Sprinting and Sport Specificity: Beyond Appearances

Many believe Sport-Specific Training (SST) to be related to how much a program or exercise mimics the actions performed in a given sport. But is SST misunderstood? Read to find out.

Alexander Nurse Bey
October 28, 2021

The phrase, “sport-specific training” (SST) is widely used, but in this author’s opinion, not as widely understood. More often than can be productive, sport-specific training is attributed to appearance, and how closely an exercise or particular program appears to mimic the actions performed in a given sport. But more than appearances, SST is about the physiology of muscles. Yes, applying forces in the right planes of motion, mitigating injuries common to your sport, and ensuring your conditioning resembles the demands of your position are all important. But sports played on the ground have far more similarities than they do differences. This post looks at two mechanisms by which sprinting is a prime example of how a movement quality- regardless of the sport being played, can be sport-specific.

Hamstring Injury Prevention

Hamstring injuries are a plague among power sport athletes, afflicting all athletes from strikers, to sprinters, to jumpers, and to throwers. One of the best ways to prepare the hamstring for the rigors of sport is to challenge them with intense work that requires closed-chain “co-contraction.” Co-contraction refers to actions where both ends of the hamstring perform the same type of contraction at the same time. Whether it be accelerating with the intent of achieving a maximal-velocity sprint, achieving and maintaining a maximum velocity sprint, or decelerating from either, the muscles of both ends of the hamstrings are exposed to co-contraction at extremely high levels of tension.

Increasing our exposure to high forces in training are what protect our tissues from the high forces they must produce in competition. Muscles are injured when they are exposed to loads that are beyond their capacity to bear. When it comes to the hamstrings, exposure to sprinting solves this problem. If hamstring injury prevention isn’t SST, then I don’t know what is! EMG analysis has documented that training the hamstrings in the weight room only approaches between 18% and 75% of the activation that the hamstrings receive when sprinting. This means that without including sprinting in your sports training program you are leaving a minimum of 25% of hamstring preparation on the table-and even as much as 82% of hamstring preparation on the table! Which leads us to….

The Weight Room

The benefits of heavy strength training for sports performance and injury reduction have been well-documented in the literature. Strength work does everything from increasing the work capacity, stiffness, and health of tendons and ligaments; to increasing tolerance to the forces encountered in both contact and non-contact scenarios; to improving speed and jump performance. Strength training is one of the best things you can do to improve sports performance- but what are one of the best things you can do to improve strength training? Well, this is where max velocity sprinting- regardless of the sport you play, becomes specific to sport once again. As the most neural-driven, full-body force producing activity we can perform- far outshining any amount of force we could ever hope to reproduce in the weight room- sprinting at maximum velocity increases the ability of the nervous system to activate muscle tissue.

What this means is that sprinting at high velocities will increase strength performance, allowing us to increase the loads that we are capable of handling in the weight room and furthering our goal of developing robust, resilient, and powerful muscle tissue and increased rates of acceleration.

If you strength train for your sport, regardless of whether your sport involves sprinting, developing this movement quality is going to provide you with the sport-specific benefit of removing the ‘ceiling’ from the weight room.  

All in All

Sprinting is just one example of many exercises whose specificity to sport is not related to appearance. Others include jumping, throwing, and weight room exercises that might, at first glance, seem paradoxical. To reiterate the point of this post, sport-specificity not about appearance. It’s about improving athletes’ ability to train and practice, and increasing tolerance to the stress encountered during competition.

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