Florida State University’s men’s track & field team is good. Really good. They won the 2005 ACC Outdoor Championship and finished fourth at the NCAA Outdoor Championships. Seminole Head Coach Bob Braman, who handles distance, and Assistant Coach Ken Harnden, who coaches sprints, gave us the lowdown on improving trackletes.
STACK: Is there a perfect running form or style every athlete should use?
Harnden: Every athlete is different. You don’t want to change or mold everyone’s form to be the same. You don’t want young athletes thinking, ‘Okay, I’ve got to look like Carl Lewis or I’ll never be fast.’
Braman: Our bodies make some sort of compensation for whatever natural running style we have. Some people have long legs, some have short legs and people have different arm swings. The only thing I’m concerned about is wasted energy. I look to make sure your form is not affecting your stride length, stride turnover, efficiency or body position. If it isn’t, I’m not concerned about form.
STACK: Can you cite some examples of great runners who had less-than-perfect form?
Braman: Bill Rogers is one of the great marathoners of our time. He has a funky little flip in his arm swing, but he’s very efficient with his stride length and frequency, turnover and position. His arm flip might be a compensation for long legs, short legs or a muscle imbalance. Mark Everett is another example. The former Olympic 800 runner had a really funky arm flip, but he was completely efficient from his waist down. So changing that guy’s form didn’t make sense. Another if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix it guy is Michael Johnson. He had a quicker turnover and shorter stride than most world-class sprinters, yet he’s still the world record holder in the 200 meters.
STACK: What are some key elements of form you look for?
Harnden: You want the foot strike to hit underneath you and behind if at all possible. That’s the biggest thing. If you strike the ground anywhere in front of you, you waste energy and cause yourself to slow down. My favorite thing to tell my athletes has to do with body alignment. I tell them, if my car breaks down tomorrow, and you help push it, you won’t push it standing straight up, because you don’t get any power that way. You push a car with a forward lean; your chest is in front of your hips and hips in front of your feet. It should be the same thing on the track.
STACK: What is the difference between a distance runner’s and sprinter’s foot strike?
Braman: A marathoner’s foot strike is similar to a hundred meter sprinter’s—both occur under the athlete’s center of gravity. However, distance runners are more of a heel-striking animal. And the real difference is in the stride length. Distance runners don’t want a long stride. They want faster frequency, because it’s not about power. Many distance runners are light, so they don’t have the power of a sprinter. I want them to conserve energy in their stride. The most efficient way to do that is use a quick turnover.
STACK: How does stride frequency relate to sprinting?
Harnden: If you turn over too much, you almost feel like you’re going to fall flat on your face. Speed is two things: stride frequency and stride length. They have to work in unison. When you initially come out of the blocks, stride frequency is very quick and stride length is fairly short. However, stride length increases and frequency decreases over the course of the race.
STACK: What drills do you use that don’t require extra equipment?
Harnden: During practice, we run on the lines, not in the lanes. Every track has lines, so you don’t have to buy anything. The drill teaches you to put one foot in front of the other. Some athletes come out of the blocks with their first step out to the right or left; it’s a very inefficient, zigzag approach. The fastest way to get from point A to point B is in a straight line. So to correct this problem, we do a lot of block work with sprinting on the line.
Braman: Every day, we do eight to 10 reps of 100 meter striders. It’s light running with an emphasis on staying on your toes and keeping your hips high with good body position. Ideally, we run these barefoot on the grass. They’re great if you have a nice soccer field or track infield. Striders flush the lactic acid out of the muscles. After an hour-long distance run, your muscles are short, and striders are a great way to stretch them out before calling it a day.
STACK: What’s a useful tip for a young track athlete?
Harnden: Get into as good a shape as possible. It is very difficult to work on the technical aspects of running without a coach; you really need another pair of eyes for that. But you can get into shape on your own. Speed endurance is also important. Running a fast 100 or 200 means being able to hold your speed for the entire race. That is much easier if you have speed endurance. Running sprints longer than your actual event distance helps develop speed endurance.
STACK: Should sprinters run distance and vice versa?
Harnden: My pure sprinters never run a 20- or 30-minute trail. They will tire quickly and consequently develop bad habits. My sprinters rarely run more than 300 meters at a time in a workout. I’ll also have them run stadium stairs and hills in the fall, but never distance runs.
Braman: I understand what coach Harnden is saying, particularly for a sprinter. If you watch a sprinter run distance, those guys are jamming their heel on the ground, not running fast and doing what we call slogging; they’re not running. Distance guys are a bit different. Instead of avoiding sprints, we work on them. Every race has a critical point when you’ve got to make a move; you’ve got to kick; you’ve got to surge; you’ve got to change your form, so you really drive your arms and get on your toes instead of your mid foot. To race well, distance runners need to know how to drive with some aggression. You can’t just roll through the finish line and say, “Hey, we’re beat.”
STACK: Are sprinters better at distance or are distance runners better at sprints?
Braman: I don’t know which is worse. Watching a true distance runner sprint can be ugly. But watching a sprinter run distance can look incredibly dysfunctional, too. What I do know, though, is that I need my distance runners to be more capable of sprinting than I need sprinters capable of running distance.
STACK: What problems can develop after training past the point of fatigue?
Harnden: You’re most vulnerable to developing bad tendencies when you’re fatigued. A sprinter would be dead tired after running a trail for six or seven minutes. Once he hits that point, he’ll probably do something to hurt himself. Whether it’s striking the foot incorrectly or landing flatfooted, nothing good comes from running fatigued.
Braman: Distance runners over-stride when they are fatigued. Without a strong abdomen you get tired, and you can’t keep your body high in a power position. This causes you to reach with your feet. Reaching causes you to start overstriding, which causes your foot to start hitting in front of your center of gravity. This causes you to break with every foot strike.
STACK: What do you do to keep training interesting?
Harnden: Sprinters tend to have short attention spans. As a sprinter, I did too; it was hard for me to concentrate in class and everywhere else. When I put my sprinters on the track, I want their attention focused on what they’re doing. So a lot of the drills I use are short and quick. We just repeat them over and over.
Braman: Running can’t always be work; it has to be play sometimes. Having them run in the woods keeps training fun and interesting. We’re the sport of work; whether its sprinting or distance running, we call it work. But there still needs to be a degree of fun, satisfaction and enjoyment from the actual training, not just the results you get when you race. No matter how hard it is, you have to have some level of excitement to get out there, even if it’s only the last five minutes of the workout.
If you’ve ever tried running barefoot, you know it makes sprinting easier. Running barefoot really encourages you to get up on your toes and get that push off. Heel-striking is much harder to do when you’re barefoot.
We always ran barefoot in the 70s when I was in high school, although no one explained why. But we did it, and our coach would say, “Hey, it’s better for you.”
Then a year ago, Nike came out with the Free. Nike brought a bunch of distance-oriented coaches from across the country to this distance summit. The Free designer went through the whole physiology behind the shoe. The general concept is to counter how shoes have made the foot weaker; the foot of today’s athlete has less push-off and less power. The Free provides a protective covering for the foot, but simulates being barefoot as much as possible.
Distance runners can’t run barefoot (or in that shoe) every day, but it’s good a few times a week. It helps develop a bit more power in your foot plant and push off. Barefoot running makes you do the work, rather than the shoe. – Bob Braman
I use a drill called 30-30-30. It has two variations, both of which require three cones set up 30 meters apart and a three-point starting stance.
In the first variation, we run the first and last 30 meters at a 75 percent speed, but sprint the middle 30 up out of a drive phase using a fast turnover. This works on the middle of the race, because too many athletes come out of the blocks with great turnover, but then get very long strides very early. So we work on that.
This variation works to restrict stride length and create a turnover effect. If you come out of the drive phase too early in the 100, you pop straight up and lengthen your stride, resulting in a loss of acceleration.
The other variation is to sprint for the first 30 meters, back off for the middle and then really sprint out at the end. This helps you get into a good sprint position, where you’re not overstriding, and develop a strong posture-maintaining turnover. It’s a delicate balance between strides that are too short and those that are too long. Both are a problem. —Ken Harnden