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The Mechanics Of Max Running Speed

Posted by: pshields on Monday, October 01, 2007 - 02:32 AM Print article Printer-friendly page  Email to a friend

The Mechanics Of Max Running Speed

September 26, 2007

Owen Andersen
New Research From Finland "Brakes" It Down

Most athletes who run (and most coaches of athletes who run) would like to create training which optimizes maximal running velocity. After all, scientific research reveals that max running speed is an excellent predictor of competitive performance among endurance runners (1). Plus, the optimization of max velocity has obvious advantages for sprinters and soccer players.

But what workouts, drills, and overall training strategies are best for boosting max running speed? We know that running 100 miles per week won't do it. Cruising along at necessarily moderate tempos doesn't teach the nervous system to operate in a more-quicksilver fashion. After all, ground-contact times during such tepid training usually average 190 to 210 milliseconds, whereas contact times decrease to 110 to 120 milliseconds at max speed. Training involving the former does a poor job of preparing the neuromuscular system for the latter.

A strategy which many runners employ - going to the track and hitting intervals at 5-K speed (aka "speedwork") - won't do it, either. After all, 5-K speed is a velocity with which runners are already familiar. It is just a fraction of max speed, probably 70 percent of max at best, and therefore it won't push the neuromuscular system to develop a higher "top-end" speed. Just as running high mileage at 70 percent of VO2max doesn't do a superior job of raising VO2max (2), cruising at 70 percent of max velocity is a weak stimulus for upping max speed. The human body changes - adapts to training - when it is really stressed, not when it is mildly stimulated, and reaching just 70 percent of max during training doesn't constitute high physical stress. Too bad!

What sould be done instead of running lots of miles or carrying out conventional "speedwork?" To understand how to boost max running speed, it is a good idea to comprehend the actual mechanics of running faster - the ways in which stride rate, stride length, foot-contact time with the ground, and flight time (the number of milliseconds elapsing between the lift-off of one foot and the landing of the other) change as speed increases. Once you know the mechanics, you'll have a firm idea about what to emphasize during training. Thanks to research carried out by Tapani Keranen (pictured at right) at the Research Institute for Olympic Sports in Finland, we know exactly what happens mechanically as runners raise their speeds (3).

To keep things exciting and challenging for you, I have devised a quiz to test your understanding of the mechanics of very fast running. If you answer all of the questions correctly, you are probably already on the way to developing higher max speed (for yourself or for the runners you coach). Bog down on any question, and your understanding of the mechanics of high speed needs an upgrade. Here's the multiple-choice quiz (answers are provided at the very bottom of this message):

(1) When endurance runners increase their speed from a slow jog to about 75 percent of maximal running velocity, they usually do so by:

  • (A) Increasing stride rate
  • (B) Increasing stride length
  • (C) Increasing stride rate and stride length
  • (D) Shortening flight time

(2) As endurance runners move up from about 75 percent of maximal running velocity to max running speed itself, they usually do so by:

  • (A) Increasing stride rate
  • (B) Increasing stride length
  • (C) Increasing stride rate and stride length
  • (D) Holding flight time steady

(3) The key factor which promotes a higher stride rate as endurance runners increase their speed is:

  • (A) A constant flight time
  • (B) A shorter stride length
  • (C) A more-abbreviated ground-contact time
  • (D) Listening to hip-hop music on an MP3 player

(4) The primary factor which directly shortens ground-contact time during close-to-max-speed running is:

  • (A) A reduction in leg stiffness
  • (B) A narrowing of the braking phase of ground contact
  • (C) An abridgement of the propulsive phase of ground contact
  • (D) An increase in flight time

(5) The mechanical factor which is most-closely related to running economy in endurance runners is:

  • (A) Stride rate
  • (B) Stride length
  • (C) Contact time
  • (D) Flight time

(6) Between 75 percent of max running speed and max running velocity itself, stride length tends to:

  • (A) Increase a little
  • (B) Increase a lot
  • (C) Stay the same
  • (D) Decrease a little

Please check your answers at the bottom of this article


(1) "The Relationship between Field Tests of Anaerobic Power and 10-Km Run Performance," Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, Vol. 15 (4), pp. 405-412, 2001

(2) "Aerobic High-Intensity Intervals Improve VO2max More than Moderate Training," Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, Vol. 39 (4), pp. 665-671, 2007

(3) "Factors Related to Top Running Speed and Economy," International Journal of Sports Medicine, Vol. 28, pp. 655-661, 2007

Answers to Quiz (in order from # 1 through # 6): C, A, C, B, C, C. Perhaps the most interesting finding is that the braking phase of contact becomes increasingly more abbreviated as running speed nears max, while the propulsive phase stays the same (question # 4). This has significant implications for the creation of drills to reduce contact time and thus heighten stride rate and max running speed. If you have any questions about the quiz, please send a note to

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