We all know Usain Bolt is fast. Really fast. But he could be faster. A quick look at his start, out of the blocks, tells us that. By considering the positioning of his knees, and the alignment of his legs, he could improve his speed – and his future health. Here’s how:
What’s the issue?
After he pushes against the blocks for his immediate start, for the next few steps his foot and leg are turned out when pushing back against the ground. This rotates his body, so the knee of the lead leg has to come in. It drives across his body (as shown in these pictures) in order to counter the rotation.
What’s the outcome?
Much of the force generated is being wasted on rotational movement instead of driving him forward, which means his start is not as strong as it could be, and slower than many of his competitors.
What causes this?
Being much taller than his competitors, Bolt has longer legs, which form less effective levers, putting his leg and hip muscles at a disadvantage. In the crouched starting phase, these longer legs are more difficult to control, and he therefore has difficulty pushing off with his limbs in the correct position. This causes him to make compensations. By turning out the foot that pushes back against the ground, instead of keeping it straight, Bolt effectively shortens the foot so he can push from a fractionally straighter leg. It’s a tiny adjustment, and understandably made because his longer legs make his leverages relatively weaker at straightening the leg from positions of a flexed knee.
This slight compensation leads to a dangerous cycle, as the more times he makes the adjustment, the more it is encouraged to keep happening.Outside of sprint starts, in his everyday life, he will be accustomed to overcoming squatting positions with his feet turned outwards relative to his knee position.As this compensation requires the lead leg to come across the body to counter the rotation, it will also encourage the knees to cave inside the feet during squatting movements, causing pain, inefficient movement, and contributing to muscle imbalances.
Pushing against an out-turned foot can also internally rotate the shin relative to the foot, turning out the foot even further and collapsing the arch of the foot. Encouraging this relationship between the foot and the shin prevents proper bending of the ankle (where the shin moves more towards the outside edge of the foot), so the calf muscles tighten and proper dorsiflexion is no longer possible. This can result in lower and weaker arches in the feet and encourage further outturn of the feet when attempting to generate force against the ground.
What can be done to fix it?
The first step is for Bolt to obtain an awareness and understanding of what compensations are happening and why. These compensations are small details that are easy to miss, the consequences of which you might not directly notice at first.
After acknowledging there is a problem, he needs to improve the relationship between the foot and shin. This starts with massage to the soft tissues of the lower leg using foam rollers, PVC pipes, bars and the hands of a massage therapist. Stretches can then be used to encourage the correct sort of dorsiflexion at the ankle (for example, following the principles used in this stretch).
Next he will need to get accustomed to generating force against the ground from squat positions where the knees are kept to the outside edge of the foot instead of inside it. The best way to do this would be to start building strength in the correct position with slow exercises like squats, focusing on keeping the knees pushed out.
Once he can master these positions in slow exercises he needs to then practice applying the principles of keeping the knee to the outside of the foot in the faster skill that is the sprint start. And from there, he can move even faster.
Being tall makes the start more difficult for Bolt but that doesn’t mean he can’t overcome this disadvantage. It all comes back to that first point, though: being as fast as he is, considering perhaps that he is fast enough, he may have no awareness that a problem even exists. He could be faster, though, by avoiding those compensations. And let’s face it, the prospect of him being even faster could give inspiration to the whole human race.
Check out this video to see how the man moves: