Sprint Training & Technique: How to Run Faster

shannon maas Sprint Training & Technique: How to Run FasterSprinting: The New Rage and How to Do It

By Shannon Maas, MS – NASM-PES, CES; NCSF-CPT, Level 2 USATF Sprint Coach

In our modern culture, well sculpted bodies garner the most attention, and for a lot of people, that’s a pretty important thing.  Ipso facto, this should make sprinting one of the most lucrative endeavors of physical pursuit;A King of Kings among fitness modalities.  But this is not so…currently.  We have been led astray.  We have gone off the path, that for millennia, served our anatomies so well.There are a lot of ways to the fitness and physique mountain top, why does modern conventional wisdom seem to choose the most difficult or least obvious path to the top?

Sprinting, if done right, and I cannot emphasize the word right enough, can be the most efficient tool in your arsenal to creating an optimal body.  Sprinting costs almost nothing, it can be extremely fun, can be done in groups or alone, it can be done nearly any place, at any time, in any weather and It is proven to give you one of the biggest hormonal and muscle growth stimulating bangs for your buck.But walking the path of a physiological lion can be fraught with pitfalls and danger.  Knowing where to start, how much to do, and how fast to do it are critical variables in making this the best modality possible.

As a University Sprint Coach, it is my job to make my subjects as fast as possible as safely as possible.  The visual aspect is simply a byproduct.  I am here to help you.  I am going to pass along some simple pearls that will help you get up the mountain top in the safest, healthiest way possible…Let’s begin:

Baseline:  Zero Step

In sprint coach lingo, the ‘zero’ step is the first foot contact out of the starting blocks.  It is the most important step in a short sprint because it sets the tone in a race that can come down to .001 seconds.  This is an analogy for your first step.  How fit are you?  When was the last time you sprinted?  In a beer league softball game?  Playing soccer with your buddies?  Knowing where to start is absolutely essential.  The only person that really knows how fit you are, is you.

I would honestly play it very safe when personally assessing yourself.  Leave your ego at the door, especially if you’re out of your hormonal prime.  The goal, at least for me, is longevity.  I want you to look and feel good for as long as you possibly can.  Getting out of the gate too fast, too early, will leave you injured and potentially worse off than where you started.  For some people, I wouldn’t even recommend jogging for more than 100 meters at a time, if at all.  You can get plenty done walking, skipping, or doing drills that are low vibrational impact in nature.

The further you are from the last time you ran full speed, the slower I would start.  Even the youngest and best athletes (my college athletes for example), I wouldn’t start running really fast till we’ve undertaken a good 4-8 weeks of tempo controlled development.  No one is good injured, and no one is happy hurt.  Longevity doesn’t happen without the first step being the smartest one.

Strengthening:  ROOT to the FRUIT

My sprint athletes focus on strengthening and density first and foremost.  Specifically, I use what I call the “Root to the Fruit” philosophy.  I start with the feet and ankles, the ROOT of contact with the ground.  We do a ton of dorsi and plantar flexion drills in a very slow and controlled fashion to strengthen the anterior and posterior tibilias and surrounding ankle complex musculature and tendon/ligament/fascial structures.  Muscle can be trained fairly quickly (4-6 weeks), but tendons and denser fibers take a bit longer (6-10 weeks) to adapt.  These denser structures we want to train and develop first.  The reason being that these tissues are be able to handle larger amounts of load at a higher intensity down the road.  We also get hidden benefits training these fibers such as elastic reflex (stored elastic energy).  If we focus on the roots, we will bear healthier fruits down the road.  Be patient, start slow.

Here are some excellent examples of some foot and ankle drills:

ANKLING: Dorsi-Flexion – Toes Out

Cues:

  • Keep toes pointed to Sky – Only heel should hit ground
  • “Brace” Core – we are always squeezing and engaging our core to create stiffness through the translation point in the body – aka the core
  • Squeeze Glutes – this is part of bracing, but should be emphasized in these drills. This will help set the pelvis and create better posture
  • Lock the Knees – We want the hips and ankles to do the work, not the quads. Squeezing the glues and locking the knees will help keep the movement in the hips and ankles.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lxZ9auLpQvY

ANKLING – Plantar-Flexion – Tip Toes

Cues:

  • Squeeze foot to toe each contact – Stay on ball of foot at minimal
  • “Brace” Core – we are always squeezing and engaging our core to create stiffness through the translation point in the body – aka the core
  • Squeeze Glutes – this is part of bracing, but should be emphasized in these drills. This will help set the pelvis and create better posture
  • Lock the Knees – We want the hips and ankles to do the work, not the quads. Squeezing the glues and locking the knees will help keep the movement in the hips and ankles.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2jNshw9oPV8

Volume:  How much?

Volume “Sprinting” is your new best friend.  Since we want to develop as much lower limb strength and density as possible, running at low frequencies can help us get these physiological adaptions in a safe way.  Especially when first starting sprinting, we can mimic or practice sprinting mechanics at a very slow pace which results in a massively reduced rate and incidence of impact. Many overuse injuries, such as medial tibial stress syndrome (shin splints) are caused by the vibrational impact with the ground.  Sprinting slow and controlled helps our body slowly process and adapt to this stress.

We don’t want to go too slow.  If we start ‘shortening’ up too much, our gait changes and we look like a distance runner (I don’t like to go much slower than 50%).  The difference between sprinting and distance running not only has to do with speed, but with range of motion, especially through hips.  Sprinters hit a much larger range of motion through the lumbo-pelvic hip complex, especially flexion and hyper-extension.  We can retain a lot of this range of motion by focusing on the power of our foot contact into the ground, and toeing off almost in a bound-like fashion.  This is what we call floating or striding.

One of my favorite and easiest Volume workouts is “Straights and Turns.”  You can do this on a track, a football or grass field, turf, dirt road…pretty much anywhere.  I personally recommend finding as soft a surface as possible, especially when you’re first starting.  Sprinting on soft surfaces will help reduce impact injury, and some surfaces, such as beach sand, snow, and thick grass, create more range of motion demand on the ankle joint, thereby creating greater lower limb adaptation.  The Caribbean islands produce some of the greatest sprinters in the world (Jamaica, Grenada, Bahamas, Trinidad & Tobago), and most of those athletes train almost exclusively on grass or clay!  Here’s what a “Straights and Turns” workout might look like (after a good warm up – which I discuss in a different article):

  • 8 Laps – On a Track
  • Sprint 100 meters on the straight away – Increasing Intensity (50% – 85%)
  • Jog 100 meters on turns

And that’s it.  That looks simple, but if done right, that’s two miles in an interval, or HIIT, style of fashion, hitting a high percentage of intensity (ATP-Creatine Phosphate System).  It’s safe because you start slow and end your last couple laps at a high intensity.  This is not for the beginner.  This is an intensity and volume I would do with a lot of sprinting under your belt.  For the newbie, there are some very important things to consider when doing a “Straights and Turns” workout:

Pace:

This is simply how fast should you run.  I determine pace based off your personal effort.  I start all initial straight-reps at 50% or 60% of my personal full speed.  I want to mimic my sprinting mechanics as much as possible, but at a lower frequency.  The next straight I might run 5-10% faster and so on and so forth.  If you are just starting, keep it at a very low percentage no higher 60-70% – depending on the distance you run in your straight.

Recovery:

If you do this workout on a track, the recovery area would be the turn of the track.  You can also dictate what sort of recovery you want.  If the workout is more aerobic in nature, you might stay at a lower percentage pace-wise on the straight, and jog the turns.  If you are hitting a higher intensity on the straight, you might want to walk the turn.  You could do active recovery on the turn (ie. A Skips, high knees, or some other drill).  You could walk one turn, jog the opposite turn.  The range of recovery options is wide and nearly limitless.  You can choose how complex or simple you want the recovery to be.  I like to mix my recovery up to stave off boredom and stay consciously involved (helps count laps when you get to higher numbers).

Frequency:

How often should you do this workout?  If you are new, you should do this workout at least 1 time a week.  You should do it no more than 3 times a week (that’s a lot).  Do it about every 3-5 days, with no more than 7 days between sessions.  If you do a higher intensity version, take no less than 4 days.

Intensity: How Fast?

This is huge.  I rarely go over 90% personally.  And if I go at that effort pace, I go for a short distance –no longer than 30 meters.  Intensity is a gamble.  The higher the effort pace %, the higher the chance of acute injury.  The tradeoff is, the faster you go, the more hormonal response and greater the muscle adaptation we get.  I would not even think of trying to hit 90% pace until you have a good 6-8 weeks of controlled volume under your belt.  Remember, longevity is our goal.  The more you roll the dice with higher intensities, the more we chance our longevity.

At higher percentages, I usually model my workouts on Acceleration.  Overcoming gravity and inertia when starting from a standstill creates a huge muscular demand.  There are all sorts of acceleration workouts and different variables you can plug in.  A great acceleration work out we do involves butcher sleds (with light loads) where we march in our “Drive Phase” posture, then do a rep for 15 meters at 90%, then finish off with a 90% 30 meter sprint.  Since this article is in the interest of beginner safety, I will get into higher intensity workouts later.

For now just understand that the faster you go, the greater the chance of something bad happening.

Recovery: Most Important

We only adapt when we rest.  The quality of rest is determined by your sleep, your nutrition, the frequency, or how often, you work out, etc.  The higher intensity, or the larger the volume the workout, the longer you should recover.  The highest twitch workout out there, depth “shock” jumps (a form of plyometric), necessitates at least a 48-72 hour recovery period before repeating a similar workout.  You should also pyrmadize, or work on a fitness-fatigue protocol by taking extended rest in off periods, or when you feel you are in a large physiological defecit.

Soft tissue work, such as massage or myofascial release (foam rolling, release), flexibility and mobility work should be employed as part of your recovery strategy.  I emphasize the concept of less is more, especially if you are thinking in regards to longevity.

Author Profile: Shannon Maas

Shannon Maas - MS -Performance Enhancement & Injury Prevention; NASM -PES, CES; NCSF -CPT, Level 2 USATF Sprint Coach, 10 years of Collegiate Track and Field coaching experience, ran 400 Hurdles at UC Berkeley (98-00).

Disclaimer: The views of the author are his or her own, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Ask The Trainer.
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