3 reasons elite sprinters can apply so much force to the ground

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Elite male sprinters apply the equivalent of 500+% of their bodyweight in force at touchdown (when running at top speed). This seems otherworldly yet it’s been documented in a lab as well as estimated from real world performances. Applying the equivalent of five times bodyweight load to the ground and doing so with just one leg is a number which confounds many and misleads some in to thinking that getting stronger in the weight room is a sure fire way to get better at sprinting. While valuable, pursuing strength as a means to improve speed is an indirect route at best. So with this in mind, let’s examine how this seemingly impossible feat is achieved in hopes of dispelling a misguided training focus and better understanding the most critical elements of elite sprint speed.

Pursuing strength as a means to improve speed is an indirect route at best – @mikeyoung

There are only a handful of people in the history of mankind who can squat 4+x bodyweight. And that’s on 2 legs. So how, in the world are elite sprinters able to apply so much force to the ground? And how do they do it so fast? Remember, these guys are on and off the ground under 0.09 seconds. Here are 3 factors that make this amazing feet of force application possible:

The three points discussed above are linked in a ‘chicken or the egg’ type riddle. Do the favorable joint angles made possible by efficient mechanics allow the athlete to apply more force eccentrically? Yes. Does the greater eccentric generating capacity of muscle assist with a faster and more efficient SSC? Yes. Does the big force applied to the ground in the appropriate vector allow for minimized backside mechanics allowing for an optimal swing that subsequently allows for the favorable joint angles at touchdown discussed above? Yes. As with most things in human performance, nothing operates in a bubble. This riddle doesn’t totally complicate things as there are some takehome points from what I discussed above.

We should be able to once and for all stop using the insane force applied to the ground during maximal velocity sprinting as justification to spend an inordinate time in the weight room pursuing strength at the cost of more specific training methods. Strength training is absolutely critical to complete athletic development but with the above points I wanted to highlight that deadlifting and squatting more will only take your top end speed capacities so far because those activities (especially the deadlift in my opinion) don’t meet the criteria to physiologically challenge any of the points mentioned above to significant adaptation in a highly trained athlete.

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  • Ralph

    Great points! So which exercises/drills do you recommend to improve top speed? Vertical plyometrics?

    • There’s no one ‘thing.’ First and foremost we sprint and place that at the center of our speed development. After that short contact / high load plyo activity and fast eccentric weight room work are very helpful.

    • Agreed with Janne’s points. There’s no specific exercises or drills. It’s critical to keep sprinting hard using appropriate distances, total volumes, and appropriate inter and intra session rest periods. After that plyos, specifically those with high force, shorter contact times and less amortization, are very helpful.

      • Ralph

        Thanks for the advice, Mike and Janne!
        @Mike: I’d be grateful if you can give me an example for plyos serving this purpose best in your opinion – I’d assume drop jumps (low height) or single-leg bounces?

        • In place or slightly forward progressing stiffness jumps are probably my most used exercise for this. I’ll also use jumps down stairs and moderate height box jumps with an emphasis on balancing contact time by minimizing amortization and still applying force to the ground. You have to be careful because it’s easier to jump higher with longer contact times and significant amortization but this isn’t what you want for this training stimulus.

          • Ralph

            That makes great sense – thanks Mike!

          • No problem. Glad I could help.

  • Janne

    Great article and reminder.
    I dont think anyone has the manual for speed to print out. If you are a sprinter you have to do the plyometrics, do short and longer sprints and spend time in the gym to be stronger. The best coaches have the best mix of these ingriedients. And are able to make a schedule with the right kind of periodisation for each athlete.

  • ranslow?_nah

    The negative foot speed of elite runners (the speed of the foot approaching the track) is always astounding to me. The foot approaches the track so fast that the athlete acts more like a skipping stone across water at high speeds. Slower runners look like an oar in water. They connect with the track, apply force, then hit their stride again. We do a variety of drills to try to simulate what it is like to hit the ground with such veracity and timing. Most of the young-lings will never achieve anything like that because of the eccentric strength required is greater than they can handle.

    • It’s hard to simulate that negative foot speed in anything other than sub 10 athletes. I think Ralph Mann’s data shows that most of the elite aren’t able to do it and only the elite of the elite do it….the only woman I’ve ever heard of achieving it is FloJo. That said, I do coach an active acceleration of the thigh downwards but try to steer clear of any cue that would produce reaching and grabbing.