This article is written by Kerron Stewart, SPIRE’s Head Coach of Sprints, and was originally published in a recent edition of Athletics Weekly. This is the fifth in a series of Coaching Corner articles that provide thoughts and insights from our Track & Field leadership team to help athletes learn more about what goes into becoming an elite athlete, both on and off the track.
Olympic medal-winning sprinter and SPIRE Academy coach Kerron Stewart shares the fundamentals which hold the key to running fast and avoiding injury
The number one objective of sprinting is, obviously, to run fast. However, athletes will never maximise their full potential if they ignore proper mechanics. Good technique plays a vital role in achieving good results, so teaching these principles is at the core of my coaching philosophy.
It’s never too early to learn, or teach, proper mechanics. I believe in starting young and simplifying these complex ideas with simple communication. By doing this, you ensure a young athlete understands the basic fundamentals of sprinting.
This younger group should be focusing on things such as torso position – keeping it in line with the hips – and keeping the shoulders relaxed and swinging back and forth at a 90-degree angle up to the chin, past the hips to the back pocket.
The head must also be kept level and the knees should be lifted to hip height.
These fundamentals, when they are taught correctly, will give your athletes a solid foundation to progress forward.
The most obvious reason is to run fast, but there are more great benefits to developing them. Since staying healthy is a priority for all athletes, I believe one of the most important of those benefits is injury prevention. Proper technique will eliminate the amount of stress that is placed on a particular muscle, ligament or joint.
Two common injury problems which athletes suffer from can be traced back to incorrect running technique. The first is shin splints, which can be caused by running flat-footed and not on the balls of the feet.
The second recurring injury is hamstring muscle strain. A lot of athletes tend to overstride, which puts stress on the muscle over time. To eliminate overstriding when running, one should engage the hip flexors by lifting the knees to hip height so that when your foot strikes the ground, it will land directly under the hips.
I’m not saying poor technique is the sole cause of these injuries, but it certainly isn’t going to help!
While proper mechanics may seem to be easier for some athletes than others, it’s not necessarily a “natural” thing. It is a multi-level approach to training that must be followed for every athlete in every session.
First and foremost, we must understand that good mechanics take time and a lot of patience on both the part of the coach and the athlete. The process of developing good mechanics cannot be rushed – it has to be continuous and consistent.
As coaches, we have to be prepared to repeat the same things over and over again. For example, in every practice session, I constantly have to remind my athletes to lift the knees, swing the arms past the hips, keep the hips up, dorsiflex the ankle and so on. These daily reminders will help the athletes learn the correct technique.
My advice to younger athletes who are in the development phase is to be patient with yourself. Be open to learning, be accountable, be coachable and trust the process, however long it takes. Understand that you have a responsibility to yourself to learn.
Another key element to helping your athletes develop and learn good mechanics is understanding them well enough to know how they process information. Identifying their learning style is the key to helping you communicate with your athletes effectively.
For example, if your athlete is a visual learner, you will have to demonstrate more, show more videos and incorporate fewer verbal communications into the training process.
I know it can be overwhelming and a lot of work, especially if you have a big group. However, you have to remember it is not a quick-fix, microwave process.
The beauty about teaching good mechanics is that you don’t have to go exactly by the book or by someone else’s method. You can be creative in implementing your own methods. Find what works best for you and your athletes and keep it simple. It’s running, not a maths test, and no-one can truly dictate how quickly one must grasp or understand the information given to them.
Consistency is another key ingredient in developing and learning good mechanics. Start by doing the right things as best as you can, as often as you can, and over time it will become a natural habit.
Consistency is critical for both the athlete and the coach. Coaches need to be intentional about teaching the correct technique at every practice session, not just once in a while. From the first day of practice to the very last day, you have to be present and deliberate.
Developing good mechanics starts with the warm-up and drills, and sadly most athletes treat their warm-up as a social gathering, with very little focus or emphasis placed on doing things drills correctly.
Whatever you want to be successful at, consistency is necessary. I recall a conversation I had with my coach after winning the NCAA indoor 60m title. His exact words to me were: “A win is a win, but technically that was a sloppy race.”
In essence, what he was saying was that if I had run a technically clean race, I would have won with a faster time.