Last week we defined speed and focussed on the lower body. Now, we shift our focus to the upper body and want to look at some on-the-spot corrective actions.
Starting at the top. The head remains in a neutral position, (the position of your head while standing is how you carry it while running). The head is for looking and breathing, no side to side or up and down movement. Tilting the head back with the chin too high is a common mistake among young runners.
Coaching aid: Tell the runner to look over the top of her glasses. This will help tilt the head down into better alignment. A pair of cheap sunglasses (thank you ZZ Top) can be used to accomplish this. I put duct tape over the lens to enhance the effect. Have athletes do warm-up drills and lead-up runs with the glasses halfway down their nose (so they don't have to tilt their head too far down to see over the top).
We will refer to the upper body (without the head or the arms) as the torso. The torso should remain relatively still. If the shoulders rotate side to side, the arms may not be swinging as much as they should.
Coaching Cue: Tell the athlete that you don't want any washer machines. Illustrate this by bending your elbows, holding your arms still, and twisting your shoulders back and forth.
The positioning of the spine is really important. If the spine curves down and drops the shoulders, everything below drops down too: knees, hips, and feet.
Two common mistakes coaches must watch for are when telling an athlete to “run tall”. The athlete either lifts their chin and/or shrugs their shoulders. Neither action helps with running taller.
Remember that the torso will naturally change positions throughout each sprint phase. At the start, there is an exaggerated lean to help displace the entire body from zero to fast speed. Ideally, that lean is at the hips from the ground up instead of bending the spine.
You can feel the correctly placed flexed hip that’s supposed to move when the torso does when you push two or three fingers against the outer edge of the hip joint (the greater trochanter bone). The movement is like taking a stiff bow. If you need a good picture of this, watch the Road Runner cartoon, he leans from his hips. In terms of sprinting, as the foot contacts the ground it propels the hips forward causing the torso to rise and arch the back. This can produce too much backward movement, therefore if the shoulders "fall" forward from the hips, the body's alignment will be correct.
When all these pieces are put together, the runner has a slight backward curve (we call it the backward C) that starts at the top of the shoulders, runs down the spine, and hips all the way to the supporting leg’s heel. Put it all together and you are in a posture to run fast!