There are seemingly countless athletic qualities that enable sprinters to run fast, but one that is often not considered is the contribution of elastic strength.
Before getting into what elastic strength is, what it can do to help sprinters run faster, and how to improve it, let’s break down three basic components of sprinting: stride frequency, stride length, and ground contact time.
Stride frequency refers to how quickly an athlete changes their ground support from one foot to the other. Ben Tabachnik, Ph.D., is the Russian sprint coach who popularized the use of parachutes for sprint training in the U.S. In the book he co-authored with Rick Brunner, Soviet Training and Recovery Methods, Tabachnik says that the most important time to develop speed and quickness is between the ages of 8 and 13. Neurologist Harold L. Klawans, M.D., would agree with him.
The most important time to develop speed and quickness is between the ages of 8 and 13.
In his book, Why Michael Couldn’t Hit, Klawans said that to master athletic activities with a high skill component, those activities must be performed while the brain is maturing. Regarding his book title, Klawans explained that because Michael Jordan didn’t focus on baseball during his early years, he was not able to achieve a high level of skill (at least, compared to basketball) when he took up the sport professionally in 1994.
Citing research on violinists, Klawans said scientists “…found that those fiddlers who started playing early in life (age thirteen or younger) activated larger and more complex circuits in their brains than those who started learning to play their instrument later in life. Those who hadn’t started by thirteen never caught up. The circuits they activated were smaller, less complex, and more restricted. The time frame during which their brains could be guided to select those circuits had come and gone and left them forever without that ability.”
The lesson here is that if parents want their kids to be able to run fast, they should encourage them at an early age to participate in sports that require them to sprint.
Stride length refers to how much distance is covered with two steps. In 1991, track and field legend Carl Lewis needed to take 43 steps to establish his world record of 9.86 seconds in the 100 meters. At the 2008 Olympic Games, Usain Bolt needed just 41.4 steps to cover that distance, and as a result, shattered the world record with a time of 9.69. The following year the World’s Fastest Man covered the 100m in 40.92 steps and crossed the finish line with a world record time of 9.58.
A bigger muscle is generally a more powerful muscle, and as such, one of the keys to increasing stride length is to get stronger so that the athlete can apply more force into the ground to propel their body forward. Support for this idea comes from a study on the physical qualities of high-level track athletes that was published in the Journal of Experimental Biology in 2005. The researchers found that runners who excelled in the shorter events possessed considerably more muscle mass than those in the longer events.
One of the keys to increasing stride length is to get stronger. CLICK TO TWEET
Vertical and horizontal jumps are practical tests to determine an athlete’s leg power. If you test the vertical and horizontal jumps of discus throwers and shot putters on a typical track team, you’ll find their results often exceed those of the high jumpers—this is despite their considerably larger muscle mass. Case in point: 1988 Olympic shot put champion Ulf Timmermann of East Germany.
Timmermann recorded the second-longest distance of all time with a put of 75.65 feet (23.06 meters). Timmermann was powerful and brutally strong, reportedly being able to clean 485 pounds and squat 805 pounds. At a bodyweight of 262 pounds, he vertical jumped 36 inches and did a standing long jump of 11 feet, 2 inches. There are many more examples.
Former U.S. shot putter and discus thrower Ken Patera was the first American to clean and jerk 500 pounds. He did a standing long jump of 11 feet at a bodyweight of 335 pounds—talk about your Incredible Hulk!
Then there’s Adam Nelson, a U.S. shot putter who won gold in the 2004 Olympics. At a bodyweight of 260 pounds, Nelson had a vertical jump of 39.5 inches and could standing long jump over 11 feet. Nelson said that at a training camp before the 2004 Olympics, he got into a standing long jump contest with Dwight Phillips, a long jumper from the U.S. who won Olympic gold that year. In an interview that appeared on the Juggernaut Training Systems website, Nelson said they “…finished pretty much dead even.”
As for lighter power athletes, Yuri Vardanyan, a Russian Olympic champion in weightlifting who clean and jerked 494 at a bodyweight of 181, reportedly high jumped 7 feet using a three-step approach and a forward takeoff. Romania’s Nicu Vlad, the 1984 Olympic champion who snatched 442 at a bodyweight of 220, did a 43-inch vertical jump. Just type in “Olympic lifters jumping” on YouTube and you’ll find many videos of weightlifters performing impressive jumps.
In addition to being able to apply force into the ground to propel a body upward and horizontally, strength is especially important to the start of a sprint. Brian Oldfield was a 280-pound shot putter who put the shot 75 feet. In the 1976 “Superstars” invitational competition, he ran the 100-yard dash against Superbowl X MVP wide receiver Lynn Swann; Oldfield was stride-for-stride for the first 20 yards. Likewise, Vardanyan’s comrade David Rigert, an Olympic champion who broke 65 world records, reportedly ran the 100 meters in 10.4 seconds. Again, these athletes are not sprinters, but heavily muscled power athletes.
Before going any further, I need to address the relationship between power and muscle mass—a strength coach does not want to turn their sprinters into bodybuilders. Bodybuilding protocols use relatively higher repetitions and medium weights, and these methods do not create the highest levels of muscle tension needed to produce force quickly. Let me explain.
Bodybuilding makes athletes stronger, but power methods enable them to display that strength faster. CLICK TO TWEET
A study was published in Experimental Physiology in 2015 that looked at muscle fiber biopsies of bodybuilders and power athletes such as weightlifters. The researchers found that the training methods of power athletes increased muscle fiber quality and the ability to produce high levels of tension, whereas bodybuilding methods were found to be detrimental in enabling athletes to create maximal muscle tension. Yes, bodybuilding methods will make athletes stronger, but they will not be able to display that strength as quickly as if they used power methods. As Iron Game athletes are fond of saying, “Bodybuilders try to look good and weightlifters try to do good!” Now let’s explore ground contact time and the concept of elastic strength.
Ground Contact Time
Ground contact time refers to the ability of an athlete to exert forces to stop the descent (leg flexion/absorption) and project the body into the air (leg extension/reversal of efforts). The shorter the ground contact time, the quicker sprinters leave the ground, thus decreasing the time it takes to complete a sprint and helping to ensure optimal running mechanics.
Ralph Mann, Ph.D., and Amber Murphy, MS, wrote the classic textbook on sprinting, The Mechanics of Sprinting and Hurdling. Here is what they said about the importance of ground contact time, “Since the Ground Phase of the Sprint is the only time when the athlete can apply force to alter the Body’s Velocity, it is not surprising that this is where great Sprint results are produced.”
If you analyze leg motion prior to touchdown, the better sprinters minimize flexion at touchdown and switch immediately into leg extension. Consider that at the 2009 World Championships, Bolt ran 9.58 and Dwain Chambers finished sixth with 10.00. I understand that during this race Bolt had nearly half the degree of leg flexion as Chambers, and his total ground contact time was significantly faster than Chambers’ time. One reason for the difference was Bolt’s superior elastic strength.
Elastic strength is the ability of tissues to absorb, store, and release energy. The more energy these tissues release, the faster and more powerful the movement. But instead of just looking at the actions of muscles, consider that high levels of elastic strength can be produced by connective tissues, especially tendons.
Tendons should not be thought of as simply rigid cables that connect muscle to bone. Tendons have elastic qualities that can assist the muscles in producing power by acting as “biological springs” that compress and elongate. In fact, kangaroos have long tendons on their hind legs that can store up to 10 times more energy than their muscles. These animals are especially efficient at producing movement because tendons do not need oxygen to work and do not fatigue. Now let’s consider activities that can reduce elastic strength.
Tendons have elastic qualities that can assist the muscles in producing power. CLICK TO TWEET
According to sports scientist Bud Charniga, the use of athletic tape may interfere with the tendon’s ability to absorb and redirect force, and thus may be a direct cause of ankle and knee injuries. Writing in the Sep-Dec 2017 issue of the European Weightlifting Federation Scientific Magazine, Charniga said during the first week of the 2011 NFL season, 13 players suffered Achilles ruptures. How can this be, as this should be the time when a football player’s body should be the healthiest? Athletic tape is often used as a preventative measure in football—perhaps there’s a connection? Another concern is the extensive use of foam rolling, which may reduce the elastic qualities of connective tissues such as tendons and fascia.
In addition to questionable sports medicine practices, Charniga believes that focusing on partial-range exercises, such as parallel squats rather than full squats and power cleans rather than full cleans, may cause tendons to lose their elasticity and thus make them more susceptible to injury. The same can be said of isometrics. Russian sports scientist A. I. Falameyev in 1986 said that workouts using this type of muscle contraction could exert “…a negative influence on joint mobility, muscle and tendon elasticity.”
Getting back to sprinting, there are many weight training exercises that can improve elastic strength. To avoid excess knee flexion after the foot touches the ground, squats and lunges are good because they emphasize eccentric (i.e., braking) strength. To decrease the time between leg flexion and leg extension, barbell and hex bar squat jumps are effective. There is much more to be said on this subject, but these exercises are a good place to start.
Classic Olympic lifts like the clean and jerk best develop the strength qualities of sprinting. CLICK TO TWEET
As for the exercises that give you the most “bang for your buck” in developing all the strength qualities of sprinting, the classic Olympic lifts (snatch and clean and jerk) top the list. Note that I didn’t say partial Olympic lifting exercises, such as hang power cleans and pulls. There are also special flywheel-type resistance training machines that are ideal for developing elastic strength. Some of these machines provide the optimal amount of eccentric load at high velocity during dynamic movements. My strength coaching colleague, Paul Gagné from Canada, used these machines for eight years with over 100 elite athletes representing 15 sports and achieved remarkable results.
It’s often true that talent prevails and many outstanding sprinters do not lift weights, and we will never know if they were successful “because of this approach or in spite of it.” But the preponderance of research and real-world observation suggests that strength training programs, especially those that emphasize elastic strength, can help sprinters achieve physical superiority.
Header image by Bruce Klemens.