Whole lot of drills

Drills are an important part of an athlete’s regime, but it is crucial to perform them correctly, writes John Shepherd

Posted on December 1, 2011 by
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There are some coaches who debate whether their athletes even need to do sprint drills, while others and their athletes pay them only cursory attention. To do so is to miss the bigger picture as they are much more than a way to improve technique.

Some of their advantages are that they:
(1) Enhance a specific range of movement
(2) Strengthen the running and core muscles and hence boost performance potential
(3) Reduce injury by strengthening muscles in a way that closely mirrors the contractions and forces that they undergo when running, particularly sprinting
(4) Improve the athlete’s neuro-muscular potential
(5) Can be fun to perform

The drills and exercises that follow are broadly categorised in regard to their relevance to the specific phases of the running stride – what’s known as the “gait cycle”, specifically foot-strike, stance, drive, toe-off and recovery. It should be noted that, although categorised as such, many of them have more than one relevance to the gait cycle.

1. Foot-strike drills

A top-class sprinter’s foot is on and off the track in milliseconds, yet in this time a huge amount of force is generated. To produce this force optimally, the foot must be moving back toward the body as it strikes the ground and particularly when sprinting, the foot should be dorsiflexed (flexed and held upward) – sometimes known as “negative acceleration”. If the foot plantar-flexes (toes down position), then the optimum transference of velocity across the track surface will not occur.

When running at all speeds the foot normally rolls in to absorb impact forces, a motion known as “pronation”. If the foot rolls in too far this is known as overpronation and injuries can result. It is therefore important to have your gait checked by a suitably qualified person.

Many specialist-running stores offer foot scans and will then recommend the right shoes for you. The drills that follow, although primarily designed to enhance reactivity and “train in” a dorsiflexed and active foot-strike, will also assist with improving pronation issues as they condition a stronger foot, ankle and lower-limb structure. The names of the drills that follow may be known to other coaches and athletes by different names.

Rest and recovery between drills: These drills are designed to improve technique (and all the other aspects noted above) and it is best that they are performed with emphasis on quality. Fatigue will impair the precision of movement. Coach and athlete must therefore be mindful of this and factor in su cient recovery.

They should also be on the look-out for signs of fatigue, such as impaired performance when drills are being formed. If this occurs the athlete will be learning the wrong movement pattern and speed, which for speed and power athletes negates the purpose of the activity.

Many coaches often don’t pay attention to what their athletes are doing in warmup and failure to do so could result in drills rehearsing faulty biomechanics.

(a) Single leg strike drill

How to perform: Stand with feet shoulderwidth apart. Step forward, lifting one leg out in front of the body to about a 45-degree angle to the ground. Then, keeping the heel up, pull the foot quickly back to the ground. Skip between each “hit”. Repeat this, hit, skip, hit, skip movement, keeping the trunk upright and chin up, while coordinating arms with the legs (that’s opposite arm to leg).

Do: 4 x 20m (swapping legs after each rep).

Progression: Perform the drill with increasing speed and force, skipping more quickly between strikes.

(b) Straight leg jumps
The ankles and calf muscles provide crucial power when sprinting and running and are often overlooked when compared to the larger thigh and glute muscles and the hipflexor. Enhancing the elastic potential of these structures will achieve greater speed and power.

How to perform: Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart and, primarily using your feet and ankles and calf muscles, jump into the air. Swing your arms to aid your power, land lightly on your forefeet and immediately spring into another jump.

Do: 3 x 20.

(c) Foot/ground/reaction and recovery phase drill
This drill can be performed separately on one leg or alternating left and right.

How to perform: This description applies to the unilateral variant. Start to jog and push the left leg forward, keeping the leg relatively straight, then pull the heel of the right leg dynamically up towards your bottom and through to the front of the hips and then down toward the track to strike the ground in the dorsiflexed manner as in the previous drill. Aim to pull your heel back quickly and under your hips to pull you forward, while spinning the heel up toward, round and under your body. Coordinate your arms with your legs, using opposite arm to leg, and increase the speed of performance as confidence and specific strength develops.

Do: 4 x 20m (2 on the left and 2 on the right)

Sprint tip: Top sprinting requires a curvilinear action of the legs – study Asafa Powell’s technique in slow motion and you’ll see how the foot travels in a parabolic curve from the drive phase, through recovery and stance to foot-strike. Although somewhat obvious, many athletes perform too many drills, particularly high-knees in an up and down way, which can lead to faulty running biomechanics.

2. Recovery phase drills

The recovery phase occurs after the stance phase when the athlete’s foot is on the track under their hips and it then leaves the ground to be pulled up and through to the front into the next stride.

The hamstrings: These play a key role during the recovery phase as they contribute to lifting the heel up behind the body and then control its forward momentum, once the foot moves to being in front of the hips and before the hips pull the foot back toward the ground in preparation for foot-strike. It is at this point that the hamstring is performing a lengthening under load, eccentric muscular action. If the hamstring muscles are not specifically eccentrically robust then strains may occur – the drills that follow are particularly suited to developing this particular requirement of hamstring strength.

(a) ‘Four’ drill

How to perform: Stand next to a rail or suitable-height object. Place your inside hand against it for balance. Position your inside leg’s foot slightly in advance of the other with the heel slightly lifted off the ground. Your other (standing) foot should be flat on the ground. Keeping your torso upright and your gaze straight ahead, use your hamstrings to pull your heel up to your bottom. Your knee will advance in front of your hips at the end position. Don’t swing the leg. Stop the movement (it’s this position which, when viewed from the side looks like a figure “four”). Focus all of your energy on firing your hamstrings, to pull your heel up and back.

Do: 3 x 10 on each leg.

Muscle firing: The term “muscle firing” has increasingly been gaining popularity in coaching articles. It refers to the rapidity of the interface between the neural signal sent from the athlete’s brain, reaching the muscle and the muscle then contracting (firing). Although a complex mechanism, involving the central nervous system, sprint drills can enhance the rate of muscle firing (neuromuscular capacity).

(b) Single leg cycling

How to perform: Stand tall. Lift your inside thigh to a position parallel to the ground – use a wall, railing or bench as a suitable object for balance. Sweep the leg down – using your hip flexors (the muscles at the top front of your leg/hip) and round dynamically pulling your heel up towards your bottom and then to the front of the hips, before sweeping it back down to the ground. Increase speed as confidence and specific strength develops.

The hip flexors – the key sprinting muscle: Ask many coaches and athletes what the key sprinting muscles are and they may well argue that they are the quadriceps or the glutes – however, it’s the hip-flexors. These muscles are crucial for a powerful and quick stride. They can be seen as the pivotal point (or rather muscle) of the running stride – spinning the legs below the hip and pulling them dynamically from rear to front over and over again. Conditioning these muscles appropriately will have a direct impact on improving sprint and running speed.

(c) Stationary leg cycling

How to perform: From standing, lift one leg to a thigh parallel to the ground position, extend your foreleg and sweep it down to the ground and under your hips while simultaneously pulling the heel of the other leg up towards your bottom and then to the fore.

Coordinate arms with legs and keep the chest elevated and do not lean back.

Repeat this combination of movements, which is similar to running on the spot.

Do: 4 x 20 seconds.

(d) Running leg cycling

How to perform: Begin to jog forward and start to cycle each leg so that your ankle passes close to or over the line of the knee of your other leg. Don’t lean back to lift your knees – if you are unable to perform the exercise without leaning back, don’t lift your knees beyond the point at which leaning back would occur. With practice and through the development of the relevant strength you’ll be able to perform the drill correctly. Coordinate your arms with your legs, keep your chest elevated and look straight ahead. Focus on pulling your foot back (dorsi-flexed) under your hips to pull you forward rapidly over and into each stride.

Do: 4 x 20m.

Progression: After 10m gradually extend each leg cycle so that you begin to run more normally, focusing on the foot-strike and rotation of the legs on each stride.

3. Drive phase

The greater the force exerted against the running surface, the faster the speed that will be generated. The leg drive is crucial in this respect. This occurs when the grounded leg extends to push you forward after foot-strike and the stance phase and ends in toe-off (ankles extended). It’s best to avoid over-emphasising the leg drive when sprinting (or running at slower speeds) as this can invariably lead to the hips dropping and a loping type of running stride and you’ll also expend more energy. By performing specific leg-drive drills you will increase your propulsion and your running speed. Drive drills are highly useful for improving acceleration.

(a) Wall leg drives

How to perform: Stand facing a wall with hands against it at shoulder-height. Walk your feet back so you’re your body is leaning in a straight line at about 45-degree angle. Lift one thigh up so that it is at right angles to the hips and its lower leg at right angles to its knee. Drive your foot dynamically back toward the ground to strike it slightly behind your standing foot and then dynamically return the thigh to the start position.

Do: 3 x 10 reps (on each leg).

(b) Speed bounds

How to perform: Mark out a distance of 20m. Start with your legs hip-width apart. Dynamically drive one leg behind you to push yourself forward. Without extending the foot of your other leg too far in advance of its knee, bring it back in a piston-like action, to perform another drive. Continue “driving” over the track as described to complete the 20m distance, focusing on pushing yourself horizontally and not vertically. Dorsiflex your feet on each footstrike and try to make each contact as light and as quick as you can. Coordinate your arms with your legs and don’t look down.

Do: 4 x 20m.

4. Arm action drills

If you are an endurance runner, you don’t need to pump your arms like a sprinter when on a long run. However, whatever your speed, a powerful yet relaxed arm drive and carriage will increase your speed potential.

(a) Lunge position sprint arm action

How to perform: Take a large step forward into a lunge. Both knees should be bent to 90 degrees. Keep the knee of your front leg over its ankle and the knee of the rear leg a few centimetres from the floor. With your chest elevated, drive your arms backwards and forwards as if sprinting. Maintain a 90-degree angle at your elbows and your shoulders square on to the front, chin parallel to the ground and eyes looking forward. Your hands should reach a position in line with your eyes to the front of your body with upper arms parallel to the floor behind. You will move your arms faster if you do not force the movement.

Do: 4 x 30 seconds with a 60-second recovery (2 sets each with a right and leftleg lunge lead).

(b) 20m run with arms parallel to the ground and 20m using arms normally
Although you may encounter some odd looks, this is a very effective drill for enhancing your arm action.

How to perform: Run for 20m with your arms held out to the sides at shoulder-height and parallel to the track, then let your arms fall and move them as described in the previous drill so that they boost your running for a further 20m.

» John Shepherd is an ex-international athlete, coach and the editor of ultra-FIT magazine.

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