There's something innately primal about running fast. Since a young age, we all knew how to run fast without being taught, but have probably lost touch with these instincts over time. Since we no longer need to sprint the distance to the kitchen to chase down our quarry of breakfast pastries, some of us instead test our speed-oriented mettle on the sports field.
Even if you choose to flail your arms and legs on the treadmill, being able to run really fast is correlated with increased power and strength throughout the body. The faster you can run, the more power and strength you have. Plus, sprints really kick fat in the behind.
Run speed is largely influenced by genetics, body type, and body structure, but you can still improve it with diligent training, proper planning, and the right programming. Here are six things to consider when you aim to run like the wind.
1. Perfect your sprinting form
While intrinsic power and strength can get you far (and fast), you need to work on the technical aspects of your sprinting form. It's a lot more nuanced than most people think. Take the Olympic-level track athletes, for example. Notice that almost all of the runners look similar when they dash to the finish line.
Each possesses a good forward lean and pumping arms while keeping his or her head down during the acceleration phase. Gradually, the athlete transitions into a taller stance, emphasizing short ground-contact times and quick turnover with minimal hip sway in their form as they finish out the race. Basically, imagine the less cartoonish version of the Road Runner. You'll also notice a very relaxed jaw, with their cheeks comically flopping about during a slow-mo replay.
This precise use of energy and transfer of power ensure that all of their efforts go into propelling themselves forward, faster.
What to do
Don't waste energy when you sprint. Pump your arms forward and in tandem with your moving legs, keep your hips steady, tuck your chin in, and don't stride longer than necessary. Lean forward slightly and land on your midfoot. (In some cases, you might even feel like you are falling forward, but continuous momentum will keep you up.) Finally, focus on the propulsion in the forward direction rather than focusing on driving your knees upward.
2. Warm up, but avoid static stretches
Static stretching, in which you hold a stretch for a prolonged period of time, has been shown in the literature to slightly impede sprint and power performance. This, of course, carries a lot more weight for the high-level competitor, where the difference between winning and losing can be a nose hair, but if you want to run faster yourself, exploit every advantage you can get!
Besides, there are better ways to warm up for a sprint than simple static stretching.
What to do
Focus on dynamic drills that keep your body temperature up. I recommend that you warm up with 5-10 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, such as a light jog. Next, perform dynamic mobility drills to loosen up your shoulders, hips, and ankles.
Dynamic Hip Stretches Watch The Trailer - 00:50
The so-called "Spiderman" stretch is a particularly great drill to hit all three of these crucial areas, especially if you add in some upper-body rotation (you can see me working into it at around the 15-second mark in the video). To do this, lunge forward, keep one elbow close to the knee in front, and touch the ground. Twist your upper body toward the front leg, and push your leg out slightly to open up your hip. Then, extend the free arm straight up. You should feel a stretch in the adductors, hip flexors, upper back, and chest. Hold for a few seconds and twist again, this time facing away from the front leg. Then, repeat on other side.
The ABCs of running
- A-skip: Stand tall and drive your knees upward with each step.
- B-skip: Same as A, but extend your leg forward at the bottom and "paw" back at the ground.
- C-skip: Aka "butt kicks." Bring your heels up with each stride.
You can also perform what the running community calls "form drills." Some examples include: A's, B's, C's; high knees (running in place but raising your knees to waist-height); and strides (sub-maximal sprints).
The better prepared your body is for sprinting, the better you'll sprint and the less likely you'll be to pull a muscle.
3. Practice sprinting
Better lace up those sneakers.
According to the SAID principle (specific adaptation to imposed demand), you have to actually practice sprinting to be better at it.
Sprint workouts can be performed 2-4 times a week depending on your training season and sport. Research suggests that training programs longer than eight weeks can improve speed development compared to shorter programs.
What to do
Perform 20-60-yard maximal sprints with full recovery between sets. This will improve your conditioning for any sport you play. Be sure to practice refining your sprint mechanics to further improve form and coordination, as well as run speed.
If you are playing a field sport, you can perform acceleration and deceleration drills and change of direction exercises (pivot drills) during the same session to improve your footwork and agility on the field. Implementing better running form during scrimmages will also provide opportunities to practice accelerating for when it really counts.
4. Crank up the resistance
When flat ground starts to feel easy, it's time to turn it up a notch and move to resisted sprints. With respect to increasing your strength specific to sprinting, resisted sprinting will translate to a more powerful sprint on a flat surface. This is where hill sprints, sled drags (running while dragging a sled behind you), and parachute (air-resisted) sprints come into play.
What to do
Find a moderately sloped hill and perform hill repeats; run as fast as you can up that hill for several repetitions (see sample workout below), then hit the showers.
Sample Hill Sprint Workout:
- Warm up for 5-10 minutes with easy jogging.
- Perform dynamic stretches and form drills for 15-20 yards each.
- Find a hill that is not too steep. Start at the bottom and sprint up for 15-20 seconds. Walk down and repeat 10-12 sprints.
- Cool down for 5-10 minutes of easy jogging
5. Lift for speed
The gym isn't just for building better bodies; it builds faster bodies as well. Simply put, you can't run fast if you aren't strong.
Combining resistance training has been shown to be a better method of improving speed compared to performing each of these training methods individually.
What to do
Incorporate a progressive strength-training program that focuses on exercises such as deep squats, deadlifts, power cleans, and lunges. Don't worry about being fancy. These recommended exercises transfer over to the tarmac and improve your ability to recruit the fast-twitch muscle fibers necessary for powerful locomotion. I recommend implementing these exercises into your program 2-3 times a week to improve your relative and absolute strength levels.
Here's a sample strength and power workout:
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6. Do some plyometric training
Ready to add more pep to your step?
Explosive plyometric training like squat jumps, hurdle hops, and bounding has been shown to increase speed by shortening ground contact times and increasing stride frequency. Basically, that means that with the proper amount of plyometric training, your lower body becomes a blur of pistons. It'll also improve the stiffness of your tendons and muscles so that with each stride your energy is used much more efficiently and geared toward powerful speed.
What to do
Incorporate plyometric training during the same sprint session, after your sprints. Things like jump squats, box jumps, and bounding drills after sprints can work.
- Bolger, R., Kenny, I., Lyons, M., & Harrison, A. (2014) Sprinting Performance and Resistance-Based Training Interventions: A Systematic Review. Journal of Strength Conditioning Research, epub ahead of print.
- Mackala, K., & Fostiak, M. (2015) Acute effects of plyometric intervention - performance improvement and related changes in sprinting gait variability. Journal of Strength Conditioning Research, epub ahead of print.