LEARNING TO RUN WITH ATTITUDE!
A long time ago I had the great fortune to listen to Gerard Mach during his years in Canada. He was a sprint guru and sprint coach who had systematised leg dynamic drills into A’s, B’s and C’s that were done regularly as preparation drills. His main purpose in using such drills was to develop what he termed ‘sprint posture’. I must confess right now that I completely missed that point. I caught most of the cues and coaching tips, and also the training systems. I loved listening to and watching him in action. What I missed was the translation of posture and only figured it out years later.
For me, and it was part of what was happening in health at the time, ‘posture’ related to lower spinal alignment and strength as the medical and health professions were beginning to wake up to the rise in low back problems due to sitting too much. What I missed in the translation was not due to Gerard speaking in a third or fourth language but the language of the times. If I was to say to you that these exercises would help with the sprinters’ attitude you might raise an eyebrow and get an image of behaviour patterns seen at the starting blocks before the starter says ‘on yer marks’. Well, I might be also referring to attitude in its original sense of relating to the list of the mast on a sailing vessel. Attitude and posture, in these contexts, is a dynamic description: what is happening during movement. For Gerard sprint posture was about effectiveness and efficiency in relation to speed as the athlete moved. It was not about a segment of the body; it was about the whole body.
The drills he systematised related to top speed running and the phases of the sprint stride. They have been interpreted and adapted over the years as sprint coaches have explored and experimented. In addition, since those times, technology has given all of us more tools to explore how people can run faster and faster. What he managed to do was take drills that were common enough during his time as a sprinter and apply a bit of science to them. His posture drills worked on ground reaction and two aspects of air time. From my view he was training the load-unload cycle that is common to all landings and takeoffs and making it precise. Without precision the sprinter is all over the track. Without precision the tennis player won’t get to the ball. Without precision the basketball player will miss almost every shot.
The classic ‘A’ drill looks like a quick march with its high knee action and fast arm swing, but the similarity to a march stops there. It would be as if you took a full sprint stride and squashed the length while keeping the frequency. In the background to the full speed drill are step and skip variants. If the strides are quite close together visual appearance to the move is more up-down. As the stride length increases the complexity of the cyclical path of the foot against the pendulum of the thigh becomes more obvious. The emphasis is not on the knee lift but on the ground contact and its velocity and loading. The leg action is not an extension or flexion in isolation: it is both together in a rhythmical cycle.
In my belief the ’A’ drill is one of a number of global exercises for training human movement at speed. Global because the whole body with all its chains of action are revealed. If you have a tight neck and shoulders it will become obvious. A difference in left-right dorsiflexion capabilities will show as a rhythm anomaly. Beyond showing up faults a system that incorporates Fast A’s that are performed correctly will become an indicator-remedy exercise. Faults are revealed and over time are corrected because of the cause and effect balancing that occurs with global exercises.
One of the things that happen with interpretation and translation is that we always take an incomplete picture and then apply descriptions that are incomplete. The next person who receives the information fills in gaps with their own experience. So, in a kind of reverse of the ‘six-degrees-of-separation’ connection we have in communication, diverse depictions of what an exercise is and does can happen within a few interpretations.
How this happens is simple… If I ask you to scan the room you are in for a moment and make a mental note of everything coloured green you may look around and pick up a number of items. Then I’ll ask you to close your eyes and try to verbally recall anything coloured orange. You may chuckle at the deception or squint as you try to retrieve mental information. The scan would have registered orange items at the eye level but then the brain filtered them out. We do it all the time. The same principle is true of exercises, workshops, books, websites, people we meet, and well, everything.
With the Fast A Drill that Gerard developed and systematised the result within a few short years has been disheartening. What you will likely see today are slower, sloppy, loose skipping variations with floppy ankles, dumpy posture and flailing arms. Doing A’s has gone from a specific workout inclusion to being a generic warming or competition prep thing that everyone does without knowing why. What was once a highly disciplined approach to sprint training has become a sloppy shuffle that could be a Monty Pythons ‘silly walk’.
The goofy cartoon used here was actually derived from looking at a web search for running drills, and if you strip away the cartoon aspects you can see this variation of the ‘funky chicken’ at any track or with athletes doing the same drill along an agility ladder. Unfortunately ‘As ye train, so shall ye compete’.
The real problem is contribution. There is only a limited time available for athletic training, even if you are a pro, because of recovery principles. For most coaches in most sports the contact time is limited to a few hours. Once committed to performance and growth coaches and athletes would not knowingly use an exercise that was a waste of time, or worse, a performance constraint. And yet, that’s exactly what sloppy technique applications give you. Without the discipline and precision of movement a faulty pattern becomes dominant.
Many coaches avoid using A drills (or their variations) because of the limited value that faulty applications provide. But if you do use them or want to use them how might a coach or athlete ensure that good technique was applied? In my view there are three main areas to consider that will give rise to the dozens of other sprint posture cues.
Extent is the first consideration. Like interval or extensive running many athletes cannot hold their best technique for longer than about 30 strides. Within the folklore of A running is Irena Szewinska doing A drills for 200m and of Charlie Frances’ group holding heavy plates while performing them. These are exceptional, if true. For most athletes 10m is a good place to start. Doing sets rather than extensive distances is preferable. The average stride length is about 3 strides per metre, with a quicker cadence at 4 per metre. Most athletes cover too much ground and this type of regulation of stride length returns the athlete to the objective of maintaining a tall sprint posture.
Ground reaction is the second consideration. Good sprint strides generally use 5-8 times body mass of force using a landing and takeoff that occurs in less than 0.12 seconds (0.10 if you are getting very fast…). These types of force and time will not happen with an A drill that uses a floppy ankle, heel strike, rolling skip or light touch. The emphasis is on the ‘down’ action of the leg and the ankle is stiff but not rigid. To do this without slamming the foot into the ground requires the learned skill of pre-anticipation in the 0.05 seconds before contact. Here we see where good sprinting is highly neuromuscular and precise. This factor will likely be the one which determines the limits of a training session. When the lower leg mechanism begins to fail the landing-takeoff times become longer and the rhythm is altered. Time to stop.
Tall posture is the third consideration. Being able to hold a tall but relaxed posture as you move the legs and arms at near max rhythms is a learned skill. In addition the athlete needs to maintain a slight forward lean without a bend at the hips or neck so that A drills, like running, are a ‘controlled fall’. This aspect of training can take a great deal of time; an investment in growth really. The athlete may start with the head and neck and move down the body to ensure that the muscles that are contracting are the ones being used. Excess tension slows the athlete down. In the context of sprinting actions this erosion can be seen with almost any sport that requires a competitive scramble to break past an opponent (rugby, basketball, football, hockey as examples). When you see facial strain and neck tension you can be certain that the hips are dropping, the knees lifting rather than driving down, and that overall posture has slumped. A push-push style is the compensation used to complete the task.
A developmental drill I like to use is an adaptation of the classic A drill, using mini-Hurdles of about 15-20cm height and spaced 4-5-6 footsteps apart. I need to state that these are not quite the same format as used with a classic drill, but many of the factors required for high speed A’s can be developed here.
First, mini-Hurdles regulate stride length. I use 4-5-6 footsteps apart in order to allow one footplant between each hurdle. If the hurdles are too close the athlete skitters over them in an agility action which has no force and emphasises hurdle-avoidance. If too far apart the action starts to look like hurdling with a bound and poor posture. If I’m dealing with younger ages (and shorter feet-legs) I let them measure the footsteps. Hurdles are always fairly low so that regulated striding rather than hurdle clearance is the objective. A regulated stride length allows rhythm to develop; if the rhythm changes the athlete learns to self-correct.
Next, a few sets of mini-Hurdle strides will help develop the complex neuromuscular timing and coordination required for other sprint drills. In order to progress to the end of the series (about 6-8 hurdles) the athlete needs to use their hips to propel them. If the ankle is not stiff they have to lift the free leg and reach forwards. Swinging the leg forwards using the Rec Femoris will likely kick the next hurdle, so the athlete learns to pick the foot up, dorsiflex immediately after toe-off and reactively swing the thigh forwards in preparation for the next landing.
Finally, a structured set of high knee drills will encourage tall posture with no excess tension. At first all athletes are tentative and freeze the shoulders, kick hurdles and mistime the rhythm. Within a few rounds the timing is precise, the athlete is anticipating where the ground is and posture is tall. The glutes and deep hip flexors learn to contract and relax in concert. If athletes are tired or if posture is eroding they will know immediately. Within time they also learn that when posture erodes it’s time to stop because kicking the hurdles is the consequence of compensatory striding.
These are great lessons to take forwards into training and then performing: extent, precision and limits. In this way the extended value of global drills such as the A’s begins to shine. Regular performance of drills that are not sprinting themselves but contribute to how the athlete carries themselves at max speed have even greater value if the athlete intuitively learns not only when the sensations of technique begin to erode but more importantly the sensations of how their best technique simply flows out of them.