You probably sprint wrong. Almost everyone does, and that included me until inadvertently learning how to correct this seemingly simple movement. In this article I hope to facilitate at least one similar revelation out there. I will outline some cues and drills for not only improving your sprint speed, but more importantly, preventing injury. When it comes to sprinting, shift your thinking more towards how you think of compound lifts because the sprint is surprisingly technical.
Hamstring injuries are incredibly common from sprinting – the reason for this is not because of issues with the hamstrings themselves (though any weakness, lack of flexibility, etc. is always worth ruling out of course), but usually because most people cycle incorrectly. “Cycle” here refers to your stride. When most people run, the natural inclination is to “reach” out ahead with the leg, strike somewhere mid-foot, pull forward in the stride, and allow that leg to complete the stride backwards, up and out. Sounds pretty basic, right?
Well, sprinting is not running. Try instead to think of sprint strides as strikes to the ground, pushing forward like one of those italicized letters, and concentrating power out of the hips. The knee explodes up as high as possible, then the heel strikes back down into the ground without reaching the foot forward – this extension is what suddenly and unnaturally stretches the hamstring at both ends and causes so many hamstring tears. Keep that hamstring flexed at the knee joint and simply strike straight back down and back; trust me, you will still move forward, and it will feel much more efficient, because it is. It should feel like a lot more work in the hips and a lot less in the legs.
Contrary to what might feel natural in running, nothing “mid-foot” should be a thought and the ankles should remain flexed throughout the cycle – speaking from personal experience, your heels will take a beating as you get used to striking the ground with them alone. The calves should not be coming into play here. In fact, the leg’s cycle needs to terminate as close to the butt as possible and spend very little time at all behind you. A leg’s time spent behind the body is milliseconds added between the next hip flexion forward, and that means no speed favors. The ankle should remain flexed throughout the entire cycle, the heel should pop straight up to the glute almost directly under the body, and that leg should drive right back up through the knee as soon as possible. The cue here is powerful, compact movement, not long strides, and it should feel like your legs are taking up about half the space they do during slower steady running – your knee should already be on its next way up as your heel is almost kicking your butt.
Fixing Your Upper Body
Now for upper body – yes, your torso has just as much to do with this! You can’t run very fast without also moving your arms very fast, so pump those arms as hard as you do your legs and think like an action figure: elbows at 90 degrees, palms open, cheek to cheek – that means face cheek to butt cheek – every stride. This is going to provide even more momentum as well as encouraging the tight, powerful cycle. You should not be rotating at the waist at all, so focus on keeping that torso rock solid, chest up, shoulders square.
So, to review our cues:
✓ Knees straight up to chest, heels straight back down, don’t “reach” forward to pull ground towards you, think of your heels as axe picks instead, pushing ground under and behind like you’re climbing
✓ Ankles always flexed like your toes hurt
✓ Stride cycle ends under your butt, not behind you – think BEARS are chasing your heels right behind you, don’t let your feet trail far!
✓ Action figure arms
✓ Torso isn’t aware we’re sprinting, it’s standing still
Now that we understand the end product, I’ll talk about some simple speed drills to break the cycle down into sections so you can teach your nervous system the new motor pattern in steps first, as we should approach any new training movement. These are also great warm-ups to incorporate before every actual sprint session. You’ve probably seen football players or other athletes perform some of these.
Throughout each drill, remember to keep the ankle flexed at all times and maintain the arm movement described above.
☐ A-skips: This practices the first part of the cycle, where the hip flexes and knee cuts upwards. As the name implies, you’re skipping on one leg and practicing the movement on the other. Powerfully raise the knee as high as possible and return back down, repeating as quickly as possible on only one side for 10-20 reps or until fully comfortable with the movement. Then do the same with the other leg, then both legs alternating. You won’t move forward more than a couple inches with each of these reps since you aren’t practicing the full ground-strike yet.
☐ B-skips: Now we add the second part to the first, where we release the hamstring (not STRETCH it) and strike down into the ground with the heel instead of reaching forward. Same skip on the inactive leg and powerful high-knee on the active, but this time follow through with the stride, striking the ground with the heel. Think of slapping the ground, that’s almost what the strike should seem like. As with the A-skips, practice this with one side at a time for some distance, then both legs. This will feel incredibly awkward and unnatural at first so start as slow as you need and once your coordination catches on you will be able to do it rapidly and really start to get the feel of a correct sprint cycle.
I suggest really hammering just these drills extensively for several sessions before even beginning actual sprint training with the new technique. This phase is equivalent to practicing compound barbell movements slowly, perhaps broken into phases, with light weight, when first learning them. Chances are you’ve been sprinting incorrectly without any real technique awareness, so now you have to take it all apart and re-learn how to sprint with a completely new motor pattern, making it essentially a completely new movement to your body and thus a completely new motor pattern to map. Motor patterns are like coding programs on a computer – once coded, it will be repeated as such every time afterwards, errors included, so exhaust the details one at a time so they will be automatically repeated correctly later. Then run through a couple sets of each drill just before all future sprint sessions as a dynamic warm-up to prime the nervous system.
☐ Bonus accessory exercise for speed between training sessions: Static split squat holds.
You can do these every day without getting in the way of any recovery since purely isometric contraction does not actually break down any muscle fibers, despite how torturous it feels while you’re doing it.
Assume the split squat position with your back foot on a bench or anything of similar height if you’re just doing this in your house (I usually do this at night right before I foam roll), get all the way down to the maximally-stretched position with front shin perpendicular to the ground and knee at 90 degrees or slightly lower, and settle in with something to watch or read. Hold that for as long as you can, time it so you can match it with the other leg, and use this as a bonus opportunity to work on pain tolerance – make it a goal to eventually reach 5 minutes per leg. The reason this improves your sprint speed has to do with motor units; as your motor units fatigue throughout the hold, more and more are recruited, and as you force this to happen regularly and consistently the nervous system gets better at firing more motor units faster, so you’re basically adding horsepower to your legs, and this will come through when you sprint later, not to mention other similar powerful movements in your training.
Take Home Message
I would like to extend credit to one of my very few trusted resources from whom I learned all of the above as well as a wealth of overall athletic knowledge over the past year or so: Chris Barnard, head strength and conditioning coach at Elliott Hulse’s Strength Camp and founder of Overtime Athletes.
I definitely suggest checking out the Overtime Athletes YouTube channel if you’d like to seriously step your game up. I’ve been training for a long time and I’m not a stranger to the importance of technique, but honestly I never realized previously how many technical details are available to be optimized in seemingly simple, natural things we already “know” how to do like sprinting, and to me that’s incredibly exciting and is one of the aspects that makes me look most forward to progressing into this field myself.