sprint drills

Dynamic Warm-Up Track Drills: Why Do Them? What Do They Do?

Many performance professionals include track type drills as a part of a dynamic warm-up. Drills such as skips, butt kicks, shuffles, carioca and back pedal are a staple of many dynamic warm – up programs.  But, why do we do those drills for performance athletes and performance clients? Riding a bike, jogging on a treadmill and calisthenics are all good options for raising core temperature, increasing heart rate and upping the respiration rate, which are the goal of a good warm-up.

Most performance athletes and performance clients compete or are very active in ground based endeavors such as sports or exercise classes or have hobbies and/or jobs that involve moving with speed and efficiency.  Most of the drills we use in dynamic warm-up patterns are repeat opportunities for first step and get away step mechanics practice.  If done with focus, technical proficiency and power, the athlete can repeatedly practice the posture, mechanics, arm drive and core stability needed in order to become a better athlete in terms of moving with efficiency.

The drills and what they are doing follow:

Linear Drills

Skips – Single and double leg skips are repeat first step mechanics for linear movement.  Knee punch action with a toe-up casted ankle are critical for proper force to be imparted into the ground which will in turn drive the body forward.  If the glute is engaged on the back side as the foot makes ground contact, the body will be propelled linearly and cover ground.  If not, the ground reaction forces of the foot contact will cause the body to move vertically as much as linearly.  Common errors include no force into the ground (this is huge), poor casted ankle/foot drop, collapsed posture, poor arm action.

Butt Kicks – Single and double leg butt kicks are to reinforce the cyclic action of sprinting.  When sprinting, the heel will almost brush the buttocks as the ankle crosses above the opposite knee.  When running, the ankle will cross at the opposite knee.  When jogging, the ankle will cross below the opposite knee. If the athlete has a casted ankle with the toe-up, then the butt kicks will be springy upon ground contact.  Most athletes will let the ankle drop and allow the foot to “reach” for the ground as contact is made.  This will add to ground contact time and is a major difference between running and sprinting.  Posture should be tall with a braced core, good arm action and hips over the toes.  Common errors include flat-footed ground contact, poor arm action, excessive knee lift with the butt kick and too much forward lean and/or flex at the hips.

Slide Kicks – Double Leg slide kicks are excellent for training transition from starting acceleration to absolute speed in sprinting.  This occurs for most team sport athletes beginning at the 10-20 yard mark.  With a toe-up casted ankle, the athlete stands tall and begins to jack hammer the foot up and down above the ankle.  Quickly the amplitude of movement will increase as the foot/ankle will go up to the opposite knee and jackhammer to the ground.  The athlete will begin to lean at the hips and the jackhammer force will begin to propel the athlete linearly.  As the lean increases, the amount of ground covered between each step will increase as the force the athlete imparts on ground contact will propel the body forward.  The jackhammer action does not change as the speed increases.  Common errors include dropped foot for contact (no casted toe-up ankle), collapsed posture, obvious change of gears from acceleration to a run rather than acceleration into a sprint, poor arm action and flat–footed ground contact.

Cycle Kicks – Single and double leg cycle kicks are the most technically difficult to learn to execute and usually takes 4-6 weeks of mastering the other three linear drills before this drill is incorporated into the dynamic warm-up.  Cycle kicks are a combination of the other three drills and are a mimicking of the sprint cycle action. The difference is that this action is done in warm-up and is fast in execution but does not impart the force that is used in acceleration and sprinting.  Focus on tall hips, braced core, heel-up, toe-up, arm action can all be the focus of this drill which creates a slightly different exercise on each rep as the focus is changed.  Common errors include uneven leg cycles, poor high ankle recovery and collapsed posture.

Lateral Drills –

Pull Shuffle – Pull shuffle is what we normally think of as a shuffle drill.  The front leg is pulling the body forward.  This is what is used in basketball defense as the athlete shadows an offensive player that is a comfortable distance away.  Common errors include too much external rotation of the legs, over striding with the front side pull leg,

Push Shuffle – The push shuffle is much more violent and explosive as the back leg will impart great force into the ground in order to move the body laterally.  Knee punch, toe-up casted ankle technical emphasis is reinforced.  The knee of the push leg will be ahead of the toe in order to impart force on the push.  Again, think of the basketball athlete on defense, but this time the offensive player is very close and the defender is attempting to beat the offensive player to a spot in order to redirect his movement.  Common errors include too much external rotation of the legs, pulling with the front side leg rather than pushing with the back side leg and being too outside dominant (usually due to too much double leg squatting) thus being bow legged with the knee outside the foot rather than on the inside edge of the foot for the push-off.

Lateral Skip – Is a repeat action of the first step in push shuffle in order to cut off an opponent.  Keeping the shoulders and chest perpendicular to the acceleration direction as the arms drive from front to back.  The lateral movement occurs from the backside leg putting force into the ground.  The front side leg will cover the ground in relation to the force imparted by the back leg.  As in any acceleration drill the front side leg should have a knee-up/toe-up focus with the foot contacting the ground under the hips.  In other words, don’t overreach or overt stride with the front side leg and attempt to pull the hips forward.  Common errors are no backside knee punch, poor rhythm, over striding with the front side foot and bad arm mechanics.

Carioca – The carioca drill is an opportunity to repeat the first step mechanics for the crossover step.  High knee action across to the opposite hip with the little toe up focus to keep the knee ahead of the toe for good acceleration mechanics is critical for optimal acceleration mechanics.  The back side arm action must be with a 90 degree flexed elbow in a front to back action rather than crossing the mid-line in order to prevent the shoulders from rotating toward the direction of acceleration, thus creating unwanted motion during this repeat drill.   The rotation should occur below the hip while the torso above the hip is relatively perpendicular to the direction of acceleration.  Common errors include poor casted ankle/foot drop, low knee recovery, poor landmark placement of backside knee-punch, poor arm mechanics and collapsed posture.

Crossover Run – the Crossover run is the front side/back leg of the carioca drill repeated.  It is imperative for the backside elbow to drive back and not cross the mid-line in order to prevent torso rotation.  The backside knee should punch up and across the hips aiming for the front side hip.  The little toe should be the focus and in a toe-up position. This allows the knee punch to be optimally in front of the foot in order to impart force back into the ground in a backward vector.  The shoulders should stay perpendicularly square to the direction of acceleration.  The downward knee punch and rearward elbow punch should be equally forceful in order to create maximal acceleration in reaction to the ground contact force.

Crossover Skip – The crossover skip is usually easier to learn than the crossover run for most people.  This is more of a pattern drill than an acceleration drill in order for athletes to become comfortable with the rhythm of the crossover pattern.  It is a drill to introduce in the progression in order to make the coordination of the crossover run easier for the athlete to internalize.  The focus is on the rhythm of the drill first, followed by cueing the knee punch, arm action and finally the little toe up mechanics.  Since a skip is slower than a run, it is easier for the athlete to be aware of the movements and techniques needed to optimize the pattern.  Common errors include not skipping or skipping with only one leg.

Backward Drills

Back Pedal – The back pedal is to teach stopping mechanics for change of direction.  Hip, knee and ankle flexion as well as posture is critical in order to prevent the collapse and possible internal rotation that occurs all too often as athletes attempt to absorb force.  Many time this poor force absorption pattern results in an ACL rupture.  The key points of cueing are chest over knees, knees over toes. The feet should be forward and the arms should be driven backward forcefully at the elbow.  The posture should mimic as if the athlete were doing a good morning or in other words the tall, braced core, flat back attitude should be apparent.

Backward Run – The backward run is prescribed to emphasize and create awareness of backside mechanics.  Explosive elbow drive, heel – up and reach, posture and ground contact point are all similar, but much more critical to locomotion when attempting to go fast backwards.  In order to execute this drill, it is much easier to start with a back pedal and as the speed increases, instruct the athlete to get tall, hammer the elbows back and get the heels up and reach.  Instruct the athlete to lean in the direction of acceleration with the hips tall and great posture as top end speed is attained.  Common errors include leaning away from the direction going (which results in a lot of work and very little locomotion), low heel recovery, poor arm mechanics, poor posture and externally rotated feet.

Backward Skip – the backward skip is a drill that is prescribed in order to allow the athlete to feel the heel brush off of the buttocks.  Optimal posture is easier to attain, arm mechanics are slower and can be emphasized and foot contact is much easier to correct.  The common error is a lack of rhythm for the movement pattern.

Backward Butt Kicks – This drill will correct a lack of heel brush off of the buttocks.  Long-term joggers and bigger athletes such as offensive linemen in football will benefit greatly from this drill.  The emphasis on backside heel to buttocks brush will pay dividends for these athletes as high speed, absolute sprinting will show mechanical improvement with high ankle recovery which in turn allows for stride length optimization as well as better ground force production due to the corresponding optimal knee punch.

General Corrections

External Rotation of the Legs – This is usually due to too much double leg squatting or leg pressing and a corresponding dominance of the outside sling or outer, lateral areas of the hips and legs which create tighter TFL, IT band and vastus lateralus causing the external rotation expressed in the lower leg and foot contact mechanics.  In order to correct this the addition of single leg exercises such as Bulgarian (also known as pitcher squats), multi-direction lunges and multi-direction single leg squats are critical.  Especially useful to correct this is the lateral lunge or squat and the scorpion lunge or squat.  Additionally, the lateral leg musculature needs to be lengthened and/or released via stretching, massage and/or application of vibration.

Rhythm/Drill Mechanics (walk before run) – Just as in learning any new skill, it is best to execute it walking before trotting, jogging before running and running before sprinting.  The addition of the skip application of the drill allows more explosive forces to be applied but at a slower tempo of movement allowing for corrections to be cued and internalized before sprinting is attempted.

Posture (Strength/awareness/age & maturity) – Posture is more complex as there are a variety of issues that could contribute to a collapsed posture.  The easiest correction is just due to a lack of awareness.  Creating focus via a verbal cue many times is all it takes to correct this problem.  Tight hip flexor complex is also a reason for collapsed core as the front side core above the hip will flex on the hip opposite the knee punch as a reaction to the tight hip flexors on the straight leg side.  Poor front side low core strength and stability will also contribute to postural collapse as the upper core attempts to assist in the lifting of the heavy lower limb during acceleration mechanics and the corresponding drills.  Many times the growth spurt experienced by emerging athletes will exacerbate this problem as the rapid lever lengthening will make stability strength much more difficult to master and/or maintain in these drills.  At full speed/absolute speed the athlete should be tall, chest over the hips, hips over ground contact point and be “planed out” like a boat on water.  In other words, the athlete should be sprinting up on top of the ground/track/field/court for a short distance.  This is not sport speed but speed development and is different than the speed that is used in sport competition.

Poor Arm Drive – This is usually due to lack of awareness and/or front side shoulder tightness.  Front side anterior deltoid and pec stretching will allow for additional ROM.  To create greater awareness, add a very light weight (1-2 lbs) to the hands of the athlete or place an ankle band from the webbing between the thumb and forefinger to the elbow which will not allow arm straightening during the hammer back phase of the arm drive.  Arm drive should be from “cheek to cheek” or shoulder height in front with the hands and almost shoulder height in back with the elbow.

Foot Drop or Poor Casted Ankle – Have the athlete rub the toes up on the top of the shoes. Have them march in place with a casted ankle.  Why is this so critical?  When the foot drops and “reaches” for the ground, the ground contact time is increased and the tendons are not loaded as much as the muscles are loaded.  When the mucles are loaded, the athlete is running. When the tendons are loaded, the athlete is sprinting.  That is why conditioning is concerned with volume and sprinting/speed development is concerned with quality.

These drills will assist the client/athlete to improve first step and get away step quickness if done with focus, effort and intensity.  Impulse into the ground, posture, mechanics and being engaged mentally will greatly increase the quality of the efforts which will increase the abilities of the client/athlete, if done with consistency.