How to train – like Usain

By Paul Read

The 100-metre sprint is the premier event at the Olympics, and who would not be envious of the title, 'World's Fastest Man'? With the world record currently set at 9.58 seconds, this summer's London Olympic Games provided an opportunity for the world's best to battle it out for the much-coveted Gold medal.

The 100-metre distance is on average completed in 45 strides for elite athletes, with Usain Bolt's world-record-breaking run in 2009 totalling in astonishing 41 strides [1]. This article will focus on the exceptional characteristics that make elite sprinters (see Analysis below). Key factors include greater stride length and frequency, the application of higher initial ground forces in the acceleration phase of the race and a greater top speed.

Ringing the changes

According to research, players change from one movement to another every 2 seconds [1], clearly demonstrating the need for high levels of agility. In addition, high-intensity movements (sprinting, jumping, etc) are performed on average every 21 seconds during actual play, with only 5% of sprints lasting more than 4 seconds [2].

Phases of the race

The execution of this race has three distinct phases: 1) acceleration, 2) maximum speed and 3) speed endurance. The specific requirements for each phase need to be reflected in training, as outlined above.

Phase 1: acceleration

Acceleration is the ability to reach maximal speed in the shortest possible time, under control. During Usain Bolt’s memorable 9.58-second performance in 2009, 73% of his maximal velocity was achieved after 10 metres, with maximum speed not reached until 60 metres [1]. Based on this, it is evident that developing optimal acceleration capabilities is essential. This involves high levels of strength relative to body mass, and high speed strength (defined under Phase 2, below). Both can be developed through appropriate strength training and application of speed strength exercises such as weightlifting and ballistics (explosive movements, eg, medicine ball training, sled pulls and wall drills – Figure 1). The key aspects of this phase are identified in Table 1.

Figure 1: Wall drill

Reps Sets Tempo Rest
3–5 3–5 Explosive 3 minutes

Coaching points:

Maintain a 45° lean.

Drive the foot explosively behind the base of support as you switch legs.

Ensure no heel contact.

Ensure 90° angle of the hip.

Maintain dorsiflex position (toe up) with the foot.

Progress to double and triple switches.

 

Table 1: Components of acceleration, with suggested exercises
Component / technical point Suggested exercises
45° lean Wall drill (Figure 1)
Increased ground contact time Box jumps (see www.youtube.com/watch?v=cG8C3UM5Rsw)
Increased quadriceps activity Squats, deadlifts, weightlifting
Greater propulsive force Maximum strength training, weightlifting and ballistics

Table 2: Components of maximum speed, with suggested exercises
Component / technical point Suggested exercises
Virtually erect (<5° forward lean) High knees, A/B skips, high knee marches
Reduced ground contact times Plyometrics – ankling, hurdle/depth jumps
Increased hip extensor activity (glutes/hamstrings) Step-ups, deadlifts
Increased hamstring activity - eccentric stretch (to control flexion of the knee and hip) Nordic exercises (Figure 2a), Romanian deadlifts (Figure 2b)

Phase 2: maximum speed

This is the point where you can no longer accelerate - maximal velocity. Achieved by elite sprinters after approximately 60 metres, it involves a more upright body position and shorter ground contact times (0.09 seconds). Particularly significant here is the need for outstanding reactive strength, the ability to switch from an eccentric (muscle-lengthening) to a concentric (muscle-shortening) contraction efficiently without spending too long on the ground. Table 2 displays the key characteristics of maximum speed sprinting.

Components of sprinting speed

The ability to sprint effectively involves high levels of strength, speed strength and reactive strength. Specific training approaches for each are as follows:

Strength

The ability to run at maximal speed requires high levels of force production. Notably, there is evidence that force applied to the ground is the most important determinant of running speed, with increased stride length resulting in a greater displacement of the athlete's body (both vertically and horizontally) [2].

Speed strength and power

As a measure of ability to apply force with speed, speed strength is generally associated with two components: starting and explosive strength. High levels of strength are important, as stated above; however, if you are unable to apply force sufficiently fast, then performance in explosive events will be compromised.

Reactive strength developed through plyometrics

As discussed above, the ground contact times in sprinting are extremely short. This suggests the need for high levels of reactive strength. A key method to develop this is plyometric training, which has been shown to reduce the energy cost of movement [4], with approximately 60% of mechanical energy recovered in economical sprinting [5]. This brings us naturally to the final phase of a sprint:

 

Figure 2a: Mid position for the Nordic exercise

Reps Sets Tempo Rest
6–8 3–5 Slow 2 minutes

Coaching points:

Maintain neutral spine.

Ensure the movement is initiated from the hips.

Do not flex the spine during the movement.

 

Figure 2b: End position for Romanian deadlift

Reps Sets Tempo Rest
5 3–5 4–1–1–0 3 minutes

Coaching points:

Maintain neutral spine.

Ensure the movement is initiated from the hips.

Maintain a 5–10° knee bend.

Avoid bending knees further or flexing spine during movement.

 

Table 3: Suggested progressive model for fast stretch shortening cycle plyometric training [6]
  Phase 1
Eccentric jumping
Phase 2
Low-intensity fast plyometrics
Phase 3
Hurdle jumping
Phase 4
Depth jumping
Emphasis Optimal landing technique Short ground contact
Legs like stiff springs
Stay on balls of feet
Short ground contact
Some degree of jump height
Short ground contact
Maximum jump height

Sample exercises Jump and stick
Jump up to box
Ankling
Single leg ankling
Single leg jump and stick
Hurdle jumps Depth jumps
Multiple depth jumps

Table 4: Progressive model for developing hip power and knee/ankle stiffness [7]
Training goal

Hip power

Knee/ankle stiffness

Structural development Nordics, Romanian deadlift, Split squat, Single leg deadlift Eccentric single leg calf raise, Eccentric single leg leg press, Squats

Maximum strength Deadlift, Hip thrust Squat

Rate of force development (RFD) Isometric hip thrust Weightlifting – Jerks, Clean/snatch (power catch), Explosive step-up

Power Hang clean/snatch, Heavy sled accelerations Weightlifting, Squat jump, Heavy sled accelerations

Reactive strength Hops/bounds and run drills, Light sled accelerations Depth jump, Tuck jump, High hurdle hops, Skip patterns

Phase 3: speed endurance

Through increases in stiffness of the ankle and knee, athletes use less muscular effort and are subsequently more economical in their running stride. Plyometric training and intensity should be progressively developed as suggested in the model outlined in Table 3. The use of technique drills for acceleration and speed development should also be considered, including wall drills, high knees and many forms of bounding.

Putting together a training plan

Based on the components of sprinting speed discussed above, the key physical qualities involve enhancing hip power and knee/ankle stiffness. Table 4 offers a suggested progressive model.

Sprinting is an explosive event requiring the development of a number of specific qualities such as maximal strength, reactive strength, power and rate of force development. These components should be incorporated as part of a periodised plan, implemented alongside technical and speed development work on the track. Methods and techniques in the toolbox of athletes to enhance performance include strength training, Olympic lifts and plyometrics.

A final note - training won't change your genetics!

Although the recommendations above will undoubtedly enhance your sprinting speed, unless you have superior genetics with a greater percentage of fast-twitch fibres (capable of more forceful/explosive contractions), that Olympic Gold may remain elusive. However, optimal application of strength, power and technique training can bring about an increase in fast-twitch fibres along with greater power and faster force production.

References

1. Beneke R, Taylor M. What gives bolt the edge? AV Hill already knew it. J Biomechanics, 2010, 43, 2241–2243.

2. Weyand PG, Sternlight DB, Bellizzi MJ, Wright S. Faster top running speeds are achieved with greater ground forces not more rapid leg movements. J Applied Physiol, 2000, 89, 1991–1999.

3. Brockett CL, Morgan DL, Proske U. Human hamstring muscles adapt to eccentric exercise by changing optimum length. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 2001, 33, 783–790.

4. Bobbert MF, De Graf WW, Jonk JN, Casius RLJ. Explanation of bilateral deficit in human vertical squat jumping. J Applied Physiol, 2006, 100, 493–499.

5. Voigt M, Bojsen-Moller F, Simonsen EB, Dyhre-Poulsen P. The influence of tendon Youngs modulus, dimensions and instantaneous moment arms on the efficiency of human movement. J Biomech, 1995, 28, 281–291.

6. Flanagan EP, Comyns TM.The use of contact time and the reactive strength index to optimise fast stretch-shortening cycle training. Strength Cond J, 2008, 30, 33–38.

7. Goodwin JE. Maximum velocity is when we can no longer accelerate. Using biomechanics to inform speed development. Professional Strength Cond, 2011, 21, 3–9.

Correspondence

Paul Read is a lecturer in Strength and Conditioning at Gloucester University, UK.

Please contact Paul with your comments and queries:
Email: pread@glos.ac.uk



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