At Proactive Sports, we have been fortunate enough to train some of the fastest players in the game, from C.J. Spiller to Trae Waynes (second overall fastest 40 time at the 2015 NFL Combine). With that comes the first bit of advice we have: There is not one right way to get it done, and there are no magic devices or programs that will take the place of consistent hard work. Just as there is not only one offense for a football team to execute, there is not just one way to teach or improve running mechanics. Let's review the basic components that a speed and agility program should include.
It is a far too common practice for athletes to continue improving their strengths and ignoring their weak points, leaving them susceptible to injury. The agility ladder will only take you so far. Speed and agility mechanics involve proper running form, flexibility, strength, power, acceleration, deceleration, mobility and the ability to activate the muscles of the hips and glutes.
Speed is a word that should be used in the context of a person's given sport. Maximum velocity can be important in distinct stages of a sport (i.e. a receiver running a go route, or a basketball player on a fast break), but agility is a major contributor to successful athletes. Agility is similar to balance where it requires athletes to control shifts of the body during deceleration and acceleration phases. The quality of the work you do is every bit as important as the quantity.
Stride frequency and stride length are the two major factors that determine straight-ahead speed from point A to B. There are many contradicting opinions that place more of an emphasis on a particular phase. It is important to find an optimal medium for each individual. There is no black and white answer to what frequency and length of a stride should be.
Two common mistakes are inefficient movement, which wastes energy, and muscle compensation, where the athlete is not firing the proper muscles. A powerful push-off the ground will help generate more power as you accelerate to maximum speed levels. In order for the push-off stage to be optimal, when the foot lands, it should be under the body's center of gravity. If the stride is over extended, this will cause a breaking effect, slowing the athlete down. Accordingly, as the foot strikes the ground, the foot should be dorsiflexed to allow for a solid push-off.
The upper body musculature should be relaxed and pointed in the direction the athlete is headed. The palm should be towards the belly button with a relaxed closed hand. The arm action is from chest height, through the hip and past the butt. The force of the arm swing is crucial when driving the arms back through the butt, because this helps maximize forward transfer. The runner must avoid side-to-side arm movement because it creates energy in the wrong movement plane. The athlete should strive to hammer down and extract energy from the ground to propel them forward. Bending at the waist and excessive lean will disrupt proper sprinting form.
Ryan Capretta is the founder and director of Proactive Sports Performance and an NFL Up! Fitness Ambassador. Capretta has trained athletes such as Aaron Rodgers, C.J. Spiller, Clay Matthews and Colin Kaepernick.