|- December 2000 -|
By Scott M. Phelps
Can we make people faster? The answer: Yes and no. Yes, because there are elements physically, such as refining running technique and increasing force application through strength training that can aid in generating greater speed. No, because genetically we are limited when we were conceived. Genetics, however, are a funny thing. How do we know if we have met our genetic potential? There is no measurement tool that say's you should be able to do this or that. Therefore how we train and how we are coached are the biggest factors that influence our athletic potential and success.
"Speed Training" is really movement training. It is learning how our bodies work and limiting restrictive forces. For example, when we want to run fast straight ahead we need to limit rotational motion that takes away from linear propulsion. In simple terms we want all of our body parts moving in the same direction. Think about driving a car and having the wheels turned to one side and trying to go in a straight line down the road. Obviously this would be ridiculous, but directing our bodies are no different. Another factor is eliminating wasted motions such as false steps and movements that do nothing but waste energy. In effect, by doing speed training you can improve movement speed, conserve energy, and increase overall longevity of performance.
Lets look at several movement skills that will help any athlete improve performance:
1. Posture - Good posture allows for greater transfer of force to the ground that helps to move the body in any direction. Newton's Third Law of motion says that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. This holds true here. As we apply force to the ground, the ground in effect pushes back. Final result is our body is projected according to the direction of force applied. Think of your body as a pogo stick. With the stick straight it bounces along with no problems. If we bend the pogo stick in the middle it's very difficult for the stick to work to it's maximum potential.
2. Step down to the ground - We should apply force away from the direction that we want to move. To move forward we push backward, backward we push forward, to go left we push right, and right we push left. A lot of coaches tell athletes to lift their knees when they run but they are missing half of the movement equation. Half of running is lifting the leg up the other half is stepping back down to the ground. Speed is a result of stepping down to the ground with greater force. I cue athletes by telling them simply "step down and push away."
3. Dorsiflex your ankle - This means to basically cock and load the ankle joint so it is ready to respond to the ground by only pushing against the ground. Technically as soon as the foot leaves the ground we want to focus on pulling the toes up toward the shin putting the ankle in a cocked position. We do not want the foot to absorb force at the ground; we want the ground to push back against the body. If athletes land with their toes hitting the ground first the foot acts as an absorbsion tool, not a projection tool. Another problem with the toe hitting first is the body is trying to move forward and the heel is moving backward so that when it is time for the ankle to push, the body is out of position and speed is sacrificed. If this is done correctly the ground becomes the triggering mechanism to tell the foot to push off the ground immediately upon contact, thus increasing force and speed.
4. Arms - Speaking specifically about linear speed, arms are critical for generating greater speed. Again we come back to Newton and his third law. The action of the arms is another misunderstood action. Many coaches teach a forward motion of arm swing when in effect it is the backward drive of the arms that will impact speed the greatest. As we concentrate on driving the elbows back, keeping the arms at a 90 degree angle, this is an action. The reaction of this is for the knee to come up in front of the body creating balance (one in back and one in front) the upward drive of the leg is also an action that enlists a reaction of greater force (with the other leg) going down to the ground. The culmination of this is physics at work. We have a summation of forces generated that results in greater force production and hopefully speed.
5. Knee-up Heel-up Toe-up - We need to shorten the leg to make it move faster. Physics tells us that a longer lever will move slower than a shorter lever. Applied to athletes this means by collapsing the leg completely we can increase the speed at which the leg can rotate into a power position to step down with greater force and generate greater speed. Knee-up means the hip needs to flex, rotating and lifting the knee to the front side of the body. Heel-up simply is to lift the heel to a position under the hamstring. Too many times athletes lift their heels back toward their butt and not up under the hamstring which again is a power position to step down to the ground. Toe-up is dorsiflexsion which we have already covered. The overall combination of these three can have a tremendous impact on an athlete's performance.
If athletes and coaches can apply these simple principles they should notice an improvement in speed and performance. As the world of sport continues to try to find new and exciting ways to train athletes sometimes the things that have the greatest impact are overlooked. Before purchasing lots of toys and gimmicks to make you better, try to understand how your body works to generate efficient and fast movements. After you apply those principles then look for other more creative ways to enhance performance. Train smart by learning, get stronger, practice skills remember: Perfect practice makes for perfect performance. But most of all have fun!
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