There are LOTS of ways to answer that question. We could discuss the aerobic system and how you need to deliver lots of oxygen to working muscles for long distance speed. We could talk about being strong and 'reactive' which is hugely important for sprinting. We could chat about the role arms play, the oft-misunderstood “core”, how large chains or "slings" of connective tissue stretch and recoil, how the feet pronate and supinate, or other pieces to the puzzle.
Today I'd like to keep things simple and give you a useful cue to consider when you're out there practicing running fast. It's especially useful when you're accelerating and something to rely on when you're channeling your inner Usain Bolt.
“Step over and down”
So, where does speed come from? It comes from directing force into the ground. The harder you push into the ground, and the faster you apply the force, the faster you run. The key is to apply that force in the right direction which is down and back.
Surely now you can see that the stronger you are, the faster your potential. If you're not strong enough to produce a lot of force, there's no way you can be fast!
There's a catch, though. You can't just be strong, you need to be able to apply the force quickly. That's why exercises like skipping, hopping, and other plyometric exercises that demand a rapid reaction off the ground are so valuable for runners.
Getting back to our cue of stepping “over and down”, though, what I like about it is that it's easy to visualize.
Stepping over something requires you to lift your knee. Many people are used to shuffling along and aren't used to lifting their knee.
This is important because it sets you up to be able to execute the next phase, the “down” phase – the phase where power will be directed into the ground. Without the “over” phase, you'll have a really lame “down” phase and not go very fast.
Ready? Let's practice.
Start by walking. Step over and down. This should look pretty similar to marching. Just wait!
Notice that by stepping over and down, you are NOT overstriding. It's step over and down, not “step over and reach out”!
It may be helpful to envision your legs “cycling” beneath you with your foot touching down near the bottom of the 'pedal stroke'.
Now try this while running. It's not the most efficient way to run slowly, and it may feel a bit awkward, so let's ramp it up. I've found it best to practice this in short bouts of 5-20 second intervals. Remember, we're trying to run fast and focus on this over and down action. If you get tired, your pace will suffer and the quality of your form will go down.
Remember, this is not something to necessarily think about when you're out running a 5K or marathon. This is for when you're practicing speed. Most commonly, I'll think about this when doing 20 second strides in the last third of an easy run or during the warm up before a workout.
Here's a little inspiration for ya! Notice the over and down action. Notice the foot landing beneath, rather than far in front of the body. Enjoy and happy sprinting!