“Speed kills!” a favorite motto among coaches. Many coaches believe that great runners are born fast, and lots of money and effort go towards recruiting the fastest athletes, especially at the college and pro levels. However, there are a few problems with this perspective.
Although genetics do play a significant role in running fast, training can help athletes run significantly faster – even athletes in their 20s and 30s. Unfortunately, if an athlete doesn’t believe that training can make them faster, then they are less likely to put all-out effort into their training. Likewise, if a coach doesn’t believe that training helps, they will provide less support to their strength coaching staff – and their mindset of failure will be transferred to the athlete.
There are many other misunderstandings associated with running faster. Here are five facts to set the record straight.
1. Speed is related to muscle mass.
Although the general public may make fun of bodybuilders as muscle-bound and unable to run, the fact is there is a relationship between muscle mass and running.
In the article “Running Performance Has a Structural Basis,” published in July 2005 in The Journal of Experimental Biology
, the authors looked at the physical characteristics of the world’s fastest 45 runners at eight distances (100 to 10,000 meters) run in international competitions from 1990 to 2003. What they found was that those who excelled in the shorter distances “were generally more massive than those in longer ones,” and those runners with the most muscle were those in the sprint events of 100, 200 and 400 meters.
One reason for this difference is that running speed is influenced by being able to apply more force into the ground, not by moving the arms and legs faster. In fact, in the JEB
article, the authors said “muscle support forces” during sprinting can be more than five times an athlete’s bodyweight.
2. The key to a strong sprint start is strength.
Sprinters must develop impressive strength to be able to overcome inertia during the start. Overcoming inertia is also a goal of weightlifters; in fact, the strength training weightlifters do often enables them to have sprint starts that match up with sprinters. Let us give you a few examples.
Mark Cameron, at a bodyweight of 240 pounds, was the second American to clean and jerk 500 pounds. Now, compare Cameron to Renaldo Nehemiah, an athlete who used his speed in both sprinting and football. Nehemiah was the first man to run the 100-meter hurdles under 13 seconds, and he also played wide receiver for the San Francisco 49ers when they won the Super Bowl in 1982. In a sprinting competition between these athletes, it would be easy to predict the faster athlete – or would it? The fact is, these two amazing athletes did compete in a mock race at the University of Maryland. For the first 10 yards weightlifter Cameron was ahead of hurdler Nehemiah. After that it was no contest – Nehemiah pulled ahead.
We’ve heard similar stories about other lifters’ exceptional sprinting speed. For example, David Rigert, a 1976 Olympic champion in the 198-pound bodyweight class who broke 64 world records and clean and jerked 488 pounds, could reportedly run the 100 meters in 10.4 seconds.
As for throwers, Lee Newman could put the shot 62 feet and could run the 30 meters in 3.41 seconds at a bodyweight of 262. Here’s another: Brian Oldfield, who put the shot 75 feet as a professional, would often race against the best female sprinters in exhibitions and often beat them! He reportedly ran the 100 meters in 10.5 and the 40-yard dash in 4.3 seconds.
3. The fastest sprinters don’t always win.
In the 1988 Olympics, Ben Johnson ran 9.79 and Carl Lewis ran 9.92 in the 100 meters. Although it appears that Johnson was faster than Lewis, the fact is he wasn’t.
If you look at the 10-meter splits in that race, you’ll see that the fastest splits for Johnson and Lewis was 0.83 seconds. What set Johnson apart was his superior reaction time to the starting gun and his ability to maintain a higher level of speed longer than Lewis. Likewise, Usain Bolt’s fastest 10-meter split when he ran 9.69 at the Beijing Olympics was 0.82, which he maintained for only 10 meters. The major difference between Johnson’s and Bolt’s races was that Bolt did not decelerate as much as Johnson after reaching top speed (Bolt hit between 0.82 and 0.86 for the second 50 meters).
What happens in a 100-meter sprint is that during the first 20 meters (often called the drive phase), the sprinter gradually moves into an upright running posture, which dramatically reduces the athlete’s ability to accelerate. Consequently, after 20 meters muscular endurance become a key factor in lowering sprint times.
For athletes who use resistive running, this means that they should focus on using devices such as push sleds and pulling sleds for only about 20 meters – after this distance the athlete is no longer in a drive phase, so working longer distances would not be specific to the sport.
4. The best field test to evaluate hamstring imbalances is with the front squat.
The hamstrings have two primary functions, to extend the hip and to flex the knee. That is why it’s critical for sprinters to properly develop the muscles involved in both functions.
Most sport scientists will suggest that to achieve structural balance between the hamstrings and quadriceps, the hamstrings should be able to produce 66 percent of the force of the quadriceps. Rather than using a leg curl machine that only tests knee flexion, the best way to determine structural balance between the hamstrings and quadriceps is to compare your maximal front squat to your maximal back squat. If your front-squat strength is less than 85 percent of your back squat, then you have a structural imbalance.
By the way, weak hamstrings are often the result of using inappropriate rep schemes. The hamstrings, especially the biceps femoris, are primarily fast-twitch fibers and respond better to low reps and heavy weights. Thus, an exercise protocol of 3-8 reps of 4-6 sets would be more appropriate for leg curls than 12-15 reps for 2-3 sets.
5. Upper body training is critical for sprinters.
Acceleration begins from the upper body; hence the need for sprinters to develop upper body strength to have a good start. Further, upper body strength and abdominal strength will help the sprinter maintain good sprint mechanics, and the upper body will help counter the torque produced by the lower body. This is also true for all short-term speed events, from bobsleigh to speed skating.
Currently, if you look at the upper body development of today’s top sprinters, it’s obvious they are spending some time in the weightroom.
All other things being equal, the sprinter with the best genetics will usually win. But with smart training and a good work ethic, any athlete can run much faster than they ever thought possible.