Go to any gym, game, practice or track meet and you'll probably hear a coach or parent yell, "stay low" in an effort to improve an athlete's acceleration speed.
Though well-intentioned, this cue causes more harm than good. It leads to hordes of athletes displaying a huge hinge at their hips, over-striding and braking during acceleration. Athletes mistake the meaning of "stay low" for superficially running "low" instead of letting their body naturally unfold and get upright.
If you watch any athlete naturally accelerate, by 15 to 25 yards they are just about fully upright. If you break down every step, you will see the hip axis rise with each step—almost like running up stairs. You'll also see the shin, pelvis and torso angles match and are parallel during acceleration—and these angles also rise with every step.
The truth is, athletes should actually accelerate "taller" than what might be expected. The universal norm of initiating acceleration at a 45-degree angle is a good starting point, but for many athletes this angle is actually too low.
We love to watch the 100-meter dash at the Olympics and see athletes exiting the blocks at 30- to 35-degree angles, but we forget these are the most efficient, powerful sprinters in the world; they can handle those angles. For those angles to work, athletes need a great baseline of strength, body control and technical efficiency.
Those angles are not realistic for high school kids or even college athletes, and they lead to athletes demonstrating bent-over chests or zig-zagging out of the gate/blocks.
If you see an athlete zig-zag in acceleration (after 3-5 steps), they aren't rising, they're trying to stay low. If you see an athlete over-striding in acceleration, they are probably bent over at the hips and not rising.
Athletes should rise 6 to 8 degrees with each step. So if an athlete comes out at a 45-degree angle, by steps 7 or 8, he or she should be upright. If not, they are artificially running low.
Remember, the goal of acceleration is to get to top speed as quickly and smoothly as possible. Trying to run low doesn't accomplish this. So instead of trying always to stay low, allow your body to unfold and get tall with every step.
Athletes who struggle with this concept need opportunities to feel their angle open and rise. This along with appropriate cueing will help them break this bad habit and let their acceleration speed really open up.
Implement these drills if you struggle with acceleration.
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3-Step Bursts: We end every warm-up with six 3-step bursts, one each leg from a 2-point, 3-point, and 4-point stance. This allows athletes to feel a rhythm and rise while progressing from lower and lower angles.
Rising Wall Run: This drill isolates the rising angles in a condensed, supported environment. Progress from controlled steps to continuous steps.