It's one of the most ubiquitous cues in sprinting, a go-to line for many coaches who think their athletes can run faster. Yet it often does more harm than good. Considering that cue is also a central tenet of many of the most popular sprinting drills, that's a big problem.
"Everything we hear, 'Run tall! You need to get your knees up. Run tall!" says Joel Smith, NCAA Division I Strength and Conditioning Coach, host of the Just Fly Performance Podcast and author of the book Speed Strength. "And everyone does it without even thinking about it."
"You have people do A-Skips and all that stuff, then you have them sprint as fast as they can, and it's totally different. It would be the exception for someone to sprint like they did their sprint drills, and if they did that, they usually weren't very fast."
Adarian Barr, a track coach and inventor based in Sacramento, California, was the first person to shift Smith's thinking on the matter. He pointed out how many common sprinting cues and drills may look relevant to speed at a glance, but when you really study the fastest people on the planet, they're usually breaking all these "rules."
"If you look at how elite sprinters operate, they actually are in fairly squatted positions. Not in terms of knee flexion, but in terms of hip flexion," Smith says. When athletes are told to "run tall," they often respond by increasing their hip extension and losing any forward lean of the torso.
"If you run tall, you're kind of like this long worm. There's not a lot of compression in the system," Smith says.
"When we really run tall, we tend to even screw up the torso and the head. The torso gets too vertical, and it's almost so vertical toward the sky that we're not even putting our chest in front of our center of mass at all, which is important for sprinting."
One drill Smith endorses that breaks the traditionalist mold? Squatty running. It basically entails running while maintaining an exaggerated squatted position, which can make you look a bit like a caveman fleeing from a woolly mammoth:
Odd as it may look, this unique drill trains many of the most important qualities of acceleration—qualities almost unanimously overlooked by traditional drills.
"It makes your body respond faster to the ground. Because if you run lower, the ground's going to come up faster on you. Your leg cycle through the air time is going to be less. So your body has to respond faster. The muscles have to respond faster. You have to compress more. You have to have more tension constantly running through the body," Smith says.
"You have to co-contract faster in squatty running, and that's also (specific) to high-speed running. All the sprint drills are pre-programmed, pre-positioned…There's no urgency within the body, there's very little compression. (They're) just not like running."
The key form points for a proper Squatty Run:
- Assume a long spine and push your chest slightly forward. Maintain this posture throughout the run. Smith says that quickly deteriorating posture is one of the most common Squatty Run mistakes. You want to run lower by flexing at the hip, not slouching your shoulders forward. "Posture is the cornerstone. If you don't have that, everything else gets compromised."
- Squat by shifting your hips down and back. The ultimate hip height you utilize is determinant upon a multitude of factors, but feel free to toy around with it until you find a sweet spot.
- Think about how the backwards pulling action of each arm helps lift that same-sided knee. This ipsilateral approach better taps into your elastic system than the conventional thinking of each forward arm swing corresponding with the opposite-side knee drive."It's basically an overspeed within the body, (so) it's about using those arms to get those knees back in front of you. It's not necessarily about knee height, but it's about the speed of the re-position."
- When it comes to sprinting, Smith believes many athletes could benefit from greater pronation. This doesn't mean running flat-footed, but it does mean you should feel your arches flatten for a split second before lifting your foot off the ground. "Pronate and be done with it, or flatten your arch and be done with it—meaning lift that foot again. If you spend longer on the ground than that, you're in trouble."
There are a million ways to integrate the move into your routine, but one method Smith recommends is transitioning directly from a Squatty Run into a normal sprint. So after 10-30 meters of squatty running, you'd shift into 10-30 meters of your natural running form.
"If you did 10, 20 meters of squatty running and then took that into a sprint vs. 10, 20 meters of super tall A-Skips and taking that into a sprint, I guarantee you'll feel better squatty running," Smith says. Performing it barefoot will offer superior feedback when it comes to gauging your pronation, but it's not a requirement.
You can also perform the Squatty Run as a standalone drill, and you can really make the distance as long as you'd like. Although a 60-meter run is more standard, Smith will sometimes have his athletes perform a 400-meter Squatty Run as a finisher.
Additionally, don't be afraid to experiment with your hip height. One "a-ha moment" for Smith came when he decided to perform several wicket runs in a row, progressively lowering his hips on each subsequent attempt. He was amazed to find how powerful he felt in a position where his hips were much lower than he'd become accustomed to.
"This mode is superior (to many traditional drills) for developing some of the qualities we're trying to develop," Smith says. "It's a good tool."
Photo Credit: Yuri Arcurs/iStock
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