprinting is very common in team sports as well). For this reason, the best athletes are usually the best conditioned athletes. They have the stamina late in games or events to use proper technique, utilize their speed and power and make great decisions.
Much of the discussion around sprint running performance though, tends to center around the production of high forces in short durations of time. However, the limiting factor that determines sprinting ability is more likely to be the ability to attain a very high muscle fiber contraction velocity, which is an independent quality from muscle fiber force. Some research showed that there are only small differences in the force-producing ability of the fibers of each type (elite sprinters), but maximum contraction velocity varied enormously between the fibers of each type. This is definitely something to think about.
Last but not least, don’t forget that COMPETITION CREATES EFFORT! Think about this whatever you give your athletes, and whenever is the right time for high intensities (because only the highest intensities could make improvements – at least 95% of max speed approx.). Athletes are competitive 100%. If you want max acceleration, max speed, or whatever max…then place them against each other (reasonable pairing) in a race and then get your stopwatch out and see the decrease in time. Of course, this works well with any device showing numbers as well (VBT, radars…), not only when we give them to compete against each other. Athletes always compete, whether against each other or devices (or both). So, this can be used for any physical adaptation you want: Sprints (race against partner), power/RSI (move the bar the fastest), conditioning (race against your group – positional), etc. Competition breeds improvement (just make sure technique is the number one and the athlete doesn’t throw it out the window just to win).
Remember that genetics dictate your ceiling for speed (speed is the least trainable – not all athletes can be fast but all can get faster). Power is trainable to an extent (more trainable than speed and less trainable than strength which is the MOST trainable)! When it comes to conditioning, I recommend you to read my “Conditioning in practice (a simple solution for superior results)” article.