August 6, 2014 • Strength & Conditioning

Improving athlete speed and reaction times

Speed improvement is a high priority with coaches and athletes at all levels, and their search for the “best” program to achieve it is relentless.

A quick search for fail-safe speed programs reveals that there certainly are no shortages of them being offered. The internet, popular press and equipment catalogues all are brimming with a huge variety of drills, techniques and their accompanying paraphernalia. Many of them are extremely beneficial, some of them have a bit more flair than substance and a small percentage usually prove to be a waste of time and money.

As with any training methodologies and modalities, their beauty (and desired results) is in the eye of the beholder. What actually “works” is determined by a host of diverse criteria that does not always include a stopwatch. Very often, you find coaches who are merely looking for an improvement in running mechanics and efficiency, which in themselves can be precursors to better speed times.

Fast facts about speed

First and foremost, it must be understood that — with regard to improving straight-line times — speed can be improved. There are no guarantees, of course, as there always are exceptions. However, most athletes show improvement in their 10-, 20- and 40-yard dash times by working ardently on their stance, start and running mechanics.

The plethora of “speed drills” proves to be helpful if the mechanics, neural requirements, biomechanical angles and force output parallel the expected outcomes.

The first 10 to 15 yards of a 40-yard dash are the most crucial and represent the area where significant improvements can be made. Accentuating the initial drive and accompanying acceleration in that short box of real estate pays dividends at the finish line. Much of our speed-development time is spent working on the details of this short, but crucial, distance segment.

And this accentuation in the initial phase of running is dependent in large part upon reaction time, movement time and response time.

Reaction time spans from the stimulus (e.g., an auditory cue) to the initiation of the response. Contrary to its interpretation in many settings, reaction time does not involve the movement itself but rather the elapsed time leading to the beginning of the movement.

Movement time is the term used to define the interval between the initiation and completion of the movement (i.e., from the instant the first move is made all the way through the finish line).

Response time envelops the total time interval from the stimulus or cue to the completion of the action. In the case of a timed run, this encompasses the total time elapsed from the sound of the starting gun to the moment the athlete crosses the finish line.

In competitive sprint situations where the start is determined by a gun, athletes must react with an acute awareness of the verbal commands (i.e., “runners to your marks, set,” then the gun sound after a short pause). Reaction time is a critical determinant for success here, as time lost in the starting blocks is virtually impossible to recapture.

In order to remain true to the Principle of Specificity, the use of a starter’s gun is a mandatory requirement — at least on an occasional basis — when training athletes who must compete under those circumstances. Otherwise, the specific neural pathway that is encoded via repetitive blasts from the gun and the subsequent reaction are not as efficient as they could be.

Conversely, in 40-yard-dash timing, the athletes themselves determine the start and the timing is initiated on their movement; basically, they must encode a “self-starting” mechanism. Hence, the reaction phase is eliminated, as the athletes work off an “internal starting gun” and move on their own regulated impulses. This seemingly simple procedure requires many hours of practice in terms of the stance, the drag of the down hand and arm, the synchronization of the arm movement with the first step and the relatively low body posture on the initial drive phase.

At both the NFL Combine and Pro Days held at most major universities, the prospects are required to assume their starting stance and hold a stationary position prior to the start. Any bouncing, jerking or “rolling” into the first step results in a false start. While it sounds like an easy procedure, mastering the starting details require more discipline than one would think.

Starting fast, finishing strong

If you ask 10 speed training experts or sprint coaches about how to approach the starting line, assuming a stance (without blocks) and driving into the first phase of a timed sprint, you are going to receive 10 different answers.

Try to narrow the starting mechanics down to what seems to be the most comfortable and efficient for the diverse body types we work with in sports other than track and field.

The following are basic coaching points and cues for the stance and start.

Stance. Foot placement is a crucial component, as shin, thigh, hip and back angles aid or diminish starting power. The width of the feet should be somewhere inside the shoulders and this varies in accordance with the athlete’s height and girth.

Again, you are looking for both an efficient and comfortable stance. Many of our smaller athletes opt for a very narrow, “bunched” stance, which they feel helps to eliminate inward pull of the foot at the start. In other words, the first step is driven immediately forward and not false-stepped to the mid-line of the body before driven forward — a miscue that results in a slower start.

Foot depth from the starting line. For the right-handed runner, instruct him or her to place the big toe of both feet snug to the starting line, then drop the toes of the right foot to the instep and heel of the left foot, followed by dropping the toes of the left foot to the instep and heel of the right foot, followed one last time by dropping the toes of the right foot to the instep and heel of the left foot. This final position puts most athletes in a comfortable foot stagger with appropriate leg, hip and back angles once they assume their three-point stance. Obviously, this process is reversed for a left-handed athlete. The back foot must coincide with the down hand.

Down arm & hand. The arm and hand to the side of the back foot are extended to the ground directly beneath the shoulder. The down hand is placed on the ground in an inverted “U” position with the thumb and index finger facing forward. Most of the runner’s bodyweight is distributed between the down hand and the forward foot and leg.

Off arm. The off arm must be cocked back at approximately 90 degrees with the thumb at hip level or higher. The back is relatively flat and the butt is either level with the head or slightly higher. If the butt sinks too low, there is a good chance that the starting drive step will force the runner to come out of his stance too high.

Eye focus. Eye focus must be forward but without tilting the head too far back, as doing so tends to force the butt to sink. If the athlete comfortably sees two to three yards in front of him, the focus is fine.

• Start. To execute an “explosive” start, several key mechanics must be engaged simultaneously with quickness and precision: The down hand and arm are scraped back — not lifted upward — through the hip. At the same time, the up leg and foot serve as a “spring” to drive the back leg and foot into the first step. The length of this first step varies depending upon the lever (leg) length of the athlete. The step usually gains ground without “overstepping,” which forces the athlete to raise the torso too early in the drive phase to pull that leg back through the hip.

In essence, you are looking for a low drive-phase within the first three to four yards with a gradual upward lift to the erect running position, which usually occurs somewhere after the 10-yard mark.

• Upright running cues. Once the athlete is in full running stride, reinforce body posturing mechanics with short, to-the-point teaching cues.

• Focus. Once full running height is achieved, the eyes are focused in a horizontal plane as if the runner is conversing with someone. Head tilt, up or down, or excessive bobbing and lateral rotation should be avoided as they may negate proper mechanics below the neck.

• Pinch. The action of the right arm and hand affect the action of the left leg and foot. Quite simply, as we learned in physics class, for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. “Pinch” tells the athlete to run with the palms of the hands facing the body and to lightly place the thumb to the index finger.

This abates the tendency to turn the thumbs and palms down, which often leads to unnecessary rotational forces as the elbows flare out from the midline of the body. Remember, sprinting is a horizontal action and as much force as possible should be directed in the plane that leads toward the finish line. Forces that run across the body are detrimental to the task at hand.

• Rotate. The arms should rotate more at the shoulders than the elbows. While it is difficult to maintain a strict 90-degree elbow position, notice that when most world-class sprinters display their craft, their arms have an appreciable bend at the elbows and their shoulders rotate these levers to positions where the hands are driven back past the “hip pockets,” and forward to at least chest level.

• Squeeze. While rotating the arms, keep them relatively tight to the side. Again, this assists in avoiding those rotational forces that impede forward speed.

• Arch. The shoulders need to be pulled back slightly, which creates a natural arch in the upper back.  The pelvic area is either neutral or adjusted with a mild forward tilt. This action enhances the normal curvature of the spine and places the hip musculature in a good position for maximum leg drive.

• Punch. Drive the knee out and forward — not just straight up. This type of knee action aids with stride length and enables the athlete to efficiently cover more ground. Once a progression is made to full-speed sprints, it is beneficial to film the athletes from a side view to note their stride count at various intervals (e.g., from the start to the 10-yard mark, from the 10-yard mark to the 20-yard mark, etc.), to check on improvements in stride length.

• Snap. The foot-ankle complex needs to be dorsi-flexed (i.e., toes pulled upward toward the shin) and snapped down through the hip in the planting action. If the foot hits too far forward of the hip, momentum is curtailed because the excessive “pulling through” action becomes labored and inefficient.

Training suggestions

When it comes to speed training, quality is far more important than quantity. Full recovery between reps and sets of any specific drills should be a mainstay, as they are not meant to be conditioning protocols per se, and you want to be assured that fatigue is not the rate-limiting factor in progression.

First and foremost is a thorough dynamic warm-up and flexibility period (DWF). This includes a full complement of leg swings (flexion, extension, adduction, abduction and hip rotations), low-knee skips, high-knee skips, lunges, hurdle step-over-under and even some ground-level plyometrics over shorter distances (10 to 15 yards). This period often takes a good 15 minutes to complete. Stretching with the popular rubber flex bands follows and keep those dynamic in nature with leg swings, rotations and flexion-extension movements.

Break your teaching progressions down to 5-, 10-, 20- and, finally, 40-yard sprint intervals. As stated earlier, preliminary instructions focus solely on the starting mechanics and it may be several weeks before progressing to the longer runs.

The execution tempo progresses from quarter-speed, to half-speed, to three-quarter-speed and eventually to full-speed. Teaching these varying tempos requires skill and patience on the part of the coach, so expect a challenge in that regard. Again, filming the sessions proves to be a tremendous aid for both the coach and the athletes if that resource is available.

Final rep

Pure, dominating, elite speed is, for the most part, an inherited and coveted ability. Our muscle-fiber distribution, lever lengths, tendon attachments, neuromuscular efficiency and certain other genetically determined physiological indices, are either predisposed blessings or curses.

However, everyone has the capability of making some type of improvement — no matter how large or small — in running economy, and ultimately, overall speed improvement. The rate and level of this improvement varies but as in all other sports endeavors, hard, smart work overcomes many of the inherent obstacles.

Ken Mannie is the head strength and conditioning coach Michigan State University. His column, Powerline, appears regularly in Coach & Athletic Director magazine. 

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