This article is guest blogged by Derrick Johnston, a Sprints Coach at the University of British Columbia, Canada.
With newer athletes, most do not understand that there are different phases throughout the sprint race. And those different phases require changes in one’s biomechanics for optimum power, acceleration and top end speed. A common error I come across is when athletes go straight to using maximum velocity mechanics out of the blocks. This is easily identifiable with a high heel recovery as a result of an inability to “shut off” the hamstring at the end of the ground phase. As the athlete pushes off the ground, the hamstring continues to contract, causing knee flexion and a rounded pattern during the recovery phase. I call it “spinning the tires”. There are also strength issues to consider here, as the athlete may not have enough hip flexor strength and power to pull the leg through with a lower heel recovery, resulting in getting tripped up right out the gate. As a coach, the visual cue is the high heel recovery. It is up to you to determine if the problem is neuromuscular, in that the hamstring muscle is not being reciprocally inhibited, or whether the athlete lacks the strength and power in the hip flexors and therefore, is “choosing” to bring the heel up in order to clear the foot, or a combination of both.
The block clearance and drive phase are identified with a low heel recovery and strong knee drive. The stride pattern should be more piston-like and the athlete should be thinking “push, pull, push pull” for the first 2-3 strides. At the end of the ground phase there is a switch from gluteal and hamstring contraction to hip flexor contraction. Once the hip flexors contract, a phenomenon known as reciprocal inhibition occurs and the gluteals and hamstrings should relax.
There is an art to solving this issue and it requires an understanding that all athletes are different in their ability to comprehend various explanations. I’ve been frustrated a number of times when what I’m telling an athlete makes perfect sense to me, but doesn’t register with them. It becomes further complicated when the athlete nods in affirmation, but still cannot convert the skill. This is largely due to the athlete feeling like they are supposed to know what is going on and not wanting to feel stupid. We have all been there and some of us still are, even at the professional level.
The easiest is to cue the athlete on the push/pull dichotomy, or even simpler, get them thinking “push, push, push!” The pull will hopefully take care of itself. If that doesn’t work, you have to start thinking outside the box. I recently told an athlete to bound the first 2 strides and transition out of the bound. It worked miracles. I certainly would not call the drive phase a bound, nor would I say this to all my athletes, but I got the result I wanted and that is all that matters.
I don’t have any research to back it up, but I would expect PNF stretching of the hamstring to promote a “learning” of reciprocal inhibition. This would solve the neuromuscular problem. Other drills can be done to promote proper movement patterns and these would be done at a slower speed until the pattern is memorized, using resistance bands or even just a wall to lean up against. The movement pattern will seem foreign to the athlete for some time, so you must be diligent with practice and withhold adding the speed component until the mechanics are solid.
About the Author
Coach Derrick Johnston, Kin. (Hons), CSCS, NCCP, heads the Competition Development and Sprints at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Canada.