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.
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.