It’s been said the race does not always go to the swiftest, but just try telling that to Usain Bolt and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, lightning-fast Jamaican sprinters who repeated as gold medalists in the 100 meters in the London Olympics. Although we know that faster athletes tend to win more, what most coaches don’t understand is the relationship between running and strength training. One clue is that distance runners tend to lack muscle mass and sprinters tend to have a lot of it. In fact, there are peer-reviewed papers published on this very subject.
In the article “Running Performance Has a Structural Basis,” published in July 2005 in The Journal of Experimental Biology
, the authors hypothesized that there is a relationship between body mass and sprinting ability. 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. “Specialists in shorter distance races were generally more massive than those in longer ones,” noted the authors. “Within both sexes, the most massive specialists were those in the sprint events of 100, 200 and 400 m whose masses were roughly equal to one another. The body masses of athletes specializing in events of 800-10,000 m were inversely related to event distance for both sexes.”
The authors said that “muscle support forces” during sprinting can be more than five times an athlete’s bodyweight. As such, the authors concluded that “…the greater body masses of faster specialists are directly related to the greater ground support forces required to run at faster speeds.” These conclusions echo the results of an earlier study published in the November 2000 issue of the Journal of Applied Physiology, which looked at 33 sprinters of various abilities and found that “…runners reach faster top speeds not by repositioning their limbs more rapidly in the air, but by applying greater support forces to the ground.”
These findings suggest that resistance training can be a valuable method of increasing running speed. With that relationship established, the next step is to examine the concept of specificity of training.
Muscling Up for Speed
Specificity refers to developing a particular athletic quality in the manner in which it occurs in a particular sport. It follows that there may be distinct advantages to cross-training; that is, becoming proficient in one sport often enables you to quickly excel in another sport. Examples of parallel sports include cycling and speed skating, judo and the lineman position in American football, team handball and basketball, and lacrosse and field hockey. Two sports that are not parallel are basketball and baseball, as Michael Jordan will attest – the skills that made Jordan possibly the greatest basketball player of all time did little to help him when he picked up a bat and stepped up to the plate.
The tricky part of specificity, however, is that you do not want the skills to be too similar. For example, a tennis player might find that their stroke mechanics are negatively affected by playing racquetball or squash. Likewise, running with ankle or wrist weights or running down a hill that has a slope of more than 3 degrees could adversely affect sprinting mechanics (as the focus would be on breaking and not force application) and would do little to add muscle mass. As for the popular practice of running up stadium steps (often with weight vests), it would not be the best idea for some athletes because it can shorten their stride.
In the case of running with parachutes, this practice is not useful for improving acceleration because the resistance is delayed, as it takes several steps to fill the chute with air, and minimal. Also, running with parachutes, especially the cheaper ones that are especially sensitive to the wind, can adversely affect running mechanics as they will create extreme instability. What does the research say? In one study on parachute training published in 1994 in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise
, 14 sprinters, ages 15-18, were studied over six weeks. The researchers found that the sprinters using a parachute did not experience any significant improvements in sprint times compared to the sprinters who did not use a parachute.
Moving to the topic of conventional weight training, back squats (or even better front squats) would build muscle mass to develop ground support forces, and power snatches would train the muscles at a higher velocity. The issue with specificity is that the motions of these exercises are too distant from the biomechanics of running – you are, in effect, training muscles, not movements. Pushing a sled more closely approximates the positions in sprinting, butit is not so similar that it will alter running mechanics. You want to be close, but not too close.
Keep in mind that the push sled should be used to develop acceleration, so your distances should not exceed about 20 meters. In sprinting, the acceleration phase is over when you reach the upright “sprint” position. One difference between good sprinters and great sprinters is not so much being faster, but being able to maintain maximum speed longer with greater muscular endurance. Also, pushing a sled beyond 20 meters would quickly cause technique faults due to fatigue.
In addition to just using the push sled by itself, you can combine it with regular sprinting as a form of contrast training. This makes use of the concept of post-tetanic potentiation, which says that a more powerful muscular contraction can be achieved if it is preceded by a strong muscle contraction. Baseball players try to make use of this effect by swinging weighted bats prior to stepping up to the plate.
With a push sled you could, for example, push it for 15 meters and then release the handles, step to the side of the sled and take off in an all-out sprint for another 15 meters. After releasing the handles, you would experience a sudden burst of speed, as if someone were pushing you from behind. The result would be that you would run faster than you could otherwise. After several sets of this training, you would finish off with several short sprints without the sled, perhaps 15 meters. This is only one of many effective training protocols covered in the PICP program, but this approach will give you, excuse the pun, a good start.
Sled training is one of my strongman training protocols for overall strength, body composition improvement and energy system training. But if it is used with the appropriate training protocols, sled work can also make an athlete faster.