I was on the track one Saturday with a group of athletes preparing to run our high speed 110 workout. Across the field, on the other straightaway, was a separate group of athletes with their coach. I was curious about what they were going to do; maybe I would become inspired.
They got into what I consider a traditional warm up, but then a different lead up. There’s nothing new under the sun, so I had seen it before, but really the execution was what stood out. It all seemed too mechanical - almost robotic, if you know what I mean.
What I will say is, I was somewhat--surprised--by how much time they spent doing certain skips. When the time came for those athletes to do regular sprints, it clearly hadn't translated, to say the least.
Our drills are very intentional. I "prescribe" drills that I know flow into sprint technique. The goal of the drill itself is oftentimes to overemphasize a proper technique. Therefore, drills in a sense are doing the right thing the wrong way. I’ll often say, “If you feel awkward doing it, you’re probably doing it right.” Still, they need to be executed in a relaxed state like you would for normal running. That being said, you have to drill down deeper. If it can’t merge into pure sprinting, why are you doing it?
To be clear, it’s ok to do a drill like skipping for certain reasons. However, skipping isn’t running. They are two distinct patterns. That doesn’t devalue them as a warm up for a muscle or a movement, but the why is as important as the how.
So, when you are warmed up and ready to roll out that day’s speed training, the lead up is the connection from warm up to the actual workout.
I’ll categorize certain speed workouts as linear or COD (change of direction). Today, let’s get into the main linear drills.
While running, teach your athlete to pump their arms as fast as they can. It’s important they keep the arms bent more - less than 90º angle - during the entire swing phase. Yes, this will mess up their stride, but just go with it. What they should notice is that by doing the arms as fast as they can, the legs want to do the same.
This helps teach a huge lesson to athletes: THE LEGS COPY THE ARMS. It helps them understand how the arms and legs are connected, which is so important to make sure the arms are working hard when sprinting.
One of the best coaching cues with all of these drills is “... than normal.” So, “faster arms than normal”, “bigger arms than normal”, “faster legs than normal”, “bigger legs than normal.” Again, the whole point of these drills are to overemphasize a technique.2. Big Arms
This is an exaggerated arm swing drill (not a biceps curl program). Coach the athlete to fix the arms at as strict of a 90º angle as possible for the entire cycle. They need to pull their elbow back (more than normal) then drive the hand forward, like they are trying to put their thumb in their imaginary belt loop (at the traditional hip height). The follow-through of the hand is accentuated as well. This is another drill that will throw off the leg cycle. Again, ignore it.
This is our greatest innovation when it comes to helping athletes get the leg cycle under control if they were struggling with it. In some sense, this drill is like if there was a combination of a fast legs and big legs drill.
The coaching cues are “up, around and down”, “tear your foot off the ground”, “strike the match” or “spin the earth faster.” Those cues are directed towards foot action. We originally were just trying to get the trifecta of “up, around and down" under control. Incidentally, a fourth thing appeared as a bonus. When the athlete grasped the concept, it caused them to hit on the ball of the foot. It almost always resulted in a dominant forefoot contact.
Another bonus is it helps reinforce the tall, erect posture of sprinting. However, you may notice they sometimes either pantomime cycling an actual bicycle too much or they lean back like they are on a recumbent bike. Correct those mistakes as you see them.
…but don't break it. To keep the hands under control, the impression of carrying an egg and not breaking it helps immensely. I would occasionally use plastic golf balls, which looked like an egg, in my athletes’ hands to reinforce this technique. You can also just have the athlete touch the tips of their index finger and thumb to get the idea and let the other fingers cup inward.
Just like I talked about last week, the head and neck should be kept neutral. Same goes for the hands. Keep them neutral, which is natural. If you stood relaxed right now with your hands to the side, what would your hands do? Try it now. Are you making a fist? No. Are you ready to do a judo chop with rigid fingers? No. When relaxed, they can basically carry an egg without cracking its shell.
Remember, tightness travels.
If the hand makes a fist, it can tighten the elbow which leads to the shoulders which leads to the… you get the point. Likewise, if you drop the egg, that means the hand opened too much and the fingers created a less efficient lever. In addition, the open hand can cause the arm to open too much on the back swing. In the end, it's all about good mechanics producing efficiency and good efficiency producing speed. We want to eliminate inefficiency.5. No Arms
This is extremely valuable in teaching posture and the role of the shoulders in sprinting. Simply put the arms behind the back with one hand grabbing the wrist of the other arm. Without other instructions, have the athletes run 20-30 yards. The reason for no additional direction is to let their bodies do what they do naturally in that position.
**NOTE: Notice how natural movement and neutrality are common themes in training.
The sequence of events is pretty standard. First, the shoulders will drop, which in turn limits the knee lift. Subsequently, there is exaggerated shoulder rotation, which we call the “washer machine.” Once they experience all of that, instruct them to run again and the coaching cues are now “knees up, shoulders up.” The shoulder rotation may remain, but they should obviously be fighting the temptation to let their shoulders sink or minimize their knee drive.
No arms then drop halfway is the dramatic conclusion to the arm swing importance. Place a cone at 10 or 15 yards and one at 20 or 30. Have them run with no arms to the first cone, then at the cone, drop the arms and use them normally. The two major changes when they get the arms back are that they noticeably accelerate and the shoulders stabilize.7. Fast Legs (aka Roadrunner Feet)
Another object lesson here. Ask anyone if they have seen the roadrunner cartoon. If yes, then ask, “Have you ever seen the roadrunner’s feet?” About 99% of the time, they say, “Yes,” to which I reply, “No. You have not, because they are a blur.”
Of course the point of the lesson is turnover. That’s a big cue for mini hurdle training. However, without the mini hurdles, the drill remains as an overemphasis of running with as fast of turnover as possible. Naturally, the stride length will feel mitigated. As with all these drills, if you feel funny doing it - repeat after me - you’re probably doing it right.8. Power Skips
This is a cousin to bounding and is easier for most athletes to execute. Start a regular skip, then quickly begin emphasizing the push and drive of the ground leg. Drive the lead knee up and towards a goal at the other end of the runway. On ground contact, quickly and EXPLOSIVELY repeat for the next stride. As the legs increase their power output, the arm drive on the back swing gets more aggressive.
If we get a group of coaches watching an individual athlete doing a speed training workout, we may get some consensus on a flaw. The catch is, what are the solutions? Ten coaches may offer ten different answers.
What I discovered is there are not enough solutions to go around. A verbal correction may not do the job. So often, words don’t work. Meaning is lost in translation. Coaching cues aren’t a silver bullet.
As a result, rather than being frustrated or stuck, physical answers, or examples, are required. Again, it's a matter of doing what works or what can be translated and transitioned into sound running technique.
Carrying the egg doesn’t have to be an actual egg. An Expo marker or even a golf ball will suffice.
If the arm angle is too obtuse, or too open, a mini band above the elbow stretched to the thumb-index joint is helpful. It demands an acute angle that can’t exceed a 90º bend without the band popping off.
Torso-shoulder-posture problems can be improved with a Frankenstein Run. The athlete runs and holds their arms straight (shoulder high and width). This will produce the same excessive shoulder rotation because they are in effect running with no arms. More importantly, it causes the spine to be straight in the proper posture.
A BIG problem with many youth athletes was, is and always will be, heel recovery. When the pedal the bicycle cue “up, around and down” doesn’t do the trick, running butt kicks becomes the answer. I have them run and coach them to kick their butt more than normal. Don’t worry about knee lift during this drill.
When you do want to work on the knee lift, have them run and think only about picking up their knees higher than normal. Let’s call that drill Running High Knees. Why not? An extra inch in lift will feel like they are about to hit their chin, which is a normal sensation. Fortunately, it will usually fix the problem. Tell the athlete to ignore the sensation and memorize it.
These are some of the common mistakes and guidance on how to correct them. If there is a mechanical error that needs to be corrected, the gist of the above solutions are to have the athlete (temporarily) over-correct the problem, which in many cases, will fix it. When an athlete overemphasizes on purpose, they tend to naturally discover the proper technique.
My best advice is to just try it and see how your athletes respond. Let me know what worked for your athletes and/or if they didn’t respond well to a specific area.“Everyday to Prepare”