“No matter how strong or flexible you get, you’re going to run only as fast as your mechanics permit,” explains Dr. Gene Coleman, Houston Astros head strength and conditioning coach. “So, the first thing we start with is making sure our players have proper running mechanics.”
Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio, two of Coleman’s most successful trainees, prove the effect of solid mechanics. “Bagwell did not have a very good 60-yard time, and he wasn’t fast to first base,” Coleman says.. In fact, in his first two seasons, Bagwell only stole a total of 17 bases. But after working with Coleman on running fundamentals, he cut 0.02 of a second off his first 30 yards and another 0.02 off the second 30 yards. Although the numbers don’t seem significant, they result in reaching first base two feet faster, second base four feet faster and for seven consecutive seasons (1993-1999), more than 20 stolen bases a season.
Conversely, Biggio came to the league with already-developed speed. Coleman’s success was in helping the Astro maintain his speed. In the 2004 season, with 37 years and an ACL surgery under his belt, Biggio still made it from home to first on a bunt in less than four seconds.
Improving arm motion is key to improving running mechanics. According to Coleman, far too many athletes are undereducated on proper running form, estimating up to 90 percent of major league athletes have little or no coaching on proper running form. Testimony to this estimation is that when most athletes sprint, their arms move across their chest, which is a basic error.
Proper arm drive involves keeping arm movement in a straight line and to the respective side of the body—cheek-to-cheek as Coleman refers to this movement. When proper running form is executed, the right arm moves toward the right cheek and the left arm to the left cheek.
This drill helps develop proper running form. Coleman stresses to focus on cheek-to-cheek arm movement and not think about your legs for this exercise. Because arm and leg movement are naturally linked, increased arm movement speed drives the legs to speed up as well.
Arm runs move for a total of 90 yards. Lightly jog for the first 30 yards focusing only on proper movement. For the next 30 yards, increase your arm movement speed. For the final 30 yards, move your arms as quickly as possible running at 90 to 95 percent of your maximum speed. If done correctly, your stride length and rate will increase, which means your overall speed will increase.
Following each 90-yard run, walk back to the original starting line, and immediately perform the next repetition. The Astros perform this drill throughout the season. During the preseason, the Astros will perform five to six reps, but in the heart of the season, the team does two to three reps as a warm-up.
The following two drills work game-specific speed.
Breaks refers to making the break for second base. To start this drill, get in lead off position near first base. Turn toward second base by way of a hip turn, pivoting the feet and throwing your arms to transfer momentum. Next, crossover step with the left foot. Staying low, drive as hard as possible toward second for four to five steps.
Keys to performing this drill are a proper pivot and quick double pump of the arms, which gets them in sync with your legs following the pivot. Staying low at the start and accelerating as fast as possible are also crucial. Perform five to six repetitions each day. Use your walk back to the start line as rest between reps.
To modify the drill, simulate a throw back to first base. If close enough, reach back to first with your left foot. Then, assuming the ball is over-thrown, break for second; focus on the previously mentioned keys to the drill.
For another adaptation starting a bit further from first, use your right foot to get back to the base by turning and pivoting on the left foot. Again, after reaching back to first, assume the ball is overthrown and break for second. Add these drills to your speed workout, performing three reps of each variation.
Set-up three cones spanning a total distance of 10 yards; place one cone at the five-yard mark exactly between the other two cones. Start at the center cone in lead off position with your shoulders parallel to the line of the cones. Pivot and turn, running as fast as possible to the left-side cone. Run until you touch the cone; plant on your left foot; then sprint the full 10 yards to the furthest cone. Again, reach down and touch the cone, as you plant with your right foot. Sprint back through the center cone.
The key to this drill is crisp change of direction. Plant firmly and accelerate as fast as possible between the cones. The situation simulated by this drill is: taking a lead; running back to first on a throw back to the base; then breaking to second on an overthrow followed with a throw to second; then running out of a run down.
To modify this drill as the season approaches, make the distance of your first sprint back to first equal to the distance of your typical lead off position rather than the original five yards. This improves your timing in the move back to first base. Additionally, repeat the drill several times in a row to simulate a long run down. The Astros dedicate one day a week to this drill, and perform three to four reps using about 20 seconds rest.
Once the actual season begins, cut the amount of running depending on your playing time. If you’re a starter and play in every game, perform these speed drills two to three times a week. If days go by that you don’t see the field, perform these running drills every day between playing time. For more drills Coleman uses to fine tune the running mechanics of the Houston Astros, check out his book, 52-Week Baseball Training.