Speed is perhaps the most coveted component of athletic performance. Whether you are a sprinter who competes in 5K's or a marathoner who's looking to improve your time, the importance of foot speed in running is unquestionable.
Traditional thinking dictates that to be fast, choose your parents carefully. In other words, speed is a genetic trait. While this is true to the extent that it is not possible to be a world-class sprinter without genetic endowment, sport science and proper coaching have done much to refute this.
Speed is a learnable skill that can be taught through motor-learning principles. Ultimately, it is only through the practice (repetition) of these motor skills and proper training that any genetic endowment can reach its highest potential.
There is an old axiom: "l hear, I forget; I see, I understand; I do, I remember." The more you do something, the better you become at it.
Speed Made Simple
Although the actual physical components of running speed are rather complex, we're going to keep things simple. Speed is produced by stride length (distance covered with each stride) and stride frequency (leg turnover time, or how quickly you can get your feet on and off the ground).
Of these two components, stride length is the easiest to develop and is also the most misunderstood. Stride length is not created by how far you can reach forward with each step, but rather by the amount of force you apply to the ground (with the foot striking directly under the hip) and driving back.
Speed is created through the ground, not the air. Once the foot touches the ground, it drives rearward, creating a springboard effect that propels the body forward. Most people are slower than they should be because they pull out of their stride length too early, not allowing the foot to remain on the ground long enough to drive the leg completely straight behind the body, thereby maximizing the force and distance necessary to propel the body farther forward.
Let's quickly look at some basic mechanical principles that should be considered for proper running form:
Step 1: Keep Your Head Steady
Head position is critical in athletic performance. Your head should be still during sprinting. We use the term "focus" to mean your eyes should be straight ahead, as if you're looking at somebody your height in the eyes. Remember, you go where your head goes.
If your head is moving side-to-side, your body is going to be subject to lateral forces that negate from the objective: moving straight ahead. You should run relaxed; you'll hear track coaches say "Jaw down, shoulders down." The human head generally weighs between 11 and 14 pounds. Keep this "bowling ball" (your head) in the proper postural alignment: centered between the shoulders.
Step 2: Keep Your Arms Fixed at a 90-degree Angle
Why? To use the strong muscles of the shoulder girdle to create optimum force. Never run with tight, clenched fists. This will tighten you up and slow you down. Keep your thumb and forefinger in contact or run with an open palm, whichever you are most comfortable with. Your elbows should be squeezed in to the sides of the body.
Try this: Stand up and put your left hand on your left hip. Move your right arm across your body. Did you notice how your left hip moved? The body is a system of levers and, to simplify matters, what you do with one arm will affect the opposite leg. If your arms cross in the mid-line of your body when running, your hips will rotate in, thereby taking away from your force output and creating rotational forces that minimize your speed.
We use the term "hammer" when analyzing arm action in sprinting. Visualize holding a hammer in your hand (with the elbow fixed at 90 degrees) and imagine there's a nail sticking (nail head facing forward) beside your hip. You want to smash the hammer back into the nail, driving the arm through the hip pocket.
What you do with one arm affects the opposite leg. Driving the arm back, while maintaining that 90-degree power angle, will create more extension of the opposite leg, thus increasing stride length.
Step 3: Proper Foot and Leg Action
When sprinting, you want to land on the ball of your foot, or across the metatarsal arch. The foot should land directly under the hip (where all your force is stored) and drive back until the leg is straight behind the body, thus maximizing stride length. As the foot leaves the ground again (this is called the recovery part of speed), your knee should be driving forward and slightly up. We call this a knee punch.
The most important thing to remember about leg action is that speed is created down and back—by the amount of force applied to the ground, which drives the leg back and propels the body forward. Leg action happens very quickly. Olympic sprinters get their foot on and off the ground in about one-tenth of a second.
Former gold medalist sprinter Michael Johnson had exceptional stride frequency. His "ground time" was around 0.006 of a second; he also had a long torso and shorter legs and his amazing stride frequency compensated for a shorter stride length.
The objective of linear speed is to go forward or straight ahead. Therefore, you need to maximize your horizontal components and minimize vertical components. Remember, the objective is to go straight ahead, not up and down.
Curt Blakeney is a freelance writer based in Arizona. Zig Ziegler is the founder and CEO of Motion DNA, a Scottsdale, Arizona, company that tests and researches the biomechanics of athletes.