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Speed Training Methods: Cueing Athletes for Optimal Performance

By Ryan Banta

Editor’s Note: A coach with great knowledge, but no ability to communicate that knowledge in a manner that athletes can understand and implement in their own bodies is in trouble. It is kind of like a blindfolded soldier with a massive gun, they have a great tool to work with, but no way to implement it efficiently, and effectively. Ryan Banta, an expert in cueing sprint athletes, has provided a wonderful roadmap in allowing athletes better understanding, and feeling, what coaches expect of them technically in sprinting.

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As a sprint coach, you need to have a large range of sprint cues that can be used for the desired result. Movement can feel unlike what the coach is seeing as an observer, and a person’s inner eye can see movements differently while they execute the action. Understand that just because a set of cues work for one athlete, does not mean it will work for another athlete in the future. If the problem must be fixed it is important you and your athlete work on a lexicon that makes sense for the sprinter to understand.

To remedy this lack of communication I feel it is best to film the athlete and show them how they are responding to your cues as you call them out in practice. Then have the athlete describe what they are seeing during the film session and what words would make the most sense for them to perform the movements properly in practice. Once you and your athlete agree on the language you will use, you can then implement those cues in practice.

When to cue and when not to cue is a very important question that all coaches should strive to master. As a developmental coach I cue fairly frequently but not the first time I see the sprinter make a mistake. If you fix a problem the first time you notice it in practice it could be what I call a “one off.” A “one off” is a random problem that does not rear its head again through the course of the practice. Fixing a one off could lead the coach to creating a cascade of issues. You don’t want to fix something if it is just an accident and then lead to other problems.

Also, if I am filming a practice session I try and go back to the beginning of the interval or drill to see if that is where the problem originally began. When fixing your lawn don’t just cut off the tops of the weeds because they will just grow back more robust and in large number. Instead you have to dig down and remove those problems at the roots. The longer you wait the worse the problem will become. Once I have discovered the problem’s origin, how to fix it, and the athlete’s preferred training cues I attack the problem. I like to use the Coach Pfaff philosophy that over cueing is perfectly fine if it gets results.

Sprint Cues

Problems I see frequently with my sprinters in practice are:

  • A lack of front side mechanics or knee drive
  • A failure to bring the ankle straight off the ground and then folding it underneath the butt
  • Running flat on the heels of their feet
  • Running like they are seated in a chair

If knee drive is a problem it usually is because of posture being out of whack. The hips could be point down, the athlete could be leaning to far forward or backward. When this becomes an issue we tell every sprinter to initiate their drills off of their heels and on the balls of their feet. This raises the hips and it is impossible to lean forward or backward in this position. So I cue “get hips tall!”

Next, if the hip position is still a problem I cue the sprinters to “suck and tuck” to require proper alignment. The “sucking” cue is for the sprinter to create as flat as possible of stomach and keep their core tight. Besides improved hip position, keeping the core relatively taut increases stiffness and takes more advantage of the bodies elastic properties then a loose/relaxed core. This also allows the sprinter to actively punch down the leg a-la Asafa Powell at his best during maximum velocity.

The “tuck” cue is to get the athlete to make sure they are not sticking their butt out and creating a less then optimal posture with their glutes being pushed way out and back. When the butt is out of alignment the stride will become shorter and knee drive will become difficult. Tucking the glutes under the spine is a classic over cue that is impossible for the athlete to achieve but puts them in the correct neutral positions. When an athlete is first starting to be given these cues in practice they will need to be cued often because most athletes will tend to revert back into previous body positions.

Heel recovery is a common problem that athletes need constant work to maintain or improve for ideal stride mechanics. So many young sprinters, along with athletes who play other sports, run with awful heel recovery. Proper heel recovery should have the ankle being drawn up to the sprinters butt immediately after toe off. A large number of advanced athletes do not display this movement correctly while sprinting at full speed. The most common motion you will see in this situation is when a mechanically unsound athlete will allow the heel to cycle way behind the sprinters hips, and away from the sprinter’s center of mass.

One of the best ways to create the proper recovery is we ask the sprinter to dorsiflex the foot immediately after toe off. Research suggests the fastest sprinters do not wait for the front side of a sprint cycle to dorsiflex. Instead the sprinter is already signally their body to dorsiflex at contact with the ground and again will dorisflex off the ground. Dorisflexing the foot will shorten the lever. A shortened lever in the leg creates proper tension to removing slack, speeding up the process to bring the leg back under the body again for the next stride.  

We also ask them to “step over the knee” to improve backside mechanics. The cue of “stepping over the knee” means we want to see the sprinter bring their ankle up and over the knee of the leg that is still in the front side of the sprint stride. Stepping over the knee means the sprinter must fold the ankle high and tight to accommodate the cue. A sprinter who has a large amount of back swing on their stride cannot properly. Draw their leg through and under the hips. Being unable to properly fold the leg underneath the sprinters hips means now their foot won’t cross above the knee but below it. Crossing the foot below the knee of the front side leg inevitably means a sprinter with a short stride.

If a sprinter constantly runs on their heels or flat footed, we try to fix this issue right away and cue the correct movements constantly. Sprinters who “heel run” are athletes who get hurt quickly with hamstring and shin problems. Additionally, a heel running sprinter removes the ability of the sprinter to take advantage of the elastic properties of the foot and ankle complex. To fix this we again cue for the athlete to stay off of their heels and run tall. I also like to cue the sprinter to “bounce.” Not all sprinters bounce naturally and it’s important to spend time making sure they feel active off the ground.

Even with quad dominant sprinters, a coach should spend time to make sure their sprinters are off of their heels as much as possible. Heel striking leaves very little room for error or adjustment at the point of contact with the ground. If you take a funny step on your heel there is less give way and the hamstring can become over loaded. An overloaded hamstring and very little room for adjustment due to braking forces can lead to a major muscle strain or pull. Hamstrings are the sprinter’s curse and can derail a sprinter for months. Besides cueing, these athletes need to be supported by biomechanical drills, plyometrics, and weight room routines that all work to build the proper model of movement.

Cueing the 100m dash

Successfully Cueing the 100m Dash

When we cue the different phases of the 100 dash I think it is important to teach a model that can be well understood. I heard a near perfect description of acceleration if reference to spinning a basketball given on a USATF training clinic a long time ago. Most American kids we have or watched someone spin a basketball on their finger in their life. I give a more detailed description in the sprinter’s compendium. However, the shortened version is this: Just like spinning a basketball the sprinting requires big powerful contacts at the beginning and more precise contacts at high speed to keep spinning that basketball or running all out down the track. As for the specific cues for different parts of the 100 dash, we use a handful words. I try to keep the number words the sprinters must remember at seven or below because that is the limit of quick retrievable memory for most novice athletes.

The first cue is to “breathe.” Breathing getting into the blocks should be quick aggressive short bursts to push the body into fight or flight. Then once in the block we want them to breathe deep into the set position and holder their breath till they hear the gun. We do this to increase power and stiffness in the core. The next cue is to “react”. I want to the sprinter listening for the gun and paying attention to nothing else. Research data suggest reacting to sound alone is the second fastest to reacting to touch. The next cue is “push”. I want the sprinter to focus on driving out of the blocks with big powerful steps and not get caught up into who might be leading the race at 20 meters. I want to be the fastest from 80-100 meters.

The next word is “build”. I want the athlete to build up to a full upright sprinting stride and build up velocity with each contact of the track. This shouldn’t be done all at one time but over the unfolding of the race. As the sprinter rises up this should be the first time the finish line comes into view. In the middle of the race I like to use the word “target”. In this part of the race, the drive phase, momentum built in the previous stages should now slingshot the sprinter down the track. Here I want the sprinter to find a target straight ahead and bring it back to them as fast as possible. Now, while sprinting at maximum velocity, coordination becomes the most important aspect of the process, and we don’t want to bleed speed because of inefficient movement.

To limit our speed bleed I cue the sprinter’s “calm”. We want to see our sprinters faces relaxed and almost jelly like in the latter portions of the race. If they can remain calm in the face they can limit the potential of becoming too tight in the end of the race leading to massive deceleration. The last cue is “finish” Here I want the sprinter not only to run past the finish but I want them to give me a controlled lean over the finish line.

In review the cues are:

  • Breathe
  • React
  • Push
  • Build
  • Target
  • Finish 

Your sprinters can use this as a mantra. Mantras are powerful and useful to think constructively in a scary environment like competition. Another idea I have been playing with is using miniature road signs that I stick in traffic cones that have these cue’s on them to remind them what should be doing at different points on the track. Using cones as landmarks have been a staple of my program for a long time but adding the actual cues as they sprint past would have a nice carry over.  Additionally, if you have sprinters covering the distance at different times, the cues will still be happening in the right place no matter what the coach is yelling out at the fastest sprinters. As the season progresses I feel it would be important to remove the cones and the signs as the athlete needs to able to move through the different sections as close to competition like condition as possible.

 

More about Ryan Banta:

Ryan Banta is Parkway Central High School Girls Head track and field coach 2003 to the present, and Parkway Central High School Head XC coach 2013 to present.  Ryan’s coaching tenure has yielded 84 school records. 2 top 4 finishes in 2008 and 2009, District Champs 2007, 2008, and 2009, four runner up finishes at districts 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014, two state records 4×800 and 3200 meter run, 14 nationally ranked events, 34 all state performances, 7 runner up finishes, 8 state championship events and 70 state qualifiers(track and xc).  Ryan is the MTCCCA Vice President and MSHSAA advisory board member.  He is a writer for elitetrack.com and speedendurance.com  and has his USATF Level II in Sprints, Hurdles, Relays, and Endurance, as well as a USTFCCCA technical certification.

6 comments

  1. Great article! The dorsiflex after toe off and step over knee cue feels awesome, already improved my speed

  2. Jake. Thanks for the positive words! Cueing is always a work in progress. However, if the sprinter and coach listen great improvements can be achieved through the adjustments that come from cueing.

  3. Thank you very much for this article. It helped me to improve my 100m time

  4. Adam thank you for the kind words. If you would like to discuss the topic more I am a Facebook message away.

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