3 Reasons Sprinters Fall Apart at the End of Races

Posted by Latif Thomas

sprintin mechanics

Don’t let this happen to your sprinters!

Recently, I had the distinct pleasure of attending a 6 hour freshman/sophomore meet. The meet was very well run, it was just, you know, a 6 hour freshman/sophomore meet. I can’t tell you how many times I watched sprinters fall apart at the end of races.

So, I’m standing there, minding my own business and enjoying the sunshine, when a coach standing nearby had to go and say something crazy.

Typical. But, nonetheless crazy.

Apparently, his athlete had gotten run down at the end of her 200. His explanation to the parent about why this happened was, verbatim:

“It’s conditioning, that’s all. We’ll work on conditioning and then she’ll be fine.”

First of all, no.

Secondly, ahhh, no.

Third, someone define ‘conditioning’ for the 200m.

Just kidding. Obviously this man who is responsible for the well being of human children meant ‘aerobic work’ or if we’re being generous, ‘interval work’.

It is a coaching mistake to assume that, when sprinters get run down in races, the solution is more ‘conditioning’, whatever that means. And, yes, that applies to 400m training programs as well.


I didn’t invent these ideas. I learned them when I was preparing to teach the sprints and relays sections of the USTFCCCA Track & Field Technical Certification, so, full disclosure, that’s where I’m getting it from.

I thought it was a great way of thinking about how you should view your program design, or, perhaps more appropriately, view the ‘holes’ in your program design. After all, coaching high school sprinters is a wildly different animal than coaching in the collegiate environment.

Coaching success means starting with the end in mind. Without a clear understanding of how to design and implement an effective annual plan for sprinters, you’re doomed to making well intentioned, but false assumptions about why your sprinters fail to execute and perform.

So, again, there are only THREE reasons sprinters fall apart at the end of races.

As the coach, it is up to you to understand these reasons in order to consistently identify and fix the fatal technical flaws frustrating both you and your sprints squad.

This article will help you figure out where and why things are going wrong, as well as how to fix the problem/s.


1. Energy System Failure

When coaches fail to adequately develop the anaerobic energy system, athletes often decelerate rapidly at the end of their race. This is frequently the cause in the 400, occasionally the cause in the 200 and never the cause in the 100.

In a nutshell, when coaches do too much aerobic and interval work and not enough acceleration (high intensity runs of 2-4 seconds), top end speed/maximum velocity (high intensity runs of 4-8 seconds), speed endurance (high intensity runs of 8-15 seconds), special endurance (high intensity runs of 20 seconds to 2 minutes), strength and power (weight room, multi jumps, and multi throws) development, sprinters fail to develop the qualities required to be successful in the sprint events.

It’s a crime when done to 100/200 runners.

We can debate the split with 400 types. And, no doubt, you’ve watched your 400 runners tie up over the last 150 meters on multiple occasions. Your mind will tell you,

“They need more ‘strength'”.

But ask yourself this question:

Do they have a fast 200m PR?

That is, does their 200m lifetime best stack up equally against other 300m and 400m runners with similar 400m personal bests?

If you do the math, you may find they simply don’t have the flat out speed to match top 400m specialists.

Therefore, especially at the HS level, they don’t need more high volume, low intensity interval days. They need more work near, at or faster than race pace.

These are the modern training concepts covered in great detail in programs like my top selling Complete Speed Training 3 and Building the Perfect 100m Runner…From Start to Finish by Harvard University’s Marc Mangiacotti.

(But, if you coach in Rhode Island, where I do, they need more aerobic work. Give them lots more aerobic work. Distance runs preferably.)


2. Coordination Erosion

After operating at top speeds for more than a few seconds, the body’s motor control systems tend to fail.

The ability to coordinate efficient movement patterns falls apart and then, if you know what you’re looking at, your sprinters are just stumbling and bumbling down the track, trying not to fall down. We see this most often toward the end of shorter sprint events.

If I were to break down the goals of my entire training philosophy and system, all into one sentence (after injury prevention) it would be:

Everything we do revolves around developing general and specific coordination.

Even our skipping is done in a very specific way:

Upright posture (chin up, chest up, toe up, knee up, heel up) and *flat* footed landing with the shin perpendicular to the ground at foot strike. If we let kids get away with toe or heel first landings, even during the warm up, it contributes to the insufficient motor patterns we’re working so hard to fix.

If coordination development isn’t a foundational part of your program, your sprinters probably get run down at the end of races, particularly against skilled sprinters with slightly less or equal levels of  ability.

(Or, if you coach sprinters here in Rhode Island: distance runs. Coordination development for sprinters starts and ends with long, slow runs. Especially for your 4×1 teams. I’m serious.)


3. Momentum Deprivation

That’s a fancy term for having an ineffective ‘drive phase’.

Your sprinters simply don’t push hard enough for long enough.

In truth, the problems start with their starting blocks settings. Most young sprinters are not properly situated in the blocks before the gun goes off.

I recommend downloading this free starting blocks set up ‘cheat sheet’ to make sure your sprinters aren’t out of the race before the gun goes off.

Once the starting gun goes off, most inexperienced sprinters react like a sleeping cat when you slam two pans behind their head: Wild eyed, panicked and paying no particular attention to anything other than getting out of there as quickly as possible. (What can I say? I had a cat growing up. Let’s just say he was not a fan.)

They might perform old school speed drills like Champions in practice. But when the gun goes off they immediately revert to whatever feels most natural.

Unfortunately, what feels natural is not fast. So they pick their head up, flick the drive arm up about 4 inches, step out of the blocks, stand straight up and start spinning their wheels like they’re auditioning to be the Road Runner. And we all know what happens to the Road Runner.

It’s sad really. Also, not fast.

So when they come out of blocks and shift gears too quickly or do some weird, seizure-like variation of the drive phase mechanics you were hoping for, it leads to not reaching their true top speed, getting to that fake top speed too early and beginning deceleration too soon.

In fact, you might consider holding your sprinters out of blocks until they show the ability to do quality down (3 point, 4 point) starts without blocks. Regardless of whether you adopt this approach, they still need to get set up properly in the down position if they’re going to develop any consistency, especially in the chaos of an actual race!

This is why we do some form of acceleration development every day.

Yes, every day. Starting the first day of practice.

You just have to patient because unless you have naturally explosive and/or extremely strong athletes who can hack their way to fast 100m times day one, your kids will probably have to take a step back before taking two steps forward.

At least that’s what I tell myself.

(Though, for the record, if you live in Rhode Island, the best way to develop acceleration is…you guessed it, out on the roads. Gotta get that “conditioning” in so you can improve their “strength” to finish races!)

So, in summary, your athletes must possess the ability to express large amounts of strength and power for the duration of their race.

They need the general and specific coordination to execute a consistent, efficient and violent drive phase that transitions into consistent and efficient coordination of top end speed and speed maintenance mechanics.

And they need enough reps in practice at appropriate velocities and intensities to allow them to execute these skills in competitive situations.

The extent to which they develop these skills and qualities is directly proportional to how well you implement a training program addressing the workouts, volumes and intensities scientifically proven to generate faster times.

In ‘Finding and Fixing Fatal Flaws in Sprinters’, I break down the topic and give specific solutions (workouts, drills, cues, etc.) for fixing common errors in young sprinters.

If you’ve come to realize ‘Energy System Failure’ may be an issue for your long sprinters, consider adding this 400 meter training system to your coaching library.

If ‘Coordination Erosion’ (Scientific Term: Crapping the bed at the end of the race) and/or ‘Momentum Deprivation’ are stealing fast times from you and your sprinters, this sprints development resource will provide solutions to your problems. 

Regardless of what you do next, be sure to download your free starting blocks set up ‘cheat sheet’.

Latif Thomas - Latif Thomas owns and operates Complete Track and Field and serves as the Co-Director of the Complete Track and Field Clinic at Harvard University, the largest track and field clinic in the United States. A popular speaker and presenter at some of the largest coaching clinics across the country, Latif has true passion for the sport and it definitely shows. Over the past 19 years, he has coached more combined League, Division, All-State, and New England Champions in sprints, hurdles, and jumps than he can count. Follow @latif_thomas on Twitter.

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