Section: POWERLINE 2002

sought after physical attribute in athletics. It is also one of the most elusive. The 100-meter dash in international competition offers a case in point.

In September 2002, Tim Montgomery clocked a 9.78 at the IAAF Grand Prix Final held in Paris. That shaved 0.01 of a second off the previous record set three years ago by Maurice Greene, the Olympic and world champion.

Since 1912, when Donald Lippincott of the U.S. set the record at 10.6, the progression in the world’s hallmark speed event has been slow indeed (check chart on next page).

You would think that given their inherited ability - coupled with the infinite wisdom and tutelage of speed gurus - these world-class athletes would have had a more conspicuous impact on the stopwatches. Over the past 90 years (1912-2000) the 100-meter dash record has inched up a mere 0.22 of a second (10.6 to 9.78).

It appears that even with all of the new “fast-twitch” training centers, revolutionary speed gadgets, bio-engineered nutritional supplements, and disclosure of the well-guarded Eastern-Bloc “training secrets,” the greatest sprinters in the world are still taking baby steps in the record race.

All of this points to genetic predisposition, rather than the myriad extraneous variables, as being the polestar ingredient in speed improvement. “If you desire great speed, choose your parents wisely.” We really can’t argue with that.

As we have often stated before, we firmly believe that speed can be improved. However, the caveat is that the rate and level of this improvement has a genetic ceiling.

Allow us to delve into what we believe are the basic tenets of speed improvement – void of all the speculation, gimmicks, and wishful thinking.
Get Stronger

Increasing muscular strength/power is a good way to come out of the blocks. Stronger leg and hip muscles will generate the needed power for knee punch on one side and with the concurrent extension and foot strike on the other. This increased power can have a positive effect on stride frequency (i.e., the number of strides taken over a given distance).

A comprehensive strength-training regimen for the lower extremities and hip compartments (check the November issue for suggestions) combining both multi-joint and single-joint movements will fulfill this need.

Upper body strength should be given its due, as well. The upper body running mechanics act as a counter-balance to the lower body mechanics, while also stabilizing the torso and maintaining the correct body posture.

There are many approaches and philosophies on exercise selection, sets, reps, progression, etc. We will continue to offer suggestions in all of these areas, but there are certainly many more choices. Coaches must examine all of the available program designs and make an informed decision on what best fits their needs and is in the best interest of their athletes.
Improve Flexibility

The recent scientific literature indicates that pre-workout/post-workout stretching has little, if any, effect on preventing muscle soreness or preventing serious injury. However, stretching can improve flexibility, which may improve performance in many athletic skills – including sprinting.

Stride length (i.e., the distance covered with each stride) can be increased somewhat with improved flexibility in the soft-tissue compartments of the lower extremities. This factor alone provides a solid reason to incorporate some type of flexibility program.

Stretching techniques are as varied as lifting procedures, though many experts recommend the static stretch method for safety and simplicity purposes. Regardless of the preferred stretching method, be sure to precede it with a general warm-up period that induces a mild perspiration.
The Horizontal Component

We have mentioned the influence that Kevin McNair, a well-respected speed coach, has had on our speed improvement program. One of his major points of emphasis in sprinting is to accentuate the horizontal component.

Sprinting is a horizontal activity. Soon after exploding from the blocks and attaining the upright position, the sprinter must focus on economizing his upper and lower body movements and translating them into horizontal speed. When you observe world-class sprinters, your eye is caught by their level head placement as they zoom down the track. You will not see a lot of “head-bobbing” by the great ones.

This is because they have worked on minimizing what is known as vertical displacement, which is the distance the head moves vertically above the normal standing height. The reduction of this vertical lift accentuates the horizontal component in sprinting, which, in itself, can improve speed.

Important coaching tips for minimizing the vertical component when sprinting:

• Keep the head straight and the eyes focused directly down the track in a “conversational plane.”

• Pull the shoulders back to the point of a slight arch.

• Rotate the arms at the shoulders to avoid lifting (shrugging) the shoulders in the process.

• While driving the arms, take the hands (upward) no higher than chest level and (downward) no lower than hip level.

• Maintain as close as possible a 90-degree bend at the elbows.

• “Punch” the lead leg out and up - not just up - to a position approximately parallel to the ground.

• Fully extend the back leg beneath the hip with a hard snap and driving action.

• Run tall! Do not rock back and forth at the waist.
Minimize Rotational Forces

Also essential to sprinting economy is the reduction of inefficient rotational movements that severely detract from the horizontal component. The most notable culprits are the twisting motions of the torso caused by improper arm swing and/or head turning.

Constructive suggestions on this problem:

• Keep the head motionless while in the conversational plane.

• Once upright, lock-in the torso and avoid side-to-side or rotary movements.

• Avoid swinging the arms across the body, as this forces the rest of the torso to follow, thus exacerbating the problem.

• Avoid swinging the arm outward on its down swing to the hip.
Final Rep

We have had success in teaching these techniques slowly and progressively from ½ speed, to ¾ speed, to full speed. Videotape offers an excellent teaching tool, as athletes cannot always “feel” their mistakes - they must see them. This visual aid also provides positive reinforcement when they finally get it right.

Finally, never forget the Principle of Specificity, which simply states that you must practice a skill with exactness to derive the full benefits. So, occasionally, to improve speed, you must practice running fast with proper sprinting mechanics!

Sounds overly simplistic, doesn’t it? No more so than Paul Brown’s response, many moons ago, to a question on why he used the 40-yard dash as a speed test for his football players: “It seems like a good distance for football players.”

So much for science.

When science ends, does anything begin? We do not want to introduce the “spiritual,” but how about the spirit? It’s a sometimes mystical, sometimes tangible, driving force that comes from somewhere deep inside the athlete - beyond the range of x-rays, that propels the athlete to unmapped and unpredictable accomplishments.

Legend for Chart:



1 TIM MONTGOMERY (U.S.) 9/15/02 9.78

2 MAURICE GREEN (U.S.) 6/16/99 9.79

3 DONOVAN BAILEY (CANADA) 7/27/96 9.84

4 LEROY BURRELL (U.S.) 7/6/94 9.85

5 CARL LEWIS (U.S.) 8/25/91 9.86

6 LEROY BURRELL (U.S.) 6/14/91 9.90

7 CARL LEWIS (U.S.) 9/24/88 9.92

8 CALVIN SMITH (U.S.) 7/3/83 9.93

9 JIM HINES (U.S.) 10/14/68 9.95

10 ARMIN HARY (W. GERMANY) 6/21/60 10.0

11 WILLIE WILLIAMS (U.S.) 8/3/56 10.1

12 JESSE OWENS (U.S.) 6/20/36 10.2

13 PERCY WILLIAMS (CANADA) 8/9/30 10.3

14 CHARLES PADDOCK (U.S.) 4/23/21 10.4

15 DONALD LIPPINCOTT (U.S.) 7/6/12 10.6

By Ken Mannie, Strength/Conditioning Coach, Michigan State University