Think about how a 100-meter sprinter prepares for a race. An easy walk around the track followed by some gentle static stretching, then dynamic warm-up drills such as high knees and heel flicks, then short sprints, gradually increasing the speed on each, followed by a few practice starts. The whole process takes about an hour, and the result is that the athlete can sprint at maximal speed for 100 meters with minimal risk of injury. Law enforcement officers also perform sprints in their line of work, but their warm-up is much different – in fact, it’s nonexistent.
The reality is that police and other law enforcement professionals are required to have the (completely underrated) physical ability to rapidly transition from a sitting position to a maximal-effort sprint. More specifically, officers may be called upon to give foot chase after sitting in their vehicle for an extended period of time, putting themselves at a high risk of injury.
One of the problems with prolonged sitting is that the hip flexors, which flex the hips and therefore lift the legs, can shorten. If chronic, this tightness can lead to a myriad of health problems that range from structural imbalances in the pelvic area to low back pain and injury. On an acute level, shortened hip flexors can have a neuroinhibitory effect on the hip extensor musculature, especially the glutes. If the glutes are inhibited, this puts excessive workload on the hamstring musculature and can easily result in torn hamstrings. In fact, one study on sprinters found that improper pelvic posture, not hamstring flexibility, was a significant risk factor in hamstring pulls.
Law enforcement officers will often run on treadmills in preparation for their regular fitness tests – this is a serious mistake for two reasons. First, treadmills produce what is known as “dirty electricity.” This exposure has been associated with precipitating insulin resistance, which in turn is associated with many health problems, including diabetes and obesity.
Second, biomechanically, treadmill exercise has little carryover to sprinting. Why? On a treadmill, the ground moves under you. In sprinting, you move over the ground. Therefore, the two recruitment patterns of the musculature involved are very different. To use an analogy, training on a treadmill would be like learning Italian to get better at Spanish; even though the two languages have common roots, it is not the most efficient way to learn Spanish.
Running on a treadmill can decrease the activation of the hamstrings as extensors of the hips. This is because minimal pulling forces are required to pull the body forward over the ground as the tread is moving under you – in effect, the treadmill is doing the work for you. The consequence of this lack of hamstring activation is weakness of the hamstring musculature (which is often due to improper program design in weight training), and the forces that are required to sprint can lead to muscle strains or tears.
The Right Steps to Injury Prevention
One basic theory of corrective exercise says to stretch the muscles that are tight, and strengthen those that are weak. Regarding stretching, law enforcement officers who are required to sit for extended periods need to regularly perform static hip flexor stretches. One of the keys to stretching the hip flexors is to rotate the pelvis posteriorly (think of pulling in the bellybutton); a common hamstring stretch is to rotate the pelvis anteriorily (forward).
Next, you need to strengthen the hip extensor muscles, which are muscles that extend the hip and pull the legs backward. To prevent hamstring tears, we recommend you do different hip extension exercises for each posterior chain training unit. Make certain that the two exercises involve two different parts in the strength curve of the posterior chain – for example, a horizontal back extension machine overloads the end portion of the movement, and an incline back extension machine overloads the start of the movement.
The greater the strength of the hip extensors, the easier it is to overcome inertia and gain valuable speed for the first 10 meters of the sprint – it’s one reason that weightlifters often have faster starts than sprinters. A fast start can make the difference between catching and not catching a suspect.
Here are two excellent exercises for this purpose:
Romanian Deadlift. A distinct feature of this exercise is that you start the movement from the strongest position and then work toward the weaker position. The exaggerated forward lean that occurs in this exercise places more emphasis on the hamstrings, and it’s a great exercise to improve dynamic flexibility of these muscles. As the hamstrings tend to tighten up easily with this exercise, we recommend you stretch your hip flexors statically between sets.
Place a barbell on a power rack, setting the bar at a height equal to the finished position of the deadlift. Using a pronated (palms down) grip, remove the barbell from the supports and place your feet hip-width apart. Now arch your lower back and bend your knees about 25 degrees. Maintaining that knee bend throughout the exercise, begin the descent by leaning forward and pushing the glutes backward – this needs to be done to compensate for the shift in center of gravity. Lower the barbell just before the point that you start to lose the arch in your lower back – most trainees won’t be able to go lower than mid-shin. Lift the barbell back to the start position in exactly the same manner, with the knees flexed and the lower back arched. The wider the grip on the bar, the greater the hamstrings involvement.
Reverse Hyperextension. Lie facedown on a reverse hyper machine and position your hips so your legs can move freely throughout the exercise. Place your heels behind the roller pad (or hook the strap behind the ankles if this is the type of machine you are using). Position your hips so your legs can move freely throughout the exercise. Keeping the back flat (not arched!), drive the legs backward and upward by extending at the hips. Pause at the top for 1-2 seconds and then slowly lower to the start position.
Finally, you need to trade in your treadmill for the track. Sprint training is not only more task specific than long distance running, but it also maximally recruits the powerful hip extensor musculature. As they say in the military, “Train the way you are going to fight!”