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Sprinting: Training, Techniques and Improving Performance
Sprinting: Training, Techniques and Improving Performance
Sprinting: Training, Techniques and Improving Performance
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Sprinting: Training, Techniques and Improving Performance

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A huge amount of time, planning and preparation goes into creating a world-class sprinter. Sprinting - Training, Techniques and Improving Performance is an essential guide for all athletes at the beginning or development stages of their sprint careers who are committed to running faster. The book covers all sprint events from 60metres to 400 metres, as well as the hurdles and relay; principles of biomechanics, limiting factors and potential areas of capability; training and planning; prehab and avoiding injuries; practical nutritional advice and strength and conditioning. Whatever your level, this book provides valuable advice that will help you achieve your goal. Foreword by Daley Thompson CBE. Fully illustrated with 150 colour photographs.
Release dateSep 30, 2013
Sprinting: Training, Techniques and Improving Performance
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    Sprinting - Chris Husbands


    Sprinting is just running as fast as you can from A to B – or is it? This book will benefit all levels of readers, but is primarily aimed at the athlete in the ‘foundation’ and ‘development’ stage of their involvement with and understanding of sprinting. You may already be competing in club athletics or thinking about joining a club, for example, or just aiming to get quicker for another sport or event. In addition to revealing much about sprinting this book will also make you aware of the benefits of sprint training or high intensity exercise that aid peak fitness in the arena of everyday life. Whatever your level, my aim is to take you through the various components that you will find helpful to make a significant improvement to your performance. I hope you will find it an interesting and informative read.

    Unfortunately we can’t all be Usain Bolt. But even he had to start somewhere. You may not be anywhere near his quality but you could make massive improvements to your performance in your chosen sprint discipline. The fact that you are reading this tells me that your performance matters to you considerably. Bolt may have sprinted into the record books but many top sprint experts believe he has not yet reached his full potential. A view that is almost certainly true if you study his form and ask any top sprint biomechanics expert.

    The 100m sprint may appear a simple event – run as fast as you can in a straight line from the start to the finish line – but a massive amount of time, planning and preparation goes into creating a world-class sprinter.

    Some would say speed is an inborn natural talent and it is only this that makes you a successful athlete. This view, as we now know, is not totally correct, and can be misleading and demotivating for many. True, inborn talent is probably the main factor, but it is not the only one. The idea that only natural talent can make the difference is probably one of the reasons why our sport has suffered for so long, to the benefit of other sports. This view, which can prevent many of us from pushing ourselves to succeed in sport, in business and in life, needs changing – fast. Some of us aren’t even aware we have talent.

    Think of Jesse Owens, who competed in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Such was his performance that many believed he possessed a genetic blueprint of superior sprint genes. This belief was further reinforced by the Nazis who claimed that, as Owens was black and according to them therefore closer to animals than humans, he held an unfair advantage over European sprinters. Those outrageous beliefs are thankfully behind us, but they did influence much subsequent thinking.

    Sports science as we know it today was not widely available in those days, many athletes performed on talent alone. Things have moved on, however, and we have witnessed great sportsmen and women refuse to accept invisible boundaries and not listen to those who like to say ‘we can’t’, ‘you shouldn’t’ or ‘it’s impossible’.

    Just imagine if Bolt had listened to such advice and had chosen a different sport because he was ‘too tall and gangly’ to run fast. Instead, someone somewhere in his family and a coach with foresight believed in him and encouraged him. Frighteningly, he could still go faster, and possibly also tackle other speed events such as the longer 400m sprint. His speed over the ground could also make him a colossal long or triple jumper. He does however have a slight spinal condition called scoliosis (curvature of the spine), so the impact from jumps may not be the best for his body biomechanically, but then you could say the same about impact of sprinting. Athletes such as Bolt do not see barriers; they only see a hurdle to get over.

    There are wider influences that can also make a difference. It seems now that Jamaica is the place to be to get elite sprinter development. There are some who say the secret to Bolt’s success lay in his environment. In addition to the training methods used, the social and community influence plays a big role in nurturing sprint talent. You will see thousands of spectators at school championships in Jamaica. The winners of these events are looked on as mini stars. Encouragement and support plays a big role in addition to popularity, desire and motivation to compete.

    Somehow it is difficult to see anything close to that popularity for the sport here in the UK. Athletics is such a poor relation to football, cricket and rugby, and the latter two are seen as poor relations to football. They love football in Jamaica too, but maybe they realized very early on that athletics, and sprinting in particular, is a key foundation to many sports and not just football. We need a new approach to the spectator side of athletics in the UK, as well as lots more TV coverage on major networks.

    Building the foundation for enhanced performance starts in our schools, parks, streets and communities. US sprint legend and BBC pundit Michael Johnson, in his book Gold Rush (Harper Sport, 2011), recalled competing in community blocks sprint races, which shaped his desire and hunger to improve his performance.

    Speed is such a crucial element in almost every athletic sport. As you will hardly have failed to notice, those athletes that move quickest generally win. So this book discusses the importance of speed and looks at why and how sprint training can make such a difference to other sports, general fitness and weight management.

    Yes, good sprinters are born with a gift of some natural speed, but the best sprinters are the ones who take that natural speed and develop it into fully fledged competitive talent. It all begins with improving your own ‘PB’ (Personal Best).

    As many athletes will have experienced, the demands to improve on speed over shorter distances are just as challenging as the need to manage speed well over longer distances. Sebastian (now Lord) Coe used to raise a few eyebrows when during his formative years at Loughborough University he started to use weights to help in his middle-distance events, but this is now copied widely due to his successes. Paula Radcliffe and Mo Farah use various strategic methods to boost their performance, including strength and speed training. Having the ‘power’ to use speed as a weapon in the last kick to the tape is now a well-known technique – just watch how fast elite middle-and long-distance athletes finish the last 400 or 200 metres of their races.

    The specialist sprinter will of course deal in smaller but just as important margins, down to tenths or hundredths of a second for the high-class performer. In the sprints everything happens so fast, so a mistake at the start blocks will impact dramatically on any sprint race. This is just as true for the novice as it is for the elite performer; we all have a PB to target. These small improvements can be called ‘marginal gains’, which is a buzz phrase in performance centres now, used to great success within the GB track cycling set-up with Dave Brailsford, and transferable to many sports.

    Whether you are a young athlete not yet matured, an adult athlete young or old, or a master’s athlete, improvements can be made. At the younger end of the scale, for the young sprint athlete, say, under thirteen years old, most improvements are neuromuscular, where the body improves through neural pathways being heightened and enhanced through repetition as well as some intramuscular adaptation. Technique, skill, coordination, balance and agility all are equally beneficial components in your tool box. Therefore it is very important that participation in many different types of activity and sport is encouraged to build the foundation for future performance enhancement.

    For junior and adult alike, sprinting will add even more to inter-muscular and intramuscular adaptation. In addition to muscle growth, this will be an aid to power and strength. As the junior athlete develops in chronological and training age, power and strength will begin to be a more dominant component as well as technique and skill. It’s never too early to start developing good technique and skills.

    Intramuscular means muscle activity such as contractions deep within the fibres of a muscle (as with a fast twitch). Inter-muscular relates to activity spreading from muscle to muscle via connections and joints, such as calf muscle and hamstring muscle movement through flexion of the knee.

    For the master’s sprint athlete (classified in the sport as thirty-five years and over), the neural pathways need constant activity. Muscle power and load, in addition to recovery also have to be managed more skilfully. It becomes a question of quality more than quantity of work. Injury prevention (prehab) as well as injury treatment (rehab) becomes a key component. Increased use of biomechanical screening is playing a big part in identifying potential problems in every age group.

    Maybe this is why many top sprint coaches believe that working at grassroots level with children is vital, not only for the child’s development but for the development of the sport as a whole. Loren Seagrave, a top coach and lecturer who has coached Canadian and Olympic champion Donovan Bailey, Gwen Torrence (US) and Joyce Maduaka (GB) amongst many, also has the view that the best coaches should spend time working with children so that the children can get started on a good foundation to enable them to progress more efficiently. Young people and children not only need this for sprint athletics, but for all sports. I share this view, which is why I make time to work with grassroots athletes at my club.

    Fig. 1  The Wheel of High Performance (adapted from Building High Performance Teams, Hays, 2004)

    Don’t worry if you have not had the opportunity to be coached well at a young age. The fact that you haven’t may well be the reason you have chosen to read this book now. It is never too late to make improvements. It just means you will have more factors to consider in the progress of your quest to train well and improve your performance.

    The elements of the Wheel of High Performance shown in Figure 1 are well represented by the chapters of this book and will all have an impact on improving your performance, from 60m to 400m and hurdles events. Feel free to jump to different chapters as areas of interest, but consider that at some point they will all be relevant to build an overall picture to support your needs and demands. You will learn about what to know, as well as how to perform and learn the best way for you. This will enable you to recognize your own development potential.

    This book will be dealing with methods that are current, safe and relevant; some may seem complicated but repetition of training will lead to better understanding. Some of these depend on genetic make-up and some on learnt behaviour. The above mentioned key attributes have always, and always will have an impact on performance. We just need to identify which ones you can tweak to make the difference for you, whichever sprint event you choose.

    I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I have enjoyed writing it. Take what advice and tips you need from it and enjoy improvements to your PBs and ultimately your own performances.



    There are records that point to evidence of Olympic events as far back as 776bc. Historically there were three central events: the stade, a 200yd (192m) sprint; the diaulos, an out-and-back style race at twice the stade distance; and a distance run called the dolichos, which would have been about 5,500yd (5,300m).

    Since the first modern Olympic Games (Athens, 1896) there have been three main sprint distances: 100m, 200m and 400m. These were initially imperial distances: the 100m was originally 100yd; the 200m was the furlong or 1/8 of a mile; and the 400m was 440yd. The first ever event of the first modern Olympics was the first heat of the 100m (not run by women until 1928), and since then its aura has remained. Olympic 100m champions are known as the fastest people on earth and the 100m is the Blue Ribbon sprint event, if not the overall highlight of any major athletics championship. Just look at any racing competition from schools to club level and it’s always the 100m sprint that attracts the most entrants or competitors. Although many sprinters also run the 60m (mostly run indoors now), and also the 150m, 200m, 300m and 400m, it is the 100m that is the best known sprint discipline.

    Valeriy Borzov, Russian athlete and top sprinter of the 1970s, had an almost machine-like approach to his training and was one of the first athletes to look at his event in a more scientific way. Borzov won the 100m and 200m titles at the ’72 Munich Olympics despite not being the obvious favourite. This could have been attributed to how he created an aura of invincibility, which put rivals at a psychological disadvantage from the start, but, more importantly, he was able to take advantage of a more scientific approach. At fourteen years old Borzov ran the 100m in 13.0 seconds. This was good but nothing special when compared to thousands of others at the same age.

    Fig. 2  Modern Olympics: The 2012 Olympic 100m champion, Usain Bolt.

    After eight years of diligent and intensive training with attention to detail and technique, he improved that time by three seconds. He was one of a new generation of sprinters who looked at the need for constant improvement and development of technique to progress. Until then it had been only in middle- and long-distance running that strategy and science were analyzed. Since Borzov’s time, the same intensity of study has been adapted and adopted for all sprint events by many top coaches.

    The 200m, 400m and hurdles have their superstars too. Michael Johnson (USA) comes to mind. Until Usain Bolt came along and took his 200m world record, Michael held both of these longer sprint world records; when he won both events in Atlanta 1996 he became the first man to do the long sprint double at the same Olympics (and still is the only man to have done so). If Daley Thompson was the athlete of the decade for the ’80s, Michael is arguably the one of the ’90s (although a certain Carl Lewis would challenge this). Until Michael Johnson came along the sprint techniques had never really been questioned. His unique upright style made people sit up and take note, eventually causing the science of sprinting to be more closely examined.

    Notable 200m specialists include Caribbean sprinters Don Quarrie (JAM) and Hasley Crawford (TRI) with their constant rivalries in the ’70s and Frankie Fredericks (NAM) in the ’90s. We must also not forget 400m hurdler Edwin Moses (USA), who won Olympic gold at the 1976 and 1984 games (the USA did not send a team to the 1980 Moscow games due to the boycott). For ten years from 1977 to 1987 he won 107 consecutive finals and set world records on four occasions.

    In the UK, past champion Sally Gunnell achieved the remarkable feat of holding the 400m hurdles world record and the European, Commonwealth and Olympic Champion titles at the same time. That perfectly timed run down the home straight to hold off Sandra Farmer Patrick (USA) in Barcelona at the ’92 Olympics was incredible. In fact, that whole Olympics went very well for Team GB sprinters, with Linford Christie (the UK’s most successful 100m sprinter) achieving gold in 9.96 seconds.

    In competition the athletes use starting blocks to help with the efficiency of their starts. Starting blocks in the early days before the widespread use of synthetic Tartan[TM] tracks were a hole in the ground on a cinder track which the athletes had to dig themselves with a trowel. Now the sophisticated electronic sensors on starting blocks sense athletes reaction times to determine false starts.

    These days the timing of the reaction (which for Linford Christie was on ‘the B of the Bang’), acceleration, maximum velocity, speed maintenance and deceleration are all broken down in various training methods, scientific and otherwise. This attention to detail now means we have athletes moving at speeds whereby world records we used to think almost impossible to attain are now being broken with some frequency, stretching the bounds of human ability.

    Sprint Champions through the Years

    There are many ways to list successful sprinters through the years – by fastest times and world records, or Olympic or world titles. As we are talking about successful champions we will concentrate on Olympic titles. If a world record was achieved in that championship, then truly they would be the best in the world (it is much harder to achieve a world record in that environment; performances would have had to be managed throughout heats and finals rather than as a ‘one off’). World records are undoubtedly a huge achievement but one day someone will come along and break that record. Once you are an Olympic champion, you are always an Olympic champion and have a medal to prove it.

    Both Olympic titles and world records are about exceptional performances. The women’s 100m world record is getting closer to being beaten: the 10.75 time of Shelly-Ann Fraser would only need a similar improvement of time to that Usain Bolt achieved of around 200 to 270 hundredths of a second. As I cannot fail to give proper mention to the world records I will also list the top five fastest times for all the sprints for both men and women, so that you can see how long some records have lasted.

    Table 1  100m Olympic Champions through the Years

    * In 1960 Rome the German team was a United Germany team.

    ** DQ = Disqualified. There is some controversy still about the validity of Griffith-Joyner’s world record as to whether the wind resistance was actually at zero, amongst other controversial claims which are not in the realms of discussion for this book.

    Table 2  The All-Time Top Five for the 60m Sprint

    * Set at altitude

    Table 3  The All-Time Top Five for the 100m Sprint

    Table 4  The All-Time Top Five for the 200m Sprint

    Table 5  The All-Time Top Five for the 400m Sprint

    Table 6  The All-Time Top Five for the 100/110m Hurdles

    As can been seen from these results, the rest of the world has long been striving to break the dominance of the USA. This wasn’t always the case, though. An athlete worthy of mention who had many great performances is Cuban Alberto Juantorena (nicknamed El Caballo – The Horse). An amazing runner with a long, loping casual style, it looked like he was hardly trying. In the 1976 Munich Olympics he ran a remarkable double, winning gold in the 400m sprint with a time of 44.26, holding off two USA athletes Fred Newhouse (44.40) and Herman Frazier (44.95). ‘El Caballo’ then went on to win the 800m in a then world record of 1.43.50 – no wonder they called him The

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