Speed & Agility Training Zone!

3 Steps to Coach for Absolute Speed

By Nick Winkelman, EXOS

Part of the EXOS Speed, Agility & Acceleration Series

Absolute speed, which represents the running technique needed to sustain a constant speed over a given distance, is one of the most fundamental movement skills needed for sport and life. While the maximal velocity a person can achieve is limited by genetics, and not nearly as fast as our four-legged counterparts, we still have the ability to improve both speed and efficiency over short (100 meter) and long (5K) distances. The key is to understand the technique that allows us to optimize efficiency, identify the most common errors associated with absolute speed, and deliver the cues needed to correct those errors.

In our last article we discussed acceleration, which is characterized by an aggressive lean, piston-like leg action, and an intent to reach maximal velocity as fast and efficiently as possible. Depending on the sport, athletes will accelerate between zero and 20 yards before transitioning into a more upright or vertical position. It's this vertical position that marks the start of the absolute speed phase. For a 100-meter sprinter this absolute speed phase will last a few seconds, but if you're a marathon runner, it could last hours. The technique we discuss below will generally apply to those that need to run fast over short distances (less than 100 meters) and those that need to run slow over longer distances (more than 100 meters).

Technical

Our goal with absolute speed is to synchronize front and back side leg action with arm action in an effort to maximize the peak hip flexion (80 degrees) achieved in the front leg. (Note that slower speeds require less relative hip flexion.) We want the athlete to contact the ground as close to the center of mass as possible in an effort to minimize breaking forces and maximize the right balance of vertical and horizontal forces.

To achieve the technical goal described above, it's important for the athlete to focus on driving the leg down and back, which minimizes the unwanted reaching and pulling motion notoriously connected to hamstring injuries. Similarly, we want the athlete to focus on driving their heel up and forward under their hip the second their foot leaves the ground. This minimizes "butt kicking" and promotes the triple-flexed position needed to maximize force on the subsequent step. Collectively, this upward and downward emphasis, when coupled with the momentum of the body, allows for an efficient cyclical leg action.

Finally, by using their arms and shoulders effectively, the athlete creates and "recycles" more energy. They do this by relaxing the shoulders and keeping their arms bent at roughly 90 degrees, as if their hands were constantly going from their back pockets to their nose. With their elbows driving back and forth along their torso, their chest and the front of their shoulders and torso can stretch. Their elbows naturally will snap back to the front of their body, creating an efficient pendulum like motion.

Errors

While there are many errors that can emerge when we talk about absolute speed, we'll highlight and prioritize the dominant four.

1. Posture (pillar)
With posture/pillar, athletes stay low for too long, producing too much trunk flexion and/or rotation. Sometimes they're flexed because they lack strength, or they're pushed forward because they think the falling forward position is the optimal movement. Whatever the cause, errors within the pillar need to be addressed first, as they influence the next errors.

2. Front side leg action
With front side leg action, we see a tendency for delayed leg recovery, which is seen in "butt kicking" movements. Rather than a cyclical movement, the legs are kicking the butt, which some athletes have been incorrectly taught and/or have come to believe is the desired movement. This error is further perpetuated if the ankle is plantar flexed during recovery rather than the desired dorsiflexed position. (This is analogous to trying to perform a leg curl with the toes pointed, which isn't efficient, fast, or comfortable.) This delay in leg recovery will lead to inadequate hip flexion (less than 80 degrees), which creates a scenario where the athlete can't produce the necessary downward force during back side leg action.

3. Back side leg action
The error here comes from the foot striking the ground too far in front of the body. The athlete should focus on driving down and back as opposed to reaching and clawing the ground, as this will increase their risk of a hamstring strain. While a delay in leg recovery is often the cause, as noted in the previous section, there are many instances where this reaching motion emerges due to a lack of specific strength in the trunk, hamstrings, and glutes.

4. Ground contact
In addition to striking down and back, if you observe the athlete consistently "sitting" or "sinking" as they strike the ground, this is a telltale sign that they may lack the strength needed to translate the force from the hips — via the foot and ankle — to the ground. Specific plyometric, marching, and skipping drills are often required to correct this error, and won't be easily remedied with verbal cues.

Correction

Here we look at corrective coaching cues for each of the prioritized errors. While we emphasize coaching cues, it helps to consider the physical qualities (e.g., mobility, stability, and strength) that could potentially correct the error. Use teaching drills (e.g., marching, skipping, step-over drills, etc.) that can help the athlete understand the concept and correct the errors.

1. Posture (pillar)
With posture, we want the athlete to focus on staying tall. Use the following cues to reinforce this concept:

a. "Stand tall."
b. "Lean into the wind."
c. "Drive the belt buckle forward."

2. Front side leg action
With front side leg action, we want the athlete to focus on getting their hip into a triple-flexed position shortly after their foot leaves the ground. Use the following cues to reinforce this concept:

a. "High heels…step over a hurdle"
b. "Snap your shoelaces to the sky."
c. "Knees up…drive your knees to the sky as if to break through a pane of glass."

3. Back side leg action
With back side leg action, we want the athlete to focus on driving their leg down and through the ground, as if they were trying to push the ground away. Use the following cues to reinforce this concept:

a. "Drive down through the ground."
b. "Snap the ground away."
c. "Spin the earth."

4. Ground contact

a. "Fight gravity and stay tall."
b. "Drive off the ground like you're running on hot asphalt barefoot."
c. "Explode of the ground like your lower body is a stiff spring"

Summary

Collectively, this approach will help you get the most out of each athlete and put them on a path to optimize their absolute speed. Just like with acceleration, the TEC model for absolute speed is designed to help you observe, prioritize, and correct. In our next segment we'll start discussing multidirectional speed.

(February 2016)