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Running Phases Part 1: Acceleration

Acceleration is a hugely important part of most sports, whether that be leading for a mark, accelerating to hit a drop shot, running from a pack or simply exploding from the blocks in a 100m sprint. Your ability to accelerate and accelerate efficiently is the key to generating speed quickly to perform these tasks (3).

Acceleration training should be a major focal point of all athlete’s training where their sport involves some sort of speed and explosive power. This is especially evident in change of direction based sports where having the ability to produce high speeds over short distances (0-30/50m) is paramount (7, 8), while having the ability to react and accelerate quickly can be the difference between first and second place in track events.

Acceleration is the rate at which the speed of an object is changing from a stationary position or slowly moving state to maximum speed (6, 7). This generally occurs over 0-30m or within 4 seconds (8). Once the athlete moves past this distance, they move into reaching their maximum velocity or speed. There are three key factors that aid in us accelerating quickly; strength, power and technique (1, 2, 6). We will talk more about these throughout this article, whilst discovering the most efficient way to accelerate.

Strength

Firstly, let us look at what exactly strength means in the context of exercise and sport. Strength is your ability to apply force against a load or resistance. This could mean applying force to fend off a player in a tackle, to a racquet to hit a ball, or in this context to the ground to drive yourself forward horizontally. When we talk about force in the sprinting and acceleration context, the greater amount of force we can apply to the ground combined with the speed at which we can do it, the greater reduction we can have in our ground contact time (GCT) (1, 2, 5). GCT is the time the foot is in contact with the ground per stride (1, 2, 5). GCT differs when comparing the initial acceleration phase to the mid-acceleration phase, indicating that there is a difference in strength qualities (maximal strength, explosive strength and reactive strength) required as we progress through the acceleration phases (1, 2). Let’s discuss each of these in more detail.

Maximal Strength  

To put it simply maximal strength is the maximum amount of force that you can apply to an object, or ultimately a measure of how strong you are (6). This can be measured via a 1 Repetition Maximum (RM) test (the total amount of weight that you can lift for one rep) (6). When your 1RM is derived from compound lower body lifts such as a squat or deadlift, we gain insight into how much force you can apply to the ground. Of course, being able to produce high levels of force is of no benefit to acceleration if you can’t express this quickly, or throughout the running pattern. Maximal strength can be best developed through compound lifts:

Worlds Strongest man performing a Deadlift.
  • Squat
  • Deadlift
  • Romanian Deadlift
  • Bench Press
  • Bench Pull

Explosive Strength

This is the ability of our muscles to apply maximum force to an object or the ground in minimal time (1, 2). If we think of the rate of force development curve (the rate at which we are able to produce force) explosive strength is simply the tip of that curve (1, 2). Explosive strength is commonly measured via a standing vertical jump test or broad jump test. Combining this measure with your maximal strength measure can provide an indication of the amount of force you can apply to the ground and how quickly you can change from an eccentric (muscle lengthening) to a concentric movement (muscle shortening) (1, 2). Some activities we can do to help develop our explosive strength include:

Olympic Weightlifting Clean and Snatch.
  • Olympic lifting derivatives
  • Kettlebell swings
  • Medicine ball throws

Reactive Strength

Now we start to put the two together, where reactive strength is our ability to rapidly change from an eccentric to a concentric muscle contraction also known as the stretch shortening cycle (1, 2, 6). This pertains to our ability to hold elastic energy within our tendons as they act like a spring, being stretched to their maximum capacity before being released (1, 2, 6). Some common ways of developing this type of strength includes various plyometric exercises such as:

Hurdle Jumps with a short contact between.
  • Drop jumps
  • Pogo jumps
  • Hurdle jumps

Power

Power can be explained as the change in force with respect to time, the speed at which force is applied is proportional to the amount of force that is applied (1, 2). This is different to explosive strength as it is not necessarily the maximum amount of force we can apply (2). Power is important during acceleration as when we talk about the GCT, the faster we can apply force to the ground the more rapidly we are able to move (1, 2). For example, the amount of force and the speed at which you apply that force to the ground in walking is far less than that of a run, and then again of sprinting (1, 2). As you progress through the acceleration phase your ground contact time shortens indicating a greater use of power than explosive or maximal strength (1, 2, 6). Some of the common ways we can develop our power include:

Box jumps.
  • Box jumps
  • Squat jumps
  • Non-countermovement hurdle jumps

Now that we understand the need to apply high levels of force quickly to move fast, let’s look at the best way to do that making us as efficient as possible.

Technique

There are many technical factors that can be looked at during the acceleration phase, and all phases of running for that matter, to make us more efficient. We will be looking at three key factors:

The First Three Steps

The first three steps of our acceleration phase whether it be for a straight-line sprint or to a change of direction, are important. Getting the initial stages of the acceleration phase right will have a flow on affect to the subsequent stages of the acceleration phase. So, what do we want our first three steps to look like?

It is important that as we take our initial movements to accelerate our steps are low and short. As we move through our acceleration phase these steps will get larger and our heel lift higher (4, 7, 10). It is ideal that these steps are fast, however initially they will be a lot slower than that of maximal speed steps (4, 7, 10), needing to apply high levels of force to produce movement.

Triple Extension

Triple extension is when we form a straight line from our shoulders to our ankles (9), the ideal position to adopt at toe off during all stages of running, but more importantly during the acceleration phase. This position allows compliance through the posterior kinetic chain, linking together our larger muscle groups (erector spinae, glutes, hamstrings and calves) to work together in a synergistic manner to achieve the same common goal (move us forward fast) (9). When we lose triple extension, we break the kinetic chain, resulting in muscle groups working in isolation to achieve the same goal (9). This quickly depletes efficiency and increases our chances of sustaining an injury in muscle groups which are adopting a greater load to compensate (9).

Forward Lean Position

Lastly, our forward lean position places the whole body’s centre of gravity is ahead of the base of support, bringing the trunk closer to the ground reaction forces (9), and in combining this position with triple extension we are able to apply greater amounts of force to the ground (9). This forward lean position means that we are able drive the ground behind us with every step, rather than potentially overstriding and creating a breaking force with every step (4). This position will be far greater in the initial stages of acceleration, slowly transitioning into a more upright maximal speed position. Think of yourself as a jet aeroplane slowly increasing your height as you move forward.

Asafa Powell showing triple extension, forward lean and low, short initial steps.

Here are three drills that can aid technique in these areas:

Wall March

A March & A Skip

Falling Start

References:

  1. Balsalobre-Fernandez, C. Tejero-Gonzalez, C. Campo-Vecino, J. & Alonso-Curiel, D. The effects of maximal power training cycle on strength, maximum power, vertical jump height and acceleration of high-level 400-meter hurdlers. Journal of Human Kinetics. 36: 119-126, 2013.
  2. Barr, M. Agar-Newman, D. Sheppard, J. & Newton, R. Transfer effect of strength and power training to the sprinting kinematics of International rugby players. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 28(9): 2585-2596, 2014.
  3. Coh, M. Jost, B. Skof, B. Tomazin, K. & Dolenec, A. Kinematic and Kinetic parameters of the sprint start and start acceleration model of top sprinters. Gymnica. 28:33-42, 1998.
  4. Harland, M. & Steele, J. Biomechanics of the sprint start. Journal of Sports Medicine. 23(1): 11-20, 1997.
  5. Hunter, J. Marshall, R. & McNair, P. Relationships between ground reaction force impulse and kinematics of sprint-running acceleration. Journal of Applied Biomechanics. 21: 31-43, 2005.
  6. Lockie, R. Murphy, A. Schultz, A. Knight, T. & Janse De Jonge, X. The effects of different speed training protocols on sprint acceleration kinematics and muscle strength and power in field sport athletes. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 26(6): 1539-1550, 2012.
  7. Mero, A. Komi, P. & Gregor, R. Biomechanics of sprint running: A review. Journal of Sports Medicine. 13(6): 376-392, 1992.
  8. Murphy, A. Lockie, R. & Coutts, A. Kinematic determinants of early acceleration in field sport athletes. Journal of Sports Science and Medicine. 2: 144-150, 2003.
  9. Nagahara, R. Matsubayashi, T. Matsuo, A. & Zushi, K. Kinematics of transition during human accelerated sprinting. Biology Open. 3: 689-699, 2014.
  10. Standing, R. & Maulder, P. The biomechanics of standing start and initial acceleration: Reliability of the key determining kinematics. Journal of Sports Science and Medicine. 16: 154-162, 2017.

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RUNNING AND OVERUSE INJURIES:

Not uncommon scenes at the lake in recent weeks.

With COVID-19 impacting our lives in so many ways now, it is so important that we keep some form of routine. For so many of us routine would mean doing some form of organised sport most if not all days. However, with all group gatherings diminished to only two people it has meant much of our beloved sport has been postponed or cancelled. In trying to stick to our routine many of us have turned to other forms of exercise such as running, cycling and body weight circuits. This is great to see that so many people are still getting out there and doing something to maintain their health and fitness or to continue working towards their goals even if they may have been postponed.

Running seems to be one form of exercise that so many of us have taken up, it requires minimal equipment and not a great deal of prior training to do (….so it seems). However, with running as with all sport and activity it doesn’t come without its risks and potential for injury, with 37-56% of runners sustaining some form of overuse injury (). So, while all of us go gun hoe on our fitness routines with all this spare time we have on our hands let’s take a minute to take a step back and just assess what we are doing.

You want to do some running to stay fit and healthy however you haven’t done too much continuous running before. Living in Ballarat you might think well a lap of the lake seems simple let’s start there; you feel alright afterward so the next day you think well I might do that again or maybe Vic Park. The only thing is you have never run on consecutive days before, nor have you done so many kilometres in a week. The first week goes by and you’re doing ok, but then part way through the second week you start to get some niggles, in the Achilles, hamstrings, knee or shin. You don’t think too much of it because you think “I have to keep exercising and this seems to be all I can do now” so out you go again the next day. Two days later you are limping out of bed with horrible pains in your legs, you can’t explain why but you concede that you cannot run for a while.

What can you do or where could you have changed things? To start with if you have already come across an injury yourself initially it is best to rest and seek further advice from a professional as to what exactly it may be. Most importantly however, what could we have done to prevent this from happening at the start?

Firstly, let’s look at some of the common injuries that a runner may sustain. These include Achilles tendon pain (tendonitis/tendinosis), medial tibial stress syndrome (known as shin splints – Check out out video on this), lateral or medial knee pain (ITB syndrome), or high hamstring pain (proximal/distal hamstring tendinopathy) (2, 3). There are a few common causes that all these injuries have:

  • when we increase our load too quickly or rapidly change the type of training we are doing.
  • Wearing out dated shoes increasing impact loading on the body, commonly seen through the doors at the Running Company Ballarat (https://www.therunningcompany.com.au/ballarat/) (2, 3).
  • Another cause of injury within running especially those that are new to running, is technique with a few common faults among us that can lead to greater strain being placed on different muscle groups leading to an injury.

Load Management

So, then what are some things that we can do to avoid this happening to ourselves? Firstly, it is important to monitor how much you are doing and how quickly you are increasing that load, for this we use the overload principle whereby we never increase our load by more than 10% (2). For example, if you have never really done too much running before then starting off with 3 runs a week giving yourself plenty of rest between each is a good start. Then when you are feeling comfortable you can increase the amount you are doing; keeping in mind that we don’t increase by any more than 10%. Therefore, if you are running 15km a week to begin with then your first increase would only be to run and extra 1.5km for the week. Hence, you might add an extra 500m to each run, rather than adding an extra 5km run for the week. It is also important that at the end of each 4 week block of training we reduce the volume of training we are doing, this allows for the body to recover and adapt to the new stimulus before reintroducing a higher volume again (2).

An illustration of how load increase may look over a 4 week block.

We also need to look at the type of surfaces that we are running on, as running on hard surfaces frequently increases the impact forces placed on the body, resulting in an increased injury risk (2, 3). Therefore it is important that we are running on a variety of surfaces including grass, gravel and pavement or road (2, 3). This allows for our body to adapt to the different stressors placed on the body associated with the different surfaces (2, 3).  While running around your block on the pavement each day may seem the easiest, it will be well worth your while going to an oval or park lands once a week and running on the grass, as it reduces the impact loading on your body.

Abrupt changes in running type can also contribute to an increased risk of injury, hence it is important that we don’t rapidly change the type of running we are doing (2, 3). For example don’t decide one day that you are going to run up a hill 10 times when all you have been doing is running on flat ground. What you might do instead is gradually introduce hills to your runs, where you might start to run over a few rolling hills before tackling a hills session, where you would progressively increase the pace at which you run up the hill each session. This will give your body the opportunity to adapt to running hills in a slow, progressive manner.

Technique

Lastly, on the technique side of things, as much as running seems a very simple task, just put one foot in front of the other quickly…… There are some key technique aspects that we can look at to reduce the risk of injury as well as make you more efficient at running. These are just a few key mistakes that many of us make.

Over striding:

Over striding means that when our foot strikes the ground we are landing on our heel (1, 5). In doing this we are essentially putting on the breaks, we must then overcome this braking force before we can apply force to the ground, propelling us forwards (1, 5). Not only is this less efficient, but it also places greater stress on the hamstrings and the lower back (1, 5). This occurs as your hamstrings are placed on stretch whilst also applying force to overcome the breaking forces being applied, potentially leading to knee or hamstring injuries (1, 5).

Incorrect and correct technique.

Increased hip flexion on foot strike (sitting in a bucket):

This means that when our foot strikes the ground we have a greater flexion angle at the hips, increasing our chances of overstriding, decreasing performance and increasing injury risk (1, 4, 5). This type of running style is more likely to lead to knee injuries due to the greater load placed on the quadriceps throughout the running cycle (1, 4, 5). This increased force produced by the quadriceps places an increased load on the ligaments and tendons surrounding the knee leading to potential knee injuries, such as ITB syndrome (1, 4, 5).

Incorrect and correct technique.

Shoulder rotation rather than arm swing:

This is a common mistake many make as we don’t necessarily see the importance of the arms in the running cycle. The arms however create an opposing force, we move the opposite arm forward to the leg that is forward allowing us to keep our body in a straight line and move in a straight line (1, 5). If we are to allow our shoulders to rotate, we are forcing our lower body and pelvis (hips) to rotate in the opposing direction resulting in us not running with a straight trajectory (1, 5). This is a far less efficient way of running, leading to greater fatigue and a further breakdown in technique (1, 5).

Incorrect and correct technique.

Leaning back when running:

This could mean that we are tight through our erector spinae and/or potentially lack flexibility through the hip flexors (1, 5). This will ultimately result in a reduced stride length and/or over striding, forcing there to be a greater energy cost for every step (). This is a less efficient running technique causing us to use more energy to cover the same distance.  

Incorrect and correct technique.

These are just a few key technical running errors that many people make. You may be asking however how can I fix these? Below are a few key running drills that you can complete to help teach you correct running technique.  

A march/skip:

Ankling:

Seated Running Arms:

Bounding:

Conclusion

If you have any questions on anything please get in contact with us: info@radcentre.com.au.

Or if you are interested in our coaching services for either running technique or strength work to compliment your running get in contact.

REFERENCES:

  1. Folland, J. Allen, S. Black, M. Handsaker, J. Forrester, S. Running technique is an important component of running economy and performance. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise.17: 1412-1423, 2017.
  2. McGrath, A. Finch, C. Running the race against injuries: A review of the literature. Monash University Accident Research Centre. 104: 1-66, 1996.
  3. Mechelen, W. Running Injuries: A review of the epidemiological literature. Sports Medicine. 14: 320-335, 2012.
  4. Mizahi, J. Verbitsky, O. Isakov, E. Daily, D. Effect of fatigue on leg kinematics and impact acceleration in long distance running. Human Movement Science. 19: 139-151, 2000.
  5. Moore, I. Is there an economical running technique? A review of modifiable biomechanical factors affecting running economy. Sports Medicine. 46: 793-807, 2016.
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Refocusing Athlete Goals During COVID-19

Gyms are closed, pools are closed and almost all sporting competitions have been cancelled or postponed. It is an interesting world we are currently living in. Sport and activity alike are a way of life that brings people together and motivates them. I believe you would be hard pressed to find an athlete that doesn’t enjoy training with others more than training alone. Without that ability to fire those competitive juices it can be hard to push yourself harder, faster or stronger. This is becoming a huge reality for athletes both elite, sub-elite and armature as we all attempt to find our way through the current COVID-19 pandemic.

It is important now more than ever that we create goals for ourselves, we work towards those goals and we achieve them. Just because we don’t have any big competitions or events to train for at this time, doesn’t mean we can’t still have goals to achieve. That way when competitions and events do recommence, we are able to hit the ground running. This may seem incredibly difficult for some athletes as there training facilities have been shut down; however, this may be an opportunity for us to refocus that competitive energy and create new goals for ourselves.

For example you may be a swimmer that had been planning to compete in various competitions over the course of the next few months as you lead into your Nationals campaign, however with the closure of all aquatic facilities this plan has come to a grinding halt. Your first thoughts may be well what do I do now? Why would I continue to train when there is nothing for me to train for? Or how am I meant to maintain my fitness when I can’t even train? All of these are very reasonable thoughts to have currently.

The look of achieving your goal.

So, you may not be able to train in the pool anymore but how are your running or cycling abilities. You can’t do your traditional strength training session anymore, not a problem we can do strength training at home. So why not take the competitive energy you had for swimming and refocus it into a new challenge at home that can still help to maintain your fitness. For example why not set a goal to make a time for a 12km bike ride or a 6km run, you can do a time trial alone or with one other and then train for 4 to 6 weeks before doing another time trial. Or why not set a new challenge in the gym maybe you cant try and beat your max squat but you could try and beat your max push ups or pull ups, or you could make a goal to be able to do the worlds hardest push up.

It is so important as an athlete to set yourself goals and work towards them. Giving yourself a goal to achieve gives you a sense of purpose and fulfillment. It is also important however to break our goals down. If you want to run 6km in 24 minutes then first let’s look at what we need to do to achieve that, we need to be able to run 4 min/km pace. So now we know what we have to do to achieve our goal how are we going to do it, a good start might be to start trying to run 2-minute 500-meter repeats.

This is what we call setting a goal structure. First, we look at our OUTCOME goal what is the big thing that we want to achieve (24 minutes for 6km). We then look at our PERFORMANCE goals, what do we need to achieve for that big goal to be attainable (4 min/km pace). Lastly our PROCESS goals how do we achieve that, what are we going to do to be able to achieve that (run 2-minute 500m repeats).

Ash Barty created new goals for herself under different but challenging circumstances.

So just because you may not have your usual competitions to train for does not meant that you can’t be creative and make some new goals for the current times. Have a competition against mates where you do a time trial and post your times trying to beat each other. Have a video call with friends and do your home workout together. Challenge your mates to a push up or pull up competition, go nuts and get as creative as you can as there is no better time than now to do so.

With the current circumstances as they are the team at RAD are here to help you the best possible way we can to achieve your goals. We have online coaching packages available to all athletes, using our programming software. This includes a combination of both Strength and Conditioning work based on your goals and the equipment that you have got access to. It also enables you to jump on to our Zoom meeting room with our coaches – with sessions available every day to check in with the team and go through your training session under their guidance. If you are interested in our online coaching let us know and we can give you a full run down on how it all works – info@radcentre.com.au

Below you will find a goal setting template that you can use to set some new creative goals to achieve.