By: Reece Vega & Mike Thorson
Originally Published in: Techniques Magazine
Provided by: USTFCCCA
Acceleration in its purest form involves falling and recovery action, with every movement affected by the previous one.
Most coaches will agree that it is one of the most trainable components of speed. It is, however, one of the most misunderstood elements. First of all, what is acceleration? A textbook definition states that acceleration is a rate of change of velocity. In reality, however, it is this: Acceleration is reaching maximum speed/stride rate with an efficient, trained pattern in a minimal amount of time. To simplify even further, one could say it is, "Pushing oneself in to a tall sprint posture." Most sprinters reach top speed between 30 and 60 meters. But few athletes and even perhaps a lot of coaches don't realize how they actually arrive at an optimal acceleration pattern. This article will examine in detail how the proper acceleration can be trained and taught to sprint athletes. Our discussion will include the following: (1) An introduction to speed and the speed training principles that the authors adhere to (2) Acceleration Mechanics (3) Drills to teach acceleration (4) Common Mistakes (5) Core/Balance Training (6) Power/ Force Production.
Coaches and athletes alike must have a background and understanding of speed prior to training acceleration. Speed (or velocity as it is often referred to; the terms are synonymous) is the rate of motion in a given direction. It is a product of stride length multiplied by stride frequency. Clinical definitions, however, mean very little to athletes. They can, however, identify with this: Speed is a precision skill of applying large, mass specific forces to the ground in a very short amount of time. This is what in essence determines how fast an athlete can run.
The authors are in agreement that one of the best methodologies for improving acceleration is to improve maximum speed. An improvement in maximum speed will lead to increases in both sub maximal speed and acceleration. That is every coach's desire. Most coaches would agree, too, that there are certainly many considerations that come to the forefront when training speed and acceleration. This is certainly not a definitive list, but the major principles and guidelines that the authors employ in their training follow:
The foundation of teaching and developing acceleration is about the positions that the athlete can place themselves in. Incorrect positions and posture will lead to decreased range of motion, decreased ground forces, and most of all, decreased speed. It is our job as a coach to put the athlete in the right position and posture for them to succeed.
Having the correct angles is just as important as posture when developing good acceleration mechanics. An athlete can have great mechanics, but if they fail to hit certain angles during the acceleration phase, they will drastically increase the time needed to reach maximum speed.
The primary goal for a sprinter is to put as much force into the ground as efficiently as possible in the shortest amount of time. And in the right direction. The beginning of acceleration has the largest ground contact time with force being applied to increase an athlete's speed. It is here where force production and positions should be the primary concern. A lot of what has been discussed in posture and angles will increase force production. There are other applications that can assist as well.
If you talked to ten different sprint coaches about acceleration drills that they perform, the chances are very slim that they would all list the same ones. The drills showcased here are the ones that have been proven to work the best for our programs. We live by this rule: "Practice makes Permanent." Do not expect your athletes to master the position and angles of acceleration if you only practice it once a week. These drills and exercises should be implemented and reinforced on a daily basis.
One of the top drills we always recommend isn't a drill at all. It is simply watching the warmup with purpose. As a coach, are you observing your athletes during their warmup drills? Have you ever filmed a warmup exercise to show your athlete what they are doing? The warmup takes place at every single practice, but yet it is very neglected by many coaches. Not purposely in most cases, but because they are tasked with many other duties, and it falls upon athletes to carry it out themselves. The bottom line: The warmup needs to be closely monitored. This is the perfect time to observe and analyze proper dorsiflexion, posture, foot contact, arm and shoulder movement, and many other mechanical issues. A coach can't expect an athlete to accelerate correctly if they cannot warm up with the correct form/mechanics.
Drills that Build Range of Motion and Flexibility
- Cranes (Walking A's), A Skips, B Skips, AC Skips (An alternating rhythmic frog leg kick marching drill), Fast Leg Series, Straight Leg Shuffle & Bounds, Dribbles, (Avoid butt kicker drills that reinforce undesirable backside mechanics - a tightly flexed lower leg recovery is a detriment to sprint performance)
There are many variations of drills that can be used to teach the right posture and positions. The ones highlighted are all movement based. The main goal for drills is progression. The goal is to progress the athlete to leave the blocks and accelerate with the right posture, angles, and correct techniques. Once an athlete has mastered the posture and angles for one drill, they can progress to the next.
- Post Drills: Falling Starts, Crouch Start, Medicine Ball Crouch Start, 3-Point Start, 4-Point Start, Block Starts
- Resistance Drills: Hill Sprints, Partner Pulls, Bullet Belt, Sled Pulls
- Acceleration Ladder: Tape Marks, Wickets, Mini Cones
Mini Hurdle/Cone Drills
- Falling Starts/Crouch Starts/3-Point/Block starts with cones: The emphasis here is keeping the Post Position throughout the body while also working on the drive leg. Most athletes' first step is too long and they have the wrong knee angle to push force into the track. Placing a few cones at the appropriate marks for the first few steps will help the athlete visualize where they should be landing. It is also a good coaching tool to show athletes where they are landing versus where they should be.
- 3-Point or 4-Point Start with 12"/18" with mini hurdles over-the-top drive leg (The mini hurdles are placed over the lower leg while in the blocks): The goal is for the leg to drive straight out from the blocks. Many young athletes will butt-kick with the drive leg, which takes a longer time to rotate the leg through the gait cycle. The foot and heel should be driven forward and not up (low heel recovery). A coach also can put the mini hurdles over the top of both feet when they are in the set position to ensure they are both driving forward.
These drills are aimed at gaining mobility and elasticity in the foot. Too little/poor dorsiflexion in the foot can lead to lower leg injuries. Too much dorsiflexion can lead to low power output. Testing and measuring your athlete's dorsiflexion should be done at a minimum every month. We also are looking at drills that can help strengthen the foot and increase ankle stiffness. Having a stable foot base will assist the entire kinetic chain. A Ferrari is a truly amazing car, but if it has a flat tire, it's not going anywhere. It's not very amazing. Our goal is for our athletes to never have a flat tire. We want them to have the best tires possible!
- Plyometrics: Plyometrics have been a long-time staple for sprinters and explosive athletes, encompassing high intensity force production in a small amount of time. They certainly will help with improving ankle stiffness and elasticity in the foot. Plyometric exercises: Tuck Jumps, Depth Jumps, Hurdle Hops, Alternate Leg Bounds, Single Leg Bounds, and Bunny Hops.
- Dorsiflexion Drills: Knee to Wall Lunge Ankle Dorsiflexion, Backwards big step walks (making sure far back foot keeps the heel on the ground), Banded Ankle Dorsiflexion, Walking lunge holds with heels on ground.
- Foot Strengthening Drills: Barefoot Towel Pulls, Barefoot Marble Exercise, Short Foot Drill (an isometric exercise where an athlete raises the arch up by pushing their first and fifth metatarsals into the ground without curling the toes), Bare foot jogs and strides, Barefoot Bunny Hops.
The Real Deal Drills
One of the best ways to get more proficient at a skill is to repeat it over and over. Correctly. The best way for your athletes to maximize their block takeoff and acceleration phase is to practice it a great deal. Many repetitions over and over are the key! Most of the drills discussed here are to assist the athlete progress to a point where they understand how to explode from the blocks and accelerate correctly. Then repetition, repetition, repetition should be the objective. We are trying to do a tremendous amount of block starts and accelerations correctly in training so that it becomes an unconscious skill. The goal is for the athlete to do enough block work and acceleration training so that they can arrive at the first meet with zero doubts. They can be fully confident, and their total focus can be on competing the way they have been trained and being successful.
COMMON ACCELERATION MISTAKES
The training of functional acceleration does not need to be a complex process. Many coaches make it much more complicated than it needs to be. It is the responsibility of the coach to present acceleration in a manner that the athlete can understand and in a method that promotes learning.
Acceleration should be taught employing the "whole method of teaching (teaching the process in its entirety), opposed to the "part" teaching method. The coach should keep in mind that simplicity can often be the best route to success. A coach too, must have a perspective of what the model of "good" functional acceleration looks like. It is very important for coaches to not deviate too far away from a standard model that has been proven through sound, scientific principles and research. As the noted former Texas A & M coach, Vince Anderson, always says, "There are rules to acceleration and they must be followed." Coaches must also have the ability and skill to diagnose mistakes. Whether it is a very beginning or an advanced model, the following are some of the "common mistakes" made by athletes (in no particular order):
Improper Arm Mechanics - There are biomechanical studies that would likely dispute the late coach Charlie Francis' assessment that all sprinting is controlled by the arms. But most coaches would agree that arm mechanics are most assuredly key factors in successful sprinting. Even fewer would deny that the arms are not essential components in acceleration and front-side mechanics. The arms are balancing components, aid in timing and rhythm, and can create a lot of important downforce. They also act as a stabilizing agent in posture and momentum and can be a desirable factor in stride length. The goal for arm mechanics in acceleration is a violent but controlled arm swing.
Flaws in arm mechanics that affect acceleration include:
Some things for the coach to recognize:
An inconsistent stride pattern can be the result of many of the things we have
**Coaches should be cognate of the overload principle of training. The body will only adapt to a stimulus to which it is unaccustomed. The demands of training must be progressively increased if improvement is to be gained (Increases, however, need to be "moderate." Many coaches are too eager to increase intensity and workload too rapidly). This is very, very true in a learning environment where technical skills and mechanics are being taught. This most certainly applies to acceleration training.
**Another item coaches should always beware of when training acceleration: Athletes need to be very fresh, rested and fatigue free. The training of acceleration will most assuredly not go well with a fatigued athlete.
Posture Problems - There can be a host of posture issues. One of the more common mistakes is bending at the waist, instead of the lean coming from the ankles. The goal is a total body lean. The explosion should come from the hips through the shoulders and the athlete should get taller with each step, with the shoulders rising with each succeeding step. Each step means a dynamic upward shift in posture. A complete line of extension from the head and shoulders down to the ankles is the objective.
Bending at the waist:
Lateral Deviation Problems - Often occurs when the athlete does not push fully off the back block and attempts to compensate by pushing more from the
Popping Straight Up - Often sprinters will stand directly up from the blocks, losing all power and drive, and totally negating the benefits derived from the so-called triple extension or post position. This happens
Over-striding or Reaching:
Stumbling - This almost always results when the athlete fails to raise the shoulders adequately in to the powerline.
Breathing Issues - Many athletes do not use or understand the proper breathing pattern for acceleration. They do not inhale or exhale at the proper times, hold their breath for the entire distance, or take too many breaths. It is has been proven that holding your breath increases thoracic and inter-abdominal pressure, which serves to act as an "air splint" for the spine. The contraction of the thoracic and abdominal muscles provides a stronger and more rigid base for the prime moving muscles of the limbs. It also increases intra-cranial blood pressure in the carotid artery, resulting in improvement in the athlete's ability to recruit motor units. To put it simply, holding your breath increases your ability to put great force in to the track. This will only occur, however, when the sprinter employs the correct breathing pattern. It should be noted that a sprinter can only hold the breath for 2-2 1/2 seconds without "recharging" and bringing upon undesirable effects. A sprinter will hold their breath in the blocks, and then establish a specific breathing pattern of inhaling and exhaling at different points and phases of the race. It will typically take many rehearsals to perfect the art of breathing to obtain the maximum effects.
Front-Side Mechanics - The traditional thinking was that the start and acceleration was dominated by back-side mechanics. That is certainly no longer the case. We know now that the entire sprint race (and certainly acceleration) should be oriented towards front-side mechanics. Coaches should maximize front-side mechanics and minimize back-side mechanics, which are the natural tendency for the sprinter to employ. Why? Very simply: Front-side mechanics allow the athlete to produce the most effective ground forces.
The core and balance are training components that must be addressed in any discussion of acceleration. Unfortunately, they often aren't. They are two of the most ignored and neglected components in training.
We know that all movement is controlled by the core and that movement is the foundation for athletic skill. How an athlete deals with gravity, posture and balance are all large factors in determining an athlete's performance. Gravity has an enormous effect on posture - one of the key elements in successful acceleration. Posture is dynamic and through stabilization, the core assists to maintain the correct posture. The core includes the muscles of the hips, abdomen and lower back. Despite the importance of the core in the kinetic chain, it is often incorrectly trained. Core training should train multi-plane movements that are functional and synergistic. Although situs and ab circuits are great core activities, there are many, many more useful core exercises. Most authorities would agree the best core exercises are ones that include standing upright and involve a combination of inflexion, extension and rotation, and work a full range of motion through the movement. Some of our favorites:
Over and Under (Partner with medicine ball) - Stand with feet hip-width apart, knees slightly bent, with your partner right behind you and the medicine ball out in front of you. The athlete lifts the ball directly overhead and passes it to partner overhead. The receiving partner then squats and bends at the waist to pass the ball between their legs, making sure to keep feet flat on the surface.
Duck Walk - Start with your feet shoulder width apart and squat into a position like you are sitting in a very low chair, keeping your torso long and wide. You can walk forward or backward, making sure that you land flat-footed beneath the torso on each step.
Medicine Ball Twist - Standing back to back with a partner with the feet hip-width apart and knees slightly bent, twist and pass ball to the partner while keeping heels flat on the surface.
Just like the core, balance is dynamic and every great athlete possesses it. It may well be the most important component in training because it basically underlies all
Balance can be improved through a variety of different sensory exercises. A mini tramp, K-board, foam blocks or other means of purchased equipment can certainly be used to train balance. But the best equipment may well be the body itself. Any exercise performed with eyes closed will likely result in a sensory activity that assists in training balance. A duck walk like above, or a simple walking lunge with eyes closed are excellent balance exercises.
You cannot discuss acceleration without talking about power and force production. They are both critical elements in developing optimal acceleration, but there are many other "pieces of the pie" as well. Very few coaches would disagree that increasing an athlete's power and force production wouldn't be foremost when setting up a strength and conditioning program for acceleration. Many coaches would have you believe that the means to achieve this is the weight room with the traditional strength training programs. Strength is certainly important. But one needs to understand that the ability of an athlete to lift huge amounts in the weight room doesn't necessarily translate to improved velocity. Quite often the opposite is true. No matter how strong an athlete may be, they still have to apply force to the track in a very specific, explosive manner. We would argue that one of the real keys to building strength and power for acceleration is functional strength training - training exercises that will transfer to the track and the actual act of sprinting. Functional training is sport specific training that can benefit an athlete's balance component, posture, stability, strength and mobility. Those are all ingredients in power, which is the application of strength with speed. No one will argue that athletes need a base of absolute strength. The very foundation of power is strength. An athlete, for example, can generate up to five times their bodyweight in the forces that they are putting into the track. But coaches must understand that there are many different and successful methods of obtaining strength and power. Although there are a myriad of excellent strength programs, coaches should not limit themselves to the traditional weight room. We are in no shape or manner dismissing the traditional strength program. But typically, however, traditional weight rooms cannot imitate specific sport movements. There are many different functional training avenues that can work hand in hand with the traditional strength program to elicit gains in power and aid in force production. They include psychometrics, hill work, core work, circuit training, kettle bell exercises, band training and medicine ball routines, just to name a few. A coach also can achieve a great deal of functionality in the weight room where different lifts can mimic the explosive movements that the sprinter will need to produce on the track. That will, however, take a concerted effort on the part of the coach. Below are the strength principles employed by the authors that relate to speed/acceleration and training strength/functional strength for the sprint event/explosive athletes:
Train for muscle balance and amplitude of movement. Programs must address all muscle groups and strive for balance in strength development. Many injuries are the result of an imbalance in the antagonist muscles. Coaches should not isolate the development of muscles or specific movements.
This article has outlined and discussed the methods to achieve optimal acceleration. It was stated at the outset that acceleration is one of the more trainable components. But it isn't easy. Very few things in track and field training are easy. It isn't easy for two major reasons:
Athletes often lack the athleticism, including coordination, flexibility, elasticity and the explosive strength and power to do what the coach has asked.
The coach is not presenting the techniques in a manner that is understandable to the athlete.
Many coaches will ask, "What is the secret to good acceleration?" Everyone is always looking for the so-called "silver bullet." And the answer to that question is always the same: The secret to good acceleration is doing the fundamentals every day and rehearsing the correct process over and over. There is no substitute for doing it correctly every time, every day. As we said earlier, practice makes permanent. Coaches need to make very, very sure that the training they are doing is the correct training.
1. Anderson, Vince, formerly of Texas A & M, Articles, Clinics
2. Gambetta, Vern, Gambetta Method, 2nd Edition, 2002
3. Hammerschmidt, Julia, Track and Field Coach, Chadron State (NE), Conversations
4. Keller, Stevie, North Dakota State University, Director of Track & Field/Cross Country, Conversations
5. Januszewski, Jake, Essentia Health, Fargo, ND, Conversations
6. Mann, Ralph, The Mechanics of Sprinting and Hurdling, 2018 (Written with Amber Murphy)
7. McBride, Zach, Limestone University, Cross Country Coach, Conversations
8. McFarlane, Brent , The Science of Hurdling and Speed, 4th Edition, Canadian Track and Field association, 2000
9. Mead, Adam, North Dakota State University, Strength and Conditioning, Conversations
10. Schexnayder, Boo, Louisiana State University, Clinics, Articles
11. Schuler, Lance, Stanford Health, Bismarck ND, Athletic Trainer, Conversations
12. Sherman, Amelia, former assistant track and field coach at the University of Mary, editing, conversations, information
13. Swenson, Jenn, North Dakota State University, Athletic Trainer, Conversations
14. Seagrave, Loren, Speed Dynamics, Conversations, Clinics, Articles
Photo Credits: North Dakota State University (NDSU) pictures by Richard Svaleson, Fargo ND and the Luxon Glor of the University of Mary pictures by Brian Larson, the University of Mary Sports Information Director
REECE VEGA IS AN ASSISTANT COACH FOR SPRINTS/ HURDLES AT NORTH DAKOTA STATE UNIVERSITY IN FARGO, ND. MIKE THORSON IS AN ASSISTANT COACH-HURDLES AND FORMER DIRECTOR OF TRACK & FIELD/ CROSS COUNTRY AT THE UNIVERSITY OF MARY IN BISMARCK, ND AND A FREQUENT CONTRIBUTOR TO TECHNIQUES.