Acceleration is so important to athletes in both track and field. Within a sprint, a poor acceleration can lead to losing the race, just like Bolt did at the last World Championships (2017). There should also be no surprise that the athlete in the NFL combine, who have the best 40 yard dash times, get the biggest contracts and tend to be the players who go on to succeed the most within the sport. We could argue that acceleration is a key performance indicator in many sports. In this short article, I will be sharing my five key points required for good acceleration performance.
1-Great Set Position
The athlete needs to be set before they start sprinting. With a good base, the athlete is starting from a point which allows them to project forward. Factors that influence set position include the dominant side, strength levels, mobility and stability.
Patience and progression are key when setting up an athlete’s set position, it doesn’t have to be fancy, it just has to work. It can be as simple as moving from a high standing 2 point start position all the way through to blocks (if a sprinter). Remember it also can depend on what the aim of the session is and what intensity is being asked for. Is it an acceleration session, a max velocity session, race modelling or fly-ins with a build up? etc.
2-Forward Hip Projection
The hip or centre of mass should be moving forward. Way too many athletes wheel spin in the first 20m. They mistake striking behind or under the hip as small and short steps. This leads to over rotation and lack of stride length. Project the hip forward, cover some ground by driving the knee forward, strike back and push away from the track. Put simply, if you are covering 5m in 6 steps and your competition is covering it in 4 steps (while striking backwards)… they probably have you beat. I want to note that I am not talking about “striding out”, all this cue leads to is overstriding and breaking forces being produced. Do not mistake quickness for speed. Quickness is limbs moving fast, speed is getting from point A to point B in as little time as possible (fast).
3-Mid to Low Heel Recovery
The foot should drive through the stance leg between mid-calf and low-ankle. This is what’s referred to as a low heel recovery and it allows athletes to not spend too much time in the air when accelerating. Air time can be wasted time and we don’t need to be wasting time when we want to press the go button. We need to put the foot down on the peddle and go as fast as we can. This is why it is important to find the correct balance between this and point number 2. Go too far towards one or the other and you end up with athletes either spending too long in the air or going nowhere fast by making too many contacts with the ground.
4-Climb the Ladder
From step one you could imagine climbing a ladder, transitioning smoothly from an acceleration position to an upright max velocity position. Explain this concept to the athlete as moving from a low body position to an upright body position, from the head down position to scanning up towards the end of the track. The athlete should transition from striking back and behind the hip to striking down and under the hip, from low heel recovery to a high heel recovery and from “lower knees” to “higher knees”. Ensure that emphasis is placed on smoothness of transition and explain to them that they must not rush the acceleration process.
The ability to hold low positions and produce force into the ground can often be put down to how strong the athlete is and how comfortable they feel in that position. We have all seen the athlete who can’t hold low positions, attempt to do so by hinging or leaning forward at the hip. This occurs because the athlete doesn’t have the strength qualities to display full extension at lower exit angles. At some point during the athlete’s development, a coach has told them to stay low when accelerating, rather than allowing the athlete to extend and create lines at an angle that is suitable to their current strength or force capabilities. If we cue athletes incorrectly and get them hinging at the hip, all we are doing is setting them up to be slower and putting them at greater risk of injury.