The shortest distance between two points is a straight line, which is also usually the fastest route. According to Geoffrey H. G. Dyson, author of The Mechanics of Athletics, when you sprint, your running speed is the product of stride length and stride frequency. This article focuses on stride frequency: improving the recovery phase of leg action with a simple drill that can be incorporated into every training session.
Once the foot leaves the ground in full-speed sprinting, its ideal path is to recover in a fairly straight motion until it's under the knee. Often, athletes have a tendency to extend the motion so the foot cycles all the way behind the butt in a circular motion before continuing forward to the correct drive position below the knee. This slows the recovery phase and thus reduces stride frequency.
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In his book The Mechanics of Sprinting and Hurdling, Ralph V. Mann, Ph.D. states: "It is believed, and intuitively supported, that a sprinter should use their hip extensors to drive the body down the track during ground contact, [but] the data tell us otherwise. In fact, the best of the elite sprinters only emphasize leg extension for the first 25 percent of ground contact. [During] the last 75 percent of ground contact, the elite sprinter is actually using high levels of hip flexor activity to stop the backward rotation of the upper leg."
In Running: Biomechanics and Exercise Physiology in Practice, authors Frans Bosch and Ronald Klomp explain: "At the beginning of the next support phase, one must compensate for any rotation that has occurred, which will result in a decline in speed."
According to Dyson, "In sprinting, the accelerations of leg movement required for a striding pattern of four and a half to five times per second and for a powerful leg thrust, are possible only when the shoulders are kept steady about the trunk's longitudinal axis; because the trunk, with its great inertia, cannot twist and untwist with sufficient rapidity."
All of these experts agree on the same thing. Getting the back foot off the ground and forward quickly is critical to faster sprinting. Educating your body (and mind) to whip the foot off the ground quickly is difficult, but there is a way to cue it really quickly. Also, if you do the opposite of pulling your back leg off the floor quickly, you'll start to rotate your upper body.
A rolling upper body is a sign of slow sprinting. The arms, which counterbalance the leg movement, can mask the problem to some extent. This drill allows you and your coach to see this upper body movement.
The Pipe Drill
A few years ago, as a sprint coach, I became obsessed with improving backside mechanics—getting the back foot off the ground quickly and keeping the recovery foot low and flat, around knee-height. My athletes spent a day with Team GB Olympic Sprinter Craig Pickering, who gave us a great set of running drills to help improve it, but they still weren't enough. Later, an email conversation with U.S. Olympic Triple Jumper Kenta Bell led me to this drill, and I've never looked back.
As you can see in the video, the athlete runs with a length of pipe across his shoulders. The pipe can be any safe and light implement. I bought a 9-foot length of plastic 3-inch-diameter drainage pipe and cut it into 3-foot segments.
Initially, this drill should be done at low speed. It's best to start as low as 50% of full speed. Increase the speed as you master each phase. When running, hold the pipe lightly and do not to pull down on it.
As you run, aim to keep the pipe horizontal and prevent it from "rolling" in a rowing motion. The pipe should stay horizontal and perpendicular to the direction of the run. To achieve this, you need to control your deep abdominal and the dorsal muscles to prevent movement in your upper torso. You should "run tall."
Since there is no arm action to counteract your leg action, as your speed increases, your upper torso muscular control will be insufficient to prevent roll if the motion of your rear leg (i.e., your "backside mechanics") is too long. This will lead you naturally to try to shorten the backside, triggering hip flexor activity to stop the backward motion of your upper leg (as directed by Bosch and Klomp).
The drill makes it immediately obvious to a coach, without the need for slow motion video analysis, that your backside mechanics are too long. It is also simple for you to self-coach. Focusing on the pipe motion should be sufficient and visible for you to self-correct. In the video, which is slowed down for clarity, the athlete is running at around 80 percent of his maximum speed, and pipe movement is minimal.
How to Use the Pipe Drill
The Pipe Drill can be used as part of the physical preparation phase of every session that involves maximum velocity work. A typical session would be as follows:
- Initial warm-up (jogging and skipping) - 10 minutes
- Physical mobility (range of joint motion)- 10 minutes
- Physical preparation (sprint drills such as ankling and A-skips) - 10 minutes
- Pipe Runs (50, 60, 70 & of max 80% over 30m) - 5 minutes
- Maximum velocity running (Fly Sprints and running at maximum velocity between gates 20-30m apart)
- Cool down and stretching
The Pipe Drill can be used by a coach or an athlete to diagnose sprint frequency mechanics. It can immediately impact speed by increasing foot recovery motion. It will take time to become embedded permanently, but this drill can be easily included in every warm-up or physical preparation phase of a workout.
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