Running Faster: How to Train for Maximal Sprint Performance

What does it actually take to be a good sprinter and how do you have to train to become lightning fast?

Getting Ahead in the Running Game: How to Sprint Faster

By Andrew Rothermel | Reading Time: 14 minutes |


There is arguably no movement that is able to combine mechanics, strength and conditioning principles, and the competitive nature of sports the way sprinting is able to do so. There are many factors that influence the efficiency of a sprinter in the 100-meter dash such as starting strategy, stride length, stride frequency, biomechanics, neural influences, muscle composition, anthropometrics, physiological demands, and track and environmental conditions[1]Majumdar, A. / Robergs, R. (2011): The science of speed: Determinants of performance in the 100 m sprint. In: Internat J Sports Sci Coach. URL: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1260/1747-9541.6.3.479..

In an event that lasts roughly 10 seconds in duration and requires only approximately 40-45 strides to complete, it is of the upmost importance to maximize every aspect of every movement.

Running Faster: How to Train for Maximal Sprint Performance

Types of Sprint Races

While the 100-meter sprint is in a class of its own, there are some variations that are closely related such as the 200-meter race, 400-meter race, and the NFL combine 40-yard dash. The longer a race becomes, as is the case during the 200-meter and/or 400-meter events, the less important force production from block clearing becomes.

During a longer event an athlete has more time to accelerate and maintain a high-end velocity compared to the approximately 10 second, 100-meter race. These longer races also incorporate an angular aspect to the movement whereas the 100-meter race is a strictly linear movement. The NFL combine 40-yard dash, while shorter than the 200-meter and 400-meter race, does not use a starting block which results in a robust change to the movement pattern.

For the purposes of this article, I chose to use the 100-meter sprint race as the basis for analysis because, in my opinion, it is the purest form of sprinting and there is plenty of research on many aspects of the 100-meter race.

100-Meter Sprint History – A Brief Background

The 100-meter sprint is a particularly prestigious event where the winner is widely regarded as the fastest man or woman alive, which by definition, must be true as the competitors of the race have the fastest recorded average speeds of any humans to ever sprint.

At some point during our lives, many of us have challenged someone to a race, usually a short distance, and competed to see who was able to get from point A to point B faster. This is the entire premise behind the 100-meter sprint event, which not only makes this event fun to watch, but also relatable to the masses.

To begin the race there is a three-start command which consists of two verbal cues and a final gunshot from a starting pistol which initiates the beginning of the race. Originally races were hand timed via a stopwatch but beginning in 1912 official times for the 100-meter dash became electronically automated. Following electronically timed starts, the use of starting blocks became accepted in 1937 and over time running surfaces have changed from dirt or crushed cinder to a synthetic material.[2]Majumdar, A. / Robergs, R. (2011): The science of speed: Determinants of performance in the 100 m sprint. In: Internat J Sports Sci Coach. URL: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1260/1747-9541.6.3.479.

100 m sprint world records for men. Regression lines for specific segments show the slopes for the improvement rate. (Graphic Source: Majumdar & Robergs, 2011)

100 m sprint world records for men. Regression lines for specific segments show the slopes for the improvement rate. (Graphic Source: Majumdar & Robergs, 2011)

100 m sprint world records for women. Regression lines for specific segments show the slopes for the improvement rate.

100 m sprint world records for women. Regression lines for specific segments show the slopes for the improvement rate. (Graphic Source: Majumdar & Robergs, 2011)

The first official 100-meter sprint race was held during the 1896 Olympics in Athens, Greece. The winner of this race was United States athlete, Thomas Burke, who ran the race in 12.00 seconds. And as a side note, Burke was the only sprinter to start from a squat starting stance.[3]Majumdar, A. / Robergs, R. (2011): The science of speed: Determinants of performance in the 100 m sprint. In: Internat J Sports Sci Coach. URL: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1260/1747-9541.6.3.479. Through the years that record has been broken over and over again as humans have not only become bigger, faster, and stronger, but advancements in training and technology have allowed athletes to come closer to their highest human potential.

In the 1968 Olympic finals, Jim Hines ran the first electronically timed sub 10-second 100-meter race with a time of 9.95 seconds.[4]Rosenbaum, M. (2018): A list of every men’s 100-meter world record-holder in track & field history. URL:  https://web.archive.org/web/20170212001349/http://trackandfield.about.com/od/sprintsandrelays/p/Men-S-100-Meter-World-Records.htm. Today the current 100-meter men’s and women’s world records are held by Usain Bolt (9.58 seconds, 2009)[5]IAAF: 100 Metres Men. URL: https://www.worldathletics.org/records/all-time-toplists/sprints/100-metres/outdoor/men/senior. and Florence Griffith-Joyner (10.49 seconds, 1988),[6]IAAF: 100 Metres Women. URL: https://www.worldathletics.org/records/all-time-toplists/sprints/100-metres/outdoor/women/senior. respectively.

The top 10 fastest men. (Adapted from: Majumdar & Robergs, 2011)

 

The top 10 fastest women. (Graphic Source: Majumdar & Robergs, 2011)

 

Sprinting Performance: Literature Review

Sprinting is a simple movement with complex intricacies that separate average and good sprinters from elite, world champion sprinters. Proper joint angles and equipment set up during the preparation phase help dictate the results of a race, but what happens after the gunshot may be even more important to determining winners and losers.

Running velocity data for each 10 m interval for the 100 m records of prominent male world class runners in recent history. (Graphic Source: Majumdar & Robergs, 2011)

Running velocity data for each 10 m interval for the 100 m records of prominent male world class runners in recent history. (Graphic Source: Majumdar & Robergs, 2011)

To date, there has been an adequate amount of research conducted in the area of sprint start kinetics (branch of mechanics that involves forces that generate or tend to generate motion) and kinematics (a branch of mechanics specifically dealing with describing motion without reference to masses or forces) to extrapolate the apparent driving factor of effective sprint starts which appears to be impulse.

Defining “the impulse”

Impulse can be defined as the area under a force-time curve and consists of three components:

  • duration of force application
  • rate of force development (RFD)
  • and maximal force production.

In other words, to be an elite sprinter, one must be able to rapidly produce a large amount of force and apply that force into a horizontal motion as quickly as possible.

Based on the results of a study by Slawinski et al. (2010), there is no difference in total block time (0.352 + 0.018s vs 0.351 + 0.020s) between elite and well-trained sprinters however, elite sprinters produce a significantly higher rate of force production compared to well-trained sprinters, 15505 + 5397 Ns and 8459 + 3811 Ns, respectively.[7]Slawinski, J., et al. (2010):  Kinematic and kinetic comparisons of elite and well-trained sprinters during sprint start. In: J Strength Cond Res. URL: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/40028408_Kinematic_and_Kinetic_Comparisons_of_Elite_and_Well-Trained_Sprinters_During_Sprint_Start.

Characteristics of study participants according to their level. Elite = elite sprinter; well-trained = well-trained sprinter. (Graphic Source: Slawinski et al., 2010)

Characteristics of study participants according to their level. Elite = elite sprinter; well-trained = well-trained sprinter. (Graphic Source: Slawinski et al., 2010)

Additionally, the same study also showed elite sprinters are able to produce greater force impulse during the pushing phase compared to well-trained sprinters, 276.2 + 36Ns and 215.4 + 28.5Ns, respectively.  Because elite sprinters are able to produce a greater rate of force production and force impulse during the pushing phase, elite sprinters have a significantly greater velocity center of mass at the block clearing, 1st step, and 2nd step, which results in a faster 100-meter time. (Graphs below represent, in order, “pushing phase”, “1st step”, and 2nd step” data).[8]Slawinski, J., et al. (2010):  Kinematic and kinetic comparisons of elite and well-trained sprinters during sprint start. In: J Strength Cond Res. URL: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/40028408_Kinematic_and_Kinetic_Comparisons_of_Elite_and_Well-Trained_Sprinters_During_Sprint_Start.

Horizontal position of the center of mass (XCM) in the 5 critical start phases for elite sprinters (n=6, elite) and well-trained sprinters (n=6, well-trained). (Graphic Source: Slawinski et al., 2010)

Horizontal position of the center of mass (XCM) in the 5 critical start phases for elite sprinters (n=6, elite) and well-trained sprinters (n=6, well-trained). (Graphic Source: Slawinski et al., 2010)

The following charts provide us with the respective data on the kinetics and kinematics for block start, as well as the first and second steps:

Kinetics and kinematics during the "pushing" phase in elite sprinters (n=6) and well-trained sprinters (n=6). (Graphic Source: Slawinski et al., 2010)

Kinetics and kinematics during the “pushing” phase in elite sprinters (n=6) and well-trained sprinters (n=6). (Graphic Source: Slawinski et al., 2010)

Kinetics and kinematics at the first step in elite sprinters (n=6) and well-trained sprinters (n=6). (Graphic Source: Slawinski et al., 2010)

Kinetics and kinematics at the first step in elite sprinters (n=6) and well-trained sprinters (n=6). (Graphic Source: Slawinski et al., 2010)

Kinetics and kinematics in the second step in elite sprinters (n=6) and well-trained sprinters (n=6). (Graphic Source: Slawinski et al., 2010)

Kinetics and kinematics in the second step in elite sprinters (n=6) and well-trained sprinters (n=6). (Graphic Source: Slawinski et al., 2010)

The results of the Slawinski et al. study mirror the results of Čoh et al.  (1998) who performed a correlation study on thirteen male sprinters and eleven female sprinters from the Slovene national selection.[9]Čoh, M., et al. (1998): Kinematic and kinetic parameters of the sprint start and start acceleration model of top sprinters. In: Gymnica. URL: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/267241048_Kinematic_and_kinetic_parameters_of_sprint_start_and_start_acceleration_model_of_top_sprinters.  The results show the biggest correlations are with force impulse (r = -0.71) and time to maximal force (r = .69) were significantly correlated to start acceleration in male sprinters – meaning as force impulse improves, sprint time decreases; as time to maximal force decreases, sprint time also decreases.

Diagram of the force development in the starting position. GS = Start shot of the pistol; PT = Tension before start; RT = Latent reaction time; FT = Force Threshold; FMAXrf = Maximum force of rear foot; FMAXff = Maximum force of front foot; ST = Start time; TMAXrf = Time to maximum force of rear foot; TMAXff = Time to maximum force of front foot; ZISO = Area under curve (AUC) of rear foot; SISO = Area under curve (AUC) of front foot.

Diagram of the force development in the starting position. GS = Start shot of the pistol; PT = Tension before start; RT = Latent reaction time; FT = Force Threshold; FMAXrf = Maximum force of rear foot; FMAXff = Maximum force of front foot; ST = Start time; TMAXrf = Time to maximum force of rear foot; TMAXff = Time to maximum force of front foot; ZISO = Area under curve (AUC) of rear foot; SISO = Area under curve (AUC) of front foot. (Graphic Source: Čoh et al., 1998)

Willwacher et al. (2013) studied the kinetic variables of 99 male and female German sprinters who ranged from regional to top level sprinters including the German national sprint team and one of the top 3 German 200-meter sprinters of all time.[10]Willwacher, S., et al. (2013): Start Block Kinetics: What the best do different than the rest. In: ISBS-Conference Proceedings Archive. URL: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/258047036_START_BLOCK_KINETICS_WHAT_THE_BEST_DO_DIFFERENT_THAN_THE_REST.  The results of this study show that RFD on the front and the rear foot/leg was significantly greater for world class men compared to fast and slow men, again indicating the importance of impulse on sprint start performance.

Start performance parameters in German sprinters with different performance levels. (Picture source: Willwacher et al., 2013)

Start performance parameters in German sprinters with different performance levels. (Picture source: Willwacher et al., 2013)

Correlation between the personal best time in the 100-meter sprint and selected parameters, including A.) Force in the front foot (in N/kg), B.) Force in the rear foot (in N/kg), C.) Maximum force in the front foot (in N/kg), D.) Maximum force in the rear foot (in N/kg), E.) Maximum RFD in the front foot (in N/kg/s) and F.) Maximum RFD in the rear foot (in N/kg/s). (Picture source: Willwacher et al., 2013)

Correlation between the personal best time in the 100-meter sprint and selected parameters, including A.) Force in the front foot (in N/kg), B.) Force in the rear foot (in N/kg), C.) Maximum force in the front foot (in N/kg), D.) Maximum force in the rear foot (in N/kg), E.) Maximum RFD in the front foot (in N/kg/s) and F.) Maximum RFD in the rear foot (in N/kg/s). (Picture source: Willwacher et al., 2013)

The results of studies conducted by Harland & Steele (1997),[11]Harland, MJ. / Steele, JR. (1997): Biomechanics of the sprint start. In: Sports Med. URL: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9017856. Willwacher et al. (2013),[12]Willwacher, S., et al. (2013): Start Block Kinetics: What the best do different than the rest. In: ISBS-Conference Proceedings Archive. URL: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/258047036_START_BLOCK_KINETICS_WHAT_THE_BEST_DO_DIFFERENT_THAN_THE_REST. and Slawinski et al. (2010)[13]Slawinski, J., et al. (2010):  Kinematic and kinetic comparisons of elite and well-trained sprinters during sprint start. In: J Strength Cond Res. URL: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/40028408_Kinematic_and_Kinetic_Comparisons_of_Elite_and_Well-Trained_Sprinters_During_Sprint_Start. all appear to confirm that impulse is the driving factor of effective sprint starts.

The aforementioned studies demonstrate that more skilled sprinters displayed reduced block times and generate increased horizontal impulse during that block time compared to less skilled sprinters.  In slight contrast to these results, Baumann (1976) reported faster sprinters displayed an increased horizontal block impulse compared to slower sprinters but results did not show any significant differences in block times.[14]Baumann, W. (1976): Kinematic and dynamic characteristics of the sprint start. In: Koni PV. (1976): Biomechanics V: Volume. B. In: Baltimore University Park: S. 194-199. Available at Amazon.com.

The research discussed above clearly demonstrates the importance of impulse for sprint performance, which demonstrates the necessity for elite sprinters to generate rapid maximal force production.  To do this, many sprinters incorporate some form of resistance training.

How does resistance training effect these kinetic variables?

In an attempt to increase at least one of the three components of impulse, various studies have measured the effects of resistance training protocols on sprint start performance.  Sleivert and Taingahue (2004) found maximal concentric power generated during maximal jump squats and maximal jump split squats were significantly related to 5-meter sprint times.[15]Sleivert, G. / Taingahue, M. (2004): The relationship between maximal jump-squat power and sprint acceleration in athletes. In: Eur J Apply Physiol. URL: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14508691.

Relationship between 5 m sprint time and knee bending force and rod speed. (Graphic Source: Sleivert & Taingahue, 2004)

Relationship between 5 m sprint time and knee bending force and rod speed. (Graphic Source: Sleivert & Taingahue, 2004)

Another study by Young, McLean, and Ardagna (1995) measured the relationship between strength qualities and sprint performance.[16]Young, W. / McLean, B. / Ardagna, J. (1995): Relationship between strength qualities and sprinting performance. In: J Sports Med Phys Fit. URL: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7474987.  Their subjects consisted of 16-18 year-old athletes from the Australian Junior National Track and Field Team.  The researchers found that maximum dynamic strength was the best predictor of 2.5-meter time and absolute maximum strength appears to be important for sprinting to maximum speed.  The researchers used multiple vertical jumping movements as measures of speed-strength and explosiveness.

These results are similar to results found by Marques & Izquierdo (2014) whose data shows peak bar velocity and peak power were significantly correlated to 10-meter sprint performance.(Marques, MC. / Izquierdo, M. (2014): Kinetic and Kinematic Associations Between Vertical Jump Performance and 10-m Sprint Time. In: J Strength Cond Res. URL: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24476780.))  These studies are interesting to note because they all indicate a relationship between various “power” training methods and its positive impact on sprint performance.  This data may justify the use of power training in an effort to maximize rate of force development, which is a key contributor to impulse.

A 7-week study by Blazevich & Jenkins (2002) tested ten nationally ranked male junior sprinters with more than five years’ training experience (19 + 1.4 years; 75.7 + 4.7 kgs; personal best 100-m times, 10.89 + 0.21 s) who were training for sprints ranging from 100 to 400 meters.[17]Blazevich, AJ. / Jenkins, DG. (2002): Effect of the movement speed of resistance training exercises on sprint and strength performance in concurrently training elite junior sprinters. In: J Sport Sci. URL: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/10995361_Effect_of_the_movement_speed_of_resistance_training_exercises_on_sprint_and_strength_performance_in_concurrently_training_elite_junior_sprinters.

During the first four weeks of the study, participants completed standardized training which consisted of two resistance training sessions per week, which included three sets of ten maximal repetitions of smith machine squats, hip extensions, leg flexions and extensions in addition to their normal sprint training.

During the final three weeks, participants were split into two groups:

  • low-velocity training and
  • high-velocity training.

The high-velocity group performed exercises with intensities ranging from 40%-70% while the low-velocity group had intensities ranging from 50%-90%.

Completed final 3-week training program by group. (Graphic Source: Blazevich & Jenkins, 2002)

Completed final 3-week training program by group. (Graphic Source: Blazevich & Jenkins, 2002)

Estimated work done per unit per group. (Graphic Source: Blazevich & Jenkins, 2002)

Estimated work done per unit per group. (Graphic Source: Blazevich & Jenkins, 2002)

Both groups improved their maximal squat and hip flexion and extension strength measures which led to improved 20-meter sprint times, however, there was no difference in improvements between groups.

It is worth noting that that the participants were able to choose their own weights that allowed fatigue within the allotted number of repetitions as long as they were within plus or minus one of the prescribed repetitions.  Additionally, all participants did not train using the same equipment.

Test results after 7 weeks of strength training by group - including running times (in seconds), hip flexion (Hip Flexion, in Nm), hip extension (Hip Extension, in Nm) and knee flexion (in kg). (Graphic Source: Blazevich & Jenkins, 2002)

Test results after 7 weeks of strength training by group – including running times (in seconds), hip flexion (Hip Flexion, in Nm), hip extension (Hip Extension, in Nm) and knee flexion (in kg). (Graphic Source: Blazevich & Jenkins, 2002)

Another study conducted by Harris et al., (2000) had three groups of subjects[18]Harris, GR., et al. (2000): Short-Term Performance Effects of High Power, High Force, or Combined Weight-Training Methods. In: J Strength Cond Res. URL:  https://www.researchgate.net/publication/232198878_Short-Term_Performance_Effects_of_High_Power_High_Force_or_Combined_Weight-Training_Methods.:

  • a force group (80%-85% 1RM)
  • a power group (30% 1RM)
  • and a combination group which varied intensities throughout the protocol.

After 9 weeks of weight training subjects gained approximately 10% in squat strength, however this gain in squat strength resulted in no change in 30-m sprint performance. Nevertheless the authors noted:

“These results indicate that when considering the improvement of a wide variety of athletic performance variables requiring strength, power, and speed, combination training produces superior results.”

Harris et al., 2000

The authors believe this to be true because a greater number of variables tested were significantly improved from pretest to post-test with the combination training compared to the other two training groups.

Rimmer and Sleivert (2000) suggested that because sprinting is a movement requiring unilateral contractions of the leg extensors which ultimately results in horizontal body movement, exercises strictly performed in the sagittal plane are not specific enough to produce significant changes in sprint kinematics.[19]Rimmer, E., / Sleivert, G. (2000): Effects of a Plyometrics Intervention Program on Sprint Performance. In: J Strength Cond Res. URL: http://www.neosportsplant.com/Performance/Articles/Plyometrics/Effects_of_a_Plyometrics_Intervention_Program_on.9.pdf.

Supplemental plyometric training to improve sprint performance, as used in the study (Graphic Source: Rimmer & Sleivert, 2000)

Supplemental plyometric training to improve sprint performance, as used in the study (Graphic Source: Rimmer & Sleivert, 2000)

They conducted an 8-week plyometric study which included some unilateral and horizontal exercises which resulted in a 2.6% improvement in sprint time to 10 meters. They theorized that this was possibly due to a decrease in ground contact time during sprinting.

Average 40m sprint performance before (Pre) as well as after the 8-week intervention with additional plyometric training (Plyometrics, n=10), sprint training alone (Sprint Group, n=7) and a control group (Control, n=9) in rugby players (Graphic Source: Rimmer & Sleivert, 2000)

Average 40m sprint performance before (Pre) as well as after the 8-week intervention with additional plyometric training (Plyometrics, n=10), sprint training alone (Sprint Group, n=7) and a control group (Control, n=9) in rugby players (Graphic Source: Rimmer & Sleivert, 2000)

It is interesting to note that Blazevich & Jenkins (2002) subjects were the most trained of all studies mentioned which may influence the results because there is a diminishing returns effect on strength training in elite athletes compared to novice athletes.[20]Blazevich, AJ. / Jenkins, DG. (2002): Effect of the movement speed of resistance training exercises on sprint and strength performance in concurrently training elite junior sprinters. In: J Sport Sci. URL: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/10995361_Effect_of_the_movement_speed_of_resistance_training_exercises_on_sprint_and_strength_performance_in_concurrently_training_elite_junior_sprinters.

It is also worth noting that all of these training studies leave much to be desired in the construction of resistance training protocols and although there has been an enormous amount of scientific training studies conducted in the literature, there are very few training studies on elite sprint athletes which use the most beneficial modes of resistance training to increase impulse.

My opinion: How to train for maximal sprint performance

As with any athletic movement that you are interested in designing specific strength and conditioning protocols for, it’s important to analyze the biomechanics of the movement.  While there will be slight differences depending on whether the athlete is training specifically for the 100-meter sprint or a different event or sport which requires sprinting, in general, sprinting involves the same movement patterns no matter how it is performed.  Here is what we know for sure about sprinting biomechanics:

  • Unilateral movement
  • Hip flexion/extension
  • Knee flexion/extension
  • Ankle flexion/extension
  • Shoulder flexion/extension
  • Elbow flexion/extension

While all of these movements do occur throughout the sprint, force production is mainly generated through hip extension and knee flexion which primarily involves the hamstring and gluteal muscle groups.

As we know, impulse is a driving factor for sprint performance which requires a sprinter to produce maximal force in minimal time.  Therefore, a sprinter must specifically train with the goal of increasing maximal strength production and maximal power production.

Maximal strength is typically trained using a repetition range of 1-6 reps in the intensity range of >80%.  Maximal power can be trained in two ways:

  1. Dynamic Effort: 2-3 reps at 40-60% 1RM
  2. Singles for Speed: 1 rep at 80-90%

To maximize both of the training effects, I would design a training protocol with separate, specific days for each maximal power and maximal strength. Additionally, some main exercises to include throughout the year, which should be programmed using both maximal strength and power protocols, include:

  • Lunge variations
  • Step ups variations
  • Squats variations
  • Deadlift variations
  • Barbell glute bridge variations
  • Sled push variations

Keep in mind, this is specifically for hip extension and knee flexion, other body parts should not be neglected, I’m just emphasizing the need to focus on these movement patterns because they are the primary force producers during sprint performance.

The sprint is a unilateral movement - so it makes sense to include unilateral movements, such as lunges, in your program. (Image Source: depositphotos / EdZbarzhyvetsky)

The sprint is a unilateral movement – so it makes sense to include unilateral movements, such as lunges, in your program. (Image Source: depositphotos / EdZbarzhyvetsky)

Final Considerations

While there are definitely wrong ways to program, there is not one correct way.  Program design is an art based on tried and true strength and conditioning principles such as specificity, progressive overload, periodization which involves frequency, intensity, and volume.

Additionally, all individuals have unique characteristics such as training age and injury history which may result in changes to an individual’s program.  Throughout the year, depending on when an athlete is competing, all of these variables, including exercise selection, must be manipulated appropriately, which is why programming is an art based on strength and conditioning principles.


Title Image Source: depositphotos / Ancikainfot


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Written by Andrew Rothermel
I’ve studied and experienced exercise, fitness, health & wellness in a variety of formal and practical educational settings since 2008. Personal trainer, strength coach, yogi, author, teacher, coach.
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