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To Sprint or Not to Sprint?

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Over the years, sprinting has become what appears to be a forgotten exercise. Whenever it appears in a program, many athletes respond by asking, “You mean like running?” and “How fast should I go?” In short, my answers to those questions in order are “No”, and “as fast as you can!” Now, you may realize I said no to “running”. Why? Because sprinting is not running. Sprinting is defined as “running at full speed over short distances”, while running is defined as “moving at a speed faster than a walk, never having both or all the feet on the ground at the same time“. So, when I want my athletes to sprint, they should be going as hard as they can, trying to get faster each and every time. In this blog post, I am going to take a look at the wonderful world of sprinting and how it relates to the sporting realm and increasing performance. I am under the impression that every athlete should sprint. I don’t just mean in their sport, but in training. Throughout this post I will explain further, but it basically comes down to the fact that all athletes do sprints in their sport (or skate at max speeds). All sports, be it basketball, tennis, hockey, badminton, bobsled, or soccer, are made up of short intense bursts of all-out speed. So, if sprints make up such a large portion of the sport, why wouldn’t we train athletes to be better and faster at them?

            One major concern with sprinting is that not many coaches or athletes do it correctly. Now, I am not talking about form, stride length/frequency, or other nuances that make up sprint mechanics (I used to play hockey, so lets just say my sprint form is less than optimal). What I am referring to is the way in which sprinting is programmed. Watch any sport practice and you may see something just like this: Players are lined up on the goal/end line. They sprint 20-40 meters, jog back, sprint 20-40 meters, jog back, and repeat until the coach says they are done. Once all the reps are completed (which ends up being somewhere just below the number of times it takes to get the kids to puke) the players are absolutely exhausted and the practice has just begun. Then as the season starts to ramp up, the coach is frustrated as his team appears to be getting slower and lacking that quick first few steps needed to get to the ball first. So, what do they do? Well, more sprints of course! Let me explain something here: this is a great drill. Will it get them in-shape? Yes! Will it make them faster? No! Reason being is that in order to get faster, you have to train faster. How can this be done if you are tired from the last sprint you just did? You see, you need to make sure your body is 100% ready to go each and every time you sprint. You cannot expect your body to perform at 100% if you have not allowed it to rest long enough. That is like expecting your car to give you the regular 500 kilometers it does on a full tank, but there is only half a tank of gas left. So, you go on your journey and are stranded on the side of the road 250 kilometers in. The same goes for your body. If you try to exert maximal effort before it is ready physically, your performance will be lacking and you won’t end up where you want/need to be.

             So, you might be wondering how to do sprints with your athletes practically then. I understand that if you have a team of 25+ high school athletes, you cannot afford to have them sprint for under 5 seconds and then stand around for 2 minutes. Why? Just try it and see how quickly your voice goes hoarse from trying to herd everyone back together and keep them focused. So, what this can look like in the real world is getting your athletes to sprint their short distance and then have them do something else that is non fatiguing but active, such as some corrective exercises. “Corrective exercise?! This ain’t no physio clinic Cole!” Settle down! What I am talking about is after they complete their sprint; have them do some thoracic mobility exercises or other non-fatiguing posture correctives (which EVERYONE needs).  This should take roughly 1-2 minutes, and upon completion they should be well rested and ready to sprint again. This keeps the athletes busy and focused on the session, while still allowing them to rest. Problem solved!

            Another major point on sprinting is this: to be a better sprinter, you need to sprint. There is no exercise in the gym that can properly reflect the mechanics of a sprint. Yes, we do program the Olympic Lifts (Cleans, Snatches), Kettlebell Swings, and even single-leg training to improve sprint performance, but none of these are sprinting. The old saying goes that “if you want to squat more, you need to squat more”. The same goes for sprinting. If you want to be faster, you need to actually sprint and work on the speed and form of your mechanics. Getting stronger and more explosive in the gym can help you exert more force with each stride of your sprint and allow you to be more powerful, but nothing in your program should replace sprinting itself (barring injury). I recently heard an interview with Track & Field Coach Tony Holler. He made an excellent point in that a sprinter’s body moves at a rate of roughly 10 m/s (100 m in 10 seconds). The fastest a bar will move in a power clean or snatch (the most explosive movements in the gym) is 2 m/s. Now, obviously the bar and your body are different, but both are the implement you are trying to move maximally and clearly the sprint wins by a mile. Now, I do not fully agree with this as your hip extension speed should be the same in both and devices like the PUSH Device or Bar Sensei only measure the speed of the bar itself, not the body of the person performing the lift. Still, it is good to note because we marvel at the speeds of the bar during a good Olympic lift rep, yet the human body moves at speeds 5 times as fast. That’s amazing!

            Another issue people have with sprinting it is that many coaches are afraid to do sprints for fear of injuries, especially the dreaded “pulled hamstring”. In all honesty, these are valid concerns, as pulled hamstrings are very prevalent in sports. Anywhere from 15-30% of athletes pull a “hammy” over the course of their season. While there may be many reasons for this, such as lack of posterior chain strength and lack of a proper warm-up, I won’t get into that here. The only thing I am going to suggest regarding sprints and injuries is that maybe the reason these hamstring injuries occur during sports is that our bodies are not used to performing at max speed, therefore when we ask them to once it is gametime, they respond poorly. If you train at 100% effort frequently, your body will respond more positively during a game when it is called to do the same. If you are not used to sprinting or going full out and then during a game you need to “turn on the jets” to beat the opposing player, your body will react negatively to the sudden change, resulting in a pulled muscle. Therefore, while I acknowledge the average coach’s fear of injuries while sprinting, maybe if we pushed our athletes’ bodies more frequently and got them used to it, there would actually be less injuries, not more.

            Okay, so now after all this information, you may have come to the conclusion that you need to sprint. That’s great! However, what I don’t want you to do is go to your next practice or training session and think “I’m going to sprint for an hour because sprinting more will make me faster!” Listen very carefully, and I cannot stress this enough: when it comes to exercise, especially sprinting, MORE IS NOT BETTER! You know what is better? Better. Better is better. After you try to untangle that knot of words, focus on this: sprinting needs to be done at maximal speeds and effort and you need to know that the human body can only go maximally so many times in a row before your performance will drop off, no matter how perfectly timed your rests are. Therefore, keep your sprint workouts (or portion of practice) short, meaning less than 10 reps (this changes if you are a track athlete and sprinting is your sport). This should equal 10-15 minutes of your session, which is not a ton of time, and is very crucial for your athletes. For most team sports, keeping the reps and total amount of time sprinting low will allow the intensity to be kept very high for all the reps. A great way to actually track this is to time each sprint, either with timing gates, or with a stopwatch. Once the sprints start to get slower, then the athlete should stop sprinting as these slower times mean the athlete is tiring out and pushing them more will make them slower, not faster. Legendary coach Charlie Francis was famous for being able to get his athletes to reach unbelievable marks in speed and power. One of the philosophies he would practice is that if one of his sprinters ran a personal best, the workout was over right then and there. If they were planning to run 10 sprints, and on the first one the athlete hit a PB (personal best), the sprinting portion was over. Why? Because you cannot run faster than your fastest! This technique of stopping the sprint portion essentially “locked in” that personal best time by having the body only remember the last performance, which was the best one. This allows your body to build on that for the next sprint session and reduce injury risk because as Charlie puts it, “they're psyched up and trying to beat their PR, but because their bodies haven't recovered from it. With very heavy weights it can take ten to twelve days to get over a maximal lift, same thing in sprinting.” Although it may sound strange, when you look at the people Charlie worked with and the results he got, it’s pretty hard to argue with his methods.

            When it comes down to it, athletes need to sprint. Sprinting is a great way to exhibit and increase your power and speed. As a coach, it can be hard to get your athletes to sprint maximally and give 100% effort every time. The approach I take is to educate them. If the athletes know that they won’t be getting faster if they are not training faster, then they will be more willing to “get going”. Also, timing them works well. When you can show them a number to quantify how fast (or slow) they are moving, they will be more motivated to improve with each one. Lastly, if these are not working, chase them. I have worked with many young athletes and I find the best way to get them to run as fast as they can is to get their teammates to chase them in what we call “Rabbit Drills”, which is something I got from Coach Robert Dos Remedios and his CHAOS system. Nothing gets you moving faster than the fear of your teammate breathing down your neck and having your pride on the line!

            I hope this information helps you take a look at they way in which sprinting can and should be utilized to improve sports performance, as well as about the common pitfalls when doing speed workouts or sessions. Remember, sprinting is a key component of all sports and therefore we need to get our athletes ready to perform them optimally come game time in order to reduce injury risk and increase execution. Especially as the season is near and training camp looms, it is important to remember the words of the great coach Herb Brooks (or at least from his character in the movie Miracle): “The fastest way to make this team is by being fast!” 

Peace.Gains.

Cole Hergott

References:

  1. Strength Coach Podcast, Episode 211
  2. Liu, H., Garrett, W., Moorman, C., & Yu, B. (2012). Injury rate, mechanism, and risk factors of hamstring strain injuries in sports: A review of the
  3. Chris Shugart, T. (2017). Rocket Scientist | T NationT NATION. Retrieved 3 August 2017, from https://www.t-nation.com/training/rocket-scientist
  4. The Performance Podcast, Episode 14
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