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From Caveman to Footballer why you Need to Sprint more

The Big Question is; How do you get faster

Humans have been sprinting from the beginning of their existence. Whether it be to catch potential prey or fleeing an enemy, it is something that we have always needed to do. Even though we can't match other mammals for maximum speed, we could outthink them. And so, providing that we made the correct decision on when to sprint, we would give ourselves every opportunity of making sure every effort resulted in a successful outcome. This is also the case for a modern-day footballer on the pitch.

For clarity, throughout this article a sprint will be referred to as a linear high intensity effort over 20 to 40 metres where the athlete hits maximal or near maximal sprinting speeds. While sprint performance will be identified as the speed it takes to get from A to B during a sprint.

The muscles at greatest risk of injury while you sprint are the hamstrings, although areas such as the calves, quads and groins also show some fragility. Recently, there has been a tendency for athletes and coaches to try and protect these muscles against injury by performing "sprint-specific" exercises in the gym. However, the above study also outlined that these kinds of exercises only reach up to 75% of hamstring activation. The truth is that the most specific way to increase our sprinting durability is to sprint! Going back to the caveman idea, were they doing Nordics or Bosch-style exercises? I highly doubt it. Although I don't have any evidence on whether soft-tissue injuries were prevalent in those days, my best guess would be that there were far and few between. Instead, they would have sprinted at regular intervals and at very high intensities due to the situations they found themselves in. That's not to say that there isn't a place for strength work in a modern-day player's programme. A holistic physical programme should include strength work to specifically improve sprint performance, which will be covered later in the article. However, if we solely focus on injury prevention, the evidence suggests that the most effective way to boost your "physical immune system" is to get the sprint vaccine!

The big question is: How do you get faster? For me, it comes down to two things:

1. Sprinting is a skill
Sprinting is a skill and it is crucial that we are given the opportunity to practice that skill. One development in modern-day football training has been the evolution of small-sided games. This has come as a result of specialist facilities being built e.g. 5-a-side football pitches, and an emphasis on skill development from coaches. While small-sided games have their benefits, these relatively small pitch dimensions provide little to no opportunity to perform a sprint during game play.

Under these constraints, players and coaches must ensure that they add in supplementary sprint work at other points throughout the training week. Ideally, with access to full-sized pitches and an integrated coaching team, sprint work could be blended into a training session without the need to add on extra physical work. But if this simply can't happen (for whatever reasons) then it is imperative that maximal sprinting work is added in around training. As cavemen, we didn't like to be shackled up and restricted to what we did. This is diso true on the football pitch. We must be allowed to roam free and provided with the opportunity to practice sprinting in a football scenario.

2. It's all about the strike!
The only part of our body that interacts with the floor during sprinting is the foot. So, it is crucial that the foot strike is as efficient as possible in transferring the force you have the potential of generating. During upright sprinting, some studies have found that up to 5x bodyweight is being transferred through the floor (Udofa et al., 2017). This is great, but we need to make sure that the orientation (force-vector), speed (force-velocity) and duration (force-time) of that force application is optimal to allow faster sprinting speeds. This may mean that there is some compromise. For example, if you want to be quicker off the floor (bouncier then there is going to be less time available to apply that force through the floor. And so, even though speed and duration of the strike is improved, the overall force transfer will be reduced. As a result, there will be little to no impact on sprint speed.

Fortunately, there are ways to maximise force application and velocity of contraction while minimising contact time in training. One example of this would be to introduce plyometric work to a player's strength programme to improve their force-time characteristics. Another example would be to improve sprint technique so that the different force characteristics listed above can be applied in the most efficient way possible.

Much like the need to sprint more to protect against injury, plyometric, and
technical sprint work needs to be addressed frequently to have a meaningful impact. Luckily for us, this article has all been about sprinting more regularly! Whether we want to be more robust or improve our sprinting ability on the pitch, the evidence is clear - sprinting is the answer.

In summary, while cavemen didn't play football or any other modern-day sport for that matter, they were involved in daily activities that required them to sprint. As a result of the human's relatively limited sprint capacity (0-20 seconds) and their awareness of it, when they did sprint, they ensured that they were during "key moments". This decision and their overall sprinting ability would dictate whether they had successful day or not. This couldn't be truer for footballers too.

When you do decide to sprint during a game, it is often during "key moments" where you have conserved your energy so that your game-defining run is one that results in success for you team. So, be a modern-day caveman - get outside and sprint.


References

1.Edouard, P., Mendiguchia, J., Guex, K., Lahti, J., Samozino, P., & Morin, J. B. (2019). Sprinting: a potential vaccine for hamstring injury. Sport Perform. Sci. Rep, 1-2. 2.Udofa, A., Ryan, L., Clark, K., & Weyand, P. (2017). Ground Reaction Forces During Competitive Track Events: A Motion Based Assessment Method. ISBS Proceedings Archive, 35 (1), 120.


Henry Woodward

Henry is a strength and conditioning coach with five years of experience across a range of professional sports. He is accredited by both the UKSCA and NSCA in addition to his degree from the University of Bath.

Specialising in the LTAD sector of his field. he has previously been involved in the physical development of numerous players across football, rugby and Cricket at Notts CCC and Saracens respectively.

His background across a variety of sports has provided him a number of tools as a practitioner to give his athletes the edge over their opponents.

Twitter: hwoody26