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Taking a step backwards to run forward fast might not be as bad as you think

It is fair to say that the ability to run a short distance fast (sprint) is a desirable quality of many athletes regardless of their chosen sporting pursuit or age. In fact in many sports the ability to move quickly is an important attribute that can lead to a successful outcome. Whilst the purest form of running speed is typified in a track and field 100 metre sprint race. The rules of such an event require the athlete to start the race using a crouch start from starting blocks. In contrast when considering most field and court based sports the initiation of sprint running occurs from an upright position. An aspect an athlete needs to consider is what is the best way to initiate the sprint movement when in a partially stationary upright position?

Research has reported that 90% of individuals will instinctively take a step backwards to initiate forward movement in the intended direction. This step backwards is referred to as a false step. Over the past decade I have heard many elite and amateur coaches deter their athletes from using the step backwards false step strategy when initiating a sprint which I feel is somewhat misguided and not necessarily in the best interest of the athlete always. This conjecture has led to the false step being a movement of interest within the Biomechanics research group at Wintec’s Centre for Sport Science and Human Performance over the last few years.

Whilst the false step may seem counterproductive there are a variety of advantages and disadvantages to take into consideration to decide if this start strategy is best for you or your athlete. My researchers and I have discovered that from an athletic stance start position (Feet hip width apart with one foot in front of the other), compared to a forward only start when athletes used a false step the movement took notably longer to leave the start position and proceed into the subsequent step which then resulted in a slower running speed in the first half metre of a 10 metre sprint. These outcomes were detrimental and expected.

There is no doubt that lifting a leg to place it behind you to then move it forward to proceed forward will take longer than just moving the leg forward to proceed forward. However there is one important aspect that must be taken into consideration and that is the generation of elastic potential energy that is then released when a muscle is pre-stretched effectively. Stepping backwards can elicit a substantial elastic response. In fact the faster this pre-stretch occurs the greater the contribution to overall power output and speed of movement. So the quicker the leg is lifted placed on the ground behind the athlete and lifted again to drive the leg forward a high power output can be expected.

We have discovered that when the false step happens a high force impulse (power output) is generated which directly transfers to faster movements in subsequent steps once the athlete leaves their start position. This has been highlighted through faster sprint performances by 3-6% for distances to 2.5 metres, 5 metres and 10 metres. I would like to acknowledge that through our research individual responses were evident and athletes that did not necessarily have a positive sprint outcome from using a false step moved their leg slower and placed their foot on the ground notably further in the negative (backwards) direction than those athletes that had positive enhancements in speed.

So what does this mean practically for an athlete on the sports field or court? Always at the forefront of the decision to utilise a false step or not should be the sporting scenario / context objectives and constraints. Based on the aforementioned advantage and disadvantage information if a reasonable amount of unopposed time is available to move fast forward then a false step would be beneficial, however if constraints (e.g. opponents, implements, insufficient time) are present the use of a forward only start movement would be ideal at least for the first step or two in the intended direction.

No matter what, an athlete should start in an athletic stance. If a false step is to be utilised consider the following:
• Move the false step leg backwards as fast as possible
• Minimise the time the false step foot is in contact with the ground
• Avoid stepping backwards too far as this will lead to too much hip and trunk rotation which is not ideal for moving in the intended forwards direction.
• Drive the false step leg forward as fast as possible into the next ground contact

About the author

Dr. Peter Maulder (Ph.D, Sports Biomechanics) is a Principal Academic Staff Member and Research Leader for Wintec’s Centre for Sport Science and Human Performance. Peter has completed a Ph.D focusing on Sports Biomechanics of which he has published a number of internationally accepted research articles. He has also provided technical movement analyses support and advice for many elite athletes over his 15 year career.