Last Updated on May 8, 2021 by Jimson Lee
This is part 12 of the Freelap Friday Five Series, Season Three. To review the past 41 interviews, click here.
Part 1 was Jeff Cubos, Chiropractor and Performance Therapist
Part 2 was John Godina, World Athletics Center founder & Elite Shot Putter
Part 3 was Questions & Answers from Peter Weyand’s Research
Part 4 was Dr. Thomas Lam, focusing on Movement Based Sports Science
Part 5 was Landon Evans, Strength & Conditioning Coach & Nutrition Coordinator
Part 6 was Gabe Sanders, Assistant T&F coach of Boston University
Part 7 was Dr Jess Greaux, on Rehab and Biomechanics
Part 8 was Merlene Ottey – Queen of the Track
Part 9 was So You Want to Be a Decathlete? w/ Eric Broadbent
Part 10 was Jay DeMayo, U of Richmond’s S&C Coach.
Part 11 was Jessica Zelinka, Heptathlete and SuperMom!
Some of the readers on this Blog may know James Smith of Power Development, Inc., also nicknamed “The Thinker” in numerous sports performance forums.
He recently wrote a book titled Applied Sprint Training. James has written a few guest articles, which became part of his book. You can read all of his articles here.
James is a student of Soviet and Eastern Bloc training methodologies and is engaged in the constant pursuit to further his own physical conditioning and coaching abilities (like myself and numerous other open minded coaches).
His resume includes International Track and Field, The Naval Special Warfare Development Group (otherwise known as NAVSPECWARDEVGRU), Division 1 American football, Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ), USA Volleyball, and the majority of Olympic sport disciplines.
On the Track side, he provided technical, physical preparatory, and recovery/regeneration support to a group of United Kingdom Athletics Senior National Sprinters and Hurdlers under the direction of British National Team Coach Lloyd Cowan during their pre-Olympic preparations for London.
I am going to divert from the usual 5 questions and go for 7, the same questions as from Peter Weyand’s Research.
Interview with James Smith
Question 1. Is sprint running primarily an acquired skill or innate ability? Are sprinters born, and not made?
James Smith: The morphobiomechanical foundations are passed on via genetic material from the athlete’s parents and then influenced via phenotypic factors. In this way, the potential to sprint fast is predominantly rooted in genotype; however, that is by no means the end of the puzzle. I underline potential because the integrity of house similarly depends upon the foundational prerequisites of its foundation; however, the foundation alone in no way constitutes the entire architectural framework.
Biomechanically, even those athletes fortunate enough to be the recipients of the genetic lottery ticket must capitalize upon these foundational prerequisites with optimal training.
As I expounded upon in my recent Applied Sprint Training manual- anyone has the ability to run fast relative to their own capacity; however, no one is able to sprint fast (relative to their potential) without proper training.
Perhaps the most practical example of this is to observe the ‘fastest’ team sport athletes in (football, Rugby, American football, Aussie Rules, and others) and note how in nearly all cases the observational takeaway (regarding those who have T&F coaching experience) is pure biomotor output coupled with marginal to horrendous mechanics.
Proper sprint training is one of the unicorns of team sport preparation and therefore, more often than not, the fastest non-track athletes demonstrate what genetically passed on material looks like when it is not coupled with optimal training.
Once in while we see the Bob Hayes’ (American Football), Donovan Bailey’s (Basketball) and Adam Gemili’s (football) spawned from the team sport realm; however, these cases have, thus far, proven to be the exception and surely any of those athletes will describe the mechanical work needed to be done, that they were not exposed to in the team sport preparation, to advance their T&F results.
In summary, sprinters are born and then made.
Question 2. What are the mechanical requirements for achieving fast running speeds?
James Smith: I would first elect to further hone the context down to fast sprinting, opposed to running, speeds as, per my response to question 1, fast running may be accomplished via poor mechanical execution. For example, it is probable that Cristiano Ronaldo will defeat the bulk of the male non-athletes in the world in a 60m sprint; however, when considered in a T&F context he presents a smorgasbord of mechanical issues that would have to be resolved to compete against any number of elite female sprinters.
For example, Ronaldo performed an electronically timed 25m sprint (block start on turf) in 3.61 seconds according to the sport science television show. By comparison, in the women’s 100m final in Berlin every competitor in the final managed a 20m split in 3.24 or less and a 30m split in 4.27 or less (Shelly Ann Fraser Pryce went 3.03 and 4.02 respectively). After the math is done, which places 7 of the 8 sprinters at approximately 3.61 or faster at the 25m mark, it is more than clear how many of the top female sprinters would give Ronaldo everything he wants in a distance as short as 25m.
As to the mechanics associated with optimizing sprint potential, clearly each phase of a race features a unique set of biomechanical circumstances. If we specify the mechanics related to the optimization of maximum velocity we must account for the predominance of vertical forces and the following model criteria associated with the world’s elite (taken straight out of my Applied Sprint Training Manual):
- When initiating a start from a static position ensure that the orientation of the feet, hips, and centre of mass are situated in order to accommodate the athletes power output and anthropometric proportions
- When taking off from a low position the kinematic sequence is initiated by the arm contralateral to the rearward leg
- The position of the head and neck must be consistent with the position of the back throughout
- The sprint action is heavily influenced by the arms
- The emphasis of arm action should be down, down, down
- While the angle about the elbow will change during frontside and backside action, the objective should be to hold a position of approximately 90 degrees and allow the forces at work to take care of the rest
- A complete line of extension from the shoulders down to the ankles is the objective at toe off and the angle of extension relative to the ground, during acceleration, must correspond to the athletes output ability
- Positive shin angles during initial strides are central towards optimal acceleration from the start
- The transition from acceleration to upright sprinting should be smooth and not forced
- While all great sprinters run with high knees in the upright position the focus should be on stepping down
- By focusing on flexing the big toe up, when stepping down, the athlete will establish optimal foot position prior to ground contact
- A short acceleration, less than 30-40m, should be completed on a single breath that is either held throughout or slowly released in order to maximize stiffness through the torso
- The pendulum is optimized, during upright sprinting, when the rearward travel of the support leg, after toe-off, is minimal
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Question 3. Which muscles or muscle actions should a coach focus on while training away from the track?
James Smith: Indeed this is a hotly contested subject amidst the T&F community. I favor the assembly of models based upon the commonalities shared amidst the elite of the elite. Taking male sub 9.8 sec 100m sprinters, for example, observations will reveal that, by in large, Usain Bolt, Tyson Gay, Yohan Blake, Asafa Powell, Nesta Carter, Maurice Green, Ben Johnson, Tim Montgomery, and Justin Gatlin performed general weight programs.
If the 100m is the competition exercise then its mechanical and physiological divisions are the start, acceleration, maximum velocity, and speed endurance. The specifics of each phase represent the context defining point from which preparatory actions may be classified according to transference.
Here’s an example of exercises relative to the maximum velocity phase of the 100m (another excerpt from my Applied Sprint Training manual):
Highest Degree of Transfer
- Flying Sprints in which the pre-run is long enough and corresponds to that athletes requirements to reach maximum velocity in a more relaxed fashion and the window of max V is 10-20meters as that is the accepted distance over which max V may be sustained
- Speed Change Drills (fast-easy-fast and easy-fast-easy), the most common method of performing these is over segments that are 20m, or more, in length and correspond to that athlete’s speed potential. 20M + 20m + 20m for a total distance of 60m. It is critical that the transition between segments is very smooth and largely influenced by volitional changes in arm action. The differential in intensity will be relatively small ~5%. In this way the easy sections will be approximately 90% intensity and the fast sections approximately 95% intensity.
- Single and Multiple response jumps with a vertical emphasis, minimized knee bend/ground contact times, and performed within the alactic period, such as:
- Hurdle hops in which the hurdles a placed relatively close (~1meter) with the heights adjusted to each athletes reactive/elastic ability
- Depth jumps less than .75m or what corresponds to each athletes strength preparation and reactive/elastic ability
- Skip bounds with a vertical push-off emphasis
So what we see from this example is that the nature of muscle action, biomechanical, and bioenergetic character of the phase of the race (in this case maximum velocity) that we intend to improve must be reflected in the preparatory activities. In this way, work in the weight room, for example, only possesses a direct transfer to the start and first few steps. Outside of that, weight training merely represents a general organism stimulus which is vital yet not directly related to the competition result. Clearly that reads as a paradoxical scenario; however, this is why the weight programs may vary so much between the sub 9.8 pool of elite male sprinters.
Suffice it to say that the general stimulus of ‘strength’ training is relevant towards improved speed yet the biomotor, biodynamic, and bioenergetic structure of work in the weight room ceases to directly transfer to the sprint after the athlete is a few meters away from the blocks. Just another reason why the fastest sprinters in the world pay no particular ode of homage to the specific nature of weight training other than the fact that it is part of their program.
As a consequence, in my work and consulting with sprinters and sprint coaches, my only stipulation is that whatever exercises are performed off the track are performed well. Most important is that harmony is preserved amidst the total complex of work performed; such that every physical action is accounted for regardless of where it occurs and, by definition, everything is secondary to sprint training.
Question 4. What is the relative importance of stride frequency vs. stride length for top speed running?
James Smith: Well, there’s no question that higher frequencies and greater stride lengths result in faster sprinting. That said, I do not feel it is necessary to directly coach either quality. Instead, I favor the concept, that Charlie Francis was a proponent of, that suggests that it is wiser to solve such problems via the performance of a drill that allows for the athlete to achieve the proper mechanics by default.
Regarding frequency, we know that volumes of athletes can cycle their legs fast enough, unloaded, to sprint sub 10. The question is what happens when their feet hit the ground. The nature of force production during ground contact is a substantial precursor to both stride frequency and length.
I prefer to think of the force dynamics during ground contact as time specific force because the amount of time a sprinter has to generate high forces at max V (which we know may climb as high as five times bodyweight) is less than one tenth of a second (another reason why weight training can only be of general consequence to the max V portion of the sprint). In this way it follows, as Charlie always said, that weights follow speed because sprinting is the only activity of relevance in which an athlete is able to generate that magnitude of force in eight hundredths of a second (not to mention the muscle contractile velocities during co-contraction). While the forces generated in a maximal Olympic lift may be substantial the time differential between the barbell exercise and GCT at max V is massive.
Provided adequate joint mobility and muscular suppleness is in place, sensible sprint work coupled with a general weight program will cover the stride frequency vs length debate chapter and verse.
Question 5. Is dorsiflexion of the ankle joint prior to ground contact beneficial and if so, why?
James Smith: From the standpoint that every single high level sprinter demonstrates it- yes. It must be pointed out, however, that, in my view, it is not beneficial for a coach to cue such an action. The biomechanical relevance is that as the ankle goes into dorsiflexion the achilles tendon is lengthened and thus pre-tensed. The result is less movement about the ankle during ground contact which fosters a greater elastic return and contributes to shorter ground contact time.
Alternatively, if the athlete were to intentionally extend the ankle (point their toe) prior to ground contact (like a ballerina scissoring across the stage), while dorsiflexion naturally occurs as a byproduct of ground contact, the ground contact time would lengthen.
I prefer not to direct any cues towards the ankles when an athlete is sprinting; however, I will cue toe up (in reference to the first metatarsal) during drills such as skips and Running A’s in order to shift the action to the hindbrain. Power speed drills are convenient for such purposes as their reduced neuromuscular character lends itself towards frequent performance. This then serves as a means of accruing valuable volumes of learning experiences if only in the quasi-specific sense.
Question 6. What is the importance of arm swinging in sprinting?
James Smith: Biomechanically, the arm action generates counter rotational forces relative to the rotation that occurs about the hips resultant of the stride. This plays a role in both stabilizing optimal posture and momentum. As hip rotation can provide incremental increases in stride length, via extending the horizontal distance of the knee relative to the midline, it then follows that the influence of arm action on hip rotation also influences stride length.
Experientially, I have yet to work with, consult, or observe a sprinter that has optimal/efficient arm mechanics who demonstrates significant problems below the waist. Clearly then, there is a relationship that exists and suggests that, from a coaching perspective, emphasizing the optimization of arm mechanics ranks high on the list and this is something that has been a constant in my career.
While optimal stride mechanics do not directly depend upon the biomechanical optimization of the arm action (Bolt is actually an example of this due to the excessive flexion about the elbow that occurs in front and what I believe influences his excessive shoulder elevation) there certainly is no good reason not to make it a priority for sprinters.
Question 7. Does the action of sprinting involve more of a pushing action or a pulling action against the ground?
James Smith: We may consider the biomechanical data as well as the tactile interpretation and, in most scenarios, the concept of pulling just doesn’t apply. That being said, one must exercise caution in overstating the act of pushing.
We know that the predominance of applied force occurs in the horizontal direction during block clearance and early acceleration. Then, as the athlete transitions to the upright position the lion’s share of applied force shifts to the vertical direction. In this way, one may state that the start and early acceleration are more pushing efforts which then transition to stepping down (both actions are substantiated via the tactile based feedback of any accomplished sprinter). At no point, however, do I believe it makes theoretical or practical sense to conceptualize or cue ‘pulling’.
As a coach, and someone who is not yet defeated by time (in so far as I am still able to lead by example- just not at world class speeds), I see no practical relevance in the concept of pulling. I state this because, conceptually, pulling does not imply a time sensitive impulse. I believe that an athlete cued to ‘pull’ will invariably lower their hips, make ground contact further in front of the hips, lengthen the ground contact patch, exacerbate backside leg action (kick out the back), and ultimately run slower.
As previously stated, I would not suggest swinging the pendulum too far in the other direction via emphasizing pushing. While the actual feeling of starting and accelerating is pushing I would caution coaches to choose their verbal cues carefully in order that they, first and foremost, resonate with the athlete as well as bare mechanical relevance to what we already know about the sprint action.
SpeedEndurance.com: Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions. Readers should check out Applied Sprint Training if they want more of this.
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