Speed Training – Back to the Basics
By: Barry Ross
In 1872, Edward Muybridge was hired by Leland Stanford to prove Stanford’s contention that there was a point when all four hooves of a running horse were off the ground. Muybridge’s set of photos from 50 cameras placed along the track proved Stanford’s assertion was correct – but it took 6 long years of trying. Muybridge had accomplished what some might have seen as miraculous in 1878.
128 years later, we can accomplish the same result with a single digital video in fractions of a second. Some might believe this is a modern day miracle. I see it more as a nightmare come true.
The nightmare is that 128 years after Muybridge, we’re still looking at images that capture motion to train runners. Some are photographs and some are videos, but none of them provide a complete picture of human locomotion. Human running is not driven by what is seen but rather by the unseen.
The top sellers of books, seminars and speed camps rely on information based on image analysis for their training. Most of the information is inaccurate. What’s frightening is that virtually no locomotion expert would agree with the basis of what is being passed off as “technique training” for faster running.
With few exceptions, the preponderant view taught by speed gurus is that the runner must rapidly accelerate the landing leg backward to the ground in order to reduce braking action, then push off the ground using chemical muscle mechanical work (concentric contraction) to powerfully move the runner’s mass horizontally. The basis for these techniques is, of course, images of runners. In the minds of many, careful examination of images provides proof that faster runners are faster because their running technique is better. Training techniques to aid the runner in learning how to accomplish both toe-down and push-off are then prescribed…
Now, contrast the above to force measurements registered by ground reaction force plates at the points the images show are important for faster running: Toe-down and push-off.
Vertical force against the ground starts just prior to the end of the first 3rd of the time the foot is in contact with the ground (stance time), peaks prior to the end of the first ½ of the stance time, and disappears completely before the end of the of stance time.
If there is no vertical force registering through most of the first 3rd of the stance time and there is no vertical force registering in the last 3rd of the stance time, then there is no backward acceleration of the leg to the ground prior to landing and there is no push-off at the end of the stance time. In other words, the analysis of the images does not match the reality of what occurs.
It doesn’t matter how many training books you’ve read, how many speed camps you’ve attended, how many levels of USATF training you’ve passed, how many videos you’ve seen, or how many pictures you’ve viewed in books — at high speed, runners neither volitionally push off the ground to move vertically, nor accelerate the leg backward and downward at toe-down.
We’ve gone so far as to use Silicon Coach to measure the speed of the retracting leg (75 runners) as the foot approaches the ground. Not only was there no acceleration, but the leg slows down dramatically as toe-down approaches. We did anticipate this result because experts had already published a study, prior to our test, which validates our result.
“Ah,” you say, “what about horizontal force? After all, that’s what I believe push-off is all about; that’s what drives the runner horizontally along the running surface. That’s why I do all my drills and technique training. The books and training manuals about running tell me that’s what I should do. Horizontal force dominates!”
The guru books do say that, but are the right?
Let me introduce you to a 1999 study, published in The Journal of Experimental Biology, that should change your mind about horizontal forces and running, “THE INDEPENDENT EFFECTS OF GRAVITY AND INERTIA ON RUNNING MECHANICS”, Young-Hui Chang, Hsuan-Wen Cathy Huang, Chris M. Hamerski and Rodger Kram.
This is what they found, “In conclusion, in human running, gravity, and not inertia, exerts the major influence on both vertical and horizontal forces generated against the ground. The peak active vertical forces are modulated so that they match the changes in body weight, but do not increase beyond some physiological threshold. The horizontal forces are modulated so that they change in proportion to the vertical force.”
Did you catch that last statement? If the horizontal forces change in proportion to vertical forces then it must be that vertical force is dominant. If this is not convincing enough, than consider the fact that vertical forces during high speed running have been measured by force plates at 5 to 10 timeshorizontal force!
This is not biased evidence. Reaction force plates don’t sell books or videos, they don’t put on seminars and they don’t sell training equipment. A ground reaction force plate simply measures the amount of force that is returned by the ground to any object striking the ground. The plates measure vertical, horizontal, and transverse (across) forces. Images don’t show force in any direction.
If the above isn’t enough to convince you of the fallacy of trusting images for building a speed training protocol, then consider the following:
Vertical force measurements can exceed 3 times bodyweight (which, as you will read shortly, proves that runners don’t push off the ground). Despite the fact that force registers in a different time and place than where the speed gurus say it should, a relatively quick 150 lb sprinter can register more than 450 lbs of force. A world champion would be even greater than that!
How long does it take to create this huge amount of vertical force against the ground? Between 0.03s and 0.04s is all it takes. If you have a stop watch, click it on and stop it in 4 one-hundredths of a second to see how short that really is!
This fact causes two major problems for the image-driven speed gurus:
First, neither a runner nor anyone else is able to send a chemical signal from the brain to the grounded leg to cause a volitional concentric contraction of that magnitude in that time frame.
Second, to equal in the weightroom the measured force occurring on the track, a 150 lb runner would have to load 300 lbs on a bar (combined with their bodyweight, bringing the total weight to 450 lbs) on their shoulders, stand on one leg, with a slightly bent knee (allowing for a slight knee bend at landing during running), then jump about 4-6 inches into the air (the distance your waist moves vertically in relation to the ground when you run). Again, the jump must be completed in the 0.03s to 0.04s to match what occurs on the track.
If the idea of doing the above seems a bit difficult already, imagine doing this for each leg for the number of strides it would take to run 50m, 100m or 200m.
Are you strong enough to do that? Are your reactions quick enough to do that?
Are your athletes that quick or that strong?
Third, if vertical force is 5 to 10 times horizontal force and vertical force is 3 times bodyweight, then the 150 lb sprinter’s peak horizontal force is between 45 lbs and 90 lbs. This is not enough force to push the runner’s bodyweight off the ground, let alone propel them down the track.
How is it possible that so many unquestioningly accept the impossible?
The simple answer is that the speed gurus never consider force measurements in their training protocols, so they don’t tell you about the magnitude of forces a runner must deal with. They don’t tell you because either no one told them or because they choose not to believe research that proves their special “technique training” doesn’t make anyone faster.
“Hmm,” you say, “I (or my athlete) did get faster with the technique training I got from the guru sprint coach. How is that possible if, as you say, it doesn’t do anything?”
That is an excellent, simple and logical question with a simple and logical answer: If the workout you were given included only strength training and high speed running, with no form drills, then you would see the same results! The reason for this is that technique drills do not teach the runner to apply more ground force support (we will cover what ground force support means shortly!) to offset the registered forces mentioned earlier.
From where must this enormous amount of forces come from? The force is created when the runner, as a falling and accelerating body, contacts the ground.
Ahhh, says the speed guru, I’ve got you now! My images show me that a runner only elevates a few inches at most when running at high speed, so how could that amount of force be created from falling a few inches? That’s not possible!
The equation for force, F=Mass x Acceleration, makes the answer to the guru’s question easy. While it’s true that the drop is short, what is often overlooked is the speed of the runner. A runner with a peak speed of 6.2 m/s second is very slow compared to the 12 m/s a world class sprinter travels at high speed. However, the snail like pace of the slower runner is still close to 14 miles per hour. To get a better idea of that speed, imagine the amount of force created at the contact of a rolling platform traveling at 14 miles per hour and a stationary wall. That force would be minor compared to that of the world class runner’s 26 mph.
Even a relatively low rate of speed is significant in creating tremendous vertical forces when you hit the ground. The fact that you are only a few inches off the ground is immaterial if you’re already traveling at that rate of speed.
By now, you should be wondering why anyone would ignore the powerful effects of gravity. What is the justification for direct violation of the natural laws regarding gravity and force discovered by Sir Isaac Newton 320 years ago? Perhaps, in the guru’s rush to jump on Muybridge’s success with images, Newton was forgotten.
Researchers in locomotion didn’t forget about gravity and natural laws. They clearly describe what the runner must do in response to the harsh treatment gravity throws at them: Apply support force to the ground in opposition to it.
If you want to run fast, you must “brace” yourself as you begin to land. “Bracing” means that by isometric contraction, your muscles work to support your body against collapsing to the ground. Isometric contractions, by definition, have minimal change in muscle length and joint movement so they are extremely fast acting. In addition, ligaments, tendons and the skeletal system help to support your bodyweight. You don’t do this by thinking about it either, your systems simply responds to the challenge. You learned this from childhood, from when you began running.
To help clarify what occurs as you run, let’s go back to the analogy of a platform moving at 14 mile per hour. What would happen to the platform if it hit a two foot thick steel wall at that speed? If you’re thinking that it depends on what the platform is made of, then you’re on the right track! If the platform is made of thin wood, it will be smashed at impact. What if it’s made out of the same steel as the platform? The platform might bounce in the opposite direction if the wall is well braced. What if the platform was made of strong, thick wood, but had some super heavy duty springs attached to the front? At contact, the platform could bounce in the opposite direction with no damage!
That last sentence above is a basic description of the spring-mass model used by locomotion experts to describe how we run. Legs become the “springs” as you hit the ground. The “spring” is loaded at ground contact through a forced eccentric stretch of the posterior muscles, tendons and ligaments creating elastic energy. Isometric contraction of the leg muscles and your skeletal system stop you from collapsing, which would dissipate some (or all) of the elastic energy you’ve created. Your body impulses upward as the “springs” are released and gravity concurrently pushes against your mass. While this is a simplified version of what occurs, it does beg the question of where one could use the proper “technique” to apply greater support force.
What technique is there in loading a spring? Depending on the type of spring, one either compresses the spring or stretches it to create the force necessary to operate the spring for the use it was intended. Running “techniques” like high knees, dorsiflexion, “quick feet” and others are not what loads our running “springs” to cause faster running, but instead are the results of maximizing the effects of gravity and loading the leg springs. Faster runners have “quick feet” because they create more elastic energy and have greater mass-specific force support against the ground. Mass-specific force is the amount of isometric force applied to the ground to offset the effects of gravity. Greater amounts of mass-specific force = shorter ground contact time = faster running. What “technique training” could produce more mass-specific force?
Running technique doesn’t cause the limbs to move faster either, but it’s not necessary to move limbs faster anyway. At high speeds, the world’s fastest runners do not move their limbs faster than most slow runners.
Do I detect an increase in your heart rate and blood pressure from reading the statement above?
Relax, take a deep breath and think about it. At high speed, if the faster runner takes longer strides than slower runners (they do), then the faster runner will be in the air for either the same amount of time or more time than the slower runner (they are). If the faster runner is in the air the same time or more than the slower runner, what benefit would they derive from moving their legs faster in the air?
Interestingly, the images of a horse running taken by Muybridge didn’t lead to a stampede of horse trainers selling books to their peers on how to train better running “technique” to their steeds. The fact of the matter is that no one teaches lions about “stepping over the opposite knee” either. Have you ever heard of a trainer that instructs the ostrich with verbal cues like “toes up,” “quick feet,” “hot ground,” “fast shuffle,” or “spring-board action, while telling it to dorsiflex as it runs?” When was the last time you saw a bobcat do butt-kicks? Would anyone seriously attempt to show a gibbon the “A” drill?
If you think there’s no connection between biped and quadruped locomotion, think again. Gravity affects them both, and both maximize gravity because it is much more metabolically efficient to do so. We use the effects of gravity to our favor in running as do the majority of land mammals.
Understanding force in running makes training easier, more focused, and more effective.
The following quote, attributed to former Dutch trainer Henk Kraayenhof, recently appeared on my website forum: "Do as little as needed, not as much as possible." All coaches should follow this excellent advice!
A coach who trains running “technique” based on images is not doing as little as needed, but instead is doing more than is rational.
If mass-specific force is a major influence on running (and it is!), then strength training should match what is required to maximize the use of gravity by the body. That means strength training should focus on function not “technique.” In this case, we must have our muscles, bones, tendons and ligaments prepared to support our body as we hit the ground, while creating elastic energy to help impulse us back in the air when ground reaction force pushes against us.
If done properly, the same strength protocol will give us the necessary “chemical” strength to help us run faster at the start of the race when gravity is not the driving force.
Thus, we can “do as little as needed.”
Let’s also remember that do as little as needed also applies to on-track (or field, court, etc.) training.
Running as training for running is extremely important. The purpose of running-as-training to run faster has two major components: Neuromuscular adaptation to higher speeds and plyometric training to increase rate of creation, storage and release of elastic energy.
The first component, adaptation, requires running fast, as does the second component, plyometric training. But the effectiveness of plyometric training in increasing, storing, and releasing elastic energy has a limit for each individual within a workout. Once that limit is exceeded, there is no reason to continue run training for that workout.
How is one to know when run training has gone from doing as little as needed to doing as much as possible? The “technique” trainers struggle with the answer to this question since images won’t divulge the answer. Mostly, they guess. Where should the more enlightened, mass-specific force trainer turn for an answer?
Once again we can turn to the research scientist rather than relying on guru-guessing. Over the years, the locomotion guys have increased their knowledge to the point where they can precisely match much more of the seen with the unseen. The results can be spectacular for coaches, trainers and athletes.
Scientists Peter Weyand and Matthew Bundle, in their research paper “High-speed running performance: a new approach to assessment and prediction” presented an algorithm that can be used to predict not only the maximum speeds supported by both anaerobic and aerobic power but also the entirety of the speed-duration curve from 3 seconds to 4 minutes of running – or more! With a few all-out trial runs at one very short distance and one medium distance, the algorithm can predict the finish time of a runner, at 96% accuracy, running from a few meters to a mile!
The basis of the algorithm is the rate of degradation of speed over distance. For examples, the sprinter may drop from 12 meters per second at top speed to 10 meters per second at the end of 200 meters. This represents a 20% degradation of time over approximately 140-150 meters (after full speed as been attained). The world record holder at 5k and 10k runs the longer distance at an average rate only 4% slower than the shorter. In other words, there is minimal speed degradation over a distance more than 33 times longer than that of the sprinter. The driving force of the algorithm is what Weyand and Bundle call anaerobic speed reserve.
Because of its predictive accuracy, the algorithm can be used in creating workouts for the specific purpose of monitoring plyometric response from a workout, especially for repeats.
The majority of coaches use sprint repeats as a training tool. Repeats are very helpful, but often they are rendered useless during training. The main problem of repeats for most coaches: The dedicated athlete, in an attempt to please the coach, will run the initial repeats slower than the coach suggests (which is usually described as a percent of max) in order to finish the required number of repeats in the workout. In addition, how is the runner to gauge whether they are running at the correct percentage of top speed? The algorithm gives the answer.
Plyometric training requires that running efforts are close to maximal in order to create, store and release the most elastic energy. The speed of the athlete is dictated to a large extent by the amount of stored elastic energy that is released. How does one know when the amount of elastic energy stored and released is diminishing? When a runner is no longer able to run within the goal time predicted by the algorithm, then there is no reason to run any more repeats for that day. While this could occur after the first repeat or on the10th repeat, the athlete has done as little as needed to improve performance.
If you’re a coach or athlete, you should be aware that the vast amount of misinformation propagated by those who’ve accepted the visual as being sufficient for plying their training protocols creates a high cost on your time and/or the time of those you train.
We use a very simple protocol for strength and speed training for all sports that involve running, jumping or throwing. This protocol is not intended to replace the necessary skills of the individual sport; skills which differentiate one sport from another. By simplifying the basic protocol, we shortened the training time with no loss of performance and often times with big gains.
In other words, we’re doing as little as needed, not as much as possible.
This has caused coaches in some sports to comment that we do not understand the needs of their sport. Since our protocol has shown similar improvements by athletes in baseball, football, track, cross country, rugby, soccer, swimming, volleyball, basketball, and many other sports, we’re not sure why they think we don’t understand.
Perhaps it’s because they are like the speed gurus; locked into a training protocol that is either no longer valid – or perhaps never was?
We’ve added nothing new to the physical part of training athletes – no new exercises, no new equipment, and no new techniques. We’ve just removed the unnecessary.