What You See Is – INCLINE SPRINT DRILLS
If you take a look at the illustration you can see a common exercise used as part of sprint development, particularly in relation to the drive phase after the start. It belongs in a family of related incline exercises such as hill sprints, stairs, sled pulling and pushing, scrambles and short blast exercises using blocking dummies etc.
I encountered this particular version of the drill, captured here at mid-stance, at a competition, as the athlete was preparing for a sprint race. I see it at workshops, training sessions, online and sometimes at competitions. Along with a few friends she was leaning against a fence doing one version of the drill. In its classic form the exercise is used to develop the hip extend-flex scissor action required for sprints and scrambles for short distances. Mechanically the hip extension of the glute-hams is matched with the hip flexion of the deep flexors of the other leg. In this case the arms are taken out of action as they are pushing against a wall or fence, so theoretically the hips need to do more work to establish rhythm. If this coordinated rhythm isn’t developed the athlete doesn’t start quickly and cannot maintain max speed for long. There are many training designs including freeze-frames, zones, ladders, pyramids and timed intervals. In this case the athlete was using a continuous interval.
The feature which caught my attention was the up-down bobbing action that the small group was using to complete the task. I zeroed in on dynamic posture and then the action at the ankle joint. My concerns are expressed from these views with acknowledgement that other areas may need work.
Look at the basic posture that the athlete adopts at mid-stance. The drive leg is straight, the hips are bent and the foot is flattened to the ground. Further, the free leg is coiled and the free foot is quite neutral or slightly plantar-flexed. I mentioned the rhythm that attracted attention and observe that the main reason for the bobbing is that the ankle joint is doing most of the work. The athlete is bouncing from foot to foot using the air time to exchange legs. If we inserted illustrations of pre-post phases to the mid-stance you would see that the hip angle wouldn’t change much and the foot-strike sequence would be toe-heel-toe because of the knee drive. Just reading the toe-heel-toe sequence tells me that the motion is slower than is required for effective sprinting. It also allows for a slower free leg action. In short, the training objective of developing the hip scissor action has been compromised.
When I look at the ankle joint action I get a shiver. The excessive ankle actions with a bent hip angle are a prescription for injury. Essentially the ankle-knee part of the chain is working as the main leg extension mechanism rather than the hips. To accomplish a hip dominated move at speed the ankle and foot adopt stiffness so that the forces generated at the hips aren’t dissipated at the ankle. The soleus-achilles complex needs to work as a stabiliser for the ankle (in partnership with the Anterior Tibs) rather than as a prime mover. If the demand is on the Soleus to act as mover then the achilles tendon gets worn out.
One ankle joint move leads to another, and in this case the flattening of the foot at mid-stance leads to a push-off style of performance that cannot achieve a dorsiflexed recovery prior to the next landing. The overall impression is that of floppy ankles that are dominated by a quad-knee extension with every stride.
The athlete performing a training drill incorrectly is feeding a start or scramble technique that has faulty movement patterns. With respect to dynamic posture a bent hip will be weaker and the athlete will likely run with a push-push style that is quad dominant. To avoid falling over the athlete learns to reach out with the lower leg prior to landings and place the toes first. With floppy, inactive ankles the foot slams the ground sending shock up the shins to the knees. Another compensation move is that the arms tend to rock from side to side and paddle rather than drive from the shoulders.
The push-push style of sprinting is often seen with sport actions that require a short burst for 5-20m or a drive phase for a longer race. The legs often do a crossover pattern and the body will lurch from side to side to avoid the full load. Sadly, it’s a learned skill, just as correct movement patterns are learned and trained.
The concern is that athletes who cannot perform a developmental exercise correctly are missing the ‘indicator-remedy’ factor that is part of many training selections. Instead of refining and growing by using the exercise they are solidifying a pattern that increasingly limits their performance.
There are several ways a coach or athlete could approach the dilemma of faulty movement development in an exercise that is supposed to promote development. In actuality many athletes use a body lean that is far greater than their postural and shoulder strength can manage. The tension and fatigue from the shoulders and mid-back creates tension down through the body to the hips. The same problems exist with sleds and hills or even MedBalls; athletes are given incremental loads or angles that are beyond their movement capabilities. So, changing the angle of attack to something the athlete can manage with a clear sensation of explode-unload with each step is a good place to start.
The basic body posture also needs to be altered so that, like all good sprints or scrambles, the athlete can draw an unjointed line between ankle-hip-shoulder-head at toeoff. With that in mind a coach or athlete observing a bent or lurching pattern can intervene and either correct or limit the exercise. With such a high neurological component involved in performance it doesn’t make sense that an athlete would simply complete a set or sets using incorrect or compensatory moves.
Related to posture is the use of the shoulders. If the athlete doesn’t have the strength to hold a fixed shoulder-arm position they will compensate with a slouched or bent body. Tension in the shoulders can often be seen with tension in the face and neck. If you can see tension in the neck you can be assured that there is tension in the mid and lower back that is limiting what the hips can do. Strengthening the shoulders so that they can support the dynamics happening at the hips is worth the work or homework.
Intervention at the foot-ankle level is also a probability. In all likelihood athletes whose feet flatten out and with each hip-knee drive, or who have learned a faulty toe-heel-toe pattern from a younger age need work on the mechanics and neuromuscular components of their running and jumping activities. If there is a need for speed the ankle joint and all the connections down to the big toe need to be able to stiffen their mobility just before touch-down. In this way forces generated by the hips are more likely to go through to the ground and not dissipate at the ankle or big toe. Doing work at an incline is harder on the ankle joint and foot because the stretched lower leg musculature is at the weaker end of their strength spectrum. Doing drills in a more vertical pose as a precursor can focus on the ankle joint and the timing of the stiffness-relax cycle.
And finally, look at the hips and their involvement in force generation. A history of faulty movement patterning may take some time to correct, with the hips taking on a major emphasis. Most of us move with some limitations to hip extension and flexion simply because we tend to sit too much. So, performing other hops, bounds and leaps with a full hip extension would help the athlete move from vertical posture drills to inclines.
I often see young athletes doing incline drills like this one, when clearly they don’t have the mechanics or movement literacy to perform them correctly. The exercise, and others in the incline family, is hard work demanding a good level of background fitness and proficiency to be performed correctly. Seeing a high level athlete do the drill or being shown the drill at a workshop does not endorse it for all.
It would be better for the athlete if the movement were deconstructed or adapted to their stage and training age. With a little creativity the developmental progression that leads to a demanding and challenging training movement can be employed so that the athlete grows towards that end. Trying to imitate a high end move in the hopes that it will result in high level performance is what I call ‘faction’; the nugget of truth, the facts, are given a smidgen of fantasy and dreaming. The result is mostly fiction and a process that limits participation through plateau or pain.
The challenge then is not to keep looking for new and exciting secrets of training, but to look at existing movements and training selections and resourcefully adapt them for the athletes who are going to use them.