How to Improve Acceleration (Part 1)

What would you do if <insert elite athlete name here> came to you asking for a new coach?  What areas could you improve on?

First, I like to go back to basics, and ask for his prior training plans to get an idea what volumes and intensities he or she can handle.

Let’s start with Acceleration (my second favorite topic next to speed endurance).

There are only a handful of items that exists in the coaching repertoire.  It’s the training volume, intensity, and recovery from the workout that is the key to a World Record (okay, a bit far fetched for most of us, so let’s make that a Personal Record or Age Group record)

In my opinion, there are only a handful of items that help with Acceleration, and others that help top-end speed. Of course, these two are connected, and a good smooth acceleration will help set you up with a good top-end speed.

So here is my checklist:

  1. actual sprinting workouts with various distances (0-7 seconds in duration) and improving biomechanics
  2. resistance running: towing a weight (using a sled)
  3. resistance running: uphill running
  4. overspeed training: downhill running or being towed
  5. concentric weight training (i.e. squats)
  6. dynamic and explosive weight training (i.e. Olympic lifts)
  7. plyometrics (both double leg and single leg) which can be better than Conventional Strength Training?

That’s about it on my checklist.  Maybe #8 would include EMS, but I’m no expert in that area.  Perhaps I can get Derek Hansen to write a guest post?  He offers a great review of the Globus Premium Plus EMS here.  EMS may be beneficial as it stimulates the muscles and bypasses the central nervous system and thus has no CNS effect.  I personally would put my money on recovery, massage, and physiotherapy first, then consider EMS.

I’ll get to each one specifically (all this has been covered in the blog in one form over another), but what bugs the hell out of me is watching a high school workout with kids towing a weight with horrible technique.  Ditto in the weight room… kids getting strong but lifting weights solely for the purpose of hitting numbers.

Sorry Coach, but the only 2 numbers that matter to me is the stopwatch and maybe the podium step number.

Christophe Lemaitre: Hip Extension and Hip Flexion

But first, let’s talk about Christophe Lemaitre.  Why not?  Because his sprinting style reminds me of the 2 important elements in sprinting: hip extension and hip flexion.  Surely, you can’t say his success is from his massive upper body strength?  On a good day, he has the same stride frequency as Usain Bolt, and he’s not as tall.

I’m making a very VAGUE statement here, but Sprinting is all about the hips.  Notably, hip extension and hip flexion.  Both are important.  Some coaches like John Smith of HIS (and others) believe in the forward knee punch. (Football coaches will teach this)  The harder you drive your knee forward creates more tension in your hamstrings when you reach out with your foot (dorsiflexed, of course!)  Result: by pushing back harder, your opposite knee will whip out faster, hence the term “whip from the hip”

Some coaches like Latif Thomas of Athletes Acceleration believe in punching the thigh down and hard and forcefully.  What this does is the harder you pull your leg down and back, the more tension you create with the hip flexors by the stretch reflex action.  Result: greater tension means a quicker and more powerful knee drive.

So both coaches are right, in a way.

The only caveat with “high knee drive” is not to go too high or thighs beyond parallel or else the hips will drop.  And that would be bad.

The best example to explain this was from a Charlie Francis seminar using a reverse example.  Michael Johnson, who I like to remind to the world that he still ran 19.32 in 1996, had a very powerful strong knee drive, but instead of having his thighs go to parallel, he stops his forward drive early with a very powerful pull back with his leg on the track, hence the great forces acting on his hamstring.  You can’t copy MJ’s biomechanics without the same amount of leg strength.  You could copy him, but won’t run as fast.  Sorry!

That being said, the best way to improve is with the human eye or high speed camera and check out biomechanics first.  However, any weakness in the biomechanics can be attributed to leg and hip strength, which leads to the next series of tips and training modalities.

Okay, so now we know what to look for.  That was the easy part. (well, for me it was easy).  The HARD part is how do you coach this?  What kind of cues do you tell your athlete? Punch the knee forward for 43 steps, or force the leg down and hard for 43 steps?  How about your arms?  Your hands?  Not so easy, right?

To be continued…

  • Great post. I agree totally. I emphasize alot of max strength work in the weightroom. And WE SPRINT SPRINT SPRINT. usually monday, wed and fri are high cns demand days. (15m-45m, 300-500m overally volume). It takes 100s of reps to feel comfortable being powerful off the blocks and not quick off the blocks.Its week 10 and my kids starting looking good week 8. After week 8 we’d done 360 short sprints. At week 8 I started to emphasize speed maintenance on wed. trying to program in my athletes how to push thru the ground while in the upright position. This as a result makes them get a whip from the hip. I used to say high knee drive but most kids would over lift, or bend at the waist to try and get the feel of getting their knees high. Its all about pushing and getting a good whip from the hip for me.

  • I’m with Adarian Barr when he says if you focus on the foot action the knee action will be taken care of. As for punching the knee up or forward, I believe that efficient recovery of the foot will produce desired knee movement whereas focusing wholly on the knee doesn’t necessarily mean the foot will comply

    MJ’s hamstring nearly blew up in that 19.32, and plagued him for a couple of years afterwards (had to miss ’96 Atlanta 4x4relay, defeats over 400m in 1997 & 1998, DNF 2000 US Olympic Trials)….a shame really, because in 2000 he was in great shape leading up to those Trials

  • I agree with Nat about MJ. However I would blame his hamstring problems on the lack of max speed and power work clyde hart has in his program. I don’t think his hamstrings were accustom to that sort of stretch shortening at that rate. Seems like most of the work he did in practice was 400m based and sub max. Hart seems to tailor his training towards strength by lowering the rest rate and keeping the speed at a pretty moderate rate. There was some speed in his program but I don’t think there was enough. MJ had the natural speed and Hart gave him the strength to carry that speed but I think he wouldnt have blown up had he done more max speed work. Just because your fast it doesn’t mean your body is ready to run fast, if you haven’t been programmed to run fast then when you hit top speed is usually when injuries occur. But thats just my opinion.

  • @brandon

    Funny you should say that about the body being ready and strength as MJ said he was injured in College because he was not strong enough and that forced him seriously into the weights room (which he stated that he did not like). He looked bigger in 1996 than all other years, and slimmed down after that year

    I’d say leading up to Atlanta he would’ve had to have been doing some serious Max speed work, I mean he hit 0.86 on the bend in 19.32, and there were stories of him doing starts + short sprints right before 19.32 and tearing the track up

  • I heard in college he was injured from too much speed work. And that comes from clyde hart himself.
    http://www.athletics.org.nz/CANTERBURY/Resource.aspx?ID=1233

    As a result he began to take a more conservative route in training running slower to run faster as the article is entitled. His training became more strength based. Michael johnson had natural speed. They would only do 60s. I’m pretty sure they did some 200s in 24 etc… but this isnt max speed for michal johnson. The workout came with the amt of rest that was given. Which can make this time very hard to his if your doing repeat 200s with little rest.

    However this is strength based. The rate of contraction is no where near what it is during an olympic final. Both in speed of contraction and force of contraction. WHich is why I say IF YOUR BODY ISNT PROGRAMMED to run that fast then when it hit those speeds injuries will occur. I didnt say he wasnt strong enough. being being neuroprogrammed and being strong are two different things. one requires the body being able to repeat a series of coordinated movements at the speed needed to be successful for that movement.
    While strength is the ability to overcome resistance. I’m prett sure he had no strength issues in the weightroom (like you said he was pretty big in 96) nor on the track (seeing that was the theme of his entire program).
    I’ve been a victim of too little speed training. I could run at 85-90% all day but when it came to going 95-100% from the gun my hamstrings would break down and strrain because they weren’t programmed to run that fast for that long.
    60s are ok but michael’s speed endurance was sick meaning he could sit at top speed for a good lil bit of time while if your doing 60s he is probably hitting top speed at 45-50m and running there for no time. compare this to the time he is at top speed during a 200m or near top speed during a 200m and its totally different.
    so again strength isnt the issue but being neurally programmed to run at high speeds is.

  • That has to be Brandon @ Campbell University. I see you got things going in the right direction. Hope to see you guys at some meets this year. I’m @ Uni Of Mary Washington(D3 school).

  • I believe it’s all about how you manage your hips (position and height) as you come through you acceleration. All actions with the upper body are about balancing that.

    And patience. Especially when its a short race. If you rush those actions you lose your hips and your speed.

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