By Sam Wuest
Forward and back, forward and back. Nothing side to side. Resist rotation No wasted motion. You’ll run faster if you cut out that wasted motion and keep it all forward and back.
Track coaches utter these words every day, and they make sense. Plenty of athletes, especially younger, less experienced, or slower athletes have a ton of extra side-to-side and rotational movement that keeps them in the JV heats of the 100. Certainly, more often than not, getting them to convert more energy front to back will get them down the track faster. But is linear always better? Are the best sprinters in the world the best at running like robots?
Not quite. Elite sprinters routinely exhibit finely coordinated side-to-side and rotational motion in moderate amounts. While many armchair coaches (including you, Michael Johnson) claim that Usain Bolt’s characteristic “rocking” motion while sprinting slows him down, the fact of the matter is, he has run the fastest times in the world this way. While being 6’5” certainly doesn’t hurt, it does not account for all of his stride length and performance. I am 6’6” and have yet to run under 10 seconds in the 100.
Notice how the back of Bolt’s left glute and front of his right shoulder become simultaneously visible as he pushes off on each stride. The world’s fastest man is also one of the best in the world at counterbalancing the rotation of his shoulders and hips in order to produce power.
However, this is not due to simply overstraining, as his foot still lands under his hip with his hips even. So why is that rotation important?
For performance purposes, there are two main reasons why rotation is crucial.
Reason #1: Creates a longer lever arm
Coaches in all sports know that longer levers create more speed when moving at the same speed as a shorter lever. This is why longer-armed baseball pitchers generally throw faster than shorter-armed pitchers. This is also why the ChuckIt Ball Launcher dog toy gets such rave reviews.
Longer levers→ more speed at the end of the lever
More speed at the end of a lever → more velocity attained/force produced. And more exercise for your dog!
Find a soccer ball, or really any ball you can find laying around. The goal of this activity is going to be to kick it as far as you can, which is a reflection of the force produced on the ball.
First, try to keep your hips square to the direction you are kicking, and kick it as hard as you can. You may need a friend to keep you honest, as this may feel a bit unnatural. Mark how far it went.
Next, relax your waist and don’t worry about keeping your hips still. Actively swing your hip through and kick. Which one went further?
My money is on the second scenario going further. By engaging the rotation of the waist, you effectively lengthen the lever arm, creating more speed at the foot, causing more force to be imparted onto the ball. This is the ingenious idea behind the ChuckIt, and also why Usain Bolt’s strides are so long.
Running with one’s hips completely square to the finish line means that the length of a sprinter’s levers is the distance from the hip joint to the foot. Yes, Usain Bolt’s legs are long. However, a main reason why his strides are so much longer than other world class sprinters (many of whom have similar, if not the same, leg length – Asafa Powell’s strides are as long and he is 6’3″ to Bolt’s 6’5″) is due to his levers starting at his center of mass because he engages his waist with every step. His foot still lands underneath his body with his hips relatively even, but in the air he adds extra impulse (force) to each stride by using a longer lever.
The rotation of the waist/pelvic region is like the turning of a wheel on an axle. The hip joints are rotating around the imaginary centerline of your body parallel to your spine at about the elevation of the sacrum. It is not a perfect rotation, as the free leg hip will come through higher than the support leg’s hip if the lateral chain is firing correctly. Perhaps it would be better described as a rolling rotation. Which brings us to reason #2 of why this piece of technique is important.
Reason #2: Better Muscle Sequencing/Activation
Often, those that rotate better whilst sprinting will look smooth and relaxed. Their strides won’t just look longer, they’ll look more relaxed. Think of Carl Lewis’ famously effortless stride. This is how we are designed to move – the center moves first, then the extremities follow, much like a whip.
Classic Carl Lewis sprint technique on the runway
The muscles around the pelvis have high muscle-to-tendon ratios (force producers) while the extremities have relatively much more tendon and elastic structures (force amplifiers). In a correctly aligned body, a small movement of the waist can produce large amounts of force elsewhere in the body.
Think of a home run hitter. The best hitters generate explosive power by turning their waist. This generates a stretch reflex in the upper body, aiding the turning of their torso and arms. Sprinters that are effectively able to use rotation of their pelvis (all other things being equal) will look considerably more relaxed and smooth while running. This is because focusing on sprinting from one’s pelvic region engages the muscles of the pelvis and waist first, creating a proximal-to-distal muscle sequencing action from an athlete’s center of mass outwards.
Proximal to distal sequencing means an athlete is less likely to compensate for poorly firing psoas or glute muscle by tightening up their hands, face or other area of their body to compensate. This translates to more relaxed and less injury-prone athletes**.
What does this look like in action? Here we have the first event of last week’s Golden Spike professional track & field meet in Ostrava, Czech Republic. The 400 hurdles came down to the wire between South Africa’s LJ Van Zyl and the USA’s Johnny Dutch.
Watch them coming down the last straightaway. The announcer makes the comment that Van Zyl is much more relaxed than Dutch, allowing him to blow the American away. But is he? Dutch’s face is more relaxed, whereas Van Zyl’s tightens up towards the end. Van Zyl looks like he is running more relaxed than Dutch because he is running with the perfectly coordinated rotation of his pelvis, while Dutch’s hips stay almost perfectly square to the finish line. Van Zyl effectively has an extra joint to assist him, which looks to the casual observer like an extra gear.
The same principles of a longer lever arm and a greater smoothness of technique apply during jumping, as well.
Here we have Simon Silveirio…. Spanish champion in the high jump, jumping clean over a 6’5″ hurdle and landing on 2 feet.
Watch for the same principles here, both in between the small hurdles and also into the takeoff over the final hurdle – the left hip leads the takeoff leg (like the handle of a whip) back into the ground as the right hip fires up and through, the pelvis rotating around the spine like a wheel around its axle. Elite high jumpers do this incredibly well.
Triple and long jump are also display this technique. Even elite distance runners will tend to rotate well, as this allows them to both get a longer stride and use less effort. Over the course of a race, these inches add up big time.
There are a couple things I would keep in mind when teaching this aspect of technique:
- It is a piece of running technique, and it assists traditionally taught frontside sprint mechanics. Don’t forget everything you know, it’s just a piece of the puzzle. This is typically not the first thing I teach less experienced athletes.
- More rotation is not necessarily better. Some coaches have particular numbers they shoot for (I believe Frans Bosch’s video says that “ideal” rotation is something like 15* forward as compared to the face of your pelvis being parallel to the finish line is ideal), but unless you have a setup where you can look directly down on your athlete from above, it is difficult to see the exact ranges of motion. Generally speaking, increase it intentionally in drills and strides while focusing on it, but otherwise use only as much rotation where the athlete can coordinate and still apply force well.
- An athlete’s movement patterns are constantly being learned. Coach Rohsaan Griffin has a great Altis World podcast where he talks about his experiences coaching in China, and how he dropped squats from their training program after seeing how many athletes had developed bad sprint mechanics from squatting with bad form. Doing one exercise improperly will lead to bad habits in the skill you’re trying to improve. Likewise, good movement patterns can be taught anytime there is an opportunity. A single leg lift, plyometric or sprint can be good opportunities to teach aspects of technique specific to one’s goals, including pelvic rotation.
- That being said, there are certain exercises and drills that are better teaching tools for pelvic rotation than others. That is a main reason why I am a big fan of the Frans Bosch “scissor” set of drills that get mentioned quite frequently on this website. Some of them allow for much more natural, sprint-specific movement than the classical A skips I learned in high school. While I will go over more drills in part II of this article, three main ones that I keep coming back to are hurdle drills, bounds and even tai chi drills. An example of the first two are listed below:
1. Hurdle Skipovers
One of the first, and I think easiest, ways to introduce athletes to this concept is through hurdle drills. I generally start with walkovers over low hurdles and progress to skipping variations to get the coordination down. Hurdle height is not something to be focused on here, as mobility is not a major focus – I usually use 30” hurdles or lower ones if I can get my hands on them. The biggest way in which I see hurdle drills helping is that to clear the hurdle and effectively keep moving forward the athlete has to simultaneously raise the free side of the pelvis and push it forward in relation to the stance hip.
I like to cue “up and through” or “up and forward” and “rip back into the track.” If an athlete is struggling to maintain posture while rotating I like to use a barbell or dowel raise overhead or on the shoulders to force the hips, core and postural muscles to engage.
Once the athlete becomes proficient with this, I will start to aggressively space the hurdles out. This forces the athlete to work the “scissor action” timing (one leg moves into extension as the other one moves into flexion and vice versa, as one begins to move up the other begins to move down etc.) In order to lengthen the stride while still striking the ground under the hips the athlete will have to really engage the pelvis/waist. More rotation is not necessarily better, the coordination of as small rotation of the waist with the action of the legs is where the most benefit lies. Once coordination falls off, we don’t push for more. If you can get an athlete to understand the concept on day 1 and display a small amount of rotation, it will gradually increase over time as the athlete’s body adjusts.
Although he posts it as a fail video, World Class French Triple Jumper Ben Compaoré shows a great example of what this drill starts to look like at a more advanced level:
Notice the lowered hurdles and the aggressive spacing, distance being covered with the help of an aggressive turn of the waist.
Compaore displays, like every elite triple jumper, awesome rotation of the waist when bounding:
2. Alternating Bounds
Mutaz “Prince” Barshim, the current second best high jumper of all time, working some alternating bounds. While there are a great deal of good things he does while performing this exercise (low heel recovery, flat footed contact, fast swing leg, good posture etc.) it’s important to note the giant range of motion he gets in his waist, almost turning the back of his hips completely to the camera from the side view.
This rotation is countered by straight arms (long swinging segments=good bounding technique) as well as some coordinated rotation of the shoulders. During this drill I am cueing the same points that we touched on during the hurdle drill – firing the free side pelvis forward as the support leg heads towards the ground. At ground contact, the hips/knees will be relatively even as they pass each other. It is OK for the swing leg to be slightly behind the stance leg upon initial contact during bounds, but that swing leg should be already moving forward, meaning the athlete will get off the ground very quickly.
Since we are talking about rotation, we can cue the leg to “whip from the hip” back into the ground as well, which will drive the opposite side of the pelvis forward. I’ve found it helpful to tell athletes to think of their leg as starting at their center of mass (right below the bellybutton, directly in between the front of the body and the sacrum – also referred to as the “dantian” in Chinese Medicine), as those are ideally the first muscles to fire and first area to move. I don’t often cue rotation at first even if that’s what we see happening, as I find that it often confuses athletes into some strange racewalking-looking thing.
Part II will focus on more drills and cues how to develop the rotational component of sprinting, as well as how coaches unknowingly train their athletes out of their fastest running style.
**Less injury prone, relatively speaking. Going faster and pushing one’s limits leads to an injury risk. I don’t see a ton of hamstring issues in the 18 second 100m JV heats.
About Sam Wuest
Sam Wuest is in his third year coaching sprints, hurdles and jumps at Babson College in MA, where he has had a hand in coaching athletes to 7 school records and several regional and national championship appearances. A former Division I track & field athlete, he has also worked with private clients ranging from professional athletes to weekend warriors. Sam is a USATF Level I certified coach and holds a Master’s degree in Sports Coaching from Boston University. Learn more about his unique approach at daodesport.com
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