Speed Development: Front Side vs. Back Side Emphasis

Over the past several years of emphasis in speed development the concept of training a linear day followed by a lateral day has become well established. A linear day is nothing more than straight ahead speed while a lateral day is agility and mobility drills. Another concept that is also a staple is the idea of assisted and resisted drills. Assisted drills are towing or downhill sprints and starts in which the athlete is assisted which enables the athlete to actually run faster than they are capable. Resisted drills are exercises in which the athlete is made to put more force into the ground than they normally would by the addition of a parachute, sled, partner in front or running up a hill. The final concept that is somewhat newer (at least to me) is the idea of front side and back side mechanics. Front side mechanics are drills that emphasize the lift phase of sprinting such as the knee-toe punch and front side arm drive. Back side mechanics are drills that emphasize the push phase which include hip-knee extension, glute contraction and back side arm drive. Naturally, backside mechanics are much more difficult to coach and master.

When designing a speed development training progression I believe all of these parameters should be factored into the equation. How much of each is determined by the individual needs of the athlete. Let’s consider the linear days first. For sake of discussion, Monday is going to be the Assisted Linear day (AL) and Thursday will be the Resisted Linear day (RL). Sunday is a full recovery day in which no activity is planned. Wednesday is a recovery day in which active regeneration activities are scheduled. Each training session will begin with dynamic warm – up which will have activation and integration exercises, technical warm – up drills, loosening activities and build – up sprints. At this point, the athlete is turned on, warmed up, loose and ready to go full speed. A word of caution, the hamstrings must be prepared to go full speed. To begin a training block with an athlete that is not prepared with several days of basic speed training foundation is begging for a hamstring injury. The athlete must be in condition, having done quality backside chain training (RDL’s, One Leg Good Mornings, Glute Hams, Reverse Hypers, etc.) and been in a stride/sprint running program. Finally, this is speed development, not conditioning. The athlete must be allowed, encouraged and made to recover for 3 – 5 minutes between reps for optimal speed enhancement. Let the fun begin!

Assisted Linear Day

Assisted drills will be assigned in both starts and overspeed sprinting. The tools used to assist the athlete can be a slight downhill grade (no more than 3-5 % grade, less is more for the beginner), tubing and other specialized tools designed for assisted drills. Another word of caution, tubing breaks, strings can tangle in the sprinters feet; athletes can stumble and fall if they are towed too fast. It will take at least one session to become familiar and somewhat comfortable with assisted training. Remember, speed is month to month (according to Tudor Bompa and I happen to agree), so you will not see results for 4 – 6 weeks of quality, intensive drills.

The key to the training program is the mind. The coach must get the athlete to focus on a certain technique on each and every rep. When prescribing absolute speed drills on AL day it is relatively easy to create front side focus on the hands for front side arm drive. The athlete can see them, people are naturally very hand dominate and can readily attune to the cue that hand speed will improve foot speed. Knee punch is also relatively easy to cue for an athlete. The knee is so large it is easy to be aware of and focus on knee punch. The difficult focal cue is the toe. If the knee is up and the toe is down, the assisted front side mechanics are poor at best. Front side mechanics focus will encourage better quality assisted speed drills as they will create focus on the part of the athlete and improved quality of efforts. Only when the mind and body are focused together on quality repetitions can the efforts prove to be optimal in performance enhancement training. One more key coaching point when prescribing assisted drills. Have the athlete run at 90 – 95% of full effort and the coach will add the additional 7 – 12% of assistance to take the athlete just over 100%. Remember, be quick, don’t hurry (John Wooden) and be smooth, because smooth is fast (Ray Evernham). When prescribing assisted starts on AL day, the cues include hand punch toward the finish line, knee punch, toe up, short – quick first step and chest up – flat back for posture.

Resisted Linear Day

Resisted linear days will be assigned on Thursday in our mock training week. Resisted linear exercises can be accomplished by prescribing hill running (up an incline about equal to a parking garage ramp), parachutes, sleds, harnesses, rubber bands or partner resistance drills. This day is dedicated to back side technical emphasis. The focal points are hammer drill with the hands, glute extension, power into the ground and heel up action during the recovery phase. The hammer hand drill is very similar to the front side arm drive drill but the emphasis is all on the down stroke of the arm drive phase which corresponds well with the impulse into the ground on the support leg during the drive phase. Glute contraction, hip extension and power into the ground are very difficult to quantify and master. A partner holding a harness and requiring the athlete to march and then skip will begin the process of teaching the athlete how to impart force into the ground. Posture and body lean are critical to acceleration. To engage the center of mass and provide kinesthetic feedback to the athlete a belt harness or giant rubber band at the waist is an excellent tool to encourage glute contraction and corresponding hip extension. A sled with 35 – 50% of the athletes bodyweight loaded on it will create additional mass for the athlete to overcome in the start and acceleration phases. As the athlete becomes more accomplished, more resistance can be added, as long as the form continues to hold true, technically. The heel up coaching point is relatively easy to master for most athletes. This is the glide or stride phase as opposed to the strike or power phase of sprinting. The athlete is not focused on imparting force to the ground as much as maintaining stride length and turnover. In the start drills the focus is on arm drive back, flat back – chest up posture, heel extension – big toe push off, power into the ground. The three steps in five yards and 5 steps in 10 yards drill is a key testing component to acceleration starts.

Contrast Training

Contrast drills start with assistance or resistance and then the help or hindrance is removed in order to “trick” the nervous system into imparting maximal force impulse (force into the ground in very short time) and optimal turnover during the ground contact and recovery phases. These drills are prescribed as sprints uphill onto flat or slight downhill surfaces; chutes, sleds and harnesses with release mechanisms applied during the start or sprint; tubing or tow string that will fall to the wayside at max velocity.

How do I create focus on front side and back side mechanics?

These cues are emphasized beginning with the execution of the wall drill. Front side drills of the lower body knee and toe punch are executed by cueing the athlete to focus on the knee and then the toe during the drive phase on the wall. Backside technique emphasis comes in response to cueing of the glute contraction and corresponding hip extension and power into the ground are much more difficult for the athlete to master. The total complexion of the drill will change as you coach the athlete to change their focal point. If the coach cues the athlete to contract the glute for hip extension, the coach must palpate the glute to determine if the glute is indeed contracted. It is excellent feedback for the athlete and nine times out of ten the glute will be flaccid in beginners. Full extension at the hip knee and ankle joint are much more difficult to master. Many times the athlete will lack knee extension and will be unable to dorsiflex the ankle as the drive leg contacts the ground. Often times the support legs will be unequal in their distance from the wall as the athlete has imbalances in their flexibility or proprioceptive feedback mechanism.

The key to speed is to determine if the athlete is more front side or back side focused and coach them accordingly for optimal acceleration mechanics.  It is very important to coach the athlete to cue their backside mechanics for power and front side mechanics for turnover in order to optimize their mechanics.

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