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Data reveals the secret to running
- Improving top running speeds enhances sports endurance -

Shigeo Iso
Professor, Faculty of Sport Sciences, Waseda University

The mechanics of running

People tend to believe that running speed is a skill one is born with. It is true that some children run much faster than others do at school athletic events. Assemble these faster children to compete and champions will make their parents proud at exciting athletic events. However, other runners will try to surpass current champions at subsequent athletic events. Champions and challengers both seek out specialized knowledge and training from expert instructors, using specialized knowledge and experience to improve their records.

What is the best kind of training? First, I believe it is important to understand the fundamentals of running. Running is an exercise of repetition where you alternate between nearly equal movements of your left and right legs under the force of gravity. The first thing to understand are the forces acting under gravity. This is where science steps in. Figure 1 is an image of a person running at 10.3m/second (meaning it takes approximately 10.8 seconds to run 100m) at a designated facility in four different intervals. Some simultaneously display reactionary forces from the ground, represented by yellow arrows. In the interval second from the left, the runner exerts a natural force of nearly five times their body weight. The intervals on the right appear to be the best examples of active movement, but this is not the case.

Sports scientists have examined the mechanisms of short-distance running over the years. Invisible forces are now quantifiable and corresponding data is applicable for athletic instruction, bringing about revolutionary changes in the field of athletic training. The chain movement in the muscle-tendon stretch-shortening cycle (SSC), which generates force despite its small motion, produces typical muscle output. Despite the external transmission of force to maintain posture immediately after landing and no changes in motion, muscle-tendon contraction of each leg produces force. Because it is a cyclic movement, the pre-extension that occurs immediately before landing enables a response to a large number of forces. In other words, an increase in speed requires force for stabilizing posture, reacting to changes in posture, and preparing for changes in posture.

Figure 1: Images illustrating a runner’s forces of motion

Implementing short-distance running in soccer

We provided weekly training sessions (around 30 minutes each) to around fifteen junior high school students from various grades that belonged to organizations affiliated to the J1 League. We instructed students on the simulation and motion of SCC-related muscles and on how to improve their running. Students performed each activity for fifteen minutes. We measure speed in ten-minute intervals over a 40m dash using a photoelectric tube as a measuring/recording tool and summarized the corresponding data in Table 1. The table compares measurements taken immediately prior to the training (T1), three months after the training (T2), and six months after the training (T3).

Table 1: Effect of training in different intervals and stages

The effects of training for three months are visible in the T1-T2 column. “*” represents a significant improvement in times recorded for the 40m dash. We interpreted this as progress towards the goal of the training. However, the goal of the training was to increase top speed, but there was no improvement between the 30m and 40m mark where top speed is most common. Times only improved in the first 20m.

We talked with a physical coach and agreed to continue training without changes as trainees generally soon lost their forward-bent posture and ran smoothly from the start. Days later, we analyzed and compared motions, and discovered that extreme forward bending had disappeared. Three months later, the results for T2-T3 showed improvement in recorded times after 30m, which was the original goal, although there was no improvement in the 0-10m interval.

Although it took six months, students were able to increase their top speed. This demonstrates that aspects of short-distance running training for track athletics can be effective in soccer. However, it was unexpected that there would be an improvement in times at the first interval in the early stage of training. This suggests that only training to increase pitch from a large forward-bending angle may not necessarily result in an improved start motion. We obtained similar results more than ten years ago when we had receivers with equivalent abilities to members of the American football Japanese national student team do short-distance running training.

Increasing top speed may improve endurance

We carried out another study over a period of around three years with weekly training sessions to junior high school students who belonged to organizations affiliated to the J1 League. We made minor changes to the training regimen as their running ability improved. We expected this training would allow them to reach the ball quicker and shake off competitors more easily in games. Trainees told us the training was successful and they could feel an improvement during games. Coaching staff and the opposing team also told us that the pace of the game did not slow down.

We were not able to gather data, but I would like to explain a new idea regarding in-game endurance. Coaches that used the training noticed that games did not slow down. Although I suspected this to be the result of the physical endurance training, because players’ physical endurance had not improved, coaches suggested it might be because of other factors. A leading technical coach suggested that trainees' increased top speeds made it easy for them to respond to the pace of the game, enabling them to maintain speed even if somewhat fatigued. This in turn allowed them to improve their in-game endurance. I had a feeling this was correct, as I knew a long-distance runner who trained to increase their speed over short-distances, and thereby improved long-distance running times. This suggests that, for improving endurance, not only training for cardiopulmonary systems, but also for improving running speed is important.

Although more verification is necessary, this perspective may lead to a new approach towards endurance in team sports. There is still a large range of phenomena not yet examined in sports science. The study of a single motion may be effective in improving various sports skills.

Shigeo Iso
Professor, Faculty of Sport Sciences, Waseda University

Date of birth: April 21, 1960, 55 years old
Birthplace: Tochigi Prefecture

Areas of expertise
Coaching science,
Educating instructors for sports for the physically challenged

Educational background
1979: Graduated from Otawara High School, Tochigi Prefecture
1983: Graduated from School of Education, Waseda University
1985: Completed Master's Course at Nippon Sport Science University

Professional career
1985-1987: Assistant, Graduate School of Nippon Sport Science University
1987-2003: Physical education teacher (Assistant to Professor) at Kansei Gakuin University
2003-: Assistant Professor and Professor, Faculty of Sport Sciences, Waseda University

Athletic career
1981: Two consecutive wins in the 110-m hurdles at the Japan Student Athletics Championships
1982: Sixth place (110-m hurdles) at the 9th Asian Games

Coaching career
Beijing Olympics, IAAF World Championships in Athletics, Universiade, Asian Games, and other

Currently: Manager of Waseda University Athletic Club