Sprinting Tips from Olympic Gold Medalist Michael Johnson
One thing that might be slowing you down is your sprinting technique. We see it all the time. Athletes don't learn sprinting fundamentals early in their development, and despite their best efforts, they look like they're running in sand.
Poor technique saps the power from your stride, even though you worked hard for it in the gym. Other form issues can cause you to waste energy and even result in a slowing motion, which literally puts on the brakes while you sprint.
Fortunately, Michael Johnson, owner of Michael Johnson Performance and four-time Olympic gold medalist sprinter, shares a few tips that will help you learn proper sprinting technique.
Below, Johnson provides form tips for the 40-Yard Dash. Although they are geared to a specific test, learning and practicing the 40 will reinforce your technique when accelerating and sprinting at full speed. Better yet, you can repeat it over and over, which is critical for training your mind and muscles to always execute perfect technique.
Starting Stance for the 40-Yard Dash
According to Johnson, the starting stance is the single most important aspect of the 40-Yard Dash. You won't necessarily be in a three-point stance during a game, but it teaches important fundamentals, such as a body angle and arm position.
Get into your stance quickly with minimal energy expenditure
The process of moving into your starting stance optimizes power. By setting up your feet and working your hands back in the stance, you create tension in your muscles, which helps them explode more powerfully out of the stance. The process should be as fast and efficient as possible. The 40-Yard Dash requires all your available energy, so you need to convert as much as you can. The only way to get better at moving into your stance is through practice.
Form a deep forward angle with your front shin
According to Johnson, the angle of your shin dictates where you're going. If your shin angle is too high, approaching vertical, your body will be in position to create vertical power for a jump, not a sprint. Since you're driving forward out of the start, your shin angle should be the same as you want it to be when you exit the start—approximately 45 degrees. With this shin angle, you'll put more power into the ground to propel you out of the start.
Position your weight forward onto your front arm
Sitting your weight back over your feet feels comfortable. However, Johnson says you should actually shift your weight forward over your hand. It's not as comfortable, and you may feel like you're about to fall forward, but that's the intention. In this position, your momentum is already going forward, creating a faster and more fluid start.
Cock your opposite arm back until your hand is at your hip
Often you'll see athletes in their starting stance with their free arm up and over their backs. Johnson instructs his athletes to cock their arm back so their hand is at their hip. His reasoning is that the goal is to go forward. The faster you can punch that arm forward, the more power you'll be able to produce in the direction you want to go.
The Drive Phase covers the first 10 yards of the 40. It's similar to the technique you use when accelerating out of any starting stance, designed to help you explosively accelerate to top speed.
Keep your left foot engaged with the turf to set up a powerful first step
If you have a weak grip on the turf with your lead leg, you won't be able to produce max force into the ground. Two important factors here: first and most obvious, wear proper footwear so you don't slip; second, keep tension in your left foot and ankle. Imagine you are gripping the ground with your foot so every ounce of power you produce goes right into the ground.
Drive your legs back into the ground and don't start running
This might be the most important aspect of the start. When you start, your body is at a forward angle as you shoot out of your stance into a sprint. During this time, your legs must push opposite to the direction you want to go. That means you're pumping your legs back into the ground, almost as if they are pistons, which is completely different from the form you use when sprinting at full speed.
Maintain a forward body angle and keep your body in a straight line
Your body angle determines the effectiveness of your leg drive. To create max power, you need a forward body angle of around 45 degrees so you can drive your legs back into the ground. If you pop up too fast, you will start running and sacrifice critical power. Also, it's important to keep your eyes focused on the ground and maintain a straight line from head to toe. This eliminates the chance of posture problems or poor movement that can reduce your power output.
Use an exaggerated arm drive
It might seem odd, but arm drive plays a critical role in stride power. A strong and exaggerated arm drive during the drive phase helps create a powerful leg drive and generates forward momentum. Pump your hands from your chin level to your hip by rotating through your shoulders.
Transition Phase and Finish
This is when you transition from the drive phase to an upright position and sprint at full speed.
Begin the transition from the drive phase to maximum velocity at 10 to 15 yards
The drive phase gets you up to speed. Only then—at about 10-15 yards—should you start running. This transition occurs gradually while you cover 10 or 12 yards from the forward lean of the drive phase to the upright position needed to sprint at full speed. At this point, start to claw backward with your front foot rather than driving your feet back into the ground.
Gradually raise your eye level until you're looking straight ahead
The transition to an upright position is fluid and gradual. Never jerk your head up. Johnson's simple cue is to raise your eye level from the ground to straight ahead, and this automatically brings you into an upright position.
Run through the finish line
This may seem obvious, but Johnson reminds athletes to sprint through the finish line. Why? Too many athletes ease up early, sacrificing critical time. In your game, you may not be running through a finish line, but it's important to move at top speed to wherever you need to go on the field.