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The Right Angles For Speed

 

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Learn the correct angles to place your body and you can run really fast. The correct angles put you into position to deliver optimum force at just the right time. Once the angles are optimal, it is the timing of force application that provides the magic of speed.

It’s not the raw amount of force. Not miscellaneous force. Not big muscles. Speed comes from specific strength applied in specific angles at a specific time. The hard part is teaching yourself how to get those angles while moving at full speed. It takes lots of perfect practice until the correct angles become habit. It takes lots of time walking around doing nothing as you rest, making sure that the next repetition is fresh and full speed. And it takes lots of camera time.

One of the hardest problems you’ll face will be overcoming misinformation from well meaning but badly informed coaches. For example, they tell you to lean. Unfortunately, leaning is a mistake after about 30 yards. A moving object – the sprinting human body – has no “absolute lean” because of the complex biomechanical actions happening simultaneously as you go from a dead stop to maximum speed. What starts out as a 45° back posture angle on the first 3 steps changes 90° by 30 yards. In other words, the angles are constantly changing.

I was taught to keep my arms locked at 90° only to find out long ago from my mentor, Remi Korchemny, that the arms (measured at the hands) work in a circle. As the arm drives forward it is most efficient bent at 90°, but as it drives backwards it naturally opens at the elbow to about 120°. The up-swing of the arm helps launch you into the air, the down-swing adds to impact on the ground. Arm action assists running fast with the added benefit that the arms aid in controlling the body in a sprint almost like a rudder on a boat.

The crucial part of speed is the force of the leg and how force is applied through the ball of the foot. In fact, the ball of the foot is the only part of the anatomy to touch the ground, taking up the space about the size of a credit card. As you sprint, 100% of the force you put onto planet earth happens on one foot in this tiny space and takes about 1/10 of a second. If the angles are wrong, you’ll put less force to the ground and you’ll take longer to deliver it. No matter how hard you drive your foot into the ground, if your posture is out of whack you won’t get back much for your effort.

Posture

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Improving speed requires better posture. If you bend at the waist when sprinting or sink your hips low when the leg hits the ground, your body becomes more like a bean bag flopping on the ground and less like a bouncing ball. With strong posture you’re more spring-like with no time wasted on the ground. Even a rock thrown hard on the sidewalk will bounce back up, while the beanbag won’t bounce no matter how hard its thrown. This is what posture does for you, pointing you in the perfect angle for impact. You learn to hit the ground hard, stay tall, keep the legs from buckling on impact, and all that force you put into the ground bounces back up. Add momentum to this and the human bouncing ball can travel over 27 miles per hour.

As I teach very talented baseball players to run faster, the work starts with raising their maximum speed. The most important angle is positioning the body 90° to the ground. Stand tall, walk tall, run tall, think tall. Reach your head high. The body can then deliver huge force through the leg to the ball of the foot, resist gravity’s pull, then spring back into the air. Amazing things happen when you work on this evolutionary signal of potential called posture. You can run faster. People admire you. You feel like an alpha beast ready for action.

Amplitude at the Hips

h-drill-88Legendary sprint coach Clyde Hart has used his “H” Drills to develop some of the fastest humans on the planet (Michael Johnson, Jeremy Wariner, etc.) Similar to the Mach Polish Sprint Drills, this is a series of marching, skipping, and fast-leg bursts moderately resisted. H Drills put emphasis on improving sprint amplitude daily. Not an hour of back breaking work, not pulling a truck, but a year (or more) of a few minutes of high speed, low rep action every day. When you blend the H Drills with a sound sprint program, speed happens. But you have to forcefully punch the ground with each step.

Amplitude at the hip joint means flexing the knee way up high, then extending it down and even behind (hyperextension.) It is hyperextension that separates the super fast from the rest of humanity. This is how the human body applies enormous ground force in a split second of time. The scientific literature about speed is clear regarding the imperative of hip amplitude (Simpson & Bates, 1990; Belli et al. 2002; Kuitunen et al. 2002). In fact, there is evidence that hip hyperextension increases with increasing speeds (Beardsley & Contreras, 2014). Surprisingly, amplitude is a highly trainable skill if you use the right mix of drills and strength work applied in small doses month after month. Unfortunately, most of the work athletes do turns out to be counterproductive regarding amplitude.

Amplitude isn’t an isolated ingredient in the mix of speed — it is part of the action and needs to be trained as such. It isn’t yoga or wrapping a belt around your leg to pull it, but a motion. For the most part, amplitude is misunderstood.

Misunderstanding Amplitude

Athletes are told to sit down and stretch to get this ability. Then they are told to back squat with their heels supporting the weight and their back doing the work. Then they push and pull heavy sleds, even push cars in the parking lot hoping to develop more hip thrust. But none of this does anything for hyperextension.

Standard vanilla weight training (back squats, front squats, cleans) will teach hip extension without working on hip hyperextension. But in sprinting, the application of force comes mostly from hip hyperextension – the split second where you force yourself forward once the foot hits the ground directly under your center of mass. To gain better sprint amplitude, many top sprint coaches work a steady diet of split squats, Romanian dead lifts (right hand to left little toe), and pitcher’s squats (Bulgarian squats.) These lifts are copies of the motion of sprinting with great emphasis on hip amplitude.

Training your hips to make you faster is far more complex than simply putting a bar on your back and squatting or pulling a bar up for dead lifts. To sprint, your hips need to move real fast (4 to 5 strides per second), with a real big separation (hyperextension), and put huge force on the ground (5 to 6 times your body weight). And each stride has only about ¼ of a second to do this until the next stride.

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For speed development, amplitude is a measurement of the degree of change, the magnitude of leg arc from front to back. This is the enormous range of motion that the hip joint must operate in. The knee jolts up parallel to the ground, then slams the foot to the ground, then swings far backwards, all faster than the eye can see (thus the need for lots of video and photos.) In my experience as a coach, the use of H Drill after H Drill gradually produces the amplitude necessary for speed.

Do sprint-like movements to teach the hips to get optimal amplitude, punching the knee up and hyperextending the opposite knee back. Stepovers and similar drills should be considered mandatory.  Light to moderate resistance high speed bursts (sandbags, sleds, parachutes, and ankle resisted sprints) will work wonders. Each of these drills get you to apply force at high speed to sprint forward, not crawl as when using a Prowler or heavy sled.

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The mistake is to think of amplitude as just knee lift. This opens the door for many counterproductive actions, especially sinking the hips, overstriding, and failure to apply maximum force into the ground. Conversely, with Stepovers you focus on stepping over the opposite knee; it triggers full flexion to get the knee up followed by hyperextension at the hip, all with the toes dorsiflexed.

Another excellent method of developing amplitude is with mini-hurdles. Walk over, skip over, Rockettes-like kick over, run over, jump over then sprint, hitch-hop over. Safe, effective, easy to drag around, lightweight, and interesting. Mini-hurdles are golden.

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You can easily teach correct sprint angles and amplitude with 3 sets of plastic hurdles. These are magic tools for speed that provide at least 20 regular drills. Without saying a word, the body will put into action all the weightroom strength, plyometrics, resisted sprints with these training aids. The plastic hurdle is essential as it takes away all fear of impact while sprinting full speed. It’s best to have 3 sets of 8 PVC hurdles in various sizes from 6” to 12’ to 28”. The space between the hurdles varies depending upon the exercises, but a standard is a progression from 3 feet to 6 feet. High speed work will often use the 6” hurdles set at 6’ and increase each hurdle distance by 1/2” per hurdle.

Better Understanding of the Hips

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The hip region is the place to find out where things are going wrong with speed. Lack of body control, lack of power chain strength (hamstrings, gleuts, lumbar), lack of controlling angles of impact will show up in sinking hips. The hips will also display speed, bounce, explosiveness. Get lots of camera work on hips to understand what is going on with your speed.

Put much more focus on the hip region in speed development. To run faster you need fast moving drills at the actual angle the body will be asked to perform at in competition. Fast powerful exercises should feature a huge range of hip motion exceeding the range that will be used in competition. Do hyperextension drills that get the body accustomed to this so that it becomes expected, normal, and habitual.

Track coaches have a word for a typical hip problem, “sitting”. If the hips are not extended up to full posture, the bend looks like running while sitting, often bent over in front. Sitting is part of the crime of letting the foot come to the ground far in front of the COM, allowing the back leg to dangle behind, and the result is real slow running. This is a strength problem and an amplitude problem woven together. Not strength, not flexibility, but both.

More punch up with the knee means that the hips release force to the ground. When you rapidly flex (punch) the knee up, the force of this lift travels down to the ball of the foot as it strikes ground increasing the impact. This is the bouncing ball syndrome, where the harder you hit the ground, the more reactive forces bounce back up.

As you jolt your knee up near the top of its arc, you trigger the stretch-reflex action. This stretch-reflex creates more force of action on the power chain (glutes and hamstrings) eliciting more contractile forces. It is the difference between trying to punch someone in the nose from an inch away or with a quick back-cocking motion followed by a longer swing. In this way you don’t push the ground, you smack it hard.

Now that the stretch-reflex has created more hip flexion, essentially more leg acceleration jolts downwards. This faster downstroke of the leg ensures that the ball of the foot will strike the ground directly under the hips, raising the impact and reducing the breaking forces. The angle of impact is perfect for speed.

There’s a calm, relaxed fighting characteristic to high speed sprints. As you aggressively punch the knee up and trigger stretch-reflex, the supercharged motion makes more impact, just as in a fight. The human body was built to fight, we have many hard-wired fight characteristics including the fight or flight mechanism in place. Punch hard, react hard. No flowing beauty here, this is a 90° straight down punch into the ground. Furthermore, punching the right knee up activates the hip extensors of the left knee (cross-extensor reflex.)

The Fastest Start

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At takeoff the shin angle should be about 25° to the ground. This is true in the sprint start out of the blocks, the 3-point start in football, and the J-start in baseball. In all three its the angle of the shins that pays the most dividends. The shins need to be set up very low angle and you’ll be bent over at 90° at the waist. As you drive out, you’ll immediately bring your back up to 45° to the ground, have a 90° angle at the ankle and have “broomstick posture”. These angles mount up to huge force on the ground for the first 3 steps or so.

Watch out! It is easy to ruin your start by poking your butt out. On the first step you change from bent over at 90° to a straight “broomstick” at the waist, and this straight line from heel to ear will be angled at 45° to the ground. The command should be, “head down, chest down.” This takes lots of work as most people tend to poke their butt out (breaking the broomstick) and stay bent over at the waist position for 20 yards or so; this is a death to explosive starting. Sprint speed is all about having a straight back no matter where you are in the sprint.

In a matter of 10 yards your speedometer jolts from zero to almost full speed. After staying at 45° for the first 3 steps, each step after that should raise up about 10°. This puts you upright (180°) at the 8th or 9th step which is about 15 yards.

Accelerating up to Maximum Speed

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Breakaway speed is very different from having great acceleration up to about 30 yards. Although the fastest people in the world tend to also be the fastest to accelerate, my experience with baseball, football, soccer and rugby players is that people who get going rapidly tend to fade at about 30 yards. This is the inability to make a solid transition from acceleration to top speed. Although most ball games are determined by acceleration, it is top speed that gets you selected on the team. Top speed is the “wow” factor, the quality that hypnotizes coaches into thinking that this top speed can be corralled into game situations.

You want to see some “wow”, take a look at Walter Dix run 3.75 in this 40 yard dash. If it seems unofficial, this is the typical way well over 90% of hand timed 40’s are conducted. The difference is that Dix is an Olympic medalist sprinter with years of top international experience.

Top speed will come at around 20 to 30 yards for most ball sport athletes. At that point you’ll be in an upright position, the knee thrust up parallel to the ground. You’ll need good camera work, mostly from the side, with care for the background so you can easily see what’s going on. Get very close in with the camera but make sure to get full shots of the lower body and feet. Try to study video and photos form a large desktop screen if possible in order to clearly see the movement and angles.

The leg should be driven down and land ever so slightly (an inch?) in front of his center of mass (COM). Land with the foot almost flat, set at 90° with the heel about 1/4” off the ground. The little toe side of the ball of the foot will strike first, then roll to the big toe side, then push off through the big toe. The heel will reach way up as the toes push down, forming an angle of about 130° (almost like a straight line) from toes through ankle through knee.

High speed is about punching the ground, then making sure the leg doesn’t dangle or drag behind. The lower leg needs to get “sucked in” to avoid dangling, this is one key reason to do Stepovers and mini-hurdle work. Developing the habit of powerful knee punch will solve many problems of speed. Knee punch is aggressive. Sprinting is a fight, not a pretty act of floating. By training the punch action, you teach yourself never to allow the rear leg to dangle.

Fixing things

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Coaches often misunderstand the complex problem of transference of strength to speed. To run fast with the ball of the foot doing all of the work in 1/10 of a second, athletes are told to squat for 5 seconds with the weight supported on their heels. After all of this, people are surprised when everyone in the weightroom can squat twice their weight but only a couple of people can run real fast. The problem is that the human body misunderstands the training.

If you were told that Usain Bolt got fast by chewing leather, then you chewed and chewed and chewed leather, you wouldn’t get fast but your jaw would get real strong. Strength must have a direct carryover to the intricate action of sprinting. And one critical aspect is that strength must utilize the angles that your limbs apply force to the ground, mostly one leg at a time. Thus one of the major problems keeping you from running as fast as you want is mistaken understanding of human speed. It isn’t about muscles. It isn’t about working hard or getting tired. It is about application of force in specific angles at just the right time.

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Stepups, Pitcher’s squats, sandbag resisted sprints, high bounding.

 

There are numerous drills to be done regularly in and especially out of the weightroom. It is typical for athletes to do too much, to work like a mule and wonder why they can’t run like a racehorse. You can’t do every drill there is, but you can cherry pick those that produce the most return. Speed isn’t about changing your routine every couple of weeks if you get frustrated, but consistently following a program. There is no “THE” program, but there are several that will suit you and your needs and time constraints just fine. You’ve got to put the time in and be patient.

To run fast you have to repeatedly run fast. Race. Burst. Sprint short distances for time. Otherwise you’ll wind up doing a bunch of exercises and weightroom work that doesn’t produce results. It’s all about delivering the goods on game day.

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Above all, remember this…know thyself. What angles do you use when you sprint? The only way to know is with a camera, and lots of frame by frame views. Look at your shin angle at the start, your back angle at acceleration. Look at your posture, at the angle of your hip amplitude. Look at your vertical force as the foot strikes the ground and when the knees cross relative to when the toe hits ground. What do you see? What do you see?

References:

Beardsley, C., & Contreras, B. (2014). The increasing role of the hip extensor musculature with heavier compound lower-body movements and more explosive sport actions. Strength & Conditioning Journal, 36(2), 49-55.
Belli, A., Kyröläinen, H., & Komi, P. V. (2002). Moment and power of lower limb joints in running. International Journal of Sports Medicine, 23(2), 136.
Dorn, T. W., Schache, A. G., & Pandy, M. G. (2012). Muscular strategy shift in human running: dependence of running speed on hip and ankle muscle performance. The Journal of Experimental Biology, 215(11), 1944-1956
Hunter, J. P., Marshall, R. N., & McNair, P. J. (2005). Relationships between ground reaction force impulse and kinematics of sprint-running acceleration. Journal of Applied Biomechanics, 21(1), 31-43.
Jönhagen, S., Ericson, M. O., Nemeth, G., & Eriksson, E. (1996). Amplitude and timing of electromyographic activity during sprinting. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 6(1), 15-21.
Kuitunen, S., Komi, P. V., & Kyröläinen, H. (2002). Knee and ankle joint stiffness in sprint running. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 34(1), 166.
Mann, R. V. (1980). A kinetic analysis of sprinting. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 13(5), 325-328.
Mann, R. A., Moran, G. T., & Dougherty, S. E. (1986). Comparative electromyography of the lower extremity in jogging, running, and sprinting. The American Journal of Sports Medicine, 14(6), 501-510.
Seitz, L. B., Reyes, A., Tran, T. T., de Villarreal, E. S., & Haff, G. G. (2014). Increases in lower-body strength transfer positively to sprint performance: a systematic review with meta-analysis. Sports Medicine, 44(12), 1693-1702.
Simpson, K. J., & Bates, B. T. (1990). The effects of running speed on lower extremity joint moments generated during the support phase. International Journal of Sport Biomechanics, 6, 309-324.
Wiemann, K., & Tidow, G. (1995). Relative activity of hip and knee extensors in sprinting-implications for training. New Studies in Athletics, 10, 29-29.

© Randy Smythe, 2016