Although sprinting is just one of the countless skills needed to be successful in sports, many games are won or lost by a single stride. Equally important is an athlete’s sprinting endurance, or his or her ability to maintain top speed both on a lone breakaway and throughout the duration of a game. If you can accelerate rapidly to a high speed but get winded after one or two sprints, your value in the game diminishes when effort is required the most. To increase your effectiveness throughout the game, your training must include strategies to enhance both your running speed and longevity.
Many athletes have dedicated major portions of their careers to training speed and running endurance without getting the results they deserve. The problem lies in attacking your training from only one angle instead of using a multifaceted approach to further enhance strengths while targeting weak areas. To simplify, I’ve broken down sprint speed and sprint endurance into three distinct components each.
For improved top speed and longer time on the field, make sure your workouts include all six training methods.
Form and Technique
Body position is a crucial component of both running faster and longer, but there are marked differences between acceleration and top-speed mechanics. When building up to your fastest speed, the goal is to generate great force in little time and to angle your body for optimal force application.
Proper acceleration mechanics are characterized by a 45-degree forward lean of the entire body (shoulders to heel); triple extension at the hip, knee and ankle of the stance leg; the leg, hip and knee of the drive leg flexed to 90 degrees; and the ankle of the drive leg dorsiflexed (toes pulled up) for optimal muscle activation and greatest potential energy. The arms should produce a powerful driving force to transfer energy between the upper and lower body, while balancing equal and opposite motions to reduce rotation. Generally, the elbows should remain near 90 degrees, with the rotation coming from the shoulder in a single plane and the hands controlled but not tense.
In this phase of running athletes should focus on a rapid “punching” motion of the legs while progressing to optimal stride length and maximum stride frequency. They should avoid frontside mechanics, or stepping in front of the hips, creating braking forces, and should maintain positive (forward) shin angles as they progress to an upright position.
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To improve speed mechanics, introduce exercises that mimic components of proper form to ingrain proper muscle firing patterns and corrective exercises for both stability and mobility.
Lean and Go
Band-Resisted Knee Drive
Maybe technique is not your problem and you simply need more force production to increase your speed. Resistance training for speed involves training the muscles used to generate speed in a manner that stimulates fast-twitch muscle fibers and provides stability at the base. Adding resistance to the muscles enables them to generate more force when accomplishing the same task. Resistance training programs for speed development should include functional exercises that strengthen the posterior chain (glutes, hamstrings, calves) and knee extensors (quadriceps) in a tempo that promotes fast firing and quick recovery.
Stability exercises should target activation of the muscles around the hips to establish a solid foundation for the “drive” muscles to push from, and core exercises that focus on transfer of energy, anti-rotation and anti-extension for decreased energy loss during sprinting.
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Consider a combination of single-leg resistance exercises to address the unilateral aspects of running; power transfer exercises; and hip extension patterns to strengthen the individual components of speed for a faster sprint.
Landmine Squat to Press
RFE Split-Squat Jump
Power is a combination of force and speed. In addition to improving the force your muscles can produce, you must also increase your muscle firing rate within proper movement patterns.
Your muscles are programmed to fire at a certain rate based on your level of training and ratios of fast-twich and slow-twitch muscles. If I told you to run faster than you can, you would sprint with a high level of intensity, but it is very difficult to push yourself outside your comfort zone on a regular sprint.
To improve stride frequency, or foot contacts per second, add training variables to your sprints that trick your muscles into firing faster and pushing you outside your comfort zone, until you adopt the new firing rate as your natural top speed.
Increase your turnover rate with exercises that force you to get your feet down faster and provide assistance in the direction of your sprint.
RELATED: Resisted Overspeed Runs
Bungee Assisted Overspeed
*Downhill Sprints can provide a similar overspeed effect
Treadmill Punch to Sprint
Form and Technique
As discussed previously, full speed sprint mechanics differ from those of pure acceleration. Once you reach top speed, your goals shift from force generation to maintenance of momentum, movement efficiency and reducing energy loss. To accomplish this, your legs take on a more cyclical role, and your body line should have progressed to an upright/slight forward lean position. While your arms maintain characteristics similar to the pure acceleration phase, your footstrike shifts closer to under the hips, and a more marked heel recovery phase is added after ground contact to tuck the heel in towards the hips for a faster return to the blocked knee position.
The legs go through three distinct phases—knee drive, footstrike and heel recovery—as the upper body works to transfer energy efficiently and minimize rotation. Any inefficiency in movement will result in loss of energy and early fatigue.
To improve top-speed mechanics, use exercises that emphasize all three phases in the leg cycle while eliminating movement deficits for a more efficient stride.
Fly-in Variations: High Knees, Straight Leg Sprint, Buttkicks
Hip Flexion/Knee Flexion Mobility Work
Although similar exercises can be used to train sprinting stamina, the goals should now include preventing early muscle fatigue and strengthening against torso rotation. These exercises can generally be performed toward the latter half of a workout, as they employ lighter weights for rapid contraction and elastic energy and higher reps to push muscle fatigue. The use of weight vests, or various free weights, can be useful to train muscle stamina throughout a sprint, since they allow for more freedom of movement than most machines. This will help keep accessory stabilizer muscles engaged throughout the game and reduce loss of efficiency.
Use a combination of finishers, complexes and high-rep exercises in functional patterns that challenge muscle endurance while maintaining fast muscle contraction velocity as well as exercises that challenge you to resist rotational forces around the torso.
Weight Vest Squat Jump/Split-Squat Jump Complex (Add Sprint Out)
DB Lateral Step Ups
Improving cardio is probably the most common technique used to train longevity on the field. The issue lies in how this is trained. Countless anaerobic athletes returning for the pre-season are tasked with “conditioning” tests of running 3-5 miles. Think about the intensity of movement that occurs in your sport. How many seconds do you spend jogging, sprinting or standing still?
To condition effectively, we break these times down into work-to-rest ratios for each sport, position and even playing style. For example, if an athlete spends 30 seconds at a full sprint and 30 seconds at a light jog, his or her conditioning program should consist of a 1:1 work-to-rest ratio, in which the athlete performs intervals of intense exercise (in a similar cardiac zone as a full sprint) followed by periods of less intense exercise. To get more specific, you can use a heart rate monitor to match an exercise intensity to the intensity of your sport. While conditioning can be a daunting task, it doesn’t have to be a completely separate component of your training.
Many of the exercises for running form and technique, and even resistance training, can be performed with various intensities and time ratios to elevate the heart rate and push your ability to recover between sets.
Most exercises can be turned into cardio, but full-body exercises and techniques that challenge the muscles required for breathing can help you run longer in both a single sprint and throughout the game.