A young sprinter asked me how to get faster at a recent function. Well, I replied if he had 3 hours to spare. He looked confused, as this article is the result of our conversation. It’s a long read (almost 2000 words), so I suggest you grab a drink and have a seat.
This is a summary on how to run faster, and I’m sure there are more. I’ll go over each point in detail:
- Only 3 ways to get faster
- Increase Force Application is the secret to increased Stride Length and Stride Frequency
- 7 things you need to know in the Starting Blocks
- 5 phases of the 100 meter sprint
- 5 different types of Strength Training
- Some sample exercises and goals for the weight room
How to Get Faster – Only 3 ways!
Other than basic biomechanics to fully optimize the sprinting motion, there are only 3 ways you make you run faster
- your stride length
- stride frequency, or turnover
- speed endurance… the ability to maintain speed.
That’s it. No secret. Bud Winter published that in his book So You Want to be a Sprinter back in 1956.
But there is an optimal stride rate and stride frequency. You can run with short quick choppy steps, but you won’t have the power to move to the top end speed you desire.
Conversely, you can bound like a gazelle taking huge hops. But you’ll be braking every time you land and thus slowing down. And getting injured.
So whether you have super long strides like Usain Bolt, or the short quick stride of Jesse Owens, there is a sweet spot just right for you.
But don’t try to artificially increase stride length or stride frequency just to run faster because the results will be bad mechanics… and we all know bad mechanics will result in higher injury rates.
What’s the biggest determinant?
The problem is with the ground contact. And hence, the force being applied.
How do you deal with applying force on the ground while moving at 25 miles per hour?
And then there’s speed endurance… which I won’t discuss here.
Stride Length, Stride Frequency and Force Application
So how do you improve stride length?
One way is “strength training” in addition to your running workouts, and I’ll go in detail on point #5.
The term “strength training” is so broad, you have to do these exercises and functional movements as it relates to your sport. GPP or general weight lifting has it’s place in the annual plan and over development in a young athlete. Olympic lifters have to lift a weight over their head, so they lift weights over their head. In this case, it’s sprinting, and that means covering ground as fast as possible. Horizontal forces shifting to Vertical forces from gun to tape, and thus force application though a range of vectors has to be looked at.
Here’s an example. Anyone can stand still and hit a nail with a hammer. Hard. Some harder than others.
But can you hit 45 nails spaced 9 feet (3 meters) apart while running 25 mph (40 kph)?
How do you control a moving hammer? The hammer maybe fixed in terms of your forearm, but the overall body is moving in relation to the ground.
Being strong or having great force is one thing, but you’ll need to apply it while sprinting. Doing hamstring curls are great, but it makes you good at one thing, and that is doing hamstring curls.
So the secret isn’t force… it’s force application, which I’ll go in detail later in this post in the strength training section below. You have to be able to translate that strength in the weight room or stadium stairs onto the track. If you have a large number of athletes, you’ll quickly see that the strongest ones in the weight room aren’t necessarily the ones who are the fastest on the track.
Quick Overview of Starting Block Techniques
Here are some of the “high level” general concepts to keep in mind for starting blocks, and it applies to any sport requiring speed. (These tips comes from my book, The Rocket Sprint Start, co-authored with Bud Winter)
- You want to generate the maximum force from inertia to maximum velocity by means of acceleration
- You want the proper angles in the legs, arms and body position for your body type to generate maximum power
- There are two forces or power components to consider: horizontal and vertical
- You need to optimize stride frequency and stride length (optimize power vs quickness)
- The arm and hand action controls stride frequency and stride length
- In Physics, Newton’s third law of motion applies: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction
- The overall take home message in the “on your marks” and “set” position is balance, feeling comfortable, and in line with the athlete’s current strength and power (elastic reflex strength) abilities
The last point is really the key on how to run faster. Coaching is an art as well as a science, and a good coach will know how to adjust the starting blocks for each individual athlete. Leaping out with both feet (as it appeared) like Ben Johnson is great if you can squat to parallel 6 reps at 600lb. And he stopped increasing the weights because it was just too dangerous!
If you want a detailed analysis on the start, read my book The Rocket Sprint Start, co-authored with Bud Winter, coming out at the end of November 2011.
5 Phases of the 100 meter Sprint
This section presents a brief overview of the 5 phases of the 100 meter sprint. It also gives you an idea where the focus should be, and how the start is important in setting you up for the other stages of the race.
There are several ways to describe a 100 meter race. I’ll keep it simple and use Tom Tellez’s 5 phases. Several well known Elite coaches break down the “acceleration” phase into other phases to include the drive phase and transition phase.
In his handout from the 2008 USATF clinic, Tellez charts the 5 phases and the “percent contribution” to the total race.
- Reaction Time (1%)
- Block Clearance (5%)
- Speed of Efficient Acceleration (64%)
- Maintenance of Maximum Velocity (18%)
- Lessened Degree of Deceleration (12%)
So to keep it simple down to 3 points, it’s acceleration, max velocity and speed endurance. Your weekly workout should have all 3 of these components, and adjust accordingly. See the video on How to Write an Annual Plan.
Looking at this chart, and its numbers, it’s no wonder why sprint coaches elect to focus on speed and acceleration work. But this doesn’t show the whole picture as one component can severely affect the next component. For example, proper block clearance sets up for proper speed of efficient acceleration. Conversely, a poorly executed block clearance can affect your acceleration phase. And so on.
If you put too much energy and focus on the speed and efficient acceleration phase, you will pay the price and substantially increase your deceleration phase (instead of lessening it). It’s a fine balance, and ask any 100 meter sprinter. It may be 10 or 11 seconds for you, but so much can go wrong.
So in addition to the 3 secrets on how to run faster outlined above, you need to address the 5 components in Strength Training:
- Absolute strength, or Maximal strength
- Power, or speed-strength
- Explosive strength (Plyometrics is a good example)
- Reactive strength, or elastic strength
- Strength Endurance
Every one of the above has its place in speed training.
Based on the chart above, it’s obvious that Reactive strength (or Elastic strength) and Explosive strength are high up in the priority list. But that doesn’t mean you should not do maximal strength training.
A lot of coaches, especially the ones with the whistle and a clipboard , throw their young athletes in a weight room and do old fashioned exercises with whatever weight equipment they have. And that even includes leg curls for their quadriceps! (**cough cough Coach Al cough cough**)
Another one of the errors I see with strength programs is the number of weight room repetitions, anywhere from a single 1 rep max (1RM) up to 12 or 15 reps. Women always want to do 15-20 repetitions for fear of getting big (I’ll save that rant for another time). The number of reps you can do to failure is a function or percentage of your 1 RM. It’s that simple. The only way to get stronger is to do 1 RM, but that’s not recommended due to injury concerns. So we aim to do doubles or triples instead, which are 2 rep and 3 rep sets respectively.
It’s like the high jump. Do you want to jump 7 feet (2.40m) once, or jump one foot 7 times?
A beginner athlete can improve their strength gains using a weight of 50% of their 1RM for about 10 or 12 reps. But as they get stronger, the gains will decrease unless they add more weight in relation to their 1RM. 8 reps is about 70% of 1RM, and 6 reps is 85%.
Thus, the weight training routine must change every year (or two) for the elite sprinter! Don’t do the same thing year in and year out.
Sample Weight Training Exercises
There’s no way I can cover the entire spectrum of strength training in one lecture, let alone one book, so I’ll start with the basics. The goal is how to run faster, not put up mega-numbers like an Andy Bolton!
That being said, I like to use a combination of power exercises (Bench press, squats and deadlifts) as well as explosive ones such as Olympic lifts. And test for them.
The 3 exercises and tests were:
- Power Cleans – off the floor
- Bench Press – normal grip and width, felt bench no incline
- Squats – to parallel, or slightly past parallel to ensure adequate hamstring recruitment.
The first goal was:
- Power Cleans – 1.0X bodyweight
- Bench Press – 1.25X bodyweight
- Squats – 1.5X bodyweight
If I could get my athletes to reach those ratios for 1RM (or doubles/triples) I would be very happy. Eventually, they should be able to do them for 8-10 reps over the years. It’s not as bad as the Maximum reps test with 225lb (100kg) like the NFL Combine! (There is a correlation between strength endurance and maximal strength… it’s just not an accurate correlation, but there is a correlation!)
And that’s about it on how to run faster, and it’s only a high level summary.
To the average sports fan who watches Track and Field once every 4 years, running the 100 meters may seem like an easy 10 second feat, but in reality, there’s a lot going on behind the scenes.