“Few people challenge the old adage of speed kills, however I think people claiming that you can’t teach speed are incorrect. Can you teach every person to run a 4.5 40? Absolutely not. Can you teach people to run faster? Yes, as a sport performance coach you should be able to improve acceleration, speed, and the running mechanics of your athletes. Personally, teaching running mechanics from the top down has worked best for us, then we move onto lower body mechanics.
Upper body running mechanics begin with everything being relaxed so the arms can move fast, and freely. The faster your arms drive, the faster your stride rate will be, so the arms must be able to hinge freely at the shoulder. Two great indicators if someone’s upper body is relaxed are their jaw, and their hands. If their jaw is clenched tight, and the hands are clenched usually the person is carrying too much tension in their upper body. We always coach a relaxed jaw and relaxed hands so that the fingers are barely touching each other; visually imagine holding potato chips in between your fingers, if your fingers are too tight you would break the chip, but you don’t want your hands spread out that you would drop the chips.
Now that they are relaxed, you want the arms at roughly a 90 degree angle, and during running you want them to hinge at the shoulder, not the elbow. We practice this by having athletes sit on the ground and just go through the arm swing, thinking about driving the elbows forward and back, not up and down. During this drill we want the athletes sitting tall with their neck stacked in a neutral position. Some athletes may lean back, rotate side to side, or crouch forward. All of those things will affect proper mechanics when they go to run, so this is a great drill to use before an athlete ever puts their foot in the ground.
Once upper body mechanics are fine, we move on to lower body mechanics. The main coaching cue we focus on is driving the feet back and down into the ground. If we over coach the knee lift portion of running, some athletes focus on lifting their knees instead of driving their feet, or over extending their stride which becomes a brake, not a gas pedal. Neither of those outcomes are beneficial in any way. The knee drive should happen organically as long as the upper body mechanics are ideal, hence the importance of proper arm swing during sprinting. There should be a slight forward lean during sprinting, but the athlete should run tall, much like the seated arm mechanic drill explained above. The lifted foot should never extend forward, or reach forward in an attempt to lengthen the stride. The braking effect this creates is detrimental to running fast and gets the body out of proper position to continue the lower body running cycle.
As performance coaches we must work on the running mechanics of our athletes, and enhance the speed of our athletes as much as we can. For more on foot placement during sprinting check out this video of Jim Kielbaso from the IYCA.
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