High Knees

This coming outdoor season I’m going to make some major changes to the warm-up that my sprinters and hurdlers do at the beginning of practice. I’ve come to the realization that simpler is better, that less is more. This realization applies to teaching sprint mechanics as well. That’s where it applied initially, actually. And once I realized that I had to change the way I teach sprint mechanics, I realized that those changes would have to transfer to the warm-up. Let me explain.

My favorite sprint drill has always been the high-knee drill. I’ve always felt it to be the one that most closely mimics the actual sprinting motion, and that it’s the easiest for athletes to master. But, like everybody else does, I’ve been doing what everybody else does. I have included high knees as part of the warm-up, but have never emphasized them. I have fit them in along with dynamic stretching, a-skips, b-skips, etc.

Then last spring I was conducting a hurdle camp along with a couple coaching friends, and on the first morning, we had the athletes do a whole bunch of high-knee drills. I’m talking, two hours worth. The point in having them do that was to emphasize the fact that “leading with the knee” doesn’t start at the hurdle, but should be the focus with each step, so that leading with the knee over the hurdle is a natural continuation of what you’re already doing, as opposed to being something “new” that you do only over the hurdle. Also, because your knees are coming up high with each step, you are effectively making the hurdle smaller; it’s easier for you to step over the hurdle without wasting a lot of effort kicking out the foot.

Fast forward to about a month ago. A girl at my school who plays lacrosse asked me to work with her on her sprinting form. So I met her out on the track one day after school and began teaching her the basics. Knee lift, front-side mechanics, high heel recovery, ankle flexion, cycling. I had her do some marches, I had her stand with one hand on the fence and do the cycling action. I explained the “parts” of the sprinting stride to her: knee up, open the foot, cycle the foot under the hip. One-two-three. I made sure she kept her ankle flexed, that she got her knee high enough before she began to release the foot. I made sure that she opened fluidly instead of kicking out the foot. I made sure that she cycled the foot back under instead of just dropping it. I made sure that she landed on the ball of her foot instead of stomping the track with her whole foot.

By the fence and in doing the marches, she was progressing gradually, so I decided to introduce her to the skip drills. She looked hilariously funny doing these at first, but started to get the hang of them after a few attempts. I noticed, though, that a lot of her bad habits were creeping in. I had seen her run before with her lacrosse teammates, and although she was the fastest girl on the team, her form was horrible. Sitting back, toes pointing down, landing very heavily. After about an hour of skip drills, I felt that she was getting frustrated that she wasn’t progressing more quickly. I was too, to be honest. She’d get one part right, then mess up another part. She kept kicking out her foot instead of dropping it naturally. She’d flex her ankle properly on the way up, but on the way down she’d point the toe down. She was fighting, she was trying; there was no fluidity in it. But I assured her, and myself, that a lifetime of bad habits can’t be corrected in one day, so the fact that she understood the things I was trying to teach her was very good, even if her body was still resisting.

But the nagging feeling that there had to be something else I could do to teach her this stuff better kept plaguing my mind. Then suddenly I remembered the hurdle camp from last spring. High knees! I decided to scrap the skip drill approach, to scrap the teaching-it-in-parts approach. I told her to stand in place and just do a high-knee drill, focusing on two things: keep the knees high, and keep the ankles flexed. She did one for about ten seconds before I told her to stop. I liked what I saw,  but wanted to make sure that I was seeing it right. I asked her to do another one. She did, and my initial observations were confirmed: Everything I’d been trying to teach her for the past hour, she was now doing without even realizing she was doing it.

The ankles were staying flexed all the way up and all the way down. The knees were rising to where the thigh was parallel to the track. The foot, on the way down, was opening naturally; no more kick. She was, quite literally, running in place. Once fatigue set in, I noticed that the toes would point down, the knees weren’t getting up as high, her upper body started rocking backward, so that’s when I’d tell her to stop.

After a couple more high-knees in place, I had her do some in which she’d start in place, then slowly move forward. I had her go about ten yards – from one hurdle mark to the next – then stop and walk back. She was getting it. Her legs were cycling, she was landing on the balls of her feet, and she was moving forward.

Finally, I had her go a little farther, a little faster. She did about three good reps before her legs were tired enough that we lost quality. So that’s where the session ended. We spent about an hour and fifteen minutes out there that day, and we got much more done in the last fifteen minutes than we did in the first hour. By honing in on the high-knee drill and having her focus on knee height and ankle flexion, I sped up the learning curve dramatically.

This workout session was revelatory for me. I realized that I had been complicating things. I realized that I don’t really need to teach the whole cycle if teaching the high-knee drill creates a natural cycle anyway. I realized that teaching the whole cycle creates confusion, and that when the mind thinks too much, the body’s instincts can’t take over. At full speed, you want the body’s instincts to take over so that you can run without thinking. I found myself wondering if I was being an arrogant track coach by assuming that it takes days, weeks, months to learn proper sprint mechanics. Why can’t it be learned in a day? Of course, mastery would take more time. Ingraining the good habits and eliminating the bad habits would take time. But the basics, I realized, can be learned in a day. In a single session.

As stated above, what I discovered in those last fifteen minutes was that many of the things I’d been trying to teach her, with limited success, occurred naturally when we switched to the high-knee drill. Her knee and heel were naturally rising on the way up. Her foot was naturally opening on the way down. Her foot was naturally cycling under the hip at the bottom.

Right now, until something or someone comes along to make me re-evaluate once again, I’m done with skip drills. Skips are wack because, in a race, you don’t skip down the track. High knees are good because you do high-knee down the track. Speed up the high-knee, and you’re sprinting. Plus, the high-knee drill forces you to strengthen your abdominal muscles and hip flexors, so it more clearly exposes any weaknesses because you don’t have that rest period that you have when skipping.

So, the kids I’m coaching in the winter have been doing the following warm-up, and this is the one I’ll carry into the outdoor season when many more kids join in:

  • 3x30m sprints at 80%
  • Static stretching (I’m not feeling the whole dynamic stretching thing, but I’ll save an explanation for another article)
  • 10m high-knee marches x 4
  • 10m high-knees x 4
  • 1-2-3-4 gear high-knee x 2
  • 1-2-3-4 gear high-knee with much longer emphasis on 4
  • 3x30m sprints at 90%

Let me explain the “1-2-3-4” gear part of the warm-up. Here, I stand in front of the athletes and say “One,” prompting them to high-knee in place at an easy pace for about 15 seconds. Then “Two” prompts them to speed up to medium speed. “Three” prompts them to speed up to three-quarter speed. And “Four” prompts them to speed up to full speed. At each gear, their focus is on speeding up the rhythm while maintaining knee height, maintaining a forward upper body posture, and staying relaxed. So, at “four,” they shouldn’t be trying harder, but moving their legs and arms faster.

This warm-up appeals to me because it fits my current philosophy that developing a sense of rhythm and fluidity are the most important keys to effective sprinting and hurdling. I’ve also become convinced that the more you can simplify things for athletes, the better.

Now, in applying sprint mechanics and high-knee drills to hurdling, the obvious question is, How high should I lift my knees in a hurdle race? The answer varies for every athlete. The answer may even vary for different parts of a race. But learning the basics of high-knees is important because it serves as your starting point; any adjustments you make will be based upon the mechanic of getting your knee up to where your thigh is parallel to the track.

Hurdlers who are accustomed to four-stepping and are transitioning into becoming three-steppers will want to raise their knees between the hurdles as high as a sprinter would in an open race. Hurdlers who are getting crowded between hurdles will want to lower their knees in order to fit in their three steps without crashing. In some cases, you might be someone who doesn’t get crowded until the middle part of the race. In such a case, you would want your mid-race knee lift to be lower than your early-race knee lift. And you might need to get your knees up high again late in the race as you fatigue. Ultimately, knee lift becomes a key element in developing a personal rhythm – one that fits well with your height, your speed, your level of flexibility, and your overall temperament.

© 2011 Steve McGill

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