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What Distance Runners Can Learn From Sprinters

Incorporate some speed work and strength training into your routine.

Incorporate some speed work and strength training into your routine.

Distance runners and sprinters often feel like they run on two different tracks; they do their thing, we do ours. However, turning a blind eye to the habits, drills and practices of sprinters may be holding endurance athletes back.

Who better to prove this theory than four-time Olympic sprinting champion Michael Johnson?

“The distance races are becoming more speed-endurance events versus just brutal endurance events,” said Lance Walker, Michael Johnson Performance’s Director of Performance. “They’re actually speed athletes at a lower overall output and in a longer duration.”

Walker began seriously studying the biomechanics of Kenenisa Bekele and other world-leading distance runners. He realized there were key traits distinguishing the fast from the fastest.

“They weren’t running like Asafa Powell for 1500-meters … but the needle was pointing more towards the sprinting biomechanics than they were the [slower runners’] biomechanics,” Walker said.

RELATED: Speed Workouts For Marathoners

Biomechanical Traits Of Fast Runners

The three distinctions Walker talks about are a neutral shin angle at foot contact, minimal distance between knees, and a stiff suspension.

Having a neutral shin angle means the runner will avoid having a heavy heel strike and aren’t “breaking” with each footfall. “At foot contact their shin bone is very vertical with the ground … it’s a full-foot strike,” Walker said. “We see the fast people keeping about a credit card’s width between their heel and the ground.”

With less distance between the thighs and knees, the body is able to have more ground-pull, and spend less time on the back-pull of the stride cycle, which equals less time on the ground. “It creates this great recovery on the back-side mechanics,” Walker said. “The minute they are done producing force into the ground, they are recycling the leg and recovering that leg shank more efficiently in the loop.”

Finally, a stiff suspension can be termed rigidity, but applied in this sense we’re not thinking “tight” but rather spring-loaded. The fastest runners are like coiled energy; they aren’t landing with each stride but instead are attacking the ground and bounding back off of it. “They’re hitting the ground before the ground hits them,” Walker said.

Get Ground Reactive

It’s not only a matter of muscular power and strength that gets these runners’ feet up and off the ground so fast. A portion of that is neuromuscular. To teach those synapses to fire faster and recruit the muscle fibers, try some reactivity and footwork drills. What’s crucial is that you aim for precision and speed; if not, you’re only reinforcing sloppy habits.

Reactive Ladder Drill: Two Feet Per Box (full-foot contact position with dorsiflexion, swinging arms as fast as feet)

Dead Leg Ladder: Rapid-fire your right foot through ladder like above, but let left leg hang outside the ladder, focusing only on the right leg. Repeat with left leg. This forces you to isolate each side and spot asymmetries.

Skips: A-skips and B-skips, being mindful of driving knee up and getting off the ground as fast as possible.

Full Dynamic Warm-up

Incorporate muscular and neuromuscular work into each of your warm-ups.

Mobility Work: Two sets of each: Knee-to-chest pulls, Walk-and-Reach, Lateral Lunges

Glute Engagement: Back bridges; work up to doing bridges with a march, reaching your knee and foot into the air

Hip Flexor/Oblique Engagement: Plank position, lift and extend opposite arm and leg, hold, repeat with other arm and leg

Skips and Ladder Drills


MJP-Style Lifting

“If you want to get fast you’ve got to be able to produce more force into the ground,” Walker said. “At some point you’re going to have to move some weight; doing the stereotypical runner’s workout in the gym just isn’t going to do it.”

RELATED: Five Strength Workouts

Favorites: Dead-lifts, squats, single-leg squats

Walker: “You should use a weight on your workouts that [still] allows you perfect technique and tempo.”

3 Sets, 6 Reps: Get your lifts in the 6-8 rep range, “If you can do more, you need to add more weight.”

Taper Down: Take 6-8 weeks gradually lowering the reps down from 15, to 10, then 6 while increasing the weight-load.

Continue higher rep-style lifting for arms; power focus is on legs

Speed-Work Mentality

Sprinters even have a different mentality than distance runners and it comes down to their rest between intervals.

“There’s a difference between conditioning and speed work,” Walker said. If you want to get faster, you need to have a day delegated as true speed-work and that means the rest will be longer.

“You’ve got to practice running faster,” Walker added. “The best way to practice those new mechanics is in a more refreshed state.”

Walker advices within each training micro-cycle (7-10 days) to include:

True Speed: Sets of fly-in 20’s; rest-to-work ratio is 5:1 (Runners can do longer intervals AFTER)

Speed-Endurance: Examples are repeat 200s or 300s with rest-to-work ratio 1:3

Endurance: Typical tempos and longer intervals

In order to truly get faster you can’t just do strides after your longer intervals or tempo runs.

“We wouldn’t train speed in an already fatigued state, it’s a very neurologically demanding environment,” Walker said.

In creating his Performance Center, Michael Johnson envisioned a means to improve the abilities of all athletes and runners of all distances. In working to get some of the nation’s distance runners back onto the Olympic podium, Walker sums up the original thought process: “We can make them faster, and have them hold that faster speed for longer. And that’s when you get some real game-changing results.”


About The Author:

Caitlin Chock set the then national high school 5K record of 15:52.88 in 2004. Now a freelance writer and artist she writes about all things running and designs her own line of running shirts. You can read more, see her running comics, and her shirts at her website.