PLEASE NOTE: We are undergoing a name change. Unleashed Training is now Sprint Ninja. We still offer high quality strength and conditioning along with personal training, with our specialty being sprint training.
Sprint training is a form of training applicable across a large range of domains for both the individual and the athlete. A large number of sports require greater speed. The non-athlete can also benefit from sprinting for a number of reasons pertaining to general fitness, hormone optimisation, power development and carry-over to other tasks.
Sprinting is a beautiful activity. It is violent, primal, graceful, powerful, and complex yet so simple and minimalist.
Sprinting for the Non-Athlete
The fitness world at large, when it pertains to fitness for the greater population, seems to get stuck in fads and crazes that pass when the next big thing comes along. A common theme is long, continuous aerobic training. On any given day I can go down the street and come across at least several people jogging in an attempt to get healthy, build their dream body and lose fat. This approach produces mixed results, none of them very efficient. But how many people do you see at the local sports field doing maximum sprint training? It’s not a common sight. You are more likely to see weekend cyclists, people training for their first triathlon, people doing all kinds of random drills in a boot camp class etc.
Sprinting, along with strength training, is quite possibly one of the
most efficient and effective ways to produce favourable results in body
composition, hormone optimisation and several domains of fitness that
are developed through the cross-over effect of sprinting.
Sprinting for the Athlete
Many sports demand speed either as a primary skill or a secondary one. As a primary skill speed is applied directly and required in the form of sprints at maximum pace over distances from 5m to 200m. Primary speed sports include American football, rugby, track sprinting and more. As a secondary skill sprinting is useful in sports that require agility such as basketball and tennis. These sports do not apply straight out sprinting speed directly, however they involve changing direction at a near maximal pace. Therefore the development of speed is a secondary skill that indirectly contributes to necessary skills. Sprinting is also a useful secondary skill for semi-endurance events where either repeat efforts are required or a sub-maximal effort such as a mile race. In such sports sprint training indirectly develops biomechanical efficiency and increased lactate buffering capability.
Sprinting Types and Categories
Sprinting is not just sprinting. To the less informed sprinting is simply running really fast. There is more to it than that. Lets first look at what it is not. Sprinting cannot be done on a treadmill at a gym. A lot of fitness magazines will print articles that state sprint intervals as a workout. However they utilise treadmill intervals lasting anywhere from 20 seconds to 90 seconds. A treadmill goes to a maximum of 20kph, which is nowhere near maximal pace for most people. This form of training is sub-maximal interval training, not sprinting.
Sprinting is a maximal effort. To sprint means to apply every last
shred of energy to run as fast and powerfully as humanly possible as if
your life depended on it, regardless of distance.
The raw speed category involves sprinting that is purely speed related with almost zero endurance component and no repeat efforts. This category includes sprints of anywhere from 5m to about 50m but no further. Over these distances the requirement and strategy is maximum acceleration right from the very start.
Raw speed is an important base component to develop. By developing raw speed you are building a solid foundation from which repeat efforts and speed-endurance can be developed. Without raw speed you cannot have any other form of speed.
Speed endurance is a complex beast involving many components. It is speed endurance that will contribute the most for a sprinter over distances of 100m, 200m and 400m. Speed endurance involves raw speed up until reaching maximum pace, the maintenance of maximum pace and the reduction in the rate of deceleration. In order to achieve a better sprint time over a distance of 100m for instance the athlete must first start strong and then possess the ability to accelerate rapidly and for a sustained distance of 60m-80m. Generally, in elite level sprinters, maximum pace is achieved somewhere between this distance. From the point at which you achieve maximum pace you will gradually begin to decelerate. So faster sprinting depends on accelerating to a max pace rapidly, hitting a high max speed, maintaining that speed and then managing the rate of deceleration so that a higher average speed is achieved over a given distance. Speed endurance is the physical attribute that improves this.
The final category of sprinting ability is repeat speed. Repeat speed is the ability to repeat maximal efforts after a given period of rest. For example, repeating a distance of 50m with a rest period of 45 seconds between sprints for a total of 10 sprints. The skill lies in being able to maintain a fast time with each sprint effort with a minimal decrease in time from sprint number one to sprint number 10. This is particularly useful in two circumstances. The first being team sports like rugby, where an athlete might sprint at max pace for 25m, stop, get only 20 seconds rest and then sprint 50m and so on for an entire 90 minute game. Secondly it is useful for the actual training aspect of track sprinting, where a certain level of volume is required. In training it is counter-productive to keep repeating sprints when speed declines greatly with each repeated effort. Therefore repeat sprint ability is a must to achieve the required stimulus from training.
Components of Sprinting Development
Sprinting faster is not as simple as just running sprints and developing the ability to run progressively faster. This approach has many limitations and is not an effective use of innate potential. There are several components that are required in order to make maximum use of sprinting speed development.
The development of strength forms the basis for almost all further specific physical ability. Strength is the application of force applied to a given stimulus. The stronger a person is the more force they are capable of applying. Inadequate strength development means that the athlete is trying to build specific skills onto a weak frame. With a weak frame there will be a plateau that, when reached, will not be possible to break and move forward.
Strength is the primary and most broadly applicable component of sprinting development. It is essential that major compound movements are developed to a high level in order to later convert that production of force into force applied at speed. The more strength that is developed the greater the level of force the athlete is capable of. Greater strength means that more force can be applied to the ground with each stride, and that directly contributes to greater speed.
Power is the bridge that joins strength to speed. Strength on its own will not make a faster sprinter. Strength is a catalyst that increases one’s ability to produce a high level of force. Power is the application of force delivered at high speed. Jumping and sprinting are perfect examples of power. One cannot jump in slow motion, it is a skill that must be applied with maximum velocity. Power can’t be demonstrated without first having a foundation of strength. Strength allows for a greater production of force, whereas power is applied with an absolute maximum velocity while still applying a high level of force output.
Speed is similar in nature to power. Speed is the velocity in which a part of, or the full body is moved. The difference between speed and power is that power applies to force production at high velocity, whereas speed within itself is velocity alone, without consideration of the force applied.
Raw strength, speed and power are the foundations necessary to run faster sprints. However these components are limited by the biomechanical efficiency with which one moves. Biomechanics is the way in which a person moves. Every physical skill has a certain biomechanical application. Deadlifting for instance has certain biomechanics, or ways of moving, that vary in their efficiency. Take two athletes of equal strength and the one that is more biomechanically efficient at lifting will lift more weight. This is entirely due to a more effective technique. The same applies to sprinting. Just about anyone can sprint. Having said that, the technique used contributes to the overall outcome of a given output.
Flexibility is an often overlooked component of conditioning. On the one hand we have athletes that completely ignore and neglect flexibility training. On the other are those that indiscriminately stretch all muscles until they achieve an extremely high level of overall flexibility all over. Sprinting, just like any other physical attribute, requires a certain balance of strength and flexibility in specific joints and movement patterns. There are certain muscles that will limit a person’s speed if they are tight and have poor range of motion. A tight muscle can act as a break, meaning that opposing muscles have to work much harder to fight the tightness in its antagonist. For instance, if muscles such as the several muscles making up the hip flexors are tight then an athlete’s stride length is hindered.
On the flipside of tightness is muscles that are lengthened beyond the point necessary for adequate range of motion and freedom of movement. Only muscles that are tight need to be stretched. If a muscle is too long it can become lax and produce less potential force than if it were shorter. It is up to coaches and athletes to do a thorough movement analysis to determine which muscles are tight and need to be lengthened and which are not. Generally speaking, muscles that are long and lax require additional strength work in order to elicit a return to strength.
Phases of Sprinting Development
Sprint training, like any other form of performance training, is best developed in phases. Going about developing sprinting speed by simply sprinting as fast as possible for 100m repeats is a haphazard approach and will leave many weak links. This will lead to injuries and sub-par utilisation of innate potential.
Here we will outline the phases on sprinting development and how they apply. Everyone is different and everyone has different needs when it comes to programming. Therefore a sprint training programme for one person will be different for another based on variables such as genetics, previous training history etc. These are the general phases of training from the baseline foundational phase all the way through to elite athlete. These phases apply in their entirety whether a person is experienced or not. The foundational phase must be revisited and factored into an overall training programme. This is how an athlete can ensure they have a solid base to work from and nothing is missed along the way.
The foundational phase of sprint training and development is an essential phase that will set the stage for all future sprinting success. From here you will develop a solid foundation that will aid in the natural progression to more specific skills and abilities.
For beginners the foundational phase will last as long as six months for those that have either done no training at all or that have almost zero experience with dynamic activities requiring a high level force output. The experienced athlete will revisit the foundational phase each year for between 4-8 weeks.
The foundational phase is dominated by two things; the first is strength. This is the primary component of foundational sprinting development. Without a solid base of strength there is almost nothing to work with biomechanically, neuromuscular and structurally. The other component is technique development and greasing the groove. This component involves developing the basic skills necessary to maximise mechanical efficiency throughout the different phases of a sprint effort.
The foundational phase might look something this…
Heavy strength training at least three sessions per week. This will involve the bare basic movements, mostly compound movements. This will include things like deadlifts, front squats, back squats, standing military press, bench press, kettlebell swings and not a lot else. As the phase progresses it is recommended to begin learning and perfecting the Olympic lifts, particularly cleans (full version, not power cleans). The objective here is to progressively increase the amount of weight used and train within the range of five reps per set, as long as two minutes rest between sets and an explosive lifting speed.
In addition to the intensive and progressive strength training programme the athlete will do two sprint training sessions per week. The focus here is simplicity and skill acquisition. Sprints will be straight sprints off a standing start over a distance of 25-40 metres but no more. The emphasis is on developing a long and powerful stride, greater starting speed and posture. The athlete will train at only 90% of maximum pace as this is a developmental phase with the emphasis on strength development.
The foundation phase will begin at quite low overall volume and progressively increase until the end of the phase.
The developmental phase of sprint training is where any athlete or individual will spend most of their time training. By the time you are in the developmental phase you will have developed a solid foundation of strength, speed and power from the foundational phase. The developmental phase involves equal proportions of strength training, power training and actual sprint drills.
This phase involves beginning at a relatively low volume at the start and building on that volume over a period of 6-12 weeks. The developmental phase is critical to get right. It is here that you will take a motley collection of strength and power attributes, roll them together and then transfer these attributes over to sprinting speed.
The developmental phase is equally split between each of the components of sprinting development, being…. Strength, power, speed and biomechanics.
The developmental phase might look like this…
Heavy strength training for at least three sessions per week. Here you will begin within the rep range of four or five and gradually work towards heavier lifts with sets of one, two and three reps. Lifts will be much like with the foundational phase with the introduction of some more complex and skill-based exercises like snatches and cleans. The aim is to periodise the training so as not to hit a plateau and to aim for maximum strength development without the addition of a significant level of muscular hypertrophy. A stronger sprinter is a better sprinter.
The track component will also be much like the strength component for this phase, in that the content remains similar to foundational, with the difference being higher intensity, a little more volume and progressively working through varying sprint distances. So here there will be at least three sprint sessions per week. These will be performed at absolute 100%. Straight sprinting efforts will range in the beginning from short 25-40m efforts to as high as 100 and 200m. The lengths will increase as the phase progresses. By the end of the developmental phase the athlete will be performing sprints from as short as starts through all distances up to 200m. During this phase there is also the use of resisted sprints such as sprinting up a hill, towing a sled or using a sprint parachute. Also used are assisted sprints such as being towed or sprinting downhill. The objective of the former is designed to increase take off, acceleration and raw power. The latter allows the legs to move faster, resulting in greater speed of movement. These things combined lead to a faster, more powerful stride, increasing both stride frequency as well as maximum use of each individual stride.
Biomechanical conditioning is of major importance during the developmental phase. This is where striding technique is learned and developed, along with posture and all the finer details as it pertains to the movement itself.
Finally, the developmental phase should include a certain level of lactate tolerance training. This is achieved through drills designed to increase blood lactate levels and sustain a near-maximal pace for a greater distance.
The final phase of sprinting development is the preparation phase. This phase is the icing on the cake. During the foundational phase a solid base is built. From there we have something to work from for later transference. From there we cover overall development and conditioning. The developmental phase is what turns a strength programme into a sprint-specific programme and facilitates the transfer of the raw skills developed into the task at hand, being faster sprinting speed.
The preparation phase is the final phase. This is where less emphasis is placed on strength training (although it’s not eliminated, just scaled back) in order to put more focus and energy into sprint training itself. This phase is generally fairly short, lasting between 4-6 weeks at most. For track athletes this is the lead up to a major competition, for individuals and non-track athletes, the preparation phase is applied anywhere that is suitable within a macro training cycle.
The preparation phase might look like this…
Two strength sessions per week using just one, two or three reps per set with a focus on maximum strength output with a low volume of training.
A greater emphasis is placed on sprinting sessions. Here an athlete will perform a higher volume and frequency of what was being done during the developmental phase. The focus being the transference of all strength and power developed in the preceding two phases into sprinting faster, essentially reaching a peak.
Best Practice Development of Sprinting Components
Here we will look at each component of sprinting development individually and outline the best practice guidelines and examples for each.
Strength is the foundation of every other physical output goal. Without adequate development of strength one cannot develop other essential attributes. Strength is the base layer and needs to be covered first, it can’t be delayed until a later time. Without first building strength there is nothing there to serve as a base from which to build power and biomechanical efficiency.
Strength training is applicable to a wide variety of sports and activities. In fact it is necessary in some capacity to everything. Having said that, there are countless individual ways to put together a strength programme. Certain things must be considered, such as the individual themselves, along with their history, genetics, circumstances etc, and the activity a person is training for. In order to make the most of strength training for the purpose of sprint training there must be a programme in place that facilitates the development of relevant attributes and movement patterns.
The following are some considerations and points on strength training for sprinting development
- Sprinting is the priority, try to remember that. Strength training exists, in this instance, as a catalyst for faster sprinting speed. Strength training should not overshadow specific sprint training.
- Compound movements should generally be used. Sprinting is a completely involved, full body activity. The posterior chain is of primary focus, being the glutes, hamstrings and spinal erectors. Therefore it is best advised to centre training around both squatting movements and lifts from the floor. This includes back squat, front squat, deadlift and Olympic lifts from the floor. Keep it simple, there is no need for 40 different strength exercises, only really 3-4 exercises should dominate the bulk of a programme.
- Train explosively. Speed is the primary consideration for greater sprinting speed. Lifting slow and controlled has no application in performance training.
- Low volume, high frequency, high intensity. This means strength training should be performed consistently using a high intensity, meaning a high percentage of one’s maximum lift and of low training volume overall, meaning workouts contain a smaller number of overall reps and a lesser investment of time.
- Periodisation is an essential aspect of programme design for sprinting development. There are many ways to do this, however Unleashed Training takes an individual route. The Unleashed programming structure is as chaotic as it is organised. The way it works is training is varied from one workout to the next. No two strength workouts are ever quite exactly the same, however they are consistent in that the same 3-4 exercises dominate the programme and progression is tracked. Variants are rep counts, rest periods, variations of exercises, auxiliary exercise selection etc.
A basic strength training outline is as follows…
Squat (back or front) for 5-4-3-2-1 reps
Deadlift for 3-3-2-2 reps
Cleans (full Olympic style, not power cleans) for 2-2-2-2-2-2-2 reps ascending weight on each set
Weighted pull-ups for 5-5-5-5 reps
Bench press for 5-5-5-5 reps
Standing military press for 5-5-5-5 reps
Squat for 1-1-1 reps, working up to 95% of max
Deadlift for 1-1-1 reps, working up to 95% of max
Cleans for 1-1-1 reps, working up to 95% of max
Work on weakness day. On this day the athlete will work on any strength or technique imbalances they may have.
Day six and seven are rest days from strength training. It is my advice to also undertake all track sessions on the strength training days so as to have two complete rest days every week.
The preceding strength programme is obviously extremely basic and does not specify loads, rest periods, lifting style etc. This is here to simply provide a very small example of the kinds of exercises, reps, sets and splits that could be done throughout a training week for sprinting performance.
This strength programme is best used within the initial stages of the developmental phase. Later we will cover some strength techniques that are unique to Unleashed Training.
Power is an essential component of sprint training. In order to sprint faster times in any setting it is essential that strength gains are converted into explosive force production, which is power. An expression of power as it pertains to sprinting is the foot strike. When the foot strikes the ground on each stride it is the level of force that is delivered that largely determines overall sprinting speed. More force upon striking the ground means greater propulsion on each individual stride. This means better overall speed. Strength is the basis for this, without strength you do not have power. However it does not top at strength. Strength allows a person to produce greater force, whereas power is the expression of that force delivered at a rapid velocity.
The following are some considerations and points on power training for sprinting development
- Power training needs to be applied under conditions of no fatigue. The nervous system is the primary system for adaptation to power training. Power training involves training various muscles and movements to contract at a high velocity while generating force. This is a neural adaptation, meaning the nerves that innervate a group of muscle fibres, known collectively as a motor unit. The motor unit adapts to the stimulus it is given regularly. This means that it needs to be given the greatest stimulus for forceful contraction at the highest possible velocity. When a muscle is fatigued it is unable to produce the greatest level of force and velocity, resulting in the repetition and conditioning of sub-maximal muscular contraction, further resulting in a motor unit that is trained to operate at a sub-max level. Therefore training for power should be done at low volume and with adequate recovery between efforts. It also needs to be undertaken when muscles are fresh and free from cumulative fatigue from past training sessions. With that in mind power training is not to be performed too frequently. 2-3 days within a training week is adequate.
- Being an adaptation of the nervous system, power training needs to stimulate the greatest neuromuscular response. To achieve this the nervous system needs to be primed for forceful activity. This means that the greatest number of motor units need to be innervated to produce the best response. This is achieved through awakening and exciting the nervous system and priming it for powerful activity. This is achieved in two ways. Where power is the primary component within a given session strength training at high percentage of max can be utilised to prime the nervous system by awakening a greater number of motor units. So a set of squats at 95% of max might be performed and then followed by a plyometric bounding exercise shortly after. The high level of raw force output from the squats will allow a greater number of motor units to be involved in the plyometrics exercise. Secondly, this can be utilised in the reverse. Where strength is the primary component of a given session a power exercise can be used before heavy strength work in order to prime the nervous system for higher velocity contractions. So a workout of squats can be preceded by several short sets of plyometrics training.
- Power training is best included within a sprint training programme when it is performed as an additional component within sessions where other components are the focus. For instance strength sessions and track sessions. Most often I will programme plyometrics and other power training into strength and track sessions. During a sprint session power exercises can be placed between sprint efforts, provided that adequate recovery between sets is maintained. During a strength session power can be utilised in the manner described in the preceding point.
- Power training is highly taxing on the central nervous system. If it is overused it will result in overtraining and a hindrance of results. It must be used strategically throughout a given training week. It is recommended that every 3-4 weeks the athlete take a break from power training for 7-10 days in order to let the central nervous system recover. After a period of complete recovery from power training the nervous system will have completely recovered from this specific stimulus and as a result will have allowed for maximum adaptation to the stimuli.
The following is a sample sprint session and a sample strength session where power exercises have been added
SAMPLE SESSION ONE
Back squat for 5-3-1-1-1 reps. Between sets perform three depth jumps from a height of 75cm. Rest at least 90 seconds after the last depth jump.
Deadlift for 3-2-2-2-1 reps. Between sets perform a set of six scissor jumps. Rest at least 90 seconds after each set of depth jumps.
SAMPLE SESSION TWO
Sprint starts for 10 x 10m. After every 10m sprint start perform a set of three single leg bounds on each leg. Rest one minute after each set.
Sprint 25m x 4. Perform a single standing long jump after each sprint then rest 90 seconds.
Finish with a single exhaustive set as follows: Sprint on the spot as fast as possible with high knees for approximately 20 second and then immediately sprint 200m at maximum pace.
Power is an essential component of sprint performance. It simply must be included within a sprint programme. Personally my preferred method, and the method used at Unleashed Training, is development of power through a combination of regular plyometrics, non-plyometric jump training such as box jumps and standing long jump and explosive lifts in the gym using both regular compound strength movements such as squats and deadlifts and through innately explosive lifts like cleans. It is my belief that everyone that has a significantly vested interest in developing sprint speed should learn the correct technique for the Olympic clean, as opposed to power cleans, which are a bastardised version of one of the most effective exercises for developing power.
A quick word on WHY full depth cleans are one of the most effective exercises for power development pertaining to sprinting performance.
- Cleans are a multi-faceted movement, incorporating an explosive deadlift, a rapid “catch” and an explosive front squat. This develops enormous concentric power in the posterior chain and trains the nervous system to rapidly switch from a mostly posterior chain movement into a squatting movement.
- Cleans are enormously taxing on both the endocrine system, stimulating a massive release of essential hormones such as growth hormone and testosterone, and the nervous system, where it creates a high level of neuromuscular excitation, essentially activating the largest number of motor units of any other strength or power exercise.
- They are an exercise that bridges the gap between strength and power. Strength is an essential foundational component of fitness that must be developed first before any further components can be built effectively. Power is also essential but cannot exist without strength. Cleans are an explosive exercise that utilise a significant load, causing the muscular system to apply a high level of force combined with a high velocity where continuous acceleration is a prime component of the exercise, meaning that deceleration is not a factor like it is at the top of exercises such as squats and deadlifts. In other words, cleans are as much as strength exercise as they are a power exercise.
- Finally, cleans make use of the stretch reflex as it pertains to power better than any other exercise. Depth jumps, as an example, are designed to create a massive response to the stretch reflex, where a massive amount of force is rapidly absorbed and reacted against to switch from an eccentric contraction to a concentric contraction. Cleans are like a depth jump on steroids. When you perform a clean you are essentially free-falling for a small portion of the lift between the top of the pull and the drop into a squat position. Upon reaching the bottom of the squat you are catching the entire load of the bar at the very end of the lengthening cycle of the muscles involved, meaning that eccentrically you are absorbing an enormous level of force that is moving at speed. Upon absorption of that force you are then performing a concentric contraction against the same significant load. This process repeated regularly develops an enormous level of raw power that can then be transferred and applied to a sprinting stride.
Speed is an obvious component of sprint training and developing the ability to sprint faster. Speed is much like power, in that it is the application of high velocity muscular contraction, however it differs in several ways. Power is the application of force at a high velocity. So essentially it is represented in each individual muscle contraction, being a fast contraction under some form of load. Speed is the ability of muscles to rapidly contract, without consideration of force, and to do so for repeat efforts to move a limb or the entire body throughout a given space. Speed can be seen between strides, whereas strength and power are demonstrated during the foot strike, or active portion of the sprinting stride. In other words speed is demonstrated as a transition from the end of one stride until the beginning of another. Power allows maximum use of the actual foot strike and allows for the stride to propel the body forward at a greater velocity at the end of each stride. What speed does is allows the airborne portion of that stride to complete more rapidly so as to make the next stride, essentially shortening the time between strides without shortening the stride itself. To put it simply, speed allows your legs to move faster.
How is speed developed? By possessing a high level of strength and power speed is a quality that is mostly a by-product of these. However there are additional components of speed that can be trained for specifically. A common way to develop speed is through over-speed training. This is training that forces the legs to move faster by taking away some of the force component. This can be done in the following ways…
- Downhill running: Downhill running should be approached with caution. This is not running down a very steep decline at full speed. If the hill is too steep it will result in a mutated stride technique and take effective biomechanics away from the athlete and train the nervous system to pattern the wrong movement. Downhill sprints should be performed on no steeper than a 5% decline and should be at least 25m long. The athlete simply sprints downhill as fast as possible. What this does is allows a person to sprint faster because they are being assisted slightly by gravity. Because of this assistance the legs move at a faster rate, or in other words stride frequency is increased. Through repetition of this there is a carry-over effect to flat ground sprinting.
- Over-speed treadmill: Not a lot of people have access to a treadmill that reaches speeds faster than 40kph, so this is something reserved for the serious athlete. But keep in mind that downhill sprinting can prove just as effective. What the over-speed treadmill does is takes weight off the athlete via a harness, so the athlete is only supporting a small percentage of their body weight. Then the treadmill is set to a progressively higher and higher speed, which will eventually reach a speed that is faster than the athlete can normally sprint by about 5% or sometimes more. By not having your body weight to carry your legs can move at a faster rate.
- Towing: Towing is exactly as it sounds. The athlete wears a harness that is tethered to a vehicle of some kind in front of them. The vehicle drives at a speed that is slightly faster than the athlete would generally be able to sprint. This assists the athlete in hitting a higher speed due to some of the forward velocity being taken up by the vehicle. As a result the legs move as a higher stride rate.
Biomechanics is the technical aspect of sprint training. You can possess high levels of strength, power and speed, but it is not being applied to the greatest potential if the athlete has not developed effective and efficient sprinting biomechanics. As mentioned earlier, biomechanics is the science of movement. It is the way in which any kind of physical skill is applied. There are effective biomechanics for doing anything physical. In other words, there is a right way and a wrong way to do things. The key with sprinting is to train the nervous system effectively right from the start to apply efficient biomechanics to the sprint. The nervous system creates maps and patterns based on the way someone moves. If you have always walked a certain way then your nervous system is patterned for you to always walk that way. The same goes for any other movement, including sprinting. So it is absolutely essential that sprinting technique be included as part of an effective sprint training programme.
A few points on developing effective sprint biomechanics...
- Sprint biomechanics must be taught from the very start of a sprint training programme. If an athlete is sprinting regularly using an inefficient technique they will eventually create a neuromuscular pattern based on this ineffective technique. This limits an athlete’s potential, regardless of the level of strength, speed and power that is developed. For this reason it is essential that a sprinting programme include focus on technique.
- It has been demonstrated that a long stride contributes greater to horizontal velocity than stride frequency does. Therefore the athlete must be trained to consciously focus on extending the stride.
- A forceful foot strike is an essential component of a sprinting stride. The more force that is applied to the ground on each stride the further the body is propelled forward on each stride. This must be consciously applied during sprint sessions.
- A relaxed yet firm upper body posture. Sprinting is not just an effort of the lower body, it requires full body involvement. If the upper body is moving too much or if it is unstable or too tight there is energy being wasted in unessential movement. Any unessential movement contributes to a decrease in forward velocity.
- A powerful arm swing is essential to balance the power that is applied by the legs. As mentioned, sprinting is a whole body activity, therefore the upper body is involved to a large degree. Arms should be bent at about 90 degrees, or slightly straighter. They should be swung in a straight front to back motion with reduced sideways movement, or flailing. The arms act as an opposing force on the hips, where the opposite arm and leg are forward at any one time. This allows the powerful transition from one stride to the next by helping to forcefully reverse the end of each stride to transition to a new stride.
- This final point on sprint biomechanics is a much argued one. To strike with the ball of the foot or the heel. Lets start by establishing the technical term for each style. A forefoot strike, where the toes are slightly pointed forward is known as plantar flexion, whereas a heel strike where the toes are pulled back is dorsi flexion. Science and physics would suggest, at first glance, that a dorsi flexed stride, or a heel strike, is more efficient than a plantar flexed one. Why does it look this way? Because during a dorsi flexed foot strike there is a continuous roll from heel to toe with almost zero absorption of the stride. Therefore promoting greater forward momentum. A plantar flexed foot strike has to first absorb the impact of the stride and then react against it to perform the next stride. However Unleashed Training promotes a plantar flexed foot strike. Why? When the foot lands in a plantar flexed position it indeed does need to absorb impact. It then needs to react against it with a concentric contraction, propelling the body forwards. However this results in a spring-like effect as a result of the stretch-shortening cycle, where the muscle that has just absorbed the impact is temporarily primed for a more forceful muscle contraction. So essentially each stride becomes a spring effect, like pulling back a rubber band and letting it go. In addition to that, science has shown that in bipedal sprinters, meaning those with two legs (that includes you, human) the shorter the ground contact time of each foot during a stride the faster the athlete moves forward.
Flexibility is an ambiguous and poorly understood and underused component of fitness, especially pertaining to sprint specific conditioning. Flexibility training exists as a means for a) enhancing performance and b) preventing injury.
It is common for many people to either over use or under use flexibility training. There are those that neglect flexibility altogether and pass it over in favour of strength or sprint training and there are the opposite that indiscriminately stretch all muscles. Neither of these extremes is effective and may also be counterproductive. Indeed flexibility is not as dominant as a component as other aspects. However it is still an essential physical attribute.
How does an increase in flexibility contribute to faster and more efficient sprinting?
Every time a muscle contracts it has an opposing muscle that limits the force of the contraction by performing its own contraction. For example, when a bicep contracts with a high level of force the opposing muscle, which is the tricep, will contract slightly and limit the potential force of the bicep. A lack of flexibility can cause this inhibitory response to become stronger, resulting in an inhibition of force production. Flexibility training essentially takes off the brakes and allows a joint to move through the desired range of motion without experiencing an inhibitory response. In addition to this inhibitory response, muscles simply can’t achieve a maximal muscle contraction through a complete range of motion for a given activity. For example, with tight hip flexors the stride becomes shorter, resulting in less forward velocity.
Don’t engage in flexibility training in a haphazard manner. In order to increase sprinting speed it is advised to perform at least a basic movement analysis. Analyse posture by standing front on, side on and with the back facing a mirror. If the shoulders are rolled forward the anterior muscles such as pectoralis major need lengthening, if shoulders are rolled rearwards the upper back needs lengthening. If hips are tilted upwards to the front it is likely tightness through the abdominals such as rectus abdominus, which means the muscles needs lengthening. Likewise, if there is a lordodic curve in the spine, meaning the arch in the lower to mid spine is too prominent, it is a product of tight hip flexors, and they need to be lengthened. These are a few examples of muscles that are tight and need lengthening. There are many more possible tightness issues. The trick is to identify tight muscles and stretch them, and to identify muscles that are too lax and focus more intently on strengthening them, without stretching them. For instance, if shoulders are rolled forward and it is found that pectoralis major is tight, not only does pectoralis major need to be stretched and lengthened through flexibility training, it is also likely that muscles in the upper back need to be strengthened in order to pull the shoulders back into alignment and balance out length and tension. This is a common issue seen in those that perform a lot of bench press and neglect upper back strength training.
Summary of Points Made
To finish off this guide to sprint training we will look at an overall summary from start to finish of what needs to occur to produce a faster sprinter, from beginner to elite. Lets look at it in terms of steps or stages. For the purposes of this article we are speaking in broad terms, this is not intended to be a comprehensive and specific programme within itself, it is intended to be a guide towards understanding the steps and stages involved in building sprint performance.
Step one spans the foundational phase. During this phase you will need to include the following…
- Establishing correct technique for all strength exercises used. It is recommended at the beginning of this phase that basic compound power lifting movements be used in a progressive manner. This includes squats, deadlifts, barbell rows, pull-ups, standing military press, bench press and lunges. Towards the end of the foundational phase you can start learning the correct technique for more complex movements such as single leg deadlifts, cleans and overhead squats. Throughout this phase, once correct technique is developed, the athlete should progressively increase strength in the five repetition range and gradually work towards 3-2-1 reps.
- Establishing correct sprinting technique over 25-50 metres at a percentage of about 90-95% of maximum pace. This means learning to sprint with correct biomechanics at nearly full pace, but leaving a little speed in the tank, not quite maxing out.
- Small amounts of power training in the form of plyometrics and non-plyometric jumping exercises.
- Perform at least a basic movement analysis and work out where you have tight muscles that need to be stretched and where you have lax muscles that need to be strengthened and tightened. Establish a flexibility routine. Keep in mind that no static flexibility exercises should be performed before sprint training activities. It is recommended to warm up with basic range of motion training and dynamic stretching. After training the athlete will perform static flexibility exercises to lengthen tight muscles and restore some balance.
- Based on the above points, create a training programme of 3-4 days of strength training and two sprint sessions per week. Start with low volume, gradually increase volume and peak in the middle. From there take a small period of rest and recovery and then start from low volume again within a lower rep range than before. So after your mid-cycle rest period you will switch from training for five reps to three.
Some points to note on strength training during the first phase
- Stick with basic power lifting movements, keep it simple, maintain about 90% intensity, never quite maxing out.
- For the first few weeks it is acceptable to feel sore from training strength work. However after a period of about three weeks, training in the desire rep range of five should not result in next day soreness. Remember, the goal is strength and not hypertrophy. You will gain some muscle size here, but it is not the mass amount of bulk to be expected from a bodybuilding programme.
- Take a week off from your normal programme every 5-6 weeks and do a week of lighter training, just going through the motions.
Some points to note on sprint training during the first phase
- Begin with sessions at about 80% of max for the first two weeks. After that increase to 90-95% of max pace. During the foundational phase you will not need to sprint any faster than that.
- Keep volume low and sprint distances short. Keep the sprint distances to between 25-50m, no more, no less.
- Volume for each session should be about 6-9 sprints, with rests of 60-90 seconds between sprint efforts.
- Put major emphasis on biomechanics, meaning sprinting technique. Refer back to the biomechanics section of this guide for points to note. Make a conscious effort to perfect these things.
- Keep it simple. There is no need here to do assisted or resisted sprint efforts. Keep all sprint training to flat ground, either on a grass sports field or a sprinting track.
Some points to note on power training
- Power training at this stage is of less importance than other components. Both strength training and sprint training combined will provide power gains sufficient for building a foundation.
- Keep power training basic. There is no need for depth jumps or single leg bounding just yet. During this stage just stick to basic squat jumps and scissor jumps.
- Perform plyometrics training for only a few sets 2-3 times per week, either interspersed throughout strength sessions, sprint sessions or both.
- Limit reps per set to between 3-6.
Some points to note on flexibility training
- It is during this initial phase of training that you will identify areas that need to be lengthened. Make a thorough analysis and take the time to do so properly during this phase. Correcting imbalances of both strength and flexibility in the early stages will allow for a stronger compounding effect throughout each phase of training.
- Establish a flexibility routine that spans from the beginning of a session to the end and during non-training periods.
- Remember, only dynamic flexibility should be applied prior to sessions, never static. After sessions and during periods of inactivity is when static and PNF stretching should take place.
Step two in sprint training mastery is the developmental phase. This is the driving phase of sprint training. It is here that maximum intensities are applied and where an athlete goes from basics to impressive speed. From the start of the first developmental phase until the end it is expected that sprinting speed will improve quite significantly. By the end of the developmental phase it is expected that the athlete is reaching sprint times over required distances that are reaching close to their overall potential. For instance, an athlete with the potential to sprint 40 yards in 4.20 seconds might start the developmental phase running a 5.60 and finish this phase running a 4.50.
Some overall points for this phase…
- By the time an athlete starts this phase they should have established a solid foundation of strength, effective sprint biomechanics and a base level of power and speed.
- It is here that strength should be built from foundational up to significantly high. The focus is on relative strength, meaning that the athlete should be lifting a high percentage of their own body weight on major lifts. Some example targets would be squat double body weight, deadlift double body weight, bench press body weight, standing military press 75% of body weight. This should be the aim towards the end of the first developmental phase.
- Here it is recommended that more complex and specific movements be introduced in the weight room. This includes Olympic cleans, single leg deadlifts and overhead squats. These should be mastered and built.
- Sprint sessions here are performed to a maximum pace. Biomechanics should still be a big focus, however here it will be applied to 100% max pace sprints. Here the athlete should introduce drills such as hill sprints, downhill sprints, sled sprints etc.
- During the developmental phase the athlete should focus on building speed first. Without speed you cannot achieve speed endurance. What this means is that sprint intervals should go short to long. In the beginning the athlete will perform short sprint efforts ranging from 10m starts to a maximum of 70m at full pace and all distances in between. As the phase goes on the athlete will introduce sprint efforts of maximum pace that range from 100m to 200m, but no further. This can also include fly-in sprints, where the athlete will start at a slower pace and gradually increase speed over 50m until they reach maximum pace for the last 30m.
- Power training during this phase should increase in dominance. Here the athlete will perform plyometrics at least three times per week.
Some points to note on strength training
- Aim to build power lifting and other compound movements to an advanced level.
- Train in waves, working from five reps down to one rep and back up again every few weeks.
- Start the phase learning additional movements such as cleans, single leg deadlifts and overhead squats. By the end of the phase these movements should be mastered and should be performed at a high percentage of the athlete’s body weight.
- Strength training should be performed for a minimum of three times per week and a maximum of five times per week during this phase.
- Keep volume moderate and ensure that strength training never interferes with sprint training. The primary goal of the training is faster sprinting speed, keep that in mind.
Some points to note on sprint training
- Sprint training should be performed at 100% maximum pace during this phase. There should be an emphasis on the finer points of biomechanics during each 100% effort. Things like developing a forceful foot strike, longer stride and powerful arm swing. Sprint training
- Sprint efforts should be increased in volume per session to a total of 10-12 sprint efforts when performing short sprints of 10m to 50m, 7-9 sprint efforts when performing sessions of mid-distance sprints such as 50m to 100m and 1-5 sprint efforts when sprinting speed endurance efforts ranging between 100m to 200m.
- Rest periods need to managed but do not need to be exact. For 10m to 25m sprints rests can be kept to 30-45 seconds. Sprints of 25m to 50m require a rest of 60-90 seconds and sprints beyond 70m require rest periods of 90 seconds up to three minutes.
Some points to note on power training
- It is here the athlete will develop a significant level of muscular power. Plyometrics and explosive strength training should be dominant factors during the developmental phase of training.
- Plyometrics exercises can be performed 3-4 times per week. It is recommended that plyometrics exercises are interspersed between sets of strength exercises and sprint effort during the respective sessions for each. Ensure that this is factored into rest periods.
- Keep plyometrics sets to a rep range of 1-7.
- Introduce more advanced plyometrics movements such as single leg bounding and depth jumps. However maintain the basic plyometrics exercises from the foundational phase. Sprint training
- Power here should also be a big focus of the strength sessions. All compound strength exercises should be performed explosively while maintaining a heavy load. In addition to that, exercises that are innately explosive will be used such as cleans.
Some points to note on flexibility training
- By this stage it should be well established which areas are tight and which do not need flexibility training. These imbalances and tight spots should be mostly rectified by now, with only small adjustments being made and the focus being primarily on maintenance. Sprint training
- Ensure both the hip flexors and the hamstrings sustain a high level of flexibility to ensure maximum freedom of movement during each long sprinting stride. Sprint training
By now the athlete is at a level that is close to elite if this is their first time through the preparation phase. If this is not the athlete’s first preparation phase, and if the athlete is experienced, then it is by the end of the developmental phase that the athlete will make the most gains in speed. An elite sprinter should get slightly faster every time they go through each phae and end up back at the start. The preparation phase is where final touches are made and the emphasis is on the actual sprint training, with a reduction in volume of strength training.
Some overall points for this phase…
- By this phase the athlete really should have reached about 95% of their full potential for speed. The preparation phase of sprint training exists to milk out that last 5%, or at least to try and get to 99% of the athletes overall speed potential.
- Biomechanics should be the main focus of all sprint sessions for at least the first week. The first week acts as a recovery period. Each week thereafter will increase in volume and/or intensity.
- The preparation phase is generally the phase that is performed leading up to a major competition. This applies to track sprinters. For athletes such as American football players, this phase can fall anywhere towards the end of a season, preferably towards more important end of season games such as finals. Sprint training
- This phase is shorter than the other two, spanning anywhere from four weeks to six weeks, and never longer than eight weeks as an absolute maximum.
- Sprint training is the dominant focus during this phase, whereas strength and power training are scaled back to a maintenance level. It is important not to lose strength and power during this phase, but the goal is not to increase it. Sprint training
- To reinforce the point, this phase exists to put the icing on the cake, to get that last 5% of potential speed and actualise it.
- Volume during this phase will start low, with the first week being a recovery week, with the focus on technique and biomechanics. Volume and intensity will peak a little over halfway through the phase. Then volume and intensity gradually declines over the last 20-30% of the phase. Sprint training
- By the end of the preparation phase the athlete will likely hit a plateau. After this phase is complete it is recommended the athlete take some time to rest. At least 10 days of rest is recommended with a maximum rest of up to 21 days. During this rest period the athlete should perform little to no training at all.
Putting the Phases Together
This sprint training guide is here as a helpful tool. Obviously, everyone reading and using this guide is going to be from a different background. This means each athlete using this guide will be of a different level of experience and will be using it for a different purpose. This guide is suitable for the following…
- Beginner all the way to elite level athlete.
- Track sprinters, where sprinting speed is the primary focus of training.
- Team sport athletes that require increased sprinting speed a part of their overall performance training.
- Individual, non-athletes. In other words members of the general population that are using sprint training and all its supporting components as a means for increased health and fitness. That includes the average Joe working an average job, military personnel, law enforcement, fire brigade etc.
With these points in mind programming must be structured accordingly. For a track sprinter the points raised in this sprint training guide can be followed specifically without consideration of other factors and other training to develop different components. The track sprinter is unrestricted and can dedicate all their effort towards faster sprinting times. A team sport athlete and any athlete other than a track sprinter will need to factor in the phases, techniques and points made to fit with other components of training required of their sport. For the individual, non-athlete, factors to consider are less limited and need to take into consideration health goals and other lifestyle factors.
Use this sprint training guide intelligently and programme according to level of experience and goals and needs.
The phases included here are used as a guide and will need to be lengthened or condensed to meet the specific needs of the athlete. Each of these phases are repeatable, meaning that no one will ever just perform the foundational phase just once. Each phase is important to factor into training and must come around as a natural part of an overall training cycle.
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YOUR COACH – Chris Lyons
Chris Lyons is an experienced strength and conditioning coach, having trained athletes of all ages and levels since 2002. Chris specialises in coaching athletes for speed and power specific to fast-moving sports such as rugby league, rugby union, soccer, Aussie rules football etc. Since 2002 Chris has conducted close to 15,000 hours of training and coaching directly with athletes and members of the general population. From this experience comes Sprint Ninja, based on tried and tested training methods combined with up to date research. Chris continues to challenge himself not only as a coach, but also as an athlete, competing in sprinting events, strongman and Olympic-style weightlifting.