by Bret Contreras October 14, 2013
Usain Bolt is the fastest man on the planet. He’s demonstrated this in two straight Olympic games. Track coaches, sprint aficionados, strength coaches, and biomechanists have much fun speculating as to whether or not Usain could get faster and how he should go about improving his speed.
In the video below (see the 5:38 mark), former Olympic gold medalist sprinter Michael Johnson and his colleague Lance Walker mention that Usain Bolt could be faster if he improved his mechanics.
1. Bolt has Superior Horizontal Impulse Production Compared to his Colleagues
During maximum speed running, THIS paper here showed that Bolt’s vertical ground reaction force was surprisingly similar to that of Tyson Gay and Asafa Powell (I discussed this study at length in THIS podcast). However, it has been shown in several studies that horizontal measures of sprinting mechanical output are more critical to speed than vertical measures (force, power, and impulse). Since Bolt stays on the ground longer, is less stiff and more compliant, has similar vertical force outputs, takes less strides, and still runs faster than his competitors, some variable has to be greater, and I’d imagine that the variable that stands out most would be horizontal impulse (see HERE for biomechanical definitions). This superior horizontal impulse production is likely attributable to a handful of factors, some of which undoubtedly include Bolt’s stature (long legs) and glute/hamstring power (type II muscle fibers), among other variables.
It is perfectly fine for experts to speculate and hypothesize in regards to Usain’s sprint training and mechanics. However, sprint experts should be cautious in assuming that changing one variable “for the better” would not impact another variable “for the worse” and would automatically improve performance and increase speed. I’ll elaborate on this below.
2. Sprinters Need to Initially “Learn the Rules” of Sprint Mechanics
Think about weight training. Initially, everyone needs to learn the rules. Lifters need to learn how to reach proper squat depth, hinge at the hips in a deadlift, keep proper scapulohumeral position in a bench, develop single leg and rotary stability, activate their glutes properly, and gain coordination in virtually every exercise.
The same applies to sprinting. Sprinters need to learn how to remain more stable with less head-bobble, sway, and shifting. They also need to learn proper front-side mechanics, which has been stressed by EliteTrack.com founder Mike Young on many occasions (read HERE for more info on frontside mechanics). On a side note, I don’t think sprinters need to purposely “minimize” backside mechanics, as this happens naturally in gait when the hip joint runs out of flexibility (see THIS article for more info on that), but they shouldn’t be overly concerned with the “pawback” as this can lead to overstriding which can diminish speed via reductions in stride rate.
3. Over Time, Athletes’ Natural Deviations Will Emerge
Again, think about weight training. Does every powerlifter keep “perfect form” in order to maximize their performance? Nope. Is there such thing as “perfect form” for everyone? Methinks not – it’s dependent on the lifter’s anatomy, physiology, and personal goals.
Some guys purposely allow for a “valgus twitch” in the squat (ex. Dan Green and most Olympic lifters – click HERE and HERE to learn more about this), some round their upper backs heavily in a deadlift (ex. Konstantin Konstantinovs – click HERE to see how world class powerlifters deadlift), and some lean forward more in a squat (ex. Layne Norton). If they could get stronger using more strict form, they would. But they’ve figured out how to maximize their performance given their physical characteristics.
The same can be said for sprinters. Some will get their speed increases more from greater stride lengths and better direction of force application, whereas other sprinters will get their speed increases more from greater stride rates and better rate of force development. Some will get more out of a particular form or cue, whereas others will not benefit at all from a certain intervention.
4. There is no Universal “Perfect Sprint Form” for Everyone as There Will be Subtle Differences Based on the Individual’s Anatomy & Physiology
Great sprinters indeed share many of the same running characteristics, however, there will always be some subtle differences. Some sprinters will shift side to side or bobble a bit more than others, some will have their leg cross over the center-line during acceleration, and some will achieve a higher knee lift (hip flexion) than others. Sprinters should certainly strive to get all they can out of improving their mechanics. However, there is likely a “sweet spot” between too much “aberrant” movement and robotic linear movement that maximizes performance. Moreover, good sprinters and their coaches will likely come to a point where they accept the sprinter’s uniqueness and quit trying to drive square pegs into round holes. Just as in the case of powerlifting, Olympic weightlifting, and strongman, where lifters learn to maximize their performance by tinkering with their form, sprinters should too, and this form doesn’t always jive with the status quo.
That said, there are definitely various general rules in sprinting that need to be respected. But when working with sprinters to improve their mechanics, one cannot assume that changing one element of sprinting would not affect other elements of sprinting and actually diminish sprinting speed.
For example, let’s say Usain’s coach Glen Mills “fixed” Usain’s lateral shifting during acceleration. Perhaps it would render him slower:
Let’s say we stationed Usain in a world class biomechanics and physiology laboratory and measured Usain’s anthropometry and precise anatomical relationships for all segments, his muscle moment arms, muscle physiological cross sectional areas, fascicle lengths, fiber type percentages, force plate data, EMG data, motion capture data, and joint torque data during sprinting. Only then could we begin to build a model to allow us to intelligently speculate as to how Usain could improve his performance.
But even then, these would just be theories. You’d then need to implement training interventions to test the hypotheses and see if they panned out in the real world. Some of these interventions would require adequate time for proper coordination and motor control mastery to set in. It’s very likely that these hypotheses would fail. As Richard Feynman says, if theory doesn’t match experiments, then it’s wrong!
The best track and field coaches have an eye for this sort of thing. Guys like Dan Pfaff and Vern Gambetta can pick out immediate flaws in technique, even in elite sprinters. But they also know when to “let something slide” if it looks right for a particular sprinter. Speaking of experts, I asked two of my colleagues to chime in on this topic.
Though I have a ton of expertise in reading sprint literature and studying biomechanics, I am very limited in my knowledge of working with sprinters. Therefore, I reached out to two colleagues whom I highly trust in terms of their expertise. The first is Jimson Lee of SpeedEndurance.com, and the second is Mike Young of EliteTrack.com. These gentlemen have considerably more experience working with sprinters than I do. Here’s what I asked them:
Q1) The only “form changes” one should attempt is to satisfy one of the two goals (a) greater force on ground contact and (b) getting the limbs (legs) in the proper position to allow for a great force upon contact, but not too long of a ground contact. That being said, let’s say he suggests a higher knee lift. Well, that would cause the hips to drop, which would decrease the amount of force applied to the ground.
This brings up the toe-drag in the 2nd step coming out of the blocks. It allows the leg to hit the ground faster, because it’s a shorter line. But what effect does it have on specific force application for that next step? Is the toe-drag good for all sprinters?
Q2) I think there is a universal technique, just look at a 100m final at OG or WC. They all look the same and have the same style with minor variations. (Go to a high school or middle school meet and you’ll see 8 different running styles!)
I think sports biomechanists have “agreed” on a proper starting technique, and top speed technique with minor variations, depending on body type, height, strength levels, etc. And athletes are the best compensators, reaching out to different muscle groups to compensate for what they want to do.
Another simple drill is the dorsiflexion drill. Why? because it puts the foot the proper position before it strikes the ground. You can watch all the videos on YouTube in Slo-mo and you’ll be hard pressed to find elite sprinters with their toes pointing down before footstrike.
But there is a case where you can and should run biomechanically differently in a race, and that is the 400m. One of the secrets to running a good 400m is buried in my Blog articles… In the 400m – you run the 1st 300m different as compared to the last 100 during (massive) deceleration. You know you will slow down, and ground contact times will double, so you should change your running mechanics accordingly (first 300, last 100), whether its shortening the stride, using your arms more, but most people lengthen the stride or have legs like long grandfather clock pendulum actions, relying on stride length rather than stride frequency, instead of trying to optimize the two for the fastest time to cover ground.
If I were working with Usain, I’d be very careful with any adjustments in his technique. He’s obviously achieved a tremendous level of success and run faster than any other human being that ever lived and I’m a firm believer in not messing with something that’s working. That said, in working with other elite track & field athletes, I do find that even with my most technically proficient athletes there are always times when cueing and slight adjustments are needed. As for making the changes that Johnson suggests….I agree with some but not all. I think some ipsilateral shoulder-hip axis rotation is actually a beneficial thing. I do view Usain’s lateral trunk flexion during acceleration as inefficient and his internal femur rotation to be a bit excessive. If I had Usain at 18 to 20 years old I definitely would have tried to make those adjustments. Given his success and more advanced age I’d be a little more reluctant to change things at this point in his career.
I don’t think there’s a “1 size fits all” technical model that will work exactly for all athletes but I definitely think there is a generalized technical model based on principles of physics and neuromechanics of the human body that can be applied to every athlete to help improve their sprinting efficiency. There are some kinematic characteristics that need to happen to maximize performance. There’s quite a bit of research on optimization modelling of sporting performances ranging from gymnastics skills to throwing that supports the idea that there are kinematic characteristics associated with elite performance and many of these have a causal relationship with performance. Dr. Ralph Mann’s research highlights many of these in sprinting. The key in coaching is determining how to apply those general principles to an individual with unique physical characteristics to achieve the best results. In my experience, many track and field coaches attempt to make too many changes at one time without the requisite understanding of physics and neuromechanics or an understanding of the cause-effect relationships between the kinematic variables in elite sprinting. As a result, a lot of the ‘technical training’ I’ve seen is at best, a motor learning nightmare and at worst, actually making technique and performance worse.
As you can see, this is an interesting topic! Thanks to Mike and Jimson for their excellent input. At the end of the day, Usain’s neuromuscular power that acts upon his particular skeletal frame is able to generate the fastest overground sprint running speeds on Earth. Whether Usain can be faster is always fodder for good conversation, but coaches need to appreciate that Usain works with arguably the best track & field coach in history. We don’t see anything that Glen Mills doesn’t see, and we should trust that Glen knows what’s best for Usain’s speed development. That surely won’t stop us from speculating though! In case you’re wondering how Usain Bolt strength trains, click HERE to see how he goes about his training.
For those really interested in learning about the important literature on sprint running, consider bookmarking this detailed analysis of sprinting research, which summarizes the best sprint studies. For science geeks like me, below is a list of journal articles that are written on Usain Bolt – I was able to find 8 articles in total.
On the performance of Usain Bolt in the 100 m sprint
The post Are Usain Bolt’s Sprinting Mechanics in Need of an Overhaul? appeared first on Bret Contreras.
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