Get after balls and be the guy who makes the opposing goalie wish his parents hadn’t come to watch him play. University of New Mexico Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coordinator Aaron Day explains how he helped the Lobos fly past defenders to get to the finals in the 2005 NCAA College Cup.
By Josh Staph
“Offensive speed changes games, especially when you have the ability to go up top on a team,” Day says. “A guy who makes one-on-one plays and outruns people can really do some damage; he wreaks havoc on defenses and forces defenders to make mistakes.”
The Lobos, particularly sophomore forward Blake Danaher, have mastered the art of applying pressure on opponents. About Danaher, Day says, “This guy creates chaos for defenders when he makes a run for the ball. He had a couple of game-winning goals last year where opposing defenders actually feared him. Goalies would bobble balls right back to him when they saw him run past defenders and head their way.”
The result of this offensive speed? The best record in the nation (17-1-2) in 2004 and a spot in the finals of the 2005 NCAA Tournament.
The Lobos’ success begins with the basics. Day says, “I start with the mechanics, working to get rid of bad habits. I want to teach them how to run with proper form and how to use their bodies correctly. It’s simple: the more efficiently you run, the faster you are.”
The Lobos practice proper mechanics with dynamic movements and then master them with heart-pumping speed endurance work. Put Day’s philosophy into practice to get your mechanics down and goal tally up.
MECHANICS IN MIND
“Soccer players are notorious for having bad upper body mechanics,” Day says. “It probably comes from trying to hold people off the ball or keeping others at bay to avoid contact. They need to do that sometimes, but once they get up and run, they need to get away from it.”
The most common mechanical errors soccer players make, according to Day, are flaring out elbows and side-to-side arm movement. He explains, “This generates a lot of rotational force on the torso, which affects the lower body and slows you down.”
To counter these bad habits, Day stresses three elements: moving your arms from the shoulder joint, driving your elbows straight back and then straight forward, and keeping your arms from moving across your body. Day continues, “You don’t have to maintain 90-degree angles with your arms. I think that’s too rigid and it’s not how people normally run. Your arms shouldn’t flap around, but I don’t mind the elbows opening up a little bit on the way back or closing a bit on the way forward.”
Proper shin angle and an active ankle are two factors Day emphasizes for foot contact. He explains, “When you make foot contact, you need a shin angle that is going to push you forward, not brake you. You never want your foot out in front of your knee; that means you are overstriding. Keep your shin angled back to allow you to push forward.”
To move quickly off the ground, the Lobos maintain an active ankle with toes up—allowing the lower leg to work like a loaded spring. “The guys can’t have a lazy ankle with the toes pointing down,” Day says. “This improper foot angle forces them to catch and then push, instead of pushing off the ground as soon as the first contact occurs.”
Because certain areas of the body aren’t fully developed when you learn to run, you run only how your body allows, which is usually with heel-toe foot contact and a low, not fully extended posture. When you don’t fully extend, you rely heavily on your hamstrings instead of your more powerful glutes. “You need to be up tall and have good extension through the hips when your foot hits the ground so that you involve your glutes,” Day says. “Only then do you incorporate these powerful muscles into your running.”
According to Day, transitioning from the running posture you develop at an early age to a full extension isn’t innate. Some great athletes do it naturally; others have to focus on it.
Relaxed = Fast
Have you ever played a video game and rapidly pressed a button with your thumb? Then you know that when you tensed your thumb in an effort to press harder and faster, it moved more slowly and tired more quickly. Day says the same thing happens when you are running. “When you tighten up and try to run harder, your upper body tightens up causing your lower body to slow down,” he says. “You need to relax and let it flow. You still run hard, but you are relaxed.”
Lose the clenched jaw and tightened fists to relax your running form.
After focusing on proper running mechanics, the Lobos put all the elements together with sprint work. Their speed work has conditioning benefits because of the specifically timed rest Day uses. “Everything with soccer is about conditioning and being fit,” he says. “You might be able to run a 4.4 in the first minute, but if you are running a 4.8 in the 70th minute, people will be flying by you. Mechanics start breaking down if you aren’t fit, and your running becomes less efficient.”
The Lobos work mechanics through repetition by burning through the above linear speed progression once a week. Day allows a 2:1 rest to work recovery ratio after each sprint.
Although dynamic warm-up movements are designed primarily to prepare muscles for training or competition, they are also great for honing proper running mechanics. The Lobos warm up with 7-8 drills over a 20-yard distance before linear speed workouts. Throughout the drills, they focus on proper arm action, foot contact and shin angle, being quick off the ground, extending through the hips and relaxing the upper body.
These movements help make proper running technique second nature.
Butt Kick (Foot to Upper Hamstring)
High Knee Carioca
(Crossover With Trail Leg And Drive Off It With Proper Shin Angle)
Straight Leg March – Walking
Straight Leg Skip – Rapid Turnover