Joel Smith STACK
When we think of speed training, what comes to mind?
Quite often, it’s about sprint drills and honing our running form. Speed ladders. Cone drills. A-Skips. Arm swing drills.
These are things we just tend to associate with training to get faster in our modern culture, largely because we see so many athletes doing them.
Just because something is “around” doesn’t mean it’s valuable. If we drew out a cross-sectional map of human history, the period that “sports performance” training has been around would be a barely visible slice in time. We are a very young and growing industry, and just because something is common doesn’t mean it’s optimal.
One of my favorite anecdotes from my podcast, the Just Fy Performance Podcast, comes from an episode with Joe DeFranco.
Joe relayed a story about how the athletes at his facility were measuring up against athletes from another facility in terms of performance and increases in speed. At the time, Joe’s gym was essentially a 500 square-foot glorified closet where the main modes of training were weightlifting and jump-based exercises. The other facility was larger and used a lot of traditional sprint drills and spent significant time training to achieve “perfect” sprint form.
Yet Joe’s athletes were out-performing their athletes and making more significant increases in speed.
The video below shows the typical way some common sprint drills (such as “A-Skips” and “B-Skips”) are taught:
Keep in mind, the original inventor of these drills, Gerard Mach, did not intend these drills to teach running mechanics. Rather, he invented them simply to condition the sprinting muscles in cold-weather Poland, where sprinting outdoors is often not an option!
Many believe the ultimate recipe for enhancing speed is to gain strength via traditional strength training and to perfect traditional sprint drills and sprint “form.”
I’m saying otherwise.
If an athlete runs like the Tasmanian Devil with arms and legs flying all over the place, the basic general coordination these drills can offer may be useful. And I do agree that many athletes will benefit from getting stronger in the weight room, particularly when it comes to their acceleration.
But I believe that for most athletes, there are better things they can spend time on than traditional sprint drills.
When designing any exercise or movement that is supposed to improve an innate function of the human body (such as running), we must consider that we’ve been learning this function on our own from the time we were born with a processor that runs at 1 billion x 1 billion calculations per second.
How did you learn to walk when you were a baby? Did someone hold your hand and teach you, or did you just figure it out by trying over and over again, learning with each attempt? What about learning to run on the playground? Did a coach have to get out there and teach you how to move fast to tag friends or avoid a dodge ball being thrown at you?
Most sprint drills are far too reductionist to really help improve the majority of athletes enhance their speed.
- Although these drills look like real sprinting on some level, the timing and positioning is much different.
- They are usually too focused on what’s happening on the frontside of the body while ignoring the importance of the backside.
- They don’t teach the body how to produce or time horizontal force, which is an essential aspect of being fast.
- They often teach an athlete to be very mechanical and robotic while running.
I’ve learned a lot about these contrasts from my mentor, track coach Adarian Barr, as well as many hours spent training athletes and breaking down slow-motion video. Let’s hop into each point a bit further to help you understand why traditional sprinting drills rarely train the qualities that enhance speed.
1. Timing and Positioning Don’t Reflect Real Sprinting
The basic positions and postures required by most sports skills are fairly simple.
It’s the timing and the subtle positioning and twisting of the extremities that make a huge difference in the execution.
With most traditional sprint drills, everything is happening in a very vertical manner. In sprint drill work, the foot is usually striking straight down below the hips. But in upright sprinting, the foot actually strikes a few inches out in front of the hips to provide vertical support.
If you put your foot right underneath your hips while sprinting upright, you’d have no vertical force to keep you up, and you’d fall right on your face!
Notice how Usain Bolt’s foot strike in the below frame makes contact slightly in front of his hips:
And here is a comparison of how foot strike mechanics differ between acceleration and top-end running, which comes from page 12 of my book, “Speed Strength“:
Yet most sprint drills are done with more of a purely vertical action where the foot strikes right underneath the hip rather than out in front of it. This is what I mean when I say that the timing and placement of the feet and limbs in many of these drills are fundamentally different than sprinting in sport.
2. Sprint Drills are Front Side-Biased
Something that the speed industry has been really obsessed with in the last few years is maximizing things that happen on the front side of the body during sprinting.
Particularly, lifting the knees high and then hammering the foot down to the ground in an attempt to run faster.
I will say that early acceleration does often benefit from a strong knee drive mechanism, but this must be timed properly with the rest of the body and an arm action that times behind the body.
Upright running, however, requires more balance. There must be a balance between the speed by which the front foot is coming down to strike the ground and the speed and position of the leg swinging through from the back. And for this to occur optimally, it also requires certain stiffness properties of the foot and Achilles tendon.
Trying to emphasize only one part of the sprinting equation ignores the realities of what actually occurs during sprinting.
Trying to eliminate what’s happening naturally can also shift an athlete away from their natural strengths. Natural backside (legs working behind the athlete in space) action when the athlete is in good posture happens simply as a result of the unloading of the spring of the foot.
The unloading of the foot spring shoots the lower leg out on a path that takes it up and back, and eventually forward. Artificially making all sprinting front-side oriented when an athlete has a good neutral pelvis position can disrupt this natural balance.
See champion sprinter Noah Lyles for an example of a good balance between front and backside action:
His knees are not coming all the way up to parallel, and he is not trying to alter how far his feet are moving behind his body.
3. Sprint Drills Don’t Train Horizontal Thrust
As mentioned before, most traditional sprint drills operate in a vertical realm. In this sense, they can do a good job of loading the tissues of the lower leg, as well as building some general hip flexor strength.
What they can’t do is teach an athlete to output horizontal thrust. When the stance leg passes underneath an athlete, and the knee is under the hip, the leg should be slightly bent so that thrust can be directed backwards. See the below image from page 31 of “Speed Strength“:
If you notice what happens in most, if not all sprint drills, thrust just gets directed straight downward into the ground while not addressing this thrust angle!
4. Sprint Drills Can Make an Athlete Very Mechanical and Robotic
If there’s one thing I notice while watching athletes warm up to sprint, it’s that they tend to look like robots.
When athletes do sprint drills, they tend to be coached in a very positional manner. They focus on getting their arm or knee to an exact position that their coach has told them is key to good sprinting. They also tend to work very much in the sagittal or front-to-back plane of the body, kind of like a LEGO man.
Good sprinters don’t operate like this. Watch them in warm-ups and they almost look “lazy.” They have swagger. They aren’t super tight on all the positions coaches preach, and that’s for a reason! Sprinting has swagger to it!
The body will use side-to-side bending to optimize force production. It’ll twist and rotate through the pelvis to grab more ground with each step. Robotic sprinters who move purely through the sagittal plane miss out on this.
If you watch Usain Bolt warming up in the video below, you’ll see a lot of swagger (skip ahead to the 1:15 mark):
Additionally, you’ll see when he does do the “sprint drill” type movement in the video below, it is with horizontal velocity present!
What Should I Do Instead?
All this being said, I don’t think that traditional sprint drills will make most athletes slower than they already are. However, I don’t believe they have the specificity to make them faster.
In reality, simply getting stronger will have a bigger positive impact on many young athletes’ speed than them getting “good” at traditional sprint drills (which is why the athletes at Joe DeFranco’s old 500 square-foot gym could beat the other guys in a race.)
When it comes to sprint “drills,” I do use a few non-traditional options to emphasize specific aspects of what good athletes do during running. These include Leg Switches in Mid-Air to improve crossed extensor ability as well as Squatted Running to improve sprint timing in a squatted position. These drills are integrated in a holistic manner, meaning I’ll use them to emulate specific sprint postures as well as aspects of foot strike.
But when it comes to improving an athlete’s sprint technique, I believe it’s all about altering their environment and letting them respond! Give them a problem and let them solve it!
Here are two quick ideas for that: one for upright running, and one for acceleration.
To help athletes self-organize better in upright running, try putting down a series of mini-hurdles or “wickets” near average stride-length apart and have the athlete run over them. Using mini-hurdles (max height of 6 inches) as a pre-conditioning or warm-up exercise has been proven to yield faster 60m sprint times versus traditional running warm-ups. Don’t obsess over certain positions or technique. Simply but the hurdles down and let them respond to that environment. This drill helps athletes improve technique on their own:
For acceleration, a simple self-organizing tool is a drill called “Bucket Runs,” which I learned from Adarian Barr.
In this movement, an athlete puts a bucket or hoop on their backside, and sprints with it for a short distance before removing it. The bucket helps improve swing leg repositioning, which is a critical aspect of being fast in acceleration, and it keeps an athlete from over-extending with each step. When they drop the bucket, the athlete will feel a surge of power:
These are just two of many “constraints” you can put on sprinting to help an athlete organize to be faster. Couple this work with a good resistance training program, and you’ll see athletes continually improving with their own natural hard-wiring working for them and not against!