Sprint Mechanics - Part I

Your Head

Back in the day, I coached football and track in addition to teaching in the classroom. Yes, I taught in the classroom–history as a matter of fact.

How many of you are in that same boat? I know a vast majority of coaches are also teachers. Teaching other subjects is like coaching speed; your curriculum follows a certain sequence. The principle of sequence says that ORDER MATTERS. The right sequence of instruction matters not only because it leads to better retention, but it also sets the foundation for the rest of what will be taught.


When coaching speed, I believe the principle of sequence applies. The first thing I start with is posture. Think of posture simply as the position of your body.

As it pertains to running form, the easiest place to start when discussing posture is the head, which will be our focus today. One reason I start with the head is that the position should come naturally. It’s also so easy to coach.

You may have heard me say, “Kids will learn how to run naturally, but they don’t naturally learn how to run, correctly.” Kids don’t naturally learn proper posture for the head even though it is natural. Fortunately, it should also be the easiest thing to fix if an athlete is making mistakes.


The head has only two, or technically, three functions when sprinting:

  • •Looking

  • •Breathing

  • •Listening [to the coach]

Of course, those three functions are critically important.

First, your head stays in a neutral posture. The chin doesn’t need to tuck just as it doesn’t need to lift. It definitely doesn’t go side to side, bobble or wobble. Stay neutral.

Second, watch where you are going. Seems like common sense, right? Yes, but it goes deeper than that.

Your head follows your eyes and your body follows your head.

Don’t forget that. When sprinting, you ONLY look at an endpoint and let your eyes pull you toward it. For example, In the indoor space (where I train my clients), I have a poster of the great state of Texas on the wall at the end of our speed runway. I tell them to watch it the whole way.

Third, listen to what your coach is instructing, and apply it.


Here’s an example of the body-head connection.

One day, during track workouts with the high school team I was coaching, we were running 200-meter repeats. One of the guys running heard one of the girls watching yell, “Go Tommy,” and of course, he turned his head to see who yelled. As soon as he did, he had a hiccup in his stride, lost speed and almost stumbled into the next lane. His teammate passed him and the lesson was learned.

His body wanted to follow the head because his head had followed his eyes. In this case, the hearing function was a detriment. Don't look up, down, sideways or get distracted. Eyes on the prize – the finish.


There is one main objection I get when consulting, and I get it enough that it’s worth covering here.

I know the endgame for being fast is to be fast in competition. Objections almost always come in some form of, “But what about…?”. They always do. In this case it sounds something like, “But what about when they need to look somewhere else?”

Yes, once it’s gametime, your athletes’ eyes follow the ball or they follow the play or they follow their opponent in competition. They want to be pulled in that direction.

However, we train in a controlled environment on purpose. You train game-speed controlling certain variables to develop as much speed as possible. Once it’s time for competition, your athletes must let their sports posture take over when the ball goes live.

This is a different athletic posture. Whatever stances are necessary for your sport doesn’t change the way we train for speed, just like a forty/40 start isn’t a football stance, which I’ve covered before.

Six inch mini hurdles aren’t designed to mimic a 6-inch obstacle in sports but rather to simply teach lift. If you are doing a reaction drill or a skill-specific drill like you’ll see with quarterbacks training their pocket presence keeping their eyes “downfield” while avoiding a cone or bag, these are drills with different purposes.

When training speed, the rule is to look where you’re going. Simple as that.


Another item that is debated is breathing patterns. Yes, even breathing technique matters. I believe it is important to use the larger airway, the mouth. Breathe with the mouth loose and open.

I once worked alongside another trainer who had a client train with her mouth closed. I asked him why she didn’t breathe through her mouth at all and he said, verbatim, “Because nose breathing gets you more oxygen.” This is an example where somebody knows just enough to be dangerous. Context matters.

The exception to this is during intense exercise. The catch was that she trained slowly. Like, real slow. So slow, that in truth, she didn’t train intensely enough. The reality is, he was like a lot of trainers in that he heard something from someone or somewhere and just ran with it (pun intended).

However, trying to breathe ONLY through the nose at high speed causes a couple problems. First, it leads to the tilting of the head back and forth trying to get more air in the lungs. Remember, we need stability in the head. Second, you simply don’t get enough air. Just watch the best sprinters in the world run the 100-meter dash at the Olympics. Do you see their mouths closed? No.

For proper breathing (I call it opera breathing), you breathe from the diaphragm. That way you can “gulp” air if you need to. Even during intense exercise, relaxed breathing signals the rest of the moving parts to stay relaxed, which is so important to speed.


The joke writes itself, but no, I’m not talking about decision making. The mistakes themselves are innocent enough.

I see young athletes attempt to run fast and their face gets distorted and funky looking like there is some speed answer coming from the head, mouth and eyes. You know the look. It’s the one where they look like they are almost in pain from trying to reach full speed. Stop making faces, kids!

A key speed training principle is tightness travels.

In this discussion, that means if your mouth is closed and jaw is clenched, then the neck is tight and that tightness will travel to the shoulders then arms. All bad. The solution is to run relaxed. Let your eyes see the finish and while your mouth gets air in and out smoothly and efficiently.

Then there is the aforementioned head tilt. This often occurs as an athlete increases speed. The faster they get, the more likely they are to lift their head. Remind them to keep the chin down if they let it lift up. Again, just neutral.

As for the eyes, we already touched on that, but allow me to add two more things. When it comes to change of direction, you need to get your eyes around. For example, if you’re running a 5-10-5 shuttle, which I will blog about in the near future, the destination changes twice. When making a turn, the eyes need to transition quickly in such drills.

The last thing is during a backpedal. It is especially important to teach your kids on a backpedal to keep their eyes straight and keep their head neutral. The posture backward is essentially the same as forward. If a young athlete is not proficient in the movement, they will typically turn their head to look backward while they backpedal. That is more likely to lead to a fall. When they turn their head, they will usually veer or have a hitch in the stride. I’ve seen it all too often.

It is important to check the path before beginning such a drill. Once they begin, encourage them to commit to the technique. I spoke on the warm up techniques in early August. You can see that here.


While speed exposes flaws, even at their fastest, your athletes should be able to look and breathe correctly. It’s the other stuff like arm swing or leg stride that should be the main focus of high speed correction. More on that at a later date.

“Everyday to Prepare”


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