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3 Optimal Devices for Running Speed Improvement

By Dan Hutchison, MS, ATC, CSCS

 

There will most likely never be a magic pill or potion that miraculously makes humans rich, good-looking, athletic, thin, or famous.  But, can there be a magic ‘tool’ to make humans run faster?  Most likely NOT, but the question has been contemplated since the first Olympic Games in Athens, Greece, where we pitted human versus human on a stage to determine who is the fastest in all of the land.  As the years have progressed, humans have changed, running times and speeds have changed, and our methods for manipulating these characteristics have also changed.  Each strength coach, track coach, performance coach and sports scientist will have their opinions and methods of how to manipulate the physiological make-up of humans to determine optimal speed enhancements.  In the spirit of these opinions, while leaving out the obvious performance enhancers like ‘choose better parents’ and/or ‘take better drugs’ (that was a joke!), we have put together the 3 optimal training tools for the improvement of running speed.  These descriptions include excerpts from previous performance articles, “High-speed Treadmill Training – The under-utilized and misunderstood speed development tool” (Training & Conditioning, December 2016), “Utilizing the 4-Way Hip for Speed Development” (Training & Conditioning, December 2016), and “Speed Development Using Resistance Cords” (Perform-X Training Systems Performance Blog, October 2017).

The 3 Optimal Training Devices for Running Speed Improvement:

  • High Speed Treadmill
  • Hip Strengthening Machine
  • Lower Body Resistance Cords

THE HIGH SPEED TREADMILL

The high speed treadmill (HST) has been one of those unique instruments that although highly effective, has come under much scrutiny.  Early Russian research supported the benefits of inclined and over speed applications for the enhancement of sprint performance through the use of towing, most commonly applied using a motorcycle or automobile to tow the individual.  The high speed motorized treadmill was developed to bring both of these applications together through 3 specific factors – safety, optimal teaching environment and accurate quantification of the training.  Using this approach, the coach is able to teach mechanics and body position at specific velocities, inclinations and time, to progressively enhance ability and performance, and more importantly, within a safe environment.  If one can properly manipulate strength, speed, and power, within the mechanics of the activity, improvements or adaptations will occur.  If this activity is straight line sprinting speed, these applications through the use of a high speed treadmill, are no different than using traditional lifting techniques like the back squat or power clean, to enhance lower extremity strength and power.  Inevitably, the motion of sprinting will be done on the ground, but arguments can be made in favor of utilizing HST for speed enhancement through specificity and stimuli occurring through inclination and velocity.

Common rebuttals of HST training involve statements like, “the treadmill does all the work”, “running mechanics change because of the moving belt”, and “running over-ground is completely different”.  Three facts that debunk these statements, based on clinical research:

  • The kinematics, ground-reaction forces, and metabolic cost of locomotion are nearly indistinguishable from over-ground locomotion when the treadmill has an adequate motor and flywheel, and the belt speed does not vary (Kram, et. al. 1998).  Basically, a stiff and powerful treadmill emits the same forces and physiological adaptations to the body, as ground-based running.
  • Speed training on a treadmill provides load resistance based on spatial position and gravitational pull during bouts performed on inclines greater than 0% grade (Myer, et. al. 2007).  If the HST is at an inclination anywhere above 0% grade, the body has to apply force in the same sequential firing pattern to propel the body both vertically and horizontally, and the individual has to adequately ‘hold’ their spatial position on the treadmill.
  • Inclined treadmill sprinting creates adaptations in stride frequency by increasing lower extremity muscle activation and through increases in joint angular velocities (Swanson, et. al. 2000).  Similar to resistance training with various lower body movements to improve both muscle force and power, utilizing a HST to induce these adaptations is no different than using a heavy back squat to improve force development, or a power clean to improve lower extremity power.

High speed treadmill training is another resource that specifically caters to the improvement of sprinting velocity, using speed (MPH) and specific inclination, but also acts as a compliment to all other movement training.  Running, and more importantly sprinting, is the backbone of all sports related movements.  The best runners/sprinters tend to be the best athletes, male or female, and can perform multi-directional skills with finesse and fluidity.  Technical development of this skill through strategic manipulations of speed (MPH), inclination (% grade) and time, provide the ultimate mechanism for sustained running speed development.

HIP STRENGTHENING MACHINE

The emphasis on hip musculature strengthening has always been a priority when the topic of linear or lateral speed development is discussed.  Lately, various methods of hip strengthening have been discussed in the literature as alternatives to traditional practices, i.e., squats and deadlifts, to better meet the demands of particular speed movements or specific sports.  In addition to traditional movements, emphasis has always been placed on the anterior and posterior components of the hip, while neglecting the medial and lateral aspects.  Understandably, the majority of our force development comes from the quad (anterior) and glute (posterior) region.  The supporting muscles of the hip complement the ‘driving force’ behind acceleration and top-end speed, and are directly related to maintaining technique and balance throughout the specific skill.  The 4-way hip (4WH) machine, seldom seen in high school or collegiate weight rooms, has proven to be a valuable tool in hip musculature development, but has been severely under-utilized and under-estimated in the strength and conditioning environment.

In comparison to its counterpart, the glute-ham machine, the 4WH allows loaded movement in all four muscular directions – flexion, extension, abduction, adduction – offering specific development in these areas.  The key points of each movement are emphasized below:

Hip Flexion:  Muscles involved with driving the knee up/forward.

  • Improves drive-phase production of the non-contact limb during all athletic movements.
  • A limiting factor in progressing to optimal linear speed development.
  • Optimal muscular development for speed occurs with unilateral loading at 1 x Bodyweight (BW) for hip flexor strength.  (Hint:  A 180lb athlete should be able to rep 180lbs on each individual leg during the hip flexion exercise on the 4WH).

 

Hip Extension:  Muscles involved with driving the leg back and into the ground.

  • Enhances the push-off phase during ground contact in all athletic movements.
  • Adequately and specifically loads the bi-articulate (2-joint) glute and hamstring muscles in a functional (upright) position.
  • Optimal muscular development for speed occurs with unilateral loading at 2 x BW for hip extension.  (Hint:  A 180lb athlete should be able to rep 360lbs on each individual leg during the hip extension exercise on the 4WH).

 

Hip Abduction:  Muscles involved with raising the leg laterally.

  • Stabilization of the pelvis during the stance phase of all athletic movements.
  • Complements hip extension during acceleration and top-end speed.
  • Enhances stability in the lateral aspects of the knee and ankle.

 

Hip Adduction:  Muscles involved with bringing/keeping the leg toward the body’s midline.

  • Stabilization of the pelvis during the stance phase of all athletic movements.
  • Complements hip flexion during acceleration and top-end speed.
  • Enhances stability in the medial aspects of the knee and ankle.

 

The 4WH provides a precise movement pattern that promotes a specific contraction force, allowing the individual to develop strength within the running skill.  Successful strength characteristics can be properly developed using the 4WH along with traditional strengthening methods.

LOWER BODY RESISTANCE CORDS

Resistance cord devices fall into the ‘minimal equipment/limited budget’ category in that they are typically less expensive than traditional weight training equipment, i.e., dumbbells, barbells, racks, machines, etc., but provide a unique, minimalistic stimulus to improving running velocity, both at top-end speed and during the acceleration phase.

One common misconception of utilizing resistance cords for running speed improvement is that cords don’t provide enough of an overload to the muscle groups associated.  Whether we are dealing with top-end speed or acceleration, the fact is ‘less is more’.  We want the athlete to be able to maintain a minimum of 90% of their top-end velocity when utilizing resistance cords, especially during over-speed applications.  Commonly, 4-6% of the individual’s bodyweight is factored into the stretch of the cord device.  The main culprit of too much resistance is developing poor running mechanics, or compensating in such a way that different motor units are firing to perform the task.  Our goal is to stimulate the correct muscle groups in an efficient manner and enhance muscle firing capacity at the most economical level.

KEY POINTS:

  • Proper running mechanics should be established and practiced prior to adding resistance cords to either over-speed or acceleration movements.
  • Lower cord tension is optimal for over-speed applications and to prevent poor running mechanics during the training.
  • Athletes should be able to maintain 90% of their running velocity during cord-loaded training.
  • Anchoring points can be utilized at the waist, upper torso, and distal hip (mid-thigh/upper calf), with waist anchoring being optimal for early stage speed development.
  • Acceleration drills can utilize most anchoring conditions with strict attention to technique.
  • Acceleration drills can offer a slightly higher cord tension due to the short duration of the drill and the athlete’s body position.
  • All cord-loaded applications should be followed by non-cord-loaded repetitions to elicit an enhanced training experience through the concept of PAP (post-activation potentiation).

Resistance cord training applications can be added to all performance programs with minimal equipment and limited budgets, and a working knowledge of fundamental running mechanics.  Velocity based movements with minimal loading, can maximize athlete performance in the areas of top-end speed and initial acceleration.

In summary, we pointed out each individual devices characteristics of how they manipulate and stimulate running speed enhancement.  If used individually, many performance benefits can be seen; of course, if all three are used together, many more performance benefits can be seen.  As mentioned above, if any of the ‘optimal tools’ are used within a performance program, the areas of running speed development can be seen almost immediately, and can provide more sustainability for velocity based movements.

References:

Beardsley, C. and Contreras, B (2014).  The increasing role of the hip extensor musculature with heavier compound lower-body movements and more explosive sports actions.  Strength and Conditioning Journal 36(2):  49-55.

Deane, R.S, Chow, J.W., Tillman, M.D., and Fournier, K.A (2005).  Effects of hip flexor training on sprint, shuttle run, and vertical jump performance.  J Strength Cond Res 19(3):  615-621.

Delecluse, C (1997).  Influence of Strength Training on Sprint Running Performance: Current Findings and Implications for Training.  Sports Medicine 24(3):  147-220.

Dintiman, G. and Ward, B. (2003).  Sports Speed.  Human Kinetics 1.

Hauschildt, M. D. (2010). Integrating high-speed treadmills into a traditional strength and conditioning program for speed and power sports. Strength & Conditioning Journal, 32(2), 21-32.

 

Healy, R., and Comyns, T.M. (2017).  The Application of Postactivation Potentiation Methods to Improve Sprint Speed.  Strength and Conditioning Journal, 39(1):  1-9.

Hrysomallis, C.  (2012). The effectiveness of resisted movement training on sprinting and jumping performance.  The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 26(1), 299-306.

Kram, R., Griffin, T. M., Donelan, J. M., & Chang, Y. H. (1998). Force treadmill for measuring vertical and horizontal ground reaction forces. Journal of Applied Physiology, 85(2), 764-769.

Lockie, R.G., Murphy, A.J., and Spinks, C.D (2003).  Effects of resisted sled towing on sprint kinematics in field-sport athletes.  JSCR 17: 760-767.

Meyer, G.D, Ford, K.R., Brent, J.L., Divine, J.G., and Hewett, T.E (2007).  Predictors of sprint start speed:  The effects of resistive ground-based vs. inclined treadmill training.  JSCR 21(3):  831-836.

Young, W (2006).  Transfer of strength and power training to sports performance.  International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance 1:  74-83.

Swanson, S.C. and Caldwell, G.E. (2000).  An integrated biomechanical analysis of high speed incline and level treadmill running.  Med. Sci. Sports Exerc.  32: 1146-1155.

 

 

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