Out of the blue, I decided to pick up running again. I hadn't ran since stopping ballet and hesitated running for a while due to a hip impingement. Yet, as I sped up the treadmill at the gym, I had the sudden urge to run, to see what I was capable of doing and what I was capable of tolerating. I aimed to run a mile without stopping, which actually proved to be much easier than I thought it would be. Of course, doing HIIT workouts tends to lead to excellent cardiovascular conditioning. In any case, the running did not aggravate my hip impingement. In reality, I should have known it wouldn't, as there is no extreme hip flexion involved in running if you're doing it correctly. Yet, hip flexion was never the only thing that aggravated it. In fact, hip extension, the kind needed to elevate your leg to 90 degrees for an arabesque, would tighten my back up fast thanks to the improper positioning of my hip joint within the socket. So I did have reason to believe that running would cause some sort of aggravation from the constant pounding on a hard surface. However, I attribute the lack of aggravation to proper running biomechanics.
Running seems like it's such a simple movement; it's actually one of the more complicated movements of the human body because of the various phases your legs and arms go through to propel you forward, whether you're running a 5k or a 50 yd. dash. Proper running mechanics can make or a break a runner's chance at winning. For example, a lot of people have this misconception that if you move your feet faster while sprinting, you'll run faster. That isn't the case at all:
Sprint speed is determined by an athlete's stride length and stride rate;
more successful sprinters tend to have longer stride lengths as a result of properly
directed forces into the ground while also demonstrating a more frequent stride
rate. These findings such that RFD (rate of force development) and proper
biomechanics are two of the primary limiting factors influencing sprint
performance. (Haff, 2016, p. 528)
Rate of force development is simply how fast you're able to generate force in a short amount of time; thus, when your stance leg makes contact with the ground, you have to be able to generate an immense amount of force in a short amount of time to keep going forward to pass your opponents in a race. The same thought applies to long-distance runners who need that final kick as they near the finish line. For long-distance runners, the ability to keep running has to do with how the body generates energy and how well-adapted it is to running long distances. But it is always that final push near the end that determines the winner of the race. You may hold first place throughout a 5k, but if someone has better sprinting mechanics than you, they can easily bypass you and win first place themselves.
So let's first discuss proper running form before talking about how to improve sprinting mechanics so that you can easily bypass the competition.
If you want to improve your sprinting speed, whether you're competing in sprinting competitions or long-distance events where you need that final push, what you need to think about is the amount of vertical force you're applying to the ground during the stance phase (when your foot is in contact with the ground) (2016, p.527). You have to know how to apply these forces immediately. Moving your feet faster isn't going to accomplish this. However, if you spend too long in the stance phase, the energy built up in your muscles will eventually dissipate.
Try an experiment. Step off a box and jump as soon as you land. Try it again, except when you land, stay in that position for a little bit before jumping again. Notice your height decrease? Your body is like a car. As long as you don't take your foot off the gas, it will keep moving. As soon as you take your foot off the gas, however, that energy begins to die down, and you'll have to build it up again by putting your foot back on the gas. Remaining too long in the stance phase is like letting up on the gas. Elite sprinters tend to run on the balls of their feet because doing so reduces ground contact time. So, in essence, they're able keep their cars from slowing down by not letting up on the gas. Long-distance runners need to do the same when they're nearing the finish line.
Even so, how can you produce a lot of force in a short amount of time? By increasing stride rate, you can maximize your time to produce this force (2016, p. 537). Stride rate is how frequently you take each step. Elite sprinters tend to take more steps than novice sprinters. Stride length also tends to naturally increase as you generate more power--and stride length and frequency are related. To make it simple, you want to spend more time in the air than on the ground to sprint effectively. Be cognizant of this the next time you're out running.
You can also improve your speed by overloading your muscles with forces greater than those produced during sprinting. For example, plyometrics, such as depth jumps, where you concentrate on decreasing ground contact time, can greatly help with sprinting mechanics. This is where cross training is crucial, particularly movements that mimic the sport, such as walking lunges, split-cycled squat jumps, and other resistance and plyometric-based movements that overload the muscles to facilitate sport-specific adaptations. Cross-training can also reduce the likelihood of injuries. This is where a strength coach steps in, but it's also vital for an athlete to be aware of what can help so that he or she can better understand his or her program.
If you have any questions, feel free to leave them in the comments below or even send me a message through my contact page.
Haff, Gregory G., Triplett, Travis N. (2016). Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning. United States of America: Human Kinetics.
ACE Certified Personal Trainer, NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, nutrition coach, young adult author, moody ballerina.
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The views expressed on this blog are entirely my own. Any advice I offer is not to be taken as medical advice. If you think you have contraindications to exercise, please see your physician before implementing any sample workout plans I present on this blog.
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