I have been working as a fitness coach with elite level soccer players for 15 years. In that time, the one physical ability that seems to always have been of the highest importance to players, parents, and coaches alike, is running speed. Unfortunately, running speed – and how to train/improve it correctly – is probably also the most misunderstood physical ability in soccer. This 3-part article will provide a detailed summary of running speed and how to train to improve it. In Part 1 two weeks ago, I provided a definition of running speed, list the phases of a sprint in sports, and discuss what the scientific literature has to say about different methods of speed training. Last week, in Part 2, I discussed the physiology of speed training, including best practices to maximize training effect while minimizing training volume. Finally, this week in Part 3, I will shift focus to the biomechanics and specific coordination aspects of training for running speed.
You may recall that in Part 1 I identified 4 main phases of a sprint. They are:
- The start phase: the phase where the athlete begins sprinting (could be from a static start or a “flying” start)
- The initial acceleration phase: the first 5-10 metres of the sprint
- The carry-over to constant-speed phase: the period from the 15 to 30 metre point of a sprint, when the player reaches top speed
- The deceleration phase: where the player begins to slow down/stop
In this discussion of the biomechanics and coordination training of speed for soccer, I will present information as it applies to each of these 4 phases.
1. The Start Phase:
Recall that, in the definition of this phase above, it may begin from a static start (no movement) or from a “flying start” (athlete already moving, and then speeds up). Typically, in soccer, players begin sprinting while already in motion (the “flying” start). They may start from a walking or slow running start, or they may speed up into a full sprint after already having been running at a moderate or high speed. In any event, the optimal mechanics to maximize force production during the start of a sprint do not change very much, regardless of how the athlete begins running. In general, the following coaching points should be used when training soccer players for the start phase of a sprint:
- stay as low as possible. This allows for optimal range of motion of the powerful hip and thigh muscles (glutes, hamstrings, quadriceps, and hip flexors), so that the propulsive forces from these muscles can be maximized. For a good visual, think of a sprinter in a track and field event, starting out of the blocks. Of course, in soccer and other sports you must start from an upright position, but getting low at the start mimics this type of starting position. Another useful hint to achieve a good initial low position is to tell players to think of “falling forwards”. Right before their nose hits the ground, they should begin moving and start the sprint, thus allowing themselves to get into a low position and stay there for the first few strides.
- widen the stance slightly and point the toes slightly outwards. This widens the “base of support”, which allows for more balance, and thus more force production. For a good visual, think of the initial stance a sumo wrestler takes prior to starting a wrestling match.
- Keep the head down, and exaggerate the knee lift, and the arm swing movements. Try to lift the knees so high that they almost contact the chin (don;t actually do this, just keep the head down and the knees up!). At the start of a sprint, as in any other phase of a sprint, the general rule is that a longer stride will be faster than a shorter stride. The more the knees come up at the start, the longer the stride will be. An arm swing that is also longer will help to add range of motion in the hips.
2. The Initial Acceleration Phase:
In this phase, the optimal mechanics to maximize force production do not differ very much from those in the start phase (aside from a few exceptions). In soccer, the average distance of a sprint often falls within this range (5-10 metres) so the way players run in this phase is critical to their match performance. Below is a summary of the coaching points for the initial acceleration phase:
- continue to stay as low as possible, but bend both at the hip and the knee. A common mistake that players will make when they are told to “stay low” is to bend only at the hip, while keeping the knees relatively straight. This forward leaning posture makes it very difficult to raise the knees, and will end up shortening the running stride. Typically, I will ask the athletes I work with to start by running with their trunk at a 45-degree angle to the ground, and gradually increase that angle to 90-degrees (trunk perpendicular to the ground) by the 10 metre mark.
- gradually narrow the width of the feet and “base of support”. Recall that, in the start phase, a wider stance allows for greater initial balance and thus, power production. In conjunction with the angle of the trunk to the ground starting at 45-degrees and progressing to 90-degrees, so too should the width of the “base of support” start wide, and progress to being much more narrow. This is because after that start phase, the feet must contact the ground closer to underneath the centre of mass, in order to maintain stability as posture becomes more upright.
- focus on contacting the ground on the balls of the feet, or “big toes.” This type of foot contact is important to bring the powerful muscles of the lower leg (gastrocnemeus, soleus) into play to maximize propulsive forces. Sprinting on a flat foot or even worse, on the heels, significantly limits the force production of these muscles. The toes should also progress from an outward pointing stance at the start phase, to a forward pointing stance at the end of the initial acceleration phase.
The Carry-Over to Constant-Speed Phase:
In soccer, there are also several times during a match that players must make runs that progress into this phase (at distances greater than 10 metres). This phase is also the point at which some more pronounced changes in running mechanics must occur in order to maintain optimal production of propulsive forces (and avoid slowing down). The best way to train soccer players to perform during the carry-over to constant-speed phase is to focus on the following areas:
- maintain an upright posture, with the trunk perpendicular to the ground. This position maximizes hip flexion (raising the knee) and thus allows for the maximum length of the running stride. For a good visual, imagine how hard it is to lift the knee while bending forwards, versus how easy it is to lift the knee while in an upright position. Staying perpendicular requires the hips and pelvis to be pushed slightly forwards, with contraction of the core and abdominal muscles.
- flex the hips (raise the knees) to the point at which they are in line with the hip. While this happens, the ankle should be very close to directly underneath the knee. All of these mechanical adjustments must be made in order to allow the hip to move with the greatest amount of range of motion while flexing and extending, and also so that the powerful muscles of the hip, knee and ankle can contract with extension with maximum force as the foot drives into the ground. For a visual of how this powerful hip, knee, and ankle extension should look, think of a cat, pawing at something on the ground (the hip/knee/ankle extension should look just like this powerful pawing movement, and this movement ends with the ball of the feet, or “big toe” on the ground).
- keep the shoulder muscles relaxed, with a loose-swinging arm action. The thumb of the front hand should move in front of the chin, and the thumb of the back hand should move behind the hip (“back pocket”). A relaxed arm action allows for optima range of motion and power production in the hips, because the movement of each arm is directly coordinated to the movement of the opposite leg (for example, right arm and left leg, and vice versa). To train the relaxed arm swing, I have athletes imagine they are “whipping” the hands back to the “back pocket.” There is a natural stretch reflex that occurs in the muscles in the front of the arm, whereby when they are stretched, they contract and move forward.
The Deceleration Phase
In soccer, almost all sprints have a deceleration phase (where the player slows down), and this deceleration typically does not happen very gradually. As a matter of fact, decelerations from sprints in soccer are a critical component to optimal performance, as many of the key movements in games (striking/shooting, dribbling or defending in 1 vs. 1 situations, landing from jumps) involve rapid decelerations followed by just as rapid accelerations. Thus, coaching deceleration technique from sprints in soccer is vital to optimal performance of sprinting in soccer. Below is a summary of the best advice to give players regarding the deceleration phase:
- take small steps to slow down. This may sound self-explanatory, however, if you don’t explain it to your players, they may not do it and the result will be a much slower deceleration and change of direction. Small steps allow for the feet to be placed under the body’s centre of mass while running sped decreases, which increases balance and stability and thus, increases the eccentric strength of the muscles hat slow the body down (primarily the quadriceps and hamstrings).
- Bend at the knee to slow down. Trying to slow down or to change direction with a straight knee in soccer is asking for trouble. bending at the knee allows for the strong muscles in the front of the leg (quadriceps) to maximize their eccentric strength, and thus the braking forces they produce.
- stay relatively narrow and keep the toes pointing forwards while decelerating. A narrow stance and “base of support” with the toes pointing forwards (rather than outwards) will allow decelerations to occur as quickly as possible. The only way to maintain balance as speed decreases is for the feet to be placed under the hips, and thus a narrow stance allows for better balance and better ability to decelerate.
In conclusion, as I mentioned at the beginning of this article, training for speed in soccer is a complicated process, with a variety of different factors that must be taken into consideration when planning a training program. Coaches and fitness coaches who wish to improve their players’ speed must have a strong working knowledge of the different phases of a sprint and how to train for them, including both the physiological, as well as the biomechanical aspects of sped training. With the right knowledge, experience, and attention to detail, coaches and fitness coaches can train their players to improve their running speed, which will likely have a direct positive impact on their overall match play.
As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts about this topic. Drop me a line here to get the conversation started.