When people think about how to run faster, they think of getting in the weight room to get stronger or putting on some spikes and blazing down the track.
Both of those things can help, but there's one speed enhancer that people rarely talk about—relaxation. As an Olympic sprinter, it took me over a decade of training to understand and master this concept. The reason it's difficult to unlock the power of relaxation is that it feels counterintuitive to trying to run your fastest. We have ingrained in our minds that trying hard always produces a better result. However, this isn't the case with sprinting. Here are five tips that can help you relax and run faster during your next sprint.
1. Relax your face
One of the first places to look to know if you're relaxing or not is your face. If you are super tight in the face, that tension works its way down to your neck, hands and into the rest of your body. It can restrict your arm action and tire you out faster.
You may think your face is relaxed, but is it really? Is it so relaxed that your cheeks and lips can flap where they choose? Is it so relaxed that your face may jiggle or move while you're running? Because that's the amount of relaxation we're going for. If you achieve that, the tension in your face and neck will have disappeared.
You will feel weird doing this for the first time, because it will feel as if you are not trying hard enough and hence, running slow. One of the fastest races I ever run as an NCAA athlete was at the University of Texas. I was about a meter behind a sprinter from ASU who was on my right, and I remember just relaxing and letting my cheeks be loose as he got tighter and tighter, and I blew right past him.
2. Keep your hands open
Another way to run faster and improve speed via relaxation is to open up your hands. A lot of athletes run with a closed tight fist, which is not optimal for running your fastest. Closed fists immediately create tension through your arm and shoulders. If you look at the end of any 400-meter race, you'll typically see the winner is the one who is the most relaxed coming down the home stretch. Some will have closed hands and look tense and look like they are fighting themselves to finish. Others will be smooth as butter and look like they are finishing without even trying.
Trying too hard to run fast and forcing it can also increase your risk of injury. You end up overdoing it and straining yourself too hard. When you are relaxed, you can go faster without having to work as hard.
3. Keep your shoulders down
Allowing your shoulders to rise up toward your ears is one of the most detrimental mistakes you can make when trying to run fast. As soon as your shoulders start to raise up to your ears, there is almost nothing you can do to reverse the situation.
When you raise your shoulders, it puts your arms in a dangerous position, as it does not allow them to swing and move freely. The results are increased tension and slower sprint times. Some athletes run like this so often that they've become accustomed to it and have no clue just how much it might be harming them. When you focus on sprinting relaxed, you want to have your shoulders wholly relaxed and as far down as they will go.
4. Step onto the track free of stress
One area a lot of people don't think about when trying to run fast is your mental state. If you have a lot going on mentally, or your heart is just heavy with the stresses of life, it can be harder to relax when sprinting. It depends on the athlete though, because some athletes thrive under more pressure or are better at compartmentalizing their stress.
But many athletes, especially young athletes, struggle with this skill. If you have a lot going on mentally during your sprints, it may frustrate you because you cannot relax your body the same way. You want to go into every rep, or sprint with a 100% clear mind. Even if it means just clearing your mind for a few minutes before practice or the race, it is very worth it! Being able to clear your mind before you step on the track is what separates many great athletes from their competition.
5. Remember the arms control it all
The last important thing to know and remember about running fast is that you sprint with your arms on your legs. Meaning your legs do the work, but your arms are what control it all.
If you want to run faster, you don't think about moving your legs faster. What you do is focus on moving your arms faster. If the arms move quicker, the legs will automatically move faster as well. That is why there is so much focus on the upper body in this article. The upper body will control what the legs do, but they can't move optimally if they are in positions with constant tension.
Mentally, you need to rewire your brain to focus on your arms and getting them operating smoothly and efficiently. Once you accomplish this, it will make every aspect of sprinting easier.
Putting it all together
This may seem like a lot of information to keep in mind while running really fast, but many of these tips can be achieved with a single controlled breath. If you are in the middle of the 100-meter dash, and you need to hit that next gear, it just takes one controlled breath.
When you exhale quickly with some power, you will be able to relax your face, drop your shoulders, and focus on your arms all in a single step. In a race, you won't have time to do all those things one by one. The goal is to practice this exhale during training and get used to the feeling of getting it right all in one breath. Doing this will increase your confidence of hitting it in the heat of the moment.
Sprinting is really about doing the little things right. You are fighting for hundredths of a second, and strategic relaxation can help you gain an edge.
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