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Leg stiffness and sprinting

by Athletics Weekly October 24, 2014

Stiff legs make for faster sprinting, as John Shepherd

If you look at a top-class sprinter in full-flight in slowmotion youll see that any degree of bending at the knee
joint after ground contact on foot-strike in terms of an
absorbent reaction is virtually non-existent.
An elite male sprinters foot will only be in contact with
the ground for around 0.08 seconds at maximal
velocity, yet in that time they will overcome more than
three times bodyweight as they reach near to 30mph.
This highlights just how important leg stiffness is as,
without it, sprint velocity would be very much dampened.
In a review of research on leg stiffness the following
definition and way of assessing stiffness was provided:
Human running can be modelled as either a spring-mass
model or multiple springs in series. A force is required to
stretch or compress the spring and thus the stiffness can
be calculated from the ratio of this force to the change in
spring length.
Leg stiffness involves a very strong eccentric reaction
and then a lightening quick concentric action however,
there should be virtually no delay between the stretch
and reflex. These muscular actions constitute the
stretch-shortening cycle and are key to plyometrics.
Plyometric muscular actions are akin to the firing of a

bow or spring. Pull the spring to maximum length (akin to

the eccentric muscular action) and, if you let it go, it will
compress with great power and energy release (akin to
the concentric muscular action). This response in relation
to sprinting produces the dynamic extension of the ankle,
knee and hip joints (triple extension) needed to propel
the sprinter forward at great velocity.
Research: Leg stiffness and training methods
Leg stiffness can be developed via numerous training
methods. These include weight training, plyometrics,
sprinting and resisted running, such as sled-towing.
However, looking at the research, it appears that
developing leg stiffness via various training methods is
complex and does not occur as one might think. In fact,
some of the methods contribute to a different facet of
speed development. For example, some seem better
suited to developing sprint acceleration rather than topend speed.
Researchers looked at the relationship between leg power
and leg stiffness as they related to sprint performance.
Eleven subjects aged 15-17 participated in the study and
acceleration and maximum speed were analysed during a
40m sprint using radar measurement. Leg power was
analysed using a treadmill equipped with speed and force
transducers from which linear power was calculated. A
hopping test was also used on a force plate and leg
stiffness calculated using flight and contact times.

The researchers discovered that forward leg power was

correlated with both initial acceleration and maximum
velocity running during track sprinting. However, crucially
in the light of the subject matter of this article it was
noted that leg stiffness as calculated from hopping was
significantly correlated with maximal velocity but not with
New Zealand researchers studied the ground-reaction
forces (GRF) involved when accelerating in a sprint.
Thirty-six male athletes performed maximal-effort sprints
from which video data and GRF data was collected at the
16m mark. The team discovered that the fasteraccelerating athletes displayed less vertical impulse
(more force was directed horizontally to push them
forwards). The quicker accelerators also had the faster
ground-contact times.
Similar findings on acceleration were made by a further
highly relevant piece of research that directly considered leg
stiffness in relation to sled-towing training. It involved 22
sprint-trained subjects. Two groups were created, one that
used a weighted sled (WS) and one that did not (UR). Sledtowing is a commonly used sprint training method and is one
that many believe will enhance leg stiffness. The WS group
used a resistance that reduced their maximal speed by 7.5%.
After a three-week programme of training designed to level
the participants condition they were randomly split into two
groups (WS & UR) and both groups sprint-trained twice a
week for four weeks. The only difference between the

programmes was that the WS group trained with the

weighted sled and the other without.
Before and after the test the participants were tested in
regard to sprint technique, muscular strength (including,
isokinetic and plyometric) and sprinting leg stiffness. The
team discovered that the sled-towing sprinters improved
their velocity in the transition phase (this is the phase
after block clearance when the runner builds to
maximum speed the phase that the previous
researchers had seen not to benefit from hopping) and
the non-resisted sprinters improved their maximum
It seems that the additional loading of the sled, rather
than producing stronger and stiffer legs that would
improve top-end sprint speed, actually hindered the
development of this quality, although boosting
acceleration. Sled-towing had more of a concentric
strength developing role as opposed to an increasing legstiffness role as it relates to the stretch-shortening cycle
and top-end speed.
These findings were correlated by researchers who
specifically analysed the performances of 19 regional to
national-level sprinters over 100m. They also wanted to
consider the importance of leg strength and stiffness
over three phases of a 100m sprint: 0-30m, 30-60m and
60-100m, using video analysis. They matched
performances based on leg strength using a concentric
half-squat a counter-movement jump and hopping.

As before, the hops were used as the predictor of leg

stiffness. The times achieved by the subject sprinters
ranged from 10.72-12.87. Specifically, it was discovered
that the concentric half-squat was related most strongly
to the mean speed of each phase. The countermovement jump was related to the first 0-30m, while the
hopping test was the best predictor of the two last
phases. So again, we see that different means of training
have different outcomes and that the plyometric
exercise, when used as a means to enhance top-end
speed, seems highly correlated to leg stiffness thats to
say an athlete with greater leg stiffness should have the
faster top-end speed (although they might not be the
best accelerators).
From the research we can see that varying training
methods (weights, sleds, plyometrics) affect the
development of speed and leg stiffness differently.
Although it would be true to say that all methods can
improve sprint speed and leg stiffness, it is crucial to note
that some, notably hopping, develop and reflect a
heightened level of leg stiffness in terms of activating a
superior stretch- shortening cycle, benefitting top-end
speed. Simply put, they reduce the give in the
sprinters legs.
Coaches and athletes must therefore be mindful to train
in ways that will optimise all phases of the sprint, while
enhancing leg stiffness. For example, heavy-load
concentric squats could be used to develop the first few
steps of acceleration and then sled-towing the remainder

of the acceleration (transition) phase and plyometrics to

enhance top-end speed.
The role of drop jumps in developing leg stiffness
Drop (or depth) jumps are designed to enhance
plyometric ability. A drop jump requires the performer to
step, run or jump off a platform at a suitable height and
land and perform a jump or series of jumps from one or
two legs.

Crucial to the optimum performance of a drop jump is the

transition between the eccentric (landing) and concentric

(jump) parts. To maximise the power return the speed

between these two muscular actions should be minimised
and this is where leg stiffness becomes vital.
Researchers looked specifically at this method of training
and its effects on 20 professional rugby union players.
They were tested for 0-10m acceleration and for top-end
speed using a flying 10m-sprint (a run where they had
reached top-speed) and strength (using a three repetition
maximum squat), reactive strength, counter-movement
jump, drop jump and leg spring stiffness.
In keeping with the other findings of the research
provided so far it was discovered that leg spring stiffness
and drop jump performance was related to the flying 10m
time. So again, its the plyometric exercise, albeit this
time the drop jump, that most benefits top-end speed
and developed leg stiffness.
Its complicated
Leg stiffness is dependent, as noted, on the stretchshortening capacities of muscles and therefore of the
individual. The author has observed when training his
group of sprinters and jumpers that some have natural
greater leg stiffness than others and that this seems to
be affected by the way they can fire their muscles.
Each athlete, though powerful, generates their power
slightly differently to others some require a greater
degree of flexion, for example, when performing drop
jumps to generate power. The stretch-shortening capacity
is an automatic one (although one that can be enhanced)

and it relies on the functioning of the athletes

neuromuscular system.
The stretch-shortening capacity is also actually variable
across different joints (when jumping there are stretchshortening cycles occurring at the ankle, knee and hip
complexes and the degrees of reactivity and stiffness can
vary across these joints). The stretch shortening cycle
can also vary in regard to the angles and speeds of the
jump being performed and the degree of central nervous
system fatigue and general fatigue. Research
corroborates some of these practical thoughts as
Kuitunen et al write: Our results suggest that leg and
joint stiffness is mainly adjusted by centrally
programmed motor commands and the contribution to
stretch reflexes to muscle force output is muscledependent.
Leg stiffness, the human spring response, can be
trained by varying methods in the pursuit of greater
sprint speed. Its crucial that coach and athlete realise
that different conditioning methods as they affect leg
stiffness can create different sprint responses (sledtowing will improve acceleration more than top-end
speed, for example). Plyometric exercises appear to be
key to leg stiffness. For example, an athlete who has
good hopping and drop jump ability will have good highend sprint capacity and leg stiffness.
Eccentric and concentric drills, practices, maturation and
the inherent stretch shortening cycle ability of athletes

must all be taken into account when conditioning for

greater speed against the variable of leg stiffness