The Best Running Drill For Athletes

The Best Running Drill

One of the challenges of setting up and implementing a high quality sprint training program is being efficient with how you select exercises. We are all limited on time and energy, so we have to do some amount of critical thinking in order to decide what fits within the program, given the needs of the athlete being trained.

Running Drills - A Mixed Bag

Running drills are one of those things that get a lot of hype and interest, especially from those who are relatively new to the training and performance world. At first glance, the idea that there are specific exercises (drills) which can develop a certain capability (speed) sounds great, and in today’s culture of hot takes and spicy memes, quick and easy solutions tend to get the most attention.

While I think it is overly simplistic to ask questions like “what drills make you faster?”, there certainly is a place for the use of drills in your program, and with proper implementation some drills can in-fact help you on your goal toward running faster.

For example, drills could be used for any of the following goals:

  • Developing general coordination, mobility, balance, and movement competence.
  • Developing strength endurance, posture control, head control.
  • Developing tissue resilience and force output in some particular range of motion.
  • Isolating a movement to teach the athlete subtleties of technique.
  • Plan B work for when the athlete is recovering from injury.
  • Introductory work that precedes more intense methods of training.
  • Getting more views on instagram.

Suffice to say, sprint drills have their place in any program that is designed to make athletes sprint faster, and as with anything the value of a given exercise will depend on how, when, and why it is implemented. 

Examples of running drills:

  • A-Skips & B-Skips
  • High Knee Runs
  • Single Leg Cycle
  • A-Switch & B-Switch

What Is The Best Running Drill?

In order for a sprint drill or running drill to be worth using in your program, it needs to achieve some outcome that would otherwise not be easily accomplished using some other means. It should be similar to the primary sport activity, whether that be in range of motion, muscle action, rhythm, postural demands, etc.

While I enjoy A-Skips, B-Skips, High Knee Runs, and all the other common drills we’ve used since we played Pop Warner football, none of these are the best. In my opinion, the running drills that have the most bang for their buck, the widest range of uses, and that are most relevant to sprinting are dribbles or dribble runs.

Running Drills - What Are Dribbles?

Dribbles are a sprint drill in which the athlete moves their legs in either a circular or elliptical motion, mimicking sprinting but while going through a smaller range of motion. Dribbles can help with a wide range of athletic performance needs, such as:

  • Learning how to cycle the legs properly.
  • Practicing how to properly manage posture and head alignment.
  • Teaching athletes how to strike the ground actively.
  • Improving hamstring resilience at ground contact.
  • Improving ankle range of motion through rolling foot contacts.
  • Offering a speed stimulus when athletes are injured and cannot sprint.

One thing that is great about dribbles is that there are many ways in which these drills can be progressed:

  • Dribbles can be done at a walking, jogging, or running paces.
  • Dribbles can be done with slow or fast frequencies and rhythms.
  • Dribbles can be performed at various heights, including ankle, calf, or knee.
  • Dribbles can be performed from a static start or jogging start.
  • Dribbles can be performed over short or long distances.

Being so versatile, dribbles offer athletes a great opportunity to benefit from achieving mastery of the movement. Because of the similarity of the movements, dribbles are the only running drill I can think of that have the potential to have some amount of transfer to sprinting performance, seeing as most other drills are far too different from the motions and rhythms of sprinting.

How To Perform Dribbles

As with anything, how something is done can really make or break whether it is worthwhile to do in the first place. With dribbles, there are certain key concepts to grasp that will allow dribbles to be an effective running drill, rehabilitation exercise, and something that can help generally enhance one’s sprinting related abilities.

To perform a dribble, in this case an ankle dribble, we do the following:

  • Start in an upright standing position with your eyes looking toward the horizon, not the ground.
    • Looking at the horizon improves ground contact and posture without having to think about it.
  • While moving forward at a walking pace, pick one foot up and lift it over the opposite ankle.
    • The height (ankle/calf/knee) can vary.
  • Allow the foot to move in a circular path around the ankle, rather than just up and down.
    • Once the athlete has some experience with the circular range of motion, this circular motion can become more elliptical in nature, allowing for the knee to open up slightly.
  • Bring the foot down & back toward the ground, directly under the chest, leading with the heel first.
    • This forces dorsiflexion, engages the hamstrings, and helps stack the joints of the leg and spine to allow for a solid ground contact.
  • Roll through the heel and onto the toes before picking up the leg and initiating the next repetition.
    • Sometimes, simply focusing on rolling the foot and picking up the opposite foot can get the athlete moving properly, rather than breaking it down in a more complex way. When teaching movement, simple is better as long as it gets the point across. 

The athlete should not attempt to move very far each step, but rather emphasize the heel first, rolling foot contact, maintain an upright posture, and aim to be smooth in the circular or elliptical motion of the foot.

As time goes on, the athlete can progress to going over the calf and knee, moving at a faster pace, or blending the dribble into a sprint within the same repetition.

Key Concepts For Dribbles

Here are some key concepts that need to be emphasized in order for dribbles to be an effective running drill.

Heel First, Down & Back, Rolling Foot Contact

It is hard to overstate the importance of the heel first, down & back, rolling foot contact. Whether performing a dribble or any other running drill, this method of contacting the ground achieves various ends.

For one, the over-ground velocity of drills is slow, and the human body is most efficient at slow speeds if it rolls from heel to toe while on the ground. Whether walking or jogging, heel first in a down & back direction is the best way to contact the ground. Most athletes make the mistake of being on their toes all the time, creating local stiffness in the ankle and inhibiting access to full ankle range of motion.

When we roll through the foot, the hydraulic mechanisms of the foot are allowed to work properly, bones are able to glide against each other, the muscles and connective tissue gets worked in a more well rounded manner, and the force that the body is being exposed to can be dispersed over the whole surface area of the foot. As time goes on and the athlete is exposed to jumps, plyometrics, faster sprints, and other intense activities, they will benefit greatly from having a foot and ankle complex which can move well, be pliable, and 

Additionally, leading with the heel moving backward is a fantastic way to practice being active with your foot strike, which is something that sprinters need to master if they plan to improve their sprinting ability. Many sprinters wait for the ground when in fact they need to proactively attack the ground like a hammer swinging into a nail. We can practice this by performing dribbles (or most other sprint drills), as long as we are active with the direction of the foot strike.

Eyes At The Horizon

Keeping your eyes on the horizon is very important for maintaining proper posture and executing movement with good quality ground contacts. It is my belief that the brain can sort out how high you are off of the ground because of our binocular vision, and that this can be calculated a lot quicker by our reptilian hindbrain rather than if we look at the ground and try to calculate movement more analytically.

Since we want to get the foot under us at ground contact, our timing of the leg swing relative to our projection through the air needs to be smooth. I have found no better way than to simply look at the horizon and let your brain do the coordinating, and I think it is wise to always practice conscious unconsciousness when we train or compete. The more we can let our brains execute movement without our own analytical, human thought processes getting in the way, the faster and more effectively we will move.

Stepping Over The Opposite Ankle/Calf/Knee

Before we can hit the ground, we need to get the leg up and over some point on the opposite leg. Just like in sprinting, the leg moves up and forward before it moves down and back.

When first learning the dribble, athletes can stick to ankle or calf dribbles, as these exhibit smaller ranges of motion which are easier to perform and thus easier to learn. Athletes who struggle with getting the leg to compress during the swing phase of sprinting might benefit from working on calf and knee dribbles, as these require the athlete to compress the leg like a spring just as we see during the leg cycle in sprinting.

Alternatively, athletes who have done too many wicket sprints and run down the track like they’re in the marching band would likely benefit from focusing on ankle dribbles, since these require the athlete to avoid excessive hip flexion and posterior pelvic tilt, and instead go through the smallest range of motion possible to achieve the leg cycle. Ankle dribbles can be used to emphasize stride frequency whether as a warm up tool or a teaching tool, so it is worth considering how any specific athlete might benefit more or less from a certain variation of the dribble.

Long Leg At Ground Contact

Last but not least, the dribble is a fantastic running drill for working on having a long leg at ground contact. Less experienced sprinters tend to exhibit a lot of knee and hip flexion during the stance phase of sprinting, which for some might lead to excessive ground contact times, groin injuries, and other undesirable outcomes.

If the eyes are on the horizon, the heel moves down & back to contact the ground first, and the athlete stays relatively relaxed, it will be pretty easy to get into a long leg position during mid-stance. If we can work on ending up in this position or posture during a dribble, it may be easier to find this position at faster velocities when we sprint. By performing dribbles in a way which allows for us to be tall during stance, we will teach the body to stay tall, exhibit systemic stiffness, and minimize excessive sinus curve movement of the center of mass and instead move through the air in a more horizontal manner.

Dribbles As A Rehabilitation Exercise

While all of us seek to improve our performance as a result of our training, injuries are something that are hard to avoid. We certainly want to do as much as possible to avoid injury, but sometimes things happen and all we can do is try to rehab the injury as quickly as possible.

Physical Benefits

If you’ve injured something like an adductor, hamstring, or hip flexor, the reduced range of motion of something like a walking ankle dribble can be a great way to work back toward full capacity in a progressive manner.

Once the athlete can perform walking ankle dribble with no pain or inhibition, they can progress to the calf or knee height. Similarly, they can then progress to doing it at a faster walking pace, a jogging pace, running pace, and eventually perform the dribbles with stride frequencies which approach that of maximal velocity sprinting. This allows the athlete to maintain their rate coding and switching capabilities, while avoiding ranges of motion that might cause pain or at worst re-injure the athlete.

Psychological Benefits

On the psychological side, it is a lot healthier for an athlete to be out practicing with their team or at the track rather than stuck inside doing leg extensions in the training room, as the training room subconsciously signals to the athlete that they are broken, hurt, etc. 

Instead, the dribble gives the athlete the opportunity to work on a movement that is similar to their primary sport movement, to be around their teammates or in the environment they prefer, and in my personal opinion offers a much better rehab stimulus than what you might typically see in a traditional rehab setting.

Certainly there is a place for the simple movements we perform on day 1 of the recovery period, but at a certain point the athlete needs to be exposed to more complex movements, higher velocities, and greater elastic demands. If not, the injury will never be exposed to the demands of sport, and re-injury will occur when they leave the training room and hop back on the track.

Optimal rehab includes progressions of range of motion, force production, velocity, and elasticity, and dribbles are a great way to work on these progressions whether we are injured or not.

Practical Application of Dribbles

As discussed, there are a variety of ways you can use dribbles, ranging from being a teaching tool to a rehabilitation tool, a technical task or a metabolic challenge. It is up to you to decide how best to implement dribbles, but here are some ideas of how you can go about using dribbles in your sprint training program.

Dribble Running Drill As A Warm Up

As a part of a good quality warm up, dribbles can be used to bridge the gap between non-sprinting exercises and sprinting.

After performing jogging, mobility, and some other basic drills, athletes can perform ankle, calf, and knee dribbles at increasing speeds to prepare the body for the sprinting session of that day. While doing dribbles, athletes and coaches can double check that postures, rhythms, foot strike, and head position are all in a good place before moving on to intense sprinting.

Most of the time, 20 to 40 meters is a good distance for athletes to perform dribbles in their warm up. Ankle dribbles exhibit less projection than calf or knee dribbles, so you might do something like:

  1. 2x20m Ankle Dribble
  2. 2x30m Calf Dribble
  3. 2x40m Knee Dribble

Of course you can do it however you want, and it would be wise to sometimes do the same distance with all variations, whereas other days you mix the distances up as in this example.

Dribble Running Drill As A Plan B Workout

Say one day you woke up and something hurts, or you’ve got some nagging injury that is limiting your ability to sprint on one day. Before you get depressed and have an existential crisis, consider how you could use dribbles as replacement for your sprint work, allowing you to mimic the sprinting motion while avoiding the pain and risk that comes with dealing with some kind of soft tissue injury.

If the goal for that day was to mimic an acceleration workout, cones can be set up at 10m, 20m, and 30m, with the athlete moving from an ankle dribble to a calf or knee dribble over the course of the run. This allows the athlete to practice some sort of progression in their movement similar to how we progress through acceleration, while avoiding the massive levels of tension we would see in a typical sprint workout.

If the goal was to replace a speed training day, the athlete could set up a 20m or 30m zone, jog into it, and then dribble as quickly as possible throughout the cone zone. This mimics a speed development day where the athlete was going to do flying sprints, and allows the body to be exposed to high stride frequencies but without the risks of sprinting.

If the goal was to get some metabolic stimulus or technical endurance that comes from a speed endurance workout, we can lengthen out the distance over which dribbles are performed. If done over a long enough distance and at a high enough stride frequency, extended dribbles can be a very potent metabolic stimulus, as the number of leg cycles over 40 or 50 meters worth of dribbling is far higher than the number of strides taken in a sprint.

Dribble Running Drill As A Rehabilitation Workout

As discussed previously, dribbles are a great sprint drill for rehabilitation purposes. While I am no therapist, I will say that the same logical approach to progressing exercises for performance can be applied to rehabilitation as well. Therapists are a luxury that most of us cannot afford, so we have to take it upon ourselves to fix our own issues, particularly in the case of minor soft tissue injuries. Obviously, any long lasting issue that doesn’t go away should be dealt with at least in-part with the help of a professional who has studied rehabilitation very thoroughly. 

When rehabbing an injury, we want to progress from smaller ranges of motion to larger ranges of motion, as well as from slower to faster velocities. The simple way to progress your rehab process is to go through whatever range of motion and whatever velocity you can, so long as it does not elicit any sharp pain or tearing/shredding sensations. Err on the side of going slower than you need to and through a smaller range of motion than you need to, while also focusing on increasing these variables little by little over time.

If you’ve done two weeks of ankle dribbles and have increased the movement frequency without any pain, it might be time to progress to slow calf dribbles. Then, as velocity at that range of motion can increase, you can try out a larger range of motion. The top 10% of movement velocity is often the hardest thing to recuperate after an injury, so consider this when planning your progressions. Just because it took 9 weeks to get to 90% does not mean you will be at 100% in one more week. Realistically, you can be at 85-90% within a month or two, but it will take another month or two before you feel confident going as fast as possible.

When in doubt, avoid progressing velocity too quickly and instead add in a variety of movements so you do not get bored due to lack of velocity progression. Also, consider that you can perform dribbles forward or backward, and you may be able to go backward faster than forward depending on your injury. Either way, think outside the box and stay safe so you can get back to sprinting as soon as is reasonably possible.

Conclusion

To wrap things up, I think dribbles are the best running drill you can incorporate into your running and sprint training programs. Athletes of all skill levels and ages can work on dribbles, and they are useful for everything from warm ups to rehabilitation, teaching technique to giving us a plan B for when the primary workout cannot be completed.

Make sure that when you perform dribbles you do them with proper technique, that you progress them over time, and that you review film of yourself so you can see what is going on and correct issues with movement that may arise.

Sprinting Workouts