This site has limited support for your browser. We recommend switching to Edge, Chrome, Safari, or Firefox.

Over 1/2 million servings sold!

Youth Athletics: Speed and Acceleration – Going back to basics

Ever wondered how Gareth Bale is one of the fastest straight line sprinters? There are many components that work together and combine to create a faster athlete. Working in harmony with his S&C coaches, understanding fundamental running mechanics and applying the correct movement patterns all come together to support his straight line speed. If Gareth can do it, you can do it too - and this article is a free high level resource that you can use to improve speed and acceleration. 
First, lets look at deconstructing the core elements. These functional attributes are summarised as:
- Mobility
- Stability
- Strength (general and relative, body composition & tissue elasticity).
All three features work together, combining to increase stride length and/or stride frequency. However, a commonly overlooked component is movement skill and efficiency  i.e. technique and mechanics.
Proper running mechanics are crucial to overall sporting performance, reducing energy leaks - making energy last longer while reducing risk of injury. The pro's understand this and have it covered, so this article will give you an insight into what they do that is different to most.
The inclusion of sprint mechanics in a youth athlete development plan is critical to the long-term performance of an athlete. The older an athlete is, the longer they have been reinforcing and running with particular motor patterns. This makes it difficult to alter sprint mechanics and the improvements you’re going to see from investing time to changing these long existing patterns will be minimal.
However, higher-level players tend to have greater kinesthetic awareness and therefore may be more responsive to changes in their mechanics.

Before discussing sprint mechanics, acceleration mechanics also play a pivotal role in speed. In fact, acceleration may be more important than speed in many sports including football, rugby and tennis because 90% of high intensity movements are fewer than 20 metres.
When accelerating its important that a positive shin angle is created as this will determine the force application and projection angle the athlete will propel forward at – 45 degrees is ideal. Depending on the athlete, this angle won’t be held as long due to varying sporting demands and game situations. In sports like football, this lean usually commences at the hip, rather than starting at the foot as compared to the track athlete.
The shin angle will slowly decrease as the athlete transitions into maximum velocity. NOTE: a negative shin angle is characteristic of deceleration.
Foot strike should be on the forefoot, directly below the hips. Heel recovery is low, as it needs to recovery quickly and large amounts of motion behind the hip will slow this process down. Full extension of the hip, knee and ankle (triple extension) behind the centre of mass is required for maximum force application of the accelerating athlete. In assessment of football acceleration mechanics its been demonstrated that they rarely achieve full hip extension.
There are numerous reasons for this: tight hip flexors, inefficient pelvic girdle mobility and poor tissue integrity. Finally, face and neck should be relaxed with elbows at roughly 90 degrees and a big split of the arms.
Cueing for acceleration: Posture – ‘head to heel’, Hips: ‘squeeze the cheeks’, Knee – ‘smash the glass’ or ‘knees to chest’, Ankles – ‘springs in the feet’, Toes – ‘hitting that sweet spot’, standing leg – ‘push the ground away’ Arms- ‘cheek to cheek’

Max velocity – sprinting mechanics

Starting with posture, the athlete should the keep trunk erect with a small lean forward, head level and hips tall.

TIP: Proper stabilisation and alignment of the core will ensure appropriate movement of the limbs.

Arm action players a vital role in stabilising the torso as it can create an efficient transfer of power through the hips. The most important thing to remember about arm action is the 90-degree angle at the elbow, while ensuring the shoulder is the prime mover with no rotation of the torso. This action should not only be practiced at a fast pace but also a slow pace to ensure proper motor learning of the skill.
Mid to forefoot strike underneath the hips, ensuring force is applied backwards – i.e. ‘ pushing the ground away’. Ensuring toes are pulled back is crucial to force production because if toes are pointed down then the gastrocnemius (calf muscle) is already contracted and is unable to benefit the movement.

The pelvic girdle should be tucked underneath the torso, allowing the foot to stay high as it passes under the hips.

Foot recovery should be quick and the athlete should look to take the shortest path to the front of the body with a quick excitation of the hamstring. This is the area where the most common faults occur, including: anterior dominance and excessive time in recovery phase.

TIP: Get rid of B-skips - Too much action at the knee decreases the velocity of the hip, which is the prime generator of force. Keeping the heel close to the hip axis ensures greater angular acceleration in the swing thigh.
Cueing for max velocity: Posture – ‘Run into the wind’, Hip and knee – ‘pull, punch, hammer’ or ‘step over the calf’, Ankle-  ‘springs in the feet’ Arms – ‘cheek to cheek’ Head- ‘balance a bowl on your head’

And there you are - a brief one step guide to improving your acceleration and sprint times. If there are any articles that you would like to see us publish or provide additional content on - please comment below or tag us on Social Media and we will assign one of our elite coaches to provide some free material for you!

About the Author:

Nathan Plaskett holds a Bachelor of exercise and sports science is the assistant sports scientist with Australian football league champions, Sydney FC, an assistant S&C coach with the St George Illawarra Dragons academy and an S&C coach with St Patrick's College.

Reference List
Brown, T.D. & Vescovi, J.D. (2012). Maximum Speed: Misconceptions of Sprinting. Strength and Conditioning Journal. 34(2):37-41. NSCA
Buchheit, M., Samozino, P., Glynn, J.A., Michael, B.S., Haddad, H.A., Vilanueva, A, M & Morin, J. B (2014) Mechanical determinants of acceleration and maximal sprinting speed in highly trained young soccer players Journal of Sports Sciences 32(20)
Di Salvo, V., Baron, R., Tschan, H., Calderon-Montero, F., Bachl N., Pigozzi F. (2007) Performance characteristics according to playing position in elite soccer. International Journal of Sports Medicine. 28:222-227 DOI: 10.1055/s-2006-924294.
Hansen, D. (2014) Successfully Translating Strength into Speed. In D.Joyce & D,Lewindon (Eds.), High-Performance Training for Sports. Pp 145-166. Human Kinetics, USA
Kugler, F & Janshen,L. (2010) Body position determines propulsive forces in accelerated running. Journal of Biomechanics 43(2), 343-8

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published