Vertical Force = The Holy Grail

Tony Holler Coaching Blogs 6 Comments

Does jogging have a place in your sprint training?

Do you believe that speed comes from the weight room?

Have you used parachutes or any other resistance training?

Do you use the coaching cue, “grab the track and throw it behind you”?

Have you taught kids to increase their stride length because speed = stride length x frequency?

Do your sprinters trudge up mountainous hills to get strong?

Do you talk to your sprinters about being “fit”, getting “in shape”,  and developing an “aerobic engine”?

Do you believe that hypertrophy (big muscles) make you faster?

Do you talk about “speed endurance” before doing repetitions of 300 meters?

If you answer “yes” to the questions above, you must repent.

If you have not yet been converted to cat-like sprint training, it’s time to be born again.

It’s time to learn the science of sprinting.

(BTW, I have been guilty of each and every one of the sins listed above.)

Here’s the good news.  You don’t have to go to graduate school.  You don’t have to read a book.  You don’t even have to buy the latest DVD from some online snake-oil salesman.

Just learn this one scientific fact.


That’s it.

Surrender your sprint training to the pursuit of vertical force.  The more force generated, the less ground contact time.

There are no other gods to worship in sprint training.  All great sprinters produce lots of vertical force and spend very little time on the ground.

Elite sprinters fly.

All sprint mechanics must center on creating maximum vertical force.

All weight lifting for sprinters must reflect a focus on creating vertical force.

All sprint workouts must be fundamentally driven to serve one master … vertical force.

Let’s start at the beginning.

Sprinters must use boatloads of energy to go from A to B.  This energy overcomes the forces of nature working against the sprinter.  These antagonistic forces are gravity, friction, and air resistance.  Gravity dwarfs the other two.

Because of gravity, sprinters must generate a vertical force of up to five times their body weight.

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Newton’s second law of physics states that force equals mass x acceleration,  F = ma.  In sprinting, your body (the mass) goes through upward acceleration during each foot contact.  Since there is a large downward force pulling the body down (gravity), an enormous colossal force must be pushed into the ground.  This force is generated by triple extension of the hip, knee, and ankle.

The amount of force that must be generated is immense.  Remember the body is descending at the moment of foot strike.  The following three things are not easy for one leg to achieve …

  • stop the fall
  • hold the body upright
  • launch back into flight
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Asafa Powell … stop the fall, hold the body upright, & launch back into flight.

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During top-speed sprinting, the horizontal forces that must be overcome are tiny compared to the downward force of gravity.  A generalized graph of the ground reaction forces during a foot contact is shown in the picture above. The portion of the horizontal force below the line is the braking impulse. Above the line is the propulsive impulse. As you can see, those forces are insignificant compared to the vertical forces.

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Flight requires lots of vertical force. Since the entire force is generated with one leg, coordination is critical.  Notice the dorsi-flexed foot.


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Bolt’s height and incredible knee lift allows him to create large forces. No one else on the planet can run 10 meters in 0.80 seconds.


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Asafa Powell generates lots of power. Here Powell is descending from flight, ready to punch the track.


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Cool picture. Trace Bolt’s lead leg. He is in a very powerful position here.  The focus of sprint mechanics is finding this power position.  The higher the hips, knees, and foot, the more vertical force is created.


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Has there ever been a more powerful sprinter than Ben Johnson?  Due to knee problems, Johnson could not do lots of plyometric work. He compensated by using steroids and becoming the strongest sprinter in the history of the world.


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Incredible view of Bolt in flight. The higher the hips, the more force. Run tall. Once you understand vertical force, you understand Bolt’s advantage.  Bolt needed only 41 steps to win the 100 meters in London, 2.44 meters per stride.  Bolt averaged 4.2 strides per second.


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Carl Lewis in his famous pose. This does not come natural to young athletes. They must be taught and then they must practice sprint mechanics consistently.  Jogging does not teach this. Jogging teaches bad sprint habits.

Lets make sure that there is no dissent here.  VERTICAL FORCE IS THE HOLY GRAIL OF SPRINTING.   I’m not an expert.  I’m just a high school chemistry teacher that coaches track after school.  So let’s hear from the experts …

Maybe you remember Dr. Peter Weyand.

Dr. Weyand (SMU) is one of the world’s foremost experts on human performance.  Weyand spoke twice at the 2011 ITCCCA Clinic.  I am a simplifier.   I remember just one thing from those two session in 2011 …  vertical force creates minimal ground contact.

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I learned of Frans Bosch from Chris Korfist.  Frans Bosch is too complicated for me, but if you read between the lines, he speaks of generating vertical force.

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Ben Johnson’s coach was Charlie Francis.  Last night I bought a book written by Francis … Speed Trap.

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Let’s don’t beat a dead horse here.

Let me make this simple and quick.

The enormous colossal downward force while sprinting at top speed must be delivered in a fraction of a second.  Elite sprinters have ground contact times of .08 seconds.   There are no heavy-footed elite sprinters.  If your training includes heavy-footed-long-ground-contact-time-running, you are coaching sprinters to run slow.

Some coaches believe that spikes are designed to grip the track.  Spikes grip the track during the drive phase.  However, at top speed, the advantage of wearing spikes is the fact that spikes have no cushion.  Cushion creates longer ground contact and therefore reduces speed.

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There is no question a sprinter needs to be strong.  Ben Johnson could squat over 650 pounds, bench over 450, and bent-over-row 315 pounds at a body weight of only 165.  He also tolerated an incredible chemical load.  His steroid supplementation is legendary.  In 1981, Johnson started with alternating days of 5 mg and 10 mg of Dianabol for a nine week period.  He later added HGH.  Then he added Testosterone, Furazabol, oral Turinabol, and Stanozolol (aka Winstrol).  Johnson started taking steroids in 1981 and finally tested positive (for Stanozolol) at the Seoul Olympics in 1988.  He ran 9.79 but was stripped of his gold medal.

I can’t resist sending advice to world-class sprinter, Tyson Gay.  The next time a chiropractor gives you “anti-aging cream”, read the label.  See below.

anti aging cream

Testosterone and DHEA are both banned substances. The chiropractor providing this cream, Clayton Gibson III from Atlanta, has been linked to several NFL players.

It seems safe to say that steroids, directly or indirectly, improves a sprinter’s ability to produce a vertical force.

The science of weight training for sprinters, to me, is not clear.

Imagine thick football players performing squats over a period of a second or two.  Does this prepare them to pound the track with up to five times their body weight in only .08 seconds?

Chris Korfist is the best sprint coach I know.  Chris dismisses conventional weight lifting.  He claims conventional weight lifting is a waste of time and often counterproductive.

Boo Schexnayder is one of the most respected sprint coaches in the world and he sells DVDs showing conventional weight room activity.  Boo is a fan of squats.

Even though weight programs are in constant debate, all coaches love strength.  I think general strength for high school kids is always a positive thing.  I have always encouraged push ups.  I absolutely love pull ups.  Personally, I have lifted weights for over 40 years.  I align myself with football coaches who never second guess the value of the weight room.

But, then again, Jesse Owens ran 10.3 and 20.7 in 1936 on a cinder track and never lifted weights. (And we can be sure he did not take steroids.)

The early science of weightlifting came from body builders.  The modern science of weightlifting is now dominated by football.  Both of those groups have an alarming percentage of Neanderthals in their camps.

When weight gain is the objective of the weight room, the speed results are almost always negative.  Gravity sucks.

The gurus of high school football coaches are usually college and professional coaches.  High school football coaches see college players gaining 30 pounds and getting faster, then try to replicate those results.  In my opinion, this is impossible without steroids.  Steroids are everywhere in college and pro football.  Everywhere.  Testing?  Ha.  Marion Jones and Lance Armstrong never failed a test.  NEVER FAILED A TEST.

In 1970, only one player in the NFL weighed over 300 pounds.  In 2010, there were 532.  Better nutrition?

The Green Bay Packers won Super Bowl I with their largest player weighing 260 pounds.

Don’t base your coaching knowledge on professional athletes.  They are freaks and cheats.

If I trained college football receivers and running backs entering the NFL combine, I would train explosive power, speed, & jumping.  Then I would restrict their food intake to raw fruits and vegetables with a steady diet of lean meat.  I would allow no calories in drinks.  I would error on the side of greyhounds, not mastiffs.  #speedkills

Last Sunday pntrack alum  Kapri Bibbs had a disappointing NFL Combine.  He re-aggravated his turf toe doing the standing long jump and then ran only 4.67 in the 40.  Despite the turf toe, I believe his weight (5’9″ 212) was the bigger issue.  Don’t get me wrong.  Kapri looked like he belonged on the cover of Flex magazine.  The problem is gravity.  Hopefully his highlight video will offset his forty time.

Only seven guys at the NFL Combine ran under 4.40 in the forty.  The average size of those seven guys should not surprise you … 5’10” and 188 pounds.  The fastest guy was Dri Archer (5’8″, 173) of Kent State who ran 4.26.  Add 25 pounds to those guys and see what they run.  Add 25 pounds to Usain Bolt (6’5″ 190) and see if he runs 9.58 in the 100.

I haven’t been in charge of a weight room since I left Harrisburg in 2004.  If I was training sprinters, I would do cleans (from the floor), full squats with moderate weights, dead lifts, and most important, Romanian Deadlifts. I would also focus on the creative one-legged lifts.  Sprinters run on one leg at a time.

Here is the good news.  The two most important areas of sprint training do not involve weights or gadgets.

The most important thing a sprinter can do is sprint.

The next best thing is plyometrics.  Plyometrics can be described as landing and jumping at the same time.  Get it?  Large vertical forces with lightning-fast ground contact, just like sprinting !!!  I use the cue “bounce off the ground”.

That’s it.  All that complicated science boils down to sprinting and jumping.

The bad news is that you CAN’T sprint and jump for two hours.  You CAN’T sprint and jump seven days a week.  The body can only take limited doses of sprinting and jumping.  Less is more.  Rest is an important workout.  Speed grows slow.  Speed grows like a tree.

Don’t treat your cats like dogs.

Slow running creates bad habits and confuses the nervous system of a sprinter.

Where does running mechanics come into this discussion?  Teaching someone to sprint is all about preparation for enormous colossal downward force.

RUN TALL (my main sprint cue)

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Running tall creates tall hips and allows for a greater vertical force.  If runners are hunched over or running with a forward lean, large vertical forces are impossible.

By the way, the runner-diagram above has a plantar-flexed foot.  Yikes.  The foot must be dorsi-flexed (cocked upward).  Not only does a dorsi-flexed foot shorten the lever (short levers are faster than long levers), but more importantly, the foot can hit the ground explosively, not passively.  The foot, when dorsi-flexed, acts as a loaded spring that can effectively bounce off the track quickly with ground contact times approaching .08 seconds.


too long

Longer stride length may seem like a good idea but try generating enormous colossal vertical force from this position. Mechanics matter.

What needs to be taught?  Run tall.  “Get BIG in the front and SHORT in the back”  … see “Nuts and Bolts of Speed Training“.

The mistakes:

  • Resistance training … Sprinting against resistance provides a significant opposing horizontal force. The logic is simple. If you get accustomed to running against resistance, running without it will be much easier. However, horizontal power does not help a sprinter run faster. Using resistance in an upright sprint also puts a lot more stress on the hamstrings, which are already at risk during a sprint. Most important, the resistance slows down the top speed of the sprint, lengthening foot contact time and decreasing the demand for power pushing into the ground, which is what a sprinter really needs. For these reasons, sprinting in an upright position against a light resistance is NOT a useful tool.  Sell your parachutes on eBay.
  • Training when tired … Do I have to explain?  When you run tired, you run slow.  When you run slow you have long ground contact time (heavy feet).  When you are tired you can’t generate that enormous colossal vertical force.  Running tired teaches you to run slow.
  • Over-training … It’s impossible to do two hours of effective plyometric and sprint work.  If you try this, your athletes will eventually become crippled with injuries.  Injuries are bad enough with limited plyometrics and limited sprint training.  Sprinters need to be under-train.

This low volume approach requires consistent sprint training … early & often … with lots of rest & recovery.  

Build a program that attracts speed.  Teach mechanics that allow kids to exert an enormous colossal vertical force.  Plan your workouts to help your fast runners develop sprinter’s habits.  Eliminate resistance running.  Eliminate jogging.  Increase rest and recovery times.  Do low-volume plyometrics to gain power and decrease ground contact time.  Learn how much is too much.  Always error on the side of doing less.  Always error on the side of keeping sprinters happy and healthy.

Stop thinking like a distance coach.  Stop progressing from quantity to quality, from high volume to low volume, from low intensity to high intensity.  It’s not that complicated.  Sprinting is the best way to train for the sprints.  Sprint and jump in relatively small doses with lots of rest.  Sprint in the off-season and in the pre-season.  “Record, Rank, and Publish” as system of sprinter motivation.  Be patient with speed development.  Speed grows like a tree.

“Heredity only deals the cards, environment and training plays the hand.” – unknown

Tony Holler, Plainfield North High School
Twitter- @pntrack;  Website-;  Email- 630-849-8294


Comments 6

  1. Tony – great post!

    I agree that vertical force is king – at maximal velocities (or during constant velocity running). Weyand has done terrific work in this area, I was fortunate to have him as a clinician at the Speed Summit in Indianapolis this past fall. By definition – max velocity implies that the athlete is no longer accelerating (horizontal braking forces = horizontal propulsive forces, so a net horizontal force of zero).

    However, horizontal forces (although always less than vertical forces, even at block exit due to gravity) are king during the acceleration phase. I’ve yet to see anyone reach maximum velocity on the track without first accelerating to reach it 🙂 Simply, max velocity begins when acceleration ends… Unfortunately during acceleration, ground contact times decrease rapidly and posture has to become more upright – so it becomes more and more difficult to generate horizontal oriented forces (by vector).

    Block exit and early acceleration favor high levels of mass specific concentric strength and forward oriented posture (early foot strikes behind the COM) to overcome inertia and generate horizontal forces. The transition phase sees horizontal forces rapidly decline in concert with decreasing ground contact times and more vertical posture. At max V – posture is essentially upright – putting the athlete is an ideal position for generating vertical forces – and a poor position to generate horizontal forces. Eccentric/reactive strength is now king.

    I think that strength training along a spectrum of loads and velocities (maximal strength >> power >> plyos) all play a role in sprinting. The key, as you note, is to improve these qualities without adding non-functional mass. Short resisted runs (hills, bleachers, sleds, etc.) are likely to improve early acceleration, but as you noted, are not appropriate for max velocity training.

    Keep in mind Usain Bolt spent far more time accelerating (slightly more than 6 seconds) in his world record 9.58 100m – than running at maximum velocity (less than 3 seconds)…before beginning to decelerate. Naturally, a 11-13 second HS runner is going to spend more time resisting deceleration…than Bolt…

    Outliers like Jesse Owens – may never have lifted weights in the day…but I’d be surprised to find any current world class sprinter today who hasn’t been in a weight room.

    1. Hi Tony!

      Another good post! The vertical force implications go back over a decade, and it’s good to see more coaches grasping what has not been all that intuitive. Even during acceleration, vertical forces (as per both Weyand and Mann) are slightly larger, and by max velocity horizontal forces virtually disappear. See the following SMU video: Sprint acceleration and vertical and horizontal force data
      Regarding Frans Bosch, some of his lines are classic:
      “A long distance runner is just a sprinter with bad coordination.”
      “Distance running causes the SEC to deteriorate.”
      “Energy systems to maintain speed is nonsense.”
      “You can’t drive a nail with a hammer made of foam.”
      “Don’t stress the body if it’s not beneficial.”
      Ken J.

      1. Hard to believe that it was almost thirteen years ago that I
        spent two days with Dr. Weyand at Harvard’s Concord Field Station locomotion lab, asking his views on the way coaches were approaching the mechanics of speed–and trying to understand how then World Paralympic sprint champion Tony Volpentest could run 22.94 on my high school track–with no feet and no lower arms. That’s a time faster than over 96% of every able-bodied high school sprinter I’ve ever coached.

        In 2002 Dr. Weyand came to Lisle for an all day seminar. He was here at ITCCCA three years ago.

        1. Here’s the video of the final stages of Volpentest’s 200 meter dash at Lisle’s Carlin Nalley Invitational in ’97. At the time, it was an unofficial Paralympic record.
          It was my “epiphany moment” in terms of re-thinking the mechanics of speed. How was he able to run that fast without feet for “push-off” or lower arms for “appropriate swinging action”?

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  3. Beautiful article!

    in terms of sprinting volume for a given session/week , do you recommend any resources to help me figure that out?

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