Speed in sports is all about the ability to accelerate as quickly as possible. The first few steps an athlete takes often dictate whether he or she can make the play. Unfortunately, common acceleration mistakes can hurt athletes on the field.
Building speed is as much about rooting out errors (or even more so) than building the "perfect technique." Everyone has a slightly different technique, one that is optimal to them depending on their anatomy. But that doesn't mean that athletes should run any way they want.
There are some crucial errors that many athletes make when accelerating. When these are fixed, those athletes can get down the field or court much faster. The three errors are:
- Improper foot placement at touchdown
- Poor posture
- Foot recovery is too high
Before we get too far into these errors, let's look at how some athletes do it well. Here is a slow motion block start where you can clearly see the styles of Asafa Powell and Andre DeGrasse in lanes 8 and 9, respectively.
Granted, this is acceleration from the blocks, and athletes playing sport don't have blocks to drive out of, which makes it a bit more challenging. But the same concepts and form still apply.
By keeping these errors in check through proper cueing or sprint constraints and differential drills, athletes can improve their starting and acceleration ability.
RELATED: Usain Bolt's Key to Explosive Starts
Mistake 1: Improper Foot Placement at Touchdown
A critical difference between acceleration and top speed is the position of the foot in relation to the hip. In top speed, the foot lands just a couple of inches in front of the hip to give a small amount of vertical support to the athlete. If the foot gets too far out in front, braking forces are created.
In acceleration, the projection angle of the trunk provides the vertical support, so the direction of force in footstrike can be largely backwards, and the foot therefore lands behind the body.
Many athletes have a hard time accelerating because they place their feet too far in front of their hips, creating braking forces. When this happens, forward travel is compromised, and athletes often "pop up" early, losing the ability to apply force backwards into the ground. One solution to this is a Wall Drill, where athletes can feel the proper acceleration positions under the support of a wall.
The Wall Drill by itself doesn't make athletes faster, but it can provide context for doing acceleration work immediately afterwards.
Mistake 2: Poor Posture
Whether accelerating from a low start or block start, many athletes have poor posture in their running. In cases of poor posture, or bent spine, athletes often "feel" like they are running fast, because their legs are turning over rapidly. But in reality, they aren't covering a tremendous amount of ground, because their bent torso doesn't allow for very long strides.
I've found that a combination of good cues and well-selected strength training can improve an athlete's posture during acceleration. In terms of cues, athletes should use imagery to picture their spine and torso as a stiff mast or pole. One great cue I learned from sprint coach Ryan Banta is for athletes to imagine that "there is a hole drilled from the top of their head, down through their torso, and a broomstick is placed in that hole, running the length of their body, keeping them tall and upright. When their feet strike the ground, they are powerfully sweeping the track to move forward." This cue often facilitates faster acceleration, even if athletes don't feel like they are running fast, simply because their posture is better and their strides are longer.
In terms of strength work, movements that combine a Single-Leg RDL or Good Morning with knee drive and hip extension can be a helpful teaching tool for promoting proper posture in sprint acceleration.
Mistake 3: Foot Recovery is Too High
The final error is foot recovery in the first few steps being much too high. When athletes take their first few steps, the swing foot should be traveling through at the level of the knee or lower. In the image below, the athlete makes the error of a heel recovering higher than the opposite knee.
Contrary to what many coaches teach, lower is not better for every athlete. Some athletes do better with a knee level heel recovery, and some athletes are better off with lower recoveries closer to the ground. Some athletes exaggerate this to the point where they actually drag their toe on the second step (see Asafa Powell in the video above), but I wouldn't recommend this as standard practice. Notice that the tactic doesn't gain him any ground on Andre DeGrasse in the next lane over.
Generally speaking, stronger athletes can get away with a lower heel recovery, while weaker, more elastic athletes often prefer higher recoveries. In any case, the recovery of the swing foot shouldn't be higher than knee height. At this extreme, it's hard to get the foot back down to the ground fast enough to re-apply force.
To improve excessive heel recovery, drills can be incorporated where an athlete kicks over a cup or cone with the swing leg of their first step; however, be careful not to force any particular level of heel recovery on an athlete. By learning how to bound, or do Standing Triple Jumps, athletes will also learn a pattern that requires the shin to swing lower to the ground, and they can often apply this to their acceleration when needed. In this way, bounding drills often have great transfer to acceleration.
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