In Speed 101: Arm Swing I addressed the importance of the arm action in sprinting and how we can use isolated drills as a magnifying glass to expose and identify problems that will arise when you start having your athletes sprint. This is only part of the equation. We can’t talk about maximizing speed and not talk about the action of the legs.
Before we can get into the “fun” part of sprint mechanics we have to first understand in a controlled setting what position the athlete needs to hit. Isometric holds are a great place to start.
We have to start with the ankle when talking about the positioning of the lower body since it is responsible for the transfer of so much force. Misalignment will result in a decrease in performance, and even worse a potential injury. The ankle must be in a dorsiflexed position ( i.e pulling the top of the foot towards the shin). This creates a rigid ankle. We want to also make sure that the foot is neutral. There shouldn’t be any pronation (foot rolled in) or eversion (foot rolled out). Ensuring proper alignment allows for optimal muscular recruitment and allows for power to be transferred efficiently from the upper leg through the foot (1).
Knee & Hip Flexion
The knee should be bent enough that the toe comes into alignment with the knee. From there the hip should be flexed enough that that knee is just below the crease of the hip. It is important to note that the position of the knee and hip are going to change depending on the phase of the sprint, however this a great starting point for a novice athlete. With the toe, knee, and hip flexed we want to make sure that everything is aligned as if they were riding a bike (1). Just like the ankle any misalignment will lead to inefficiencies or injury potentials when it is time to go full speed. Have your athletes hold this position with one leg up (think Crane Kick from Karate Kid), checking from the bottom up making sure landmarks are hit.
Now that we have identified the ideal position of the ankle, knee, and hip it's time to start putting things into action. The best way to learn is through the chunking model. This is taking a small component, mastering it, then adding another layer, rinsing and repeating until the athlete has an unconscious competence in the movement. In my experience, this is a great sequence to get an athlete to understand the entire leg action.
This a great drill that comes from Power Athlete Radio & Symposium alum Jim Kielbaso. We want to coach our athletes to make contact with the ground on the balls of their feet. It's one thing to tell them to do this, but it’s even more powerful to have them experience it in a low stress environment. The athlete will stand with their feet under their hips and slowly lean forward with a straight body until the heels just barely come off the ground.
Cocky Walks & Heel Walks
Now that the athlete has an understanding of where we want their foot to make contact with the ground it’s time to start adding movement. Cocky Walks are great at teaching the action of the ankle that we are looking for. Maintain dorsiflexion at the top of each rep, making contact with the ball of their foot, going into plantar flexion during the toe-off phase, then recoiling back to dorsiflexion for the next rep. During this drill you can see immediately if an athlete is heel striking, which is the equivalent of running with the e-brake on. You’ll also be able to tell if an athlete it toe striking, which results in force dissipating as the foot makes contact, as well as putting a high eccentric load on the anterior tibialis which could potentially lead to injury.
On the way back have the athlete perform a heel walk. Moving through space while maintaining an isometric hold of dorsiflexion is a great way to strengthen and reinforce this position. Start with very little knee bend where the athlete is stepping the height of their ankle bone. Once competency is displayed step it up to where the height is now calf height. Ultimately, work to knee height. This is another great chance to check their positioning making sure the foot, knee, and hip are all moving in a straight line. Once again think of riding a bicycle.
Foot poppers are another great drill from the archives of Jim Kielbaso. The athlete will stand on one leg having a slight bend in the support leg. Then bring the ankle, knee, and hip in flexion as described earlier. From there drive the leg down keeping the ankle rigid, and make contact with the ball of the foot. This should result in the athlete popping off the ground.
This a great drill for coordinating the action on the hip, knee, and ankle together while reinforcing that ball of the foot is what should be making contact with the ground. This drill also gets the athlete to understand how to attack the ground with a rigid ankle. All of this will ensure that power is safely and efficiently transferred. It is important to note that this drill should be considered an intense plyometric drill. So use caution when implementing these, and limit the amount of reps.
Single Leg Superman
During our top speed phase when the leg follows through, the hip is going to reach extension and experience some rotation. A certain degree of rotation and extension is to be expected. However, in these end ranges of motion, if stability is lacking there is an increased chance for injury. This drill is a great chance for us to asses the athlete, and work on their ability through isometric hold to stabilize for the follow-through phase of their stride.
We’ve done a lot of the hard work up to this point and have set the athlete up for success. In an isometric format we have established the landmarks that need to be hit and then part by part, we have pieced things together dynamically. We are essentially taking the Foot Popper drill, but now the athlete is just learning how to apply the force in more of a horizontal fashion. Whereas the Single Leg Superman helped with the follow-through, this drill is about the ability to produce force for the acceleration phase. Start with single repetitions working on mastering the position then have them complete double, triples, etc. This broken rhythm is a great teaching tool.
We can almost never predesign the final form that will be optimal for each athlete. Rather, the from will develop gradually during training which is a learning process. This process starts with helping our athletes understand what positions they need to hit, and it concludes with giving them an opportunity to make mistakes in a controlled environment while they sharpen their skills. Once we have removed basic errors, each individual’s technique will start to unfold.
(1)Kielbaso, J. (2011). Ultimate speed & agility: Drills and techniques for athleticism. Plymouth, MI: Crew Press.
After an introduction to CrossFit in 2007, Carl became a certified coach in 2009 and co-owner of CrossFit South Bend in 2011. In addition to coaching CrossFit and CrossFit Football classes at the gym, Carl has been coaching high school rugby since 2009. He uses the CrossFit Football and Power Athlete concepts to help his young athletes identify their goals and provides pointed instruction to help achieve those goals.
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