You’re only as strong as your weakest link. So goes the old cliché. But when the subject is speed, you’re only as fast as your slowest component.
Transferring power to change direction relies on the strength, flexibility and range of motion of the joints and muscles in your lower body, starting from the ground and working up.
An athlete’s hips are his powerhouse, and any weakness or energy leak through the kinetic chain results in a significant power outage. “If you don’t have stability of the joints located underneath the hips, you’re not going to be able to transfer force very well in order to change direction,” says Jason Riley, director of performance for the Athletes’ Compound at Saddlebrook in Tampa, Fla.
This concept starts before you even spring into movement. If you can’t get into an athletic position—weight on the balls of your feet, knees bent, hamstrings and quads activated, glutes loaded and butt sitting back—you’ll be unable to generate force to create speed in the direction you need to go, or to change direction.
An inability to assume proper athletic position can be attributed to a number of factors, including a limited range of motion in the ankles, knees and hips—all major contributors to quick cuts and direction changes. Limited range of motion prevents an athlete from being able to drop his hips to plant and change direction quickly and efficiently. Worse than inhibiting change of direction speed, it may also lead to knee and back injuries.
Generating more powerful and explosive movements depends on smooth synchronization of the motor units. Riley recommends addressing lower body imbalances with stability, strengthening and flexibility exercises, all geared to improving your ability to assume an athletic stance. He says, “If I can position athletes properly, they will optimize their muscle recruitment patterns, which will enhance their performance by making the movements more powerful and more explosive. It’s muscle memory.”
Improve hip mobility and stability for better cuts and faster changes of direction with the following exercises.
Med Ball Pick-Up
- Balance on left leg with right leg directly under right hip
- Without bending over, lower hips as far as flexibility allows
- Lift med ball off ground and drive up and out of squat
- Slowly lower med ball to ground; repeat for specified reps
- Perform on opposite leg
Sets/Reps: 2×10 each leg
Coaching Points: Don’t bend at waist to lift ball // Keep weight on heel of balancing foot // Start with large med ball and progress to smaller ball // Maintain balance // Don’t allow non-balancing leg to move in front, behind or to side of body
- Balancing on left leg, raise right leg to side of body
- Internally rotate right leg to step over hurdle
- Drive right foot to ground once ankle clears hurdle
- Bring left leg over hurdle
Sets/Reps: 2×6-8 each leg
Coaching Points: Keep knee and ankle parallel to ground when stepping // Maintain upright posture // Keep foot forward upon ground contact
Physioball Lunge With Rotation
- Step forward with right leg and lower into lunge
- With slight forward lean, drive left hand into physioball and push forward as far as possible
- Maintaining balance, slowly extend right arm toward sky
- Lower right hand to floor; repeat for specified reps
- Perform to opposite side
Sets/Reps: 2×6-8 each side
Coaching Points: Step out as far as possible // Create 90-degree angle with lunging knee // Keep back leg as straight as possible // When rotating, keep knee over front foot
Change Direction for Balanced Strength
When conditioning with 400s or 200s on a track, switch direction after each rep. Your leg and hip on the inside of the track experience a different load and cover a shorter distance than your outside leg and hip. Thus, always running in the same direction results in strength imbalances, whereas changing direction ensures equal development of both sides of your body.