Some time ago I was coaching jumpers in a shared facility that was also being used by a group of adult rugby players. At the time they were doing some kind of speed-agility circuit work that went from exercise to exercise with little rest. Two of the elements caught my attention: stair sprints and running quickly on the spot. The sheer size of the athletes perhaps exaggerated their style, and it made me think about younger athletes and how we use these and similar activities such as stair hops and hill sprints. I tried a little experiment with a group of younger sprinters. Using a drill I call ‘Staccato Sprints’ we used repeat 3m intervals to run as fast as possible and then relax for 6m. I walked slowly along the stretch to ensure that the sprint sections contained a large number of contacts. Without instruction all of the group lowered their hips into a sitting posture to move quickly and then stood up in the relaxed phase. This was exactly what I’d observed with the rugby players; when the instruction was to simply move the feet as fast as possible they took the hips out of the formula by sitting down. So, with the next series I added the cue of staying as tall as possible through the whole series. The result? Chaos. Arms and legs lost coordination, rhythms were upset and everyone pitter-pattered at a slower rate with one leg faster than the other.
The same thing happened with stair sprints and hops. Just as I witnessed with the big guys the hips never fully extended. With a concern for getting to the top quickly a light footstep and quad dominant leg pumping is preferred to staying tall and using the hips.
In the sports and events I coach moving the feet is necessary but only as a function of velocity. Moving the centre of mass as fast as possible is the objective. Top sprinters can move their arms and legs at about 4-5 strides per second as part of their speed, but that’s only part of the formula. Stride length and force-time on the ground are also trained so that the entire body is involved.
Our hips (front and back) are the big movers. Closer to the centre of mass they are fan-shaped muscles with relatively short tendons. They can generate huge amounts of force in a short time that is translated to the feet in a whip-like action. The conditions for such power are optimal when the legs are extending like a whip. Any folding of the joints reduces power output. Unfortunately the hips need to trained for power: in our society where we sit too much the hips remain underdeveloped and as a result tend to come in late and leave early when it comes to power output.
Back to the experiment; I feel that the chaos of staying tall wasn’t a result of an incorrect pattern, only one that hadn’t been done before. In fact, after a couple of efforts and the inclusion of other related drills using the same cues a new pattern developed that was truly fast. So the rugby players were simply repeating a pattern they’d done for years. I saw a promotional picture of an international rugby team in training and to my surprise, of 5 players only one was using their hips to full advantage; the other four were sitting with the hips and using quad power. This isn’t a slam against the sport: we all do this unless taught otherwise.
Try this little awareness experiment on yourself: walk up a flight of stairs at your preferred rate and style. Almost invariably you will tilt the upper body forwards, hold a low hip position and use knee lift and an open ankle joint to move up. Now try it in a tall position with limited ankle motion: to get to the top you will extend the leg using the hips. There will be less body tilt and you will have to dorsiflex your foot in order to avoid tripping as you lift your free leg. The sensation will be surprisingly different as you feel your centre of mass being elevated with each step.
I like to extend this sensation to work at speed and my favourite equipment for this is the mini-hurdle (agility hurdle, various heights) using a fairly low hurdle height and comfortable spacing. Now, instead of feeling your mass being elevated you feel it moving forwards.
Running through a series of 5-8 barriers a number of times is the foundation skill. Without any cue reference most athletes use a preferred style, and a large percentage will sit down and run through with an exaggerated knee lift, swinging legs and tentative or frozen arm actions. There is more kicking of the next hurdle as an inability to lift the foot up impedes flow. With a tall posture cue the initial efforts are mechanical and rigid but are soon smoother. Athletes remark that the intervals feel less taxing, smoother and easy. Foot placement issues resolve themselves and arms become synchronised to assist in the forward drive.
A piece of equipment such as mini-hurdles can be used with many speed and agility drills such as hops, leaps, shuffles, bounds and combinations. However, if they are never given the opportunity to move with efficiency and never given the chance to develop effective power then these variations have a higher than average chance of being done in a preferred style that feels fast but is in fact slower.
So the next time you are doing hills, stairs or quickness drills think about where the power needs to come from…