by Bret Contreras September 21, 2013
Today’s article is a guest-post from Lee Boyce (see his BIO below) on warming-up for sprinting. I hope you like it!
The one thing I’ve noted when it comes to sprinting advice in fitness articles is that the advice is simple – go sprint.
It often jumps straight to the workout, and ignores the people who need more direction on how to do it effectively and how to best prepare for an effective sprint workout. Over the past couple of years, I’ve personally tried to release content that caters to this exact crowd – the athletic lifting enthusiast with no formal training in sprinting, but has a desire to do so in their workouts.
As a college sprinter and long jumper, I quickly learned the difference between a proper warm-up that mobilizes the joints and stimulates the muscles, and was able to note experiences in high school where athletes would get away with insufficient warm-ups because they were incredibly resilient and possessed superior recovery time. However, this doesn’t cut it as you age and gain experience and proficiency in sprinting.
My New Rules for a Warm Up
These tenets hold true for any warm up. A properly executed warm up should cover some simple things:
A little more on that last point – all I’m saying is, if you’re going to be squatting 300 pounds, if you’re smart, you’re going to start by squatting light weight first. It gets you used to the motor pattern and puts your body through the motion that you’re going to eventually perform fully loaded. Long story short, it can prevent injuries. Therefore, you should do the same for sprinting.
The Sprint Warm Up – First, Some Ground Rules
Sprinting is a different animal than long distance running or training with weights indoors. That being said, make sure to take note of these particulars. You may find the first point especially interesting…
Treadmill vs. Flat Ground?
The classic motorized treadmill may be a convenient option when there’s no track around for miles, but the benefits are less abundant than its flat-ground counterpart. I’m glad I’m writing about sprinting for Bret’s site, since he’s the glute guy. The research that examines the differences in muscle activation in treadmill versus overground sprinting is a bit nebulous – one would assume that overground sprinting would require higher muscle activation since the motorized treadmill changes sprinting kinematics and the belt can actively pull the leg into hip extension, however there are certain studies that have even reported more glute activation from the use of a motorized treadmill sprints. However, in my personal opinion, there’s no substitute for flat ground sprinting for the proper outputs of horizontal and vertical forces. Nevertheless, there are better treadmill options than the motorized treadmill. The next best thing to overground sprinting would be to use a self-powered treadmill like the Woodway Curve. It’s a pretty cool design and since it’s non-motorized, the legs move the belt and require more active hip extension compared to the motorized treadmill.
But I digress – any sprint work on any surface (motorized treadmill, self-powered treadmill, or flat ground) CAN act to improve your speed as a sprinter, as the evidence in that department is consistent. From a specificity perspective, however, a “hierarchy” of flat ground/self-powered treadmill/motorized treadmill (from most to least effective) should be noted.
Do it on the Right Day
Since we now know the motorized treadmill isn’t the best option, it’s understood that we should be doing this kind of thing outside. However, sometimes this isn’t possible. Simply put, if the weather is crap, don’t try to go sprinting. Inclement conditions and cold weather are muscle pulls, cramps, strains, and even tears being presented on a silver platter. In certain summer meets, my coach would actually make his athletes scratch from their events if the weather conditions were horrible the day of the meet (if the meet wasn’t important).
Remember, you’re about to be as explosive as you can possibly make yourself for the next while – the last thing you want is a bad climate for working your muscles so aggressively. Sprinting fast is more difficult than any weight training endeavor because it’s dynamic in nature, repeated, and your muscles have to contract as quickly as possible in the shortest period of time, in both concentric and eccentric action. It’s like a max effort, repeated for 50 strides. Surely it takes a toll on the body, so we want to make sure it’s a nice, warm and dry day.
Think Soft Surfaces!
This is an easy rule: Don’t run on concrete. The impact will knock the sense out of your knees, hips, and low back. Plus, you’ll increase your risk of getting shin splints, which isn’t fun.
Instead, sprint on grass, turf, sand (that’s really badass), or if you’re lucky enough to have one in your area, use a rubber track. The shock absorption from each of these surfaces will be just enough to salvage your joints. Most typical high school tracks also use clay or dirt as a surface. This can also be used as a last resort.
The name of the game for any track athlete is mobility. If a sprinter was “tight” and insufficient of ROM in any part of the body, it would come back to haunt them either through poor sprinting performance, or eventual injury. Making sure the muscles are in good quality and the joints are mobilized takes precedence when it comes to preparing to do a sprint workout.
There’s plenty of conflicting evidence surrounding foam rolling and S.M.R. research, but I’m a proponent of it. I believe it improves the malleability of muscle tissue and can improve blood flow. Special areas to target would be the quads and hips, around the IT Band, and the glute and hamstrings tissue.
When you feel a tender area, slow down on that area and spend extra time working over it. If foam rolling doesn’t cause even the most minimal discomfort, it’s time for a denser roller!
Exercises that will help put the body through large ranges of motion in a more controlled fashion are adequate for this portion. Here are 2 of my favourites:
Both of these movements help mobilize the hip capsule, and provide the needed dynamic flexibility work to the hip flexors, along with the internal and external rotators of the thigh. Adding variations to these movements (such as adding an upward reach to the Spiderman walks) are fitting progressions.
Some honorable mentions:
Sharpen Your Skills
Lastly, it’s time to actually get specific and sharpen your track specific skills. Just like a “feel set” in the weight room, you have to go through the motions specific to sprinting to groove the motor patterns and get the body used to what’s about to be asked of it. The following drills are my list of “essentials”. Every single track workout should be preceded by these, bar none.
A – Skips – emphasize a high knee lift with a rhythmic “bounce” each step. Stay on the balls of the feet, and make sure to go through a full arm swing. Stay tall.
Running A’s – This time, take away the bounce and increase the stride frequency. It’s like sprinting on the spot, but instead, gradually progress forward. Cover about a 10 to 15 metre distance .
Bounding – Try to cover a significant amount of ground, and keep the body on a slight forward lean. Focus on driving off the ground with a straight leg extension. This will translate well into directing your force production straight ahead down the track when sprinting, with no ancillary movements or energy output.
In all 3 videos, the one consistent theme I’ll note is my relaxation. It’s important to “let” your muscles fire rather than to stay tight and “try” to make them fire. Make sure your facial features are loose at all times. These movements should feel effortless.
Remember to start your sprint workouts with shorter distances and progress to longer ones. The short durations and distances will make it easier to segment your runs and ingrain correct techniques and the drills you just practiced into your motor patterning.
Don’t focus on a super-maximal effort if you don’t feel you’re conditioned to do so. Whether you’re sprinting at 90% intensity or giving it a full-out, balls to the wall effort, the differences in speed between the two should be minimal, and the benefit of staying just beneath your threshold is that you can focus on relaxation and good form during your runs. You’ll be using the same energy systems in either case, so play it safe and stay one notch below max until you’ve got things down pat. Again, an onlooker with an untrained eye really shouldn’t be able to tell the difference between a 90% sprint and a 100% sprint effort.
Here’s an example of my sprint workout from last week:
ALL of the above mobilizations and drills for 3 rounds each
3x10m (in flats)
3x20m (in flats)
3x30m (in flats)
2x30m (in spikes)
1x50m (in spikes)
3x150m (in spikes)
Again, I’ve been a competitive sprinter, so I’m familiar with gauging my speed and effort for each sprint repetition. The short accelerations (up to 30m in flats) were done at a 90% intensity, and the short sprints (50m) were performed closer to max effort. The long runs were to focus on stride length and form, and were performed at 90% intensity.
The Home Stretch
It’s a real game changer when you come to your workout prepared. Knowing just what you need to do is half the battle to getting a good job done, and actually providing a service to your body in the process. Take note of the above points, and use them in a sprint workout on its own separate day. You’ll be glad you did, and with your new-found speed, you may break some world records while you’re at it.
Lee Boyce is an internationally known fitness writer and strength coach and owner of Boyce Training Systems, based in Toronto Ontario. His work is published regularly in many major fitness magazines including Men’s Health, Men’s Fitness, TNATION, Muscle and Fitness, Bodybuilding.com and Inside Fitness. In 2013, he was named to the Team Jamaica training and treatment staff for the Penn Relays international track meet. Currently Boyce works with clients and athletes for strength, conditioning, and sport performance. Visit his website www.leeboycetraining.com for more content, and follow him on twitter @coachleeboyce and facebook www.facebook.com/lee.boyce.52.
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