I was a track star in high school. Ok, a minor track star, but I was one. I remember one day this freshman coming up to me in the hall, a little awestruck:
“Can you beat Ernest McCraney?”
Ernest ran for Central. He combed his hair into little wavelets and usually carried a mean look on his face. Most of the time he beat me, but my Junior year, in the 100 at the City Meet, I came fast out of the blocks and edged him at the tape. Ernest was mad about it. “Tell them (the judges) I was ahead of you,” he said to me, but I told them no such thing – it was their call, not mine.
“I’m gonna do my best to beat him,” I told the student.
When I first started running track, I would tense all up, trying to squeeze out every possible ounce of speed. Teeth clenched, lips pulled back in a grimace, neck tight, shoulders pulled up, and fists balled up, doing my utmost (I thought) to go faster. You can see this in a lot of sprinters, though not the best. I remember one boy who used to run with his hands and fingers stiff, slicing the air like blades.
I don’t remember if someone told me this or if I figured it out by myself: tensing up like that only slows you down; the way to go faster is to relax. It seems paradoxical: you are running near top speed, so shouldn’t you “squeeze” extra hard in an effort to go even faster?
The answer is, that’s not the way to do it. In fact, tensing up, “squeezing”, is counter-productive; it slows you down.
Think about it: when you run, you contract your quadriceps (in the front of the thigh) to lift your leg, then kick the lower part forward. At the same time, your hamstrings (in the back of the thigh) are pushing back, propelling you forward. When the extended foot strikes the ground you do the same thing again – the other leg’s quadriceps muscle contracts to pull it forward, lifts, and kicks, while the first leg’s hamstrings are thrusting back, pushing you forward.
Your arms swing backward and forward to balance the opposite legs, using opposing pairs of arm and shoulder muscles.
When the quadriceps is contracting, the hamstrings should relax, and the other way around. Otherwise the one muscle set will resist the other, wasting energy and slowing you down, and the same thing with the shoulder and arm muscle sets. The principle is, any muscle that is not working (contracting) should relax. The best way to accomplish this is for the whole body to be relaxed, with the exception of the muscles that are actually working at any particular moment. Any unnecessary tension – in the face, the hands, the neck – reduces the overall relaxed state (in addition to using energy that is needed somewhere else and reducing overall endurance).
I came to understand this my sophomore year, when I was 15. I don't remember if someone clued me in or if I figured it out on my own. I would practice by consciously relaxing myself as much as I could, then trying to maintain that relaxation, starting to run at a slow trot and gradually increasing my speed. As soon as I felt myself tensing up, I would stop, consciously relax myself, and start again. Little by little I taught myself to run at full speed while remaining fully relaxed (except for the muscles that were needed for running, in their turn). And in fact, this allowed me improve my speed considerably and become, yes – the track star.
If you watch sprint events, you will see the best runners’ hands loose, the fingers slightly curved, and their lips and cheeks flopping as they run.
The start follows the same principle, but here mental relaxation is especially important. You are waiting for the starting gun to sound, and when it does, you must react by springing forward and accelerating as quickly as you can. If your body and mind are tense you will inhibit your reaction. Some runners tense up and try to anticipate the gun, but this unless you are very lucky, that will lead to a false start – jumping the gun, as they say – and disqualification. (Back in the day they gave us two false starts with warnings, before we were thrown out of the race. That was changed to one in 2003 and zero – immediate disqualification – in 2009.)
You can practice this with the child’s game where person A holds out his or her hands palms up; person B places hands palm down just above A’s, and A tries to slap the back of B’s hand before B can pull away. The best way to play, as B, is form the intention to pull away, then relax your mind, looking at your hands through half-closed eyes and trusting that your unconscious will react as needed. Otherwise you will try to anticipate A’s slap and that will slow down your reaction time.
Now reader: go forth and generalize.