Four Reasons Why Athletes Must Sprint

Robert A. Panariello MS, PT, ATC, CSCS
Professional Physical Therapy
Professional Athletic Performance Center
New York, New York 

The athlete’s ability to sprint at high velocities is an integral component in the related fields of Sports Rehabilitation and the Performance Enhancement Training of athletes. A principal objective of the rehabilitation process is to restore the athlete to their previous level of athletic performance including the athlete’s pre-injury running velocity. With regard to the athlete’s performance enhancement training, a necessary component of training, when appropriate, would be to enhance the athlete’s abilities in linear velocity. The review of the various rehabilitation and/or performance enhancement training program designs often leads to the inquiry, as well as reveals the lack of an appropriate programmed sprinting volume as often the focus of the running volume prescription is “tempo” in nature. The Rehabilitation and Strength and Conditioning (S&C) Professional must ensure that the athlete incorporates an appropriate and proficient amount of sprinting volume into their rehabilitation and performance enhancement training program designs. Based on the athlete’s medical history, demonstrated physical quality levels, biological age, training history, etc., these appropriately prescribed sprinting volumes will vary from athlete to athlete. Nonetheless it is essential to incorporate appropriate high velocity sprinting volumes into the athlete’s rehabilitation and performance training program design.

The following are some of the simple explanations for prescribing suitable sprinting volumes for the athlete:

  1. Speed Enhancement – The obvious reason for the incorporation of appropriate sprinting volumes is for the athlete to increase their linear velocity. Speed is a dangerous weapon in the world of sport and the fastest athletes will have a distinct advantage over their slower opponent in the arena of athletic competition.
  1. Improve the co-activation index of the lower extremity musculature – An additional benefit of performing high sprinting velocity training is the positive effect upon the body’s co-activation index. A simple example of the co-activation index transpires during slower velocity body weight (as well as applied weight intensity) activities resulting in the stabilization of a joint via the agonist and antagonist muscle groups working together as these slower movement velocities result in an applied stress application over a prolonged period of time. Thus the co-activation index of the agonist and antagonist muscle groups working together during a prolonged slow activity performance is close to or at a 1:1 ratio.

High velocity sprinting movements are dependent upon a brief factor of ground contact time. The performance of high velocity sprinting activities requires a prominent contribution from the agonist muscle group(s) while the antagonist muscle group(s) has a lower level of contribution. This emphasized contribution of the agonist muscle group results in a shift in the co-activation index in favor of the agonist. This emphasized contribution of the agonists result in optimal high speed propulsion, as well as a fluid motion of the body in the desired direction of movement. Charlie Francis and Tudor Bompa have indicated that the highest skilled athlete’s are those with the ability to completely relax their antagonist muscle groups during high velocity movement and that ridged and rough movements are a result of poor coordination between the agonists and antagonists.

  1. Speed Endurance – It’s one thing for the athlete to perform at top sprinting speed for a few repetitions, but a necessity of many athletic contests is for the athlete to perform at top velocity frequently throughout the length of the competition. If the athlete does not have the speed endurance to perform at maximum velocity repeatedly over time, excessive fatigue will occur resulting in a loss of force output, technical proficiency, possible risk of injury, and neuromuscular inefficiency during the sprinting performance. The athlete must perform an adequate volume of sprinting to establish an appropriate level of speed endurance.
  1. Neuromuscular timing – The literature has demonstrated that the hamstring muscle most often injured during athletic competition is the biceps femoris (BF). One possible mechanism that may result in the injury of this muscle is poor neuromuscular timing. The BF muscle is comprised of a long head and a short head with different nerve innervations. The tibial nerve innervates the long head of the BF while the short head is innervated by the common peroneal nerve (Figure 1). If the neuromuscular “timing” of the BF muscle innervation is poorly coordinated, this may result in a hamstring injury.
Figure 1: The Biceps Femoris Muscle

Figure 1: The Biceps Femoris Muscle

An analogy of the significance of applicable neuromuscular timing of the shoulder occurs during the rehabilitation of the rotator cuff musculature in a baseball pitcher. During this shoulder rehabilitation process a neuromuscular timing must be established between the musculature of the gleno-humeral (GH) and scapula-thoracic (ST) joints of the shoulder for optimal throwing performance to occur. During the final stages of rehabilitation the initiation and progression of a post-operative rotator cuff repair tossing/throwing program may be prescribed as follows: Short Toss to Long Toss to Pitching on Flat Ground to Pitching from a Pitchers Mound.

This throwing progression requires the shoulder/arm to travel at higher throwing velocities during each progressive throwing phase of the athlete’s rehabilitation. Thus the neuromuscular efficiency, or timing, of the GH&ST musculature that is required for optimal throwing performance is enhanced via a progression of higher throwing velocities. Therefore wouldn’t the efficient timing of the dual innervation of the biceps femoris require the same high speed program design for optimal performance as well as the prevention of injury?

Optimal running velocities are imperative for success in many athletic endeavors. Appropriately prescribed sprinting volumes at the applicable times will not only enhance an athlete’s sprinting velocity, but maintain that linear velocity throughout the course of athletic competition while assisting in the prevention of lower extremity injury as well.

12 Comments

  • Claudia says:

    Is it possible to perform sprints on a treadmill? I understand that maximum velocity and volume would vary from person to person. But is there any base protocol on how much time each sprint should last and the resting time between sprints? Thank you 🙂

  • Claudia says:

    What does neuromuscular timing exactly mean and depend on? And how can it be improved?

  • Rob Panariello says:

    Claudia,

    I’m not a big fan of treadmills but certainly appreciate that during the cold winter months and/or in the rehab setting they may be the only option available. The reason why I’m not a big fan of treadmills is because the reality of sport requires the athlete to apply force into the stationary ground surface area resulting in propulsion. Most treadmills have a moving belt that is programed from the control board requiring the athlete to establish and maintain their running velocity based upon the programed speed of the belt.

    As far as your question re: neuromuscular timing, to explain it as simply as possible I will go back to my example of the throwing program as part of the concluding phase of the rehabilitation in the post-operative rotator cuff throwing athlete. The shoulder is a ball (head of the humerous) and socket (the glenoid of the scapula) joint. Thus 2 bones, the scapula and the humerous, including the musculature of these anatomical structures are responsible for establishing the shoulder joint and shoulder joint position. Throughout all of the positioning of the shoulder, especially at high upper extremity velocities it is imperative for the head of the humerous to maintain its position in the center of the glenoid (socket). The musculature responsible for correctly positioning as well as providing arm velocity (speaking specifically at the shoulder) requires a coordination or “ neuromuscular timing” so to speak at both the humerous and the scapula to establish and maintain the position the head of the humerous in the center of the glenoid (socket). To establish, progress, as well as maintain this “neuromuscular timing” at high upper extremity velocities, the upper extremity must be trained, through an appropriate and safe progression, at high velocities.

    I hope that helps. Just my opinion.

    Rob Panariello

    • Claudia says:

      You aré so right. I do feel a bit insecure about sprinting on treadmill, since it is difficult to catch the moment whey you start loosing form on the highest speed and you cannot slow It down immediately. A risk of getting injured is high, specially If you are on recovery.

      And thank you very much for the detailed explanation!!!

  • Fred Barbe says:

    Good read! I can’t wait for this summer!

  • Coach Troy says:

    If you have to Sprint on a treadmill use a 5% or so incline for best results. Most treadmills only go up to 12 miles and hour so it is very limiting.

    • Claudia says:

      Thanks. That is a good idea! I am a bit scared of getting injured at high speeds as a form must be perfect. Maybe combining the inclinatoon level and speed will do the trick for moré natural moverment.

  • Joey says:

    Frappier followers like over speed treadmill work. Some say its hard on the hips. But maybe it falls into plyometric over speed stuff and has some benefit?

  • Peter G. says:

    It would make sense why sprinting is so effective. Essentially, you’re putting your entire body under a mild stress which in-turn strengthens the body. As you mentioned, I think speed endurance is very important and is perhaps more important than reaching top speeds for only a short period of time. I also think one of the best ways athletes can simultaneously improve speed and endurance is by focusing the majority of their workouts on high intensity interval training.

  • A B says:

    As a masters’ squash competitor (>55) I desperately need speed endurance but no way I am going to sprint on a track. Squash training and playing is already so hard on the joints that all off-court training must be low-impact.

    My options for rapid heart-rate intervals are: versa-climber; spinning bike; rower; other(?). Which is preferred?- strictly for speed endurance and first-step explosion- given that much of the training for squash-specific movement patterns, i.e. lunge/recovery, flexibilty, balance, change-of-direction, etc. will ideally be separately addressed with the barbell, and with footwork routines as the knees and hips will allow…

  • Not only athletes, the martial art fighters also need sprint

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