Fundamentals Of Sprinting Technique
In the world of sprinting, optimal sprinting technique is limited by our skills as sprinters and how we apply force to the ground.
In training as a competitive sprinter myself, learning from my mentors like Dan Pfaff, and in coaching hundreds of track & field athletes, I have learned the importance of what is included in this article.
This article will give you insights into how you can analyze sprinting technique to become a better coach or to improve your sprinting performance.
For more help on sprinting technique check out these resources:
Important Aspects Of Proper Sprinting Technique
Today we are going to cover some big ticket items which I think are of significant importance for all athletes.
The information shared here has been gathered over time by learning from my mentors such as Dan Pfaff, watching film of sprinters from developmental levels up to elite performers, studying sprinting related research, and in my own personal experience as an athlete and coach.
Some of the things I say may be debated by others, but overall the qualities discussed here are commonalities that can be seen in many athletes of all skill levels.
In no particular order of importance, here is what we are covering in this lesson:
- Posture & Body Axis Movement
- Rhythm & Frequency Progression
- Stride Length & Stride Frequency
- Direction Of Force Application
- Center Of Mass Elevation
- Limb Symmetry
- Ground Contact Qualities
- Flight & Ground Contact Time Progression
- Injuries & Compensation Patterns
Understand that many of these categories or topics are inter-related, and they should not be looked at in isolation, but rather as an integrative complex system.
Body Posture & Body Axis Behavior
The first thing to assess with sprinting technique is body posture.
Posture can be defined as the overall positioning of the body, with a specific focus on the positioning and orientation of the spine and pelvis.
Our limb actions are limited by the actions of the spine and the pelvis, and therefore these are the areas I look to first when analyzing sprint technique.
When analyzing proper sprinting technique, the first menu item I look toward is body posture, as well as how the different axes of the body move and interact.
There are different axes (the plural of axis) in the body, such as the longitudinal axis of the spine, transverse axis of the shoulders and hips, and the longitudinal axis of the foot.
As we progress from a stationary position and begin to take proper sprinting form, the longitudinal axis of the spine will rotate vertically and our posture will rise each step until upright sprinting is reached.
The first thing I look for when analyzing technique is whether or not they are exhibiting this progression from a more forward oriented body position to an upright body position at the end of acceleration. This progression from a lower to a higher body angle should be smooth, and athletes should not try to keep their torso excessively low nor down for too long.
Obviously we want to have low projection angles, but how low we from project from the blocks has more to do with our force production than it does our technique. When we stay too low and do not raise our posture, our center of mass shifts forward and it becomes easy to stumble, reach, or over-stride.
I’ve noticed when I or my athletes sprint with too much forward lean, we tend to exhibit backside mechanics. It can be hard to recover the pelvic positioning mid-race, and leaning forward too much at the hips can make you prone to anterior tilt and too much backward pushing in the late stance phase.
Another aspect to pay attention to is the movement of the shoulder and hip axis during sprinting. The shoulder and hip axis will undulate and oscillate each step in a harmonious manner, counterbalancing one another.
Any excessive movement or lack of movement in these axes is worth investigating, as there may be some compensation pattern or injury situation that needs to be dealt with that is inhibiting the natural harmonious movement of these joint systems.
A good point in the stride cycle to analyze posture is when the knees come together. This can give you a consistent point at which to analyze posture as the athlete accelerates, and will give insights as to how the athlete manages their body positioning while in space.
Rhythm, Frequency, Stride Length & Stride Frequency
Rhythm is defined as “a strong, regular, repeated pattern of movement or sound”.
In sprinting, rhythm refers to the cadence of an athlete’s strides.
Rhythm can be assessed visually or audibly, by either watching the athlete’s movements or by listening to their ground contacts.
For most sprinters, issues with rhythm will be centered around the following:
- Increasing stride frequency too early.
- Reaching maximum stride frequency too soon.
- Never increasing their frequency.
- Inconsistent rhythmic progression throughout the sprint.
Throughout a sprint, an athlete’s rhythm should progress from slower to faster, consistently throughout the acceleration. Athletes should aim to seek a smooth build up of frequency as their posture rises and they progress down the track.
Athletes who increase their frequency too early, or lack the progressive increase of frequency throughout the sprint will tend to reach maximum speed too early and spend too much of the sprint decelerating.
Having the highest stride frequencies in the first 10 meters of the sprint distributes energy poorly, leaving you with nothing left for the back half of the race.
In contrast, sprinters who manage their rhythm, stride length and stride frequency progression properly will be able to run the entire race better, as they will have run a more efficient and less fatiguing acceleration phase.
Research has shown that faster sprinters exhibit longer ground contact times during the first step as compared to slower sprinters, while also showing much shorter ground contact times later in the sprint.
While some of this is impacted by their force output and application characteristics, this also speaks to how the elite sprinter is a master of their rhythmic progression through the sprint.
We sprint fast when we master our ability to apply force, project through the air, reorient our limbs, and repeat the process as quickly as possible. Since the early phases of the sprint require athletes to overcome inertia and create large projections, the earlier steps of a sprint are force dependent and take longer than strides closer to maximal velocity.
Direction Of Force Application
JB Morin’s study from 2011 states that:
“Force application technique is a determinant factor of field 100-m sprint performance, which is not the case for the amount of total force subjects are able to apply onto the ground.”
Put simply, the direction that you apply force to the ground is more important than smashing the ground with force that is applied in a disadvantageous manner.
Early in the sprint, forces are directed more horizontally, with this horizontal vector of force decreasing as the athlete’s posture rises, their rhythm increases, and they eventually reach maximal velocity.
Once maximal velocity is reached, net resultant horizontal forces are zero, and the athlete’s job becomes focused on applying force vertically to ride the wave of momentum that was built up during the acceleration.
In my experience, it is more common to see athletes get caught trying to be too horizontal with their force applications in upright sprinting. This is because they focus too much on pushing behind themselves, leading to them falling forward or reaching out in front of themselves with the lead leg.
Instead of trying to reach in front or push behind yourself during the sprint, focus on attacking the ground vertically in line with the body.
The athlete should always be producing force vertically relative to the spine. In acceleration, this will help generate horizontal forces relative to the ground there is a slight forward lean in the body. At maximum velocity, this "in line with the spine" emphasis will help you to produce vertical forces relative to the ground when in upright sprinting.
This simplifies ground force application, as the athlete does not have to do anything different with their legs as they rise through acceleration.
When in doubt, cue the athlete to pick the foot up and set the foot down, rather than cueing them to push backward or reach forward. Only in cases where athletes show little horizontal projection in acceleration should they be cued in a horizontal manner.
Center Of Mass Elevation
Just as the body angle and posture should rise from horizontal to vertical during acceleration, the athlete's center of mass should also rise as they.
If the athlete changes their body angle but does not raise their center of mass, they will end up bounding or lunging their way down the track, exhibiting ground contacts too far in front and toe-offs too far behind the body.
Sprinters must get up off of the ground to be able to move through the stride cycle during the flight phase.
Doing this properly will lead to higher sprinting speed at maximal velocity.
Projecting the center of mass upward each step creates space between the athlete and the ground, and this allows for the athlete to reorient their limbs in preparation for the following ground contacts.
Athletes who step side to side during acceleration or any point thereafter are compensating for their center of mass being too low, as the body senses that it needs to find space to avoid falling on its face.
Side to side sprinting creates undue stress on the adductors and Achilles tendon, and can set athletes up for groin, hip, or ankle injuries if left unaddressed.
All athletes are going to exhibit asymmetries in their body movements, but generally speaking sprinters need to show symmetries between limbs as they sprint.
These symmetries can be from the front side to the back side, such as between the front arm and back leg, or they can be contralateral, such as between the left arm and right leg.
Similarly we will see symmetries between the front and back leg, as well as the front and back arm.
For example, as the left leg reaches its highest position and begins to reverse downward toward the ground, the right arm should move down at the same time. Actively swinging the arm downward in tandem with the leg can help generate a quicker and more coordinated movement
When looking at the arms and legs, there are moments where we see that angles of the forearm, humerus, thigh, or shin will mimic one another. Significant deviations in angulation between the arms and legs can inhibit the stride pattern and lead to what looks like tense or poorly coordinated sprinting.
A toe-off at the end of the ground contact phase, we can look for similar angles between the front leg shin, front arm forearm, back forearm, and rear leg thigh.
The front thigh and back humerus should block at the same time and with similar angles in order to allow for a smooth limb exchange throughout the stride cycle.
In the stance phase when the knees are together, the forearms should mimic the thigh angles, and deviations from this can lead to rotational issues.
Just prior to ground contact, we can look for the back forearm to mimic the front leg shin angle, with the front forearm aligning with the back shin angle.
We can also look at the limbs relative to the torso.
For example, during acceleration, the lead foot shin angle at mid stance should be similar to the angle of the torso. Significant deviations from this make it hard to time and execute good quality projections off of the ground.
Ground Contact Mechanics
As stated previously, how we contact and interact with the ground is of fundamental importance to our ability to sprint. Athletes may contact too far out in front of the body, spend too much time on the ground, or they may cut their stride cycle short and not spend enough time on contact with the ground itself.
Typically at ground contact during upright sprinting, we want to see the heel vertically aligned with the ilium, the front of the hip bone. As the hips pass over the foot and we reach mid-stance, most sprinters will exhibit heel drop and a brief moment where they are flat footed on the track.
At the same time, the knee and hips should bend slightly, which allows for the leg to be compressed like a spring at the ankle, knee, and hip. This compression of the spring then gives the athlete the ability to push off of the ground and launch back into the air for another stride.
During upright sprinting, the athlete should focus on either applying force vertically with a downward leg movement, or be cued to simply pick the foot up off of the ground as soon as they feel it, letting the leg strike happen naturally.
Cueing athletes in a horizontal or forward and backward manner in upright sprinting is not advisable for most athletes, as this can lead to excessive time spent on the ground, pushing too much, and skew the athlete toward over-rotating or exhibiting excessive back side sprinting mechanics.
There may be some cases where athletes need more anteroposterior oriented cues, but these should be saved for special circumstances and rather than being applied liberally to all athletes.
Flight Time & Ground Contact Time Progression
Another area of focus when discussing sprint mechanics is the progression of flight times and ground contact times as athletes accelerate to maximal velocity. Just like our rhythm should progress from slower to faster throughout the sprint, so should our ground contact times.
Early in the sprint, ground contact times should be approximately twice as long as our flight times. Because we are overcoming inertia during early accelerative sprinting, ground contact times need to be long enough for us to produce horizontal propulsive impulses.
As we build momentum and increase sprinting velocity, ground contact times will reduce and flight times will increase, such that somewhere around mid acceleration we will see a 1 to 1 ratio between ground contact and flight times.
As we continue to accelerate into upright sprinting and top speed, flight times will overtake ground contact times, ending up with flight times somewhere around 1.6 times the duration of ground contact times.
Our ability to progress our contact and flight times will depend on the factors previously discussed, such as our postural progression, rhythmic progression, our vertical center of mass displacement or elevation produced by each stride, limb symmetries which allow for smooth arm movement, and the quality and orientation of our ground contacts.
Injuries & Compensation Patterns
One thing to consider when analyzing sprint technique is that old or current injuries can have a major impact on how an athlete moves.
If an athlete has been injured, their sprinting mechanics will be impacted even after they have healed.
These impacts may be clear, such as a hamstring injury limiting how well you can swing your leg. These compensation patterns may be more subtle, such as a left shoulder injury leading to hip, knee, or ankle issues on the right side of the body.
Once basic strength and mobility factors are accounted for in training, aberrant movements in sprinting should be looked at with some consideration for how an old injury could be manifesting in restricted or altered ranges of motion. Some of these patterns may be fixable and worth working on, but there may also be cases where a compensation pattern is better off left alone.
It is important to watch video from the front, back, side, and even from above, as these different viewing angles can give insights into different rotational qualities of the athlete’s movement, show you timing and synchronicity between limbs, and can sometimes give an explanation for something that another viewing angle does not elucidate.
Sprint technique is something that all coaches and athletes should have some basic understanding of, and the ability for one to analyze proper sprint technique is a useful tool in the quest for faster sprinting speeds.
To keep things simple, focus on the following:
- Practice using sprint training on a regular basis.
- Focus on the progression of an athlete's posture and rhythm as they sprint.
- Pay attention to how their foot makes contact with the ground.
- Look at the athlete's center of mass and determine if it is lifting high enough or too high off of the ground.
Once these core fundamentals are present or at least being worked on, some focus can be given to the following more advanced concepts:
- Limb symmetries.
- Harmonic limb exchange.
- Injury compensation patterns.
It is important that athletes do not get caught up in overanalyzing their movement during practice, and coaches should be prudent to avoid over cueing or overcoaching on the track.
Some cues can be useful, but it is far more easy to say too much and confuse the athlete than it is to give simple instructions that have a beneficial effect.
When in doubt, say less during the session, and give more feedback or instruction after the session.
Ultimately, all athletes can improve their sprinting technique, and by doing so can have a better shot at running faster and staying healthy.
Seek incremental improvements over time, and keep track of what works and what doesn’t.
With time, focus, repetition, as well as sprint training and strength training, we can all see benefits in our sprinting by giving some effort toward improving our sprinting technique.