Lacing up a pair of old Reeboks and heading to the track is like trying to run a pass pattern in your living room after watching an NFL pre-season game–you're just asking for a pulled hamstring.
Technique is crucial when sprinting. And learning flawless technique takes years. (That's why it's an Olympic event, slick.) So what's a fella to do? Hang up the sneakers for good?
Lucky for us, Lee Boyce wants to school us on the basics of sprinting. Just enough information to get us from so-so to sorta good and reap the fat-burning, muscle-building rewards. – Nate Green
We all know the benefits of sprinting–when's the last time anyone did steady-state cardio instead of sprint intervals, anyway?–so I won't go over too much here. Still, what's the point of knowing the benefits of something if you never use it? With this article, I want to start you off on the right foot. (Ha!)
- Sprinting is a great way to boost fat loss and "wake up" muscle tissue that may not get a lot of activation with your training program.
- A lifter is going to be tighter than a sprinter. Period. Sprinters spend more time per week sprinting and mobilizing, and lifters spend more time lifting and getting big and strong. A crossover from sprinting to lifting is easy, but the other way around just begs for injuries if proper care isn't taken. (That's why you shouldn't just start running as soon as you get on the track.)
- There are muscles you're going to have to hit with "strength" exercises in order for them to fully activate during your sprint. A picture-perfect example of this would be the psoas (a hip flexor muscle). Since most non-sprinter's psoas muscles are weak (relative to their surrounding muscles), the shock factor to such muscles is high, especially at first.
- Improper mechanics will lead to repetitive loading of the wrong muscles, which will result in muscle strains, tearing, or run-like-a-girl form.
Three Things To Do Before You Start Sprinting
Before you can even think of taking your first step, you need to get loose, get activated, and get moving.
1. Get Loose
Start with a light five-minute jog around the track for a warm-up and then pick a spot to go through a few stretches.
I recommend going back and forth between static hip flexor stretches and static hamstring stretches. The hip flexors are crucial to sprinting (we'll go over that in a bit) and the hamstrings are the number one injury site for people just starting out. Since the hamstrings are involved in hip extensions and deceleration of the lead leg, even a minor tightness issue can lead to sub-par power output and an increase chance of injury.
The "Big 2" Stretches
I recommend going back and forth between static hip flexor stretches and static hamstring stretches. The hip flexors are crucial to sprinting (we'll go over that in a bit) and the hamstrings are the number one injury site for people just starting out.
Since the hamstrings are involved in hip extensions and deceleration of the lead leg, even a minor tightness issue can lead to sub-par power output and an increase chance of injury.
Hip Flexor Stretch 2 x 30 seconds each side
Hamstring Stretch 2 x 30 seconds each side
I highlighted these two stretches, but that doesn't mean the glutes, calves, and upper body and its extremities don't deserve some flexibility work, too. It's important for the muscles' tissue quality to be at its best before such a vigorous exercise.
But Won't Static Stretching Affect My Power Output?
It will dull the nervous system momentarily, but we'll do a lot to ramp it back up for sprinting as we continue with our warm-up routine. So don't worry about it.
2. Get Activated
Next we need to work on activating muscles that usually don't get enough stimulation in the weight room. These will end up being weak links of your sprint if you don't address them.
Once again, I refer to the hip flexors group. One mistake I made as a trainer early in my career was not acknowledging that muscles could be tight and weak at the same time. So after we stretch these suckers, we want to strengthen 'em.
The Iliacus Exercise
The iliacus is responsible for hip flexion up to an angle of 90 degrees. To activate it, lie on your back, and turn your toes outward. Raise one straight leg up and diagonally outward, and be sure to use only your hip to do it. (See photos at right.) Keep your toe and heel at the same level, and don't let your heel fall toward the ground. Hold for five seconds. Return to the midline, then do two more reps. Repeat this two more times at ascending levels. Switch legs and repeat.
The Psoas Exercise
After your knee rises higher than 90 degrees, your psoas muscle activates to bring your knee even higher and closer to your torso. To activate the psoas, find a box or step that you can plant your foot on. It should be high enough to make your hip flex to 90 degrees. Without twisting or changing your body's upright position, pull your knee up toward your chest using your hip flexors and hold. (It's not as simple as it looks.)
Keep your foot tucked in under your knee and don't let it kick forward. Remember, we're trying to activate a few small muscles. This calls for a lot of focus, so zero in on just the hips.
Perform two sets of five reps on each leg, holding for 5 seconds each time.
3. Get Moving – 3 Sprint Mechanic Warm-up Drills
As Erick Minor said in his sprinting article, attaining perfect sprint technique takes years of practice. But even though we aren't world-class sprinters, knowing something is still more beneficial than knowing nothing.
The following warm -up drills will help instill the basic sprint mechanics–high knee lift, strong arm drive, keeping your toes up, and having your foot strike beneath your body instead of in front–into your muscles' memory.
- A Skips. This is a marching exercise with a rhythmic bounce with each step. Keep your toes up and maintain an erect spine. Cover a distance of 10 - 15 meters. Repeat two times.
- Running A. This is essentially a high-knee jog, with accompanied arm drive. The important things to remember here are to step down and not intentionally forward and land on the balls of your feet. While your foot is in the air, your toes should point upward to set up for a correct foot strike on contact. Cover 15 - 20 meters. Repeat two times.
- Bounding. Emphasize strong arm drive, and work to fully extend your trailing leg on every step. Your foot should touch down below your body, not in front. You should feel yourself pushing off the ground. Cover 30 to 40 meters, and build speed as you progress down the track. Repeat two times.
Now that you're loose and activated, it's time to actually start sprinting.
The First Step
I like to use a "falling" start to begin. Stand at the starting line and place one foot in front of the other in a staggered step. Use whatever foot feels comfortable to put forward. Keep your heels on the ground and assume a squat position. Keep the torso facing up, and then slowly roll your weight toward the balls of your feet by gently "falling" forward. Just when you feel you're about to fall, stay low and drive hard off your lead leg. Pump your arms hard. This will set you up perfectly for the strides to come.
This is the first portion of your sprint distance where you rapidly build velocity from your start. For simplicity's sake, let's say it usually lasts for around 15 strides. For this phase, it's important to keep your eyes focused on the track, barely in front of your feet. The better you get at this, the closer to the ground you'll be able to stay (and thus facilitate acceleration). Make sure to pump your arms hard, and really push off the legs so they leave the ground in a full extension.
Also, don't be too quick to raise your head up. Your entire spine will follow wherever your eyes and head lead. Rising up too quickly will disrupt the consistency of your foot strike. It's at this pivotal "transition" phase where 90 percent of hamstring injuries occur, usually as a result of a premature and very abrupt transition from the drive phase to the maintenance phase.
The maintenance phase emphasizes exactly what it sounds like–maintaining or holding on to the max speed that you just generated from the drive phase. This is where you turn off the "jets" and coast. Your arms should be in full, natural swing, with your knees coming up nice and high. The movement should feel effortless, like a wheel rolling smoothly along. Try not to place any tension in any parts of your body (including your face). Keep your hands open. Your body should be kept tall, with your spine held erect. Keep your eyes focused on the destination, and let the velocity you've built up take care of itself.
Sample Sprinting Program
You shouldn't try to be a hero if you're new to sprinting–running ten all-out sprints your first day is a good way to hurt yourself. Besides, if it's pain you're after, you can count on being sore the next couple of days anyway, especially if you go for distances that take longer than ten seconds to cover.
Only do one sprint workout this week (in conjunction with your full weight training week, of course), focusing on the drive phase. After the warm-up and drills above, perform the following:
Focus on the cues used above for the drive phase, and try to "hold your drive" for as much of these distances as possible. Rest 120 seconds between sprints.
This week, perform two sprint workouts. On Day 1, complete your warm-up and drills, and then do the following:
Rest 2 minutes between sprints.
On Day 2, complete your warm-up and drills, and do the following:
Focus on a sub-maximal effort for this workout, with more emphasis on the "maintenance phase" technique. In other words, leave some gas in the tank, but still run nice and fast.
Rest 3 minutes between sprints.
On Day 1, complete your warm-up and drills, and then do the following:
Perform at 85-90 percent intensity, and rest 3 minutes between all sprints.
On Day 2, after your warm-up and drills, perform the following:
8x50 meters at max intensity.
Important: After Your Sprint Workout
Cool down with a light five-minute jog and static stretch your hip flexors and hamstrings again after you finish. You're going feel muscles in your legs tomorrow that you never knew existed!
Full Speed Ahead
Sprinting is a great full-body exercise that can help boost muscle growth in your legs and torch some of the stubborn body fat that's been hanging out since Christmas, but only if you do it correctly. Follow the tips in this article to get a "Dummies" understanding of sprint mechanics and be sure to get to the track to try them out. Your legs will thank you.