“Nailing” perfect sprint technique; high knee, quick recovery and toes up with one simple tip

I absolutely do not consider myself an expert on sprinting as it, at least by track & field terms, is not something I have done my entire life. But what I do consider myself quite an expert on is biomechanics and applying well researched concepts to actual sports specific training. And with the title of the blog containing “Keep It Simple Stupid” I am quite a sucker for simple tips and tricks, which is exactly what this is.

I have never been a particularly bad sprinter, meaning that I was always able to run rather fast and accelerate very quickly. Having always been fascinated by sprinters this ability has somewhat stuck with me through all my different sports and training methodologies. But starting track and field sprinting really opened my eyes to how much specific technique and applied methodologies that are to a great 100m race.

I can pinpoint numerous things I am working on to reduce my 100m times, but one of the things that I really found hard to comprehend was the notion of the high knee lift. How could lifting my knee higher in any way improve my speed? For all I could see it would take longer for me to lift the knee meaning a reduction in frequency – the knee lift in itself did not from my view yield any result. The high knee lift had to come from something else. Adding to my skepticism I think that I had read somewhere that the high knee lift came as a result of the force production on the ground – meaning more force production = higher knee lift and not that the knee lift in itself “did anything”. This sort of made sense to me until I read a piece that totally shattered that view.

Another common advice getting thrown around is to recover your leg quickly and keep your heel close to your butt when recovering your leg. What this advice ends up doing is mimicking “butt-kicks” which is actually not what we are looking for. We are not trying to recover the heel all the way up to the back of the butt, but we are trying to make the lever as short as possible to quickly recover the leg and have it ready for the next step. A better analogy is keeping the heel close to the hamstring which is actually closer to what we are trying to obtain.

Finally there is the “toes pointing up” that comes together with the high knee lift – this puts tension on the calves and enables for a more explosive force-development through the ankle by way of the “stretch reflex”. These three things along with numerous other techniques is what the new athlete has to think about while sprinting max effort – and oh – remember to relax while you’re doing it…

There is actually great debate as to exactly what makes for the perfect sprinting technique. All scientific papers seems to have a very hard time really pinpointing what the “right” technique is, but one thing that seems to stand out across all scientific papers is the fact that all great sprinters have very short ground contact in common. Thereby saying that they are able to produce tremendous amount of force in a very short timeframe and then quickly recover the leg.

What I was not able to comprehend was as said earlier how lifting my knees higher could help achieve any of this. But luckily someone explained it to me in a way that made biomechanical sense to me.

Getting your knees higher achieves a longer travel for your foot to enable it to punch the ground harder. This is the same analogy as if you were to punch a sandbag really hard, you would not start with your hand 1 inch away from it – you would pull it back and then punch. The same goes for high knee lift – what you are doing is pulling your knee higher in order to explosively and violently punch the ground harder.

When this was explained to me, it suddenly made sense. The reason for teaching high knee lift is that it has been found to be the way you can punch the ground hardest and produce the most amount of force. Now my brain was on track with why – then the next step was how?

Luckily there is a little tip that at least for me made everything just click. High knees, quick recovery close to the hamstring and toes pointing up. The very simple tip is to imagine that there is a long nail sticking out of your opposite knee that you need to step over each time you recover your leg. If you do this, even just walking slowly you will realize that in order to do so your toes will automatically point upwards to get over “the nail” and you automatically pull your heel close to your hamstring and not back up towards your butt and finally in order to get “all the way over” this imaginary nail you need to pull your knee high – in short everything that is taught as good sprinting technique. Try it out for yourself – for me i just sort of made everything click – so hopefully it can do the same for you.

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