“I. Am. Speed.” – Lightning McQueen
If you’re an athlete, you’ve probably told yourself this quote by the famous Lightning McQueen from Disney’s Cars franchise every time you’re required to sprint for whatever sport you play. We all have a little McQueen in us with the desire to drop our sprint times and achieve cheetah level speed. The good thing about speed is that it is a SKILL, and like any other skill it can be taught and improved upon. In this article I’m going to breakdown the first portion of the sprint, which we call acceleration, and how it could be the missing piece that you need to drop your 40 or 60 times.
“Coach I want to run a 4.4 40 yard dash.” Okay Saquon Barkley, well first we have to be a master of acceleration if we even want a chance to run that elite level time. You could be gifted Usain Bolt level genetics and picked good parents, but for the most part your acceleration is going to be way off the mark to achieve that goal. Also, most sports are played in small, 5-10yd increments, so you better have a quick first step! If not, a lot of coaches are going to take notice on how you look “stuck in the mud” which will hurt not only your ego, but your on-field performance as well. So how do you get that “hall of fame” quick first step? First you you need to improve 3 key components which would be your neural drive, power output, and mechanics. The next three sections will be a dive down each of those three to better help you understand exactly what you need to do in order to become the athlete you want to be.
Neural drive is a fancy way of saying how fast can your brain tell your legs to move. Being able to rapidly pick up and put down your foot is crucial to getting out and starting your sprint. An assessment tool I use to see how fast an athlete can get their legs moving is I tell them to give me as many reps of high knees possible in 5 yards. The cue “give me 100 reps in 5yards” usually raises some eyebrows, but it forces them to stay a little more vertical, get the hips more involved, and drives the intent behind each rep. You may be asking “well thats cool, but how do I increase neural drive at all?” and that would be a very good question. The answer is pretty simple, get stronger. Getting weight room strong will help recruit more motor units and increase your central nervous system’s ability to produce force and move at a much more rapid pace. Smart programming, sprinting often, and high levels of intent are all important to increasing your neural drive and being able to increase your leg speed from the start.
Being able to produce force into the ground at the right angles will set your run up for success and give you that burst you need to get out. Here I will usually tell people to “push the ground away down and back” which helps the athlete feel what they have to do to project themselves forward. Your first couple of steps need to be violent if you want any chance of getting fast sprint times, and you must have that first step hit down and behind your hip. This is often referred to as a “negative” step since you don’t gain any ground, but it allows the athlete to project forward and result in more power in the direction you want to travel. Being able to do this with as much power as possible will allow a quicker switch with the legs and propel you forward into your sprint.
Something to also look for is the front shin and how far you can drop it produce force horizontally. The athlete pictured below is one of the fastest guys in the gym and has probably the deepest shin angle here. If you notice in the picture he’s able to create an insane torso lean while producing force horizontally, which in turn is a main reason why he is as fast as he is. He’s also very strong for his bodyweight with a 400+ box squat and jumps ~37in in the air. Going back to my point of getting stronger, this is what I mean.
Mechanics are all person dependent since not everyone runs the exact same, but the fastest people in the world all have similar characteristics in their sprint which can be summarized with the acronym P.A.L. This is referring to posture, arm action, and leg action. In acceleration, your posture is going to be at roughly a 45 degree angle with your head and heel being in a straight line. The arms are going to be violent, pivoting from the shoulders, and aggressively going from eye socket to back pocket. Your legs are going to be “piston-like” where they will be striking hard down, with foot strike being behind the hip. Drills such as the A-series, sled switches, and wall drills are all really good starting points to figure out how your arms and legs should be working together during the sprint. The most common acceleration error I see is the athlete will tend to pop straight up and lose out on their horizontal force production. A good cue that I like to use is imagine you’re an airplane taking off from the runway, not a helicopter. If you can imagine that you’ll soon start to realize that the sprint is a gradual rise and will help your first 10 yards in no time.
In summary, if you want to get faster you need to be working on all three components listed above. Worry about increase stride length and frequency, increasing force produced into the ground, and continue to fine tune your mechanics with a coach who knows a thing or two about getting faster. The best drills are often the ones that force you to move faster. These could be partner chase drills, tennis ball drop sprints, or putting the timing gates out to make you want to run faster. It takes a lot of reps to get right, but once you start to get the hang of it you’ll be like Lightning McQueen in no time. Thank you for reading and remember, YOU ARE SPEED.