How to train a kick:

In the last post, we took a look at the physiology behind the kick.  That’s all well and good but it’s pretty much useless unless we can translate that knowledge into something practical. So let’s give that a go based on theory and practical experience.  Here’s my guide to creating a kick:

Finding the weak point and attacking it from multiple ways:

If you are at all familiar with my training style, one of my central premises is to attack a problem from multiple different directions.  The same thing applies to the kick.  What we ideally do is look at what each runners strengths and weaknesses are in terms of why they can or can not kick, place the emphasis on developing that attribute, but make sure we cover the opposite side too.

That means the first question that needs to be asked is, what’s the balance between their aerobic strength and anaerobic capacity? Obviously increasing both is needed, but this answers the question of whether they run out of gas during the race (lack the strength to stay more aerobic deep into the race) or whether they have the speed ability to actually kick.  This will develop the proportion of emphasis. You want to attack both sides, but sometimes one side needs a little bit more emphasis because it’s a bit weaker.  Given that, let’s go into the different ways of developing a kick:

The steps:

If you remember in the last post I gave a general outline of what you need physiologically.  Let’s use that as a template and I’ll show you how to develop those abilities:

Get to the end more aerobic than anyone else

Essentially we need to get to the “kicking point” as aerobic as we can without delving deeper and deeper into our anaerobic and muscle fiber reserves.  To do this, we’ve got to build the aerobic system.  The first step is easy and any coach could tell you how to do that.  We need a general aerobic base, which means mileage, tempo runs, aerobic intervals, etc. to build the foundation.  That changes slightly with mid-distance 8/15 runners where we have to develop the aerobic system more through igloi style intervals

Once a general aerobic foundation is built, then the key is getting more aerobic at race pace.  My favorite way to do this is through Canova style alternations.  Why?  Because it’s a nice progressive way to work aerobically while increasing race specificity. My typical example for the 5k would be start at 200m at race pace alternated with 1400m at a steady pace (just slower than marathon pace to start with) for a couple miles.  Then progress that until you’re running 800/800 or 1000 at pace/600 steady, with the fast pace staying at around 5k pace and the steady getting a little faster.

So a general template would be to start with increasing threshold work (unless a speed orientated 8/15 guy, then less threshold stuff…) duration and then speed.  Mix that with some slightly slower tempo work of longer duration (6-10mi tempos).  That gives you the general foundation.  Then to work on specific aerobic ability, add “stuff” to the tempo, add alternations, and add some aerobic “igloi” intervals.

Have a larger degree of anaerobic capacity to use and a larger motor unit pool to call upon.

These two physiological goals tie together nicely, so we’ll cover them jointly.  The other main component of a kick is having the ability to recruit additional muscle fibers when fatigued and call upon our anaerobic energy reserves.  Before working on the ability to use these under fatigue, we have to increase the total capacity of each of these which are done through similar mechanisms.

We have to lay the foundation and develop the ability to recruit a larger percentage of our muscle fibers  in a fresh state first.  No one can fully recruit all of their fibers because we have some protective mechanisms involved to prevent this from happening as catastrophe would likely result.  However, you can train to edge the percentage of fibers you can recruit towards that 100% max.  Research shows that elite athletes in various sprint or explosive events are much closer to max recruitment than regular athletes or untrained people.

To increase total fiber recruitment, we need to do activities that have a high force requirement and ideally do so in a specific running manner so that we recruit the same muscles in the same sequence that we do when running.  For distance runners, this simply means we need to sprint!

(For mid distance or shorter athletes, we can often build a foundation of muscle recruitment via doing explosive/ballistic type non-specific activities first as they “violate” the size principle to a degree and make it where Fast Twitch fibers are preferentially recruited.  Then you follow that up with a specific period where you try and translate those gains to the specific action of running through sprint work.)

I prefer to use a method where you start off with hill sprints because of the reduced injury risk and the fact that the hill will increase fiber recruitment and then transition to sprints on the track.  The reason for this is that we get a little bit more specific as the training progresses as we get a bit more reactivity from doing flat sprints and a bit more strength when doing hill sprints.

To work on the energy system side of things (the anaerobic capacity) we have to go fast for a little bit longer so we’re stressing the anaerobic systems ability to produce energy maximally.  That means extending sprint work both on the hill and on the flat.  The key is that these are anaerobic capacity workouts.  They’re not designed to get us to deal with large amounts of fatigue or running fast when tired or anything like that.  Given that they require long rest, and the best way to do them is initially as an add on at the end of sprint work.  Later on they can be their own “workout” but most distance runners can get away with just doing a bit of an add on.

A typical example progression of all of this work would be:








8xHS+ 1x15sec

6xHS +1×20-25sec

2×60, 2×100, 2x130m

2×150, 2×200

250, 200, 150, 100

Be able to use them in fatigue!

Now that we have built up the capacity, then the goal is to learn how to use all of this “stuff” under fatigue.  There are numerous methods to do this, and I could go into tons of detail on each.  So that this doesn’t get too long I’ll outline the general principles and then give some examples.

The basic idea is that now that we have the ability to recruit additional fibers and the like, we now need to extend that ability to being able to recruit them under fatigue and to extend their endurance.  To accomplish this we combine a mixture of higher strength activities to recruit the fibers with either faster stuff (i.e. under fatigue) or longer stuff (i.e. extend the endurance).  I generally go about it by training to extend the endurance and develop some strength endurance and then go about doing it under heavy fatigue.

Strength endurance:

You should move from general to specific.  Meaning, start with just hilly runs or like one of my past coaches Scott Raczko liked to do, hilly long runs.  That establishes a base of strength endurance.  From there, move to hill fartleks or what I like to call up/downs which just means short aerobic hills with a run up/jog down at about 5k effort (200m in length is good).  From here you can move to more specific work.

You can search my previous blog posts for strength endurance development for more information.  But the use of circuits and in particular Canova style circuits are of great use.

The most specific phase is when we combine strength activities with heavy fatigue.  One of my favorite is to include either hills or bounding in the middle of fast work.  So at first it might be doing a set of intervals followed by a few hills, then back to a set of intervals on the track.  Later on, it will be a more specific activity where we actually try and force recruitment of additional fibers in the middle of the workout.  Any of the High School kids I’ve worked with will tell you about my affinity for running 500’s where they go 200m at 800m pace, 100m bound, and 200m kick in one continuous motion.  Another good way is to mix sprint work in between interval sets or at the end of a set of hard intervals.

There are numerous examples, but here’s a couple quick ones:
-3 sets of 500m w/ 5min rest going 200m at 800m pace, 100m bound, 200m kick in

-3 sets of 3×800 at 5k pace with 4x200m hill in between sets run hard.

-3x (3×800) w/ 4x60m sprints in between sets

-Intervals run on a flat/hill/flat section where it’s 200m hard on the flat, 100m uphill, then a final hard 100m on the flat once you crest the hill

-Strength endurance circuits alternating strength exercises w/ running uphill (see videos).

Have the ability to change gears:

Doing this stuff on it’s own is easy.  You might have the best sprint mechanics, be highly aerobic at race pace, and all that jazz, but the ability to transition from your race pace to the final 200m or so is often what seperates the kickers from the non-kickers.  Therefore you have to tie everything together nicely instead of having a bunch of different singular components.  What this means is practicing the switch/transition.

To do this you simply do some race simulation work and some cuing of the changes.  The first step is to work on transition mechanics.  That means running 200s with the first 100 at race pace and the last 100 a gradual acceleration for example.  The goal of the coach should be to help the athlete learn how to transition and control that increase of speed.  Most athletes will simply try and do the same thing only quicker if they want to run faster.  With those types of athletes, we have to equip them with the ability to increase stride length or range of motion, so that they have two options available when it comes time to kick.  That may mean working on opening up the arms for example.  With other athletes,  the tendency might be to try and reach out to cover more ground.  We’d have to take the opposite approach as above with these types of athletes.  The bottom line is that we need to put the pieces together and figure out a way to transition from that steady rhythm they have to the sprinting ability which we have developed in isolation.

That’s my rough guide for developing a kick.  What exactly you do depends on the athlete and their strengths and weaknesses.  But the overall requirements of a kick remain the same.  It’s just up to you as a coach to figure out the right way to mix the ingredients.

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    1. John Davis on October 9, 2011 at 6:20 pm

      Great post, Steve. Two things:

      1) I have found that strength circuits also play a role in developing a kick. In a sense, they are a "general" form of training fatigue resistance. When you think about it, the physiological effects of kicking are a very sharp influx of metabolic waste into the muscles and blood (or the brain sensing a sharply rising risk to the body if you prefer the CG), and doing a general strength circuit (like John Cook's "waterloo" circuit or similar) accomplishes the same thing, only in a non-running context. Could this be integrated into your progression of "general to specific" fatigue resistance?

      2) While I understand the logic behind the 'sprint training = greater max muscle fiber recruitment' argument, in my experience it just has not WORKED for "slow twitch" athletes like me. Instead I prefer a Clyde Hart-type scheme, which involves starting out with short, quick repeats that are MUCH slower than all-out. Over time these can get fastER (and involve more repetitions), but never really reaching a full-on sprint. Instead of training your body to recruit MORE fibers, I think this method trains your body to recruit FEWER, for a given effort. Or at least be more efficient. What's your opinion on the Clyde Hart approach to speed (slower = faster)?

    2. Smith Wilbanks on October 9, 2011 at 11:35 pm

      Interesting system broken down for developing a kick, but for my runners (even the track runners I coach) it seems more beneficial to either focus on general speed or strength development (which will provide some benefit for the kick) or simply use our time for training for more mileage, drills, plyos, etc.

      If you're Galen Rupp new 10k american record holder, focusing on the kick can help you break through a plateau and develop an area that was formerly a weakness. But I think for most people at the amateur level, the limited amount of time they have to train would be better spent focusing on other things.

      • Anonymous on October 18, 2012 at 10:52 am


    3. Anonymous on October 20, 2011 at 8:05 pm


      Galen's lack of a kick at the world level has nothing to do with his foot speed. He is every bit as fast as the Africans, but they are far more aerobic at the bell allowing them to use a higher fraction of their leg speed.

    4. Anonymous on October 26, 2011 at 8:23 pm

      Hey Smith Wilbanks… Why don't you start your season earlier so you do have time to focus on these systems?

    5. Anonymous on October 27, 2011 at 1:05 am

      You pretty much sum up all there is to say about having a "kick" when you note that it is about staying "aerobic" longer. Put more simply, to have a kick, one must be able to handle the race pace comfortably, having reserves. If you have that reserve, you can shift the pace and kick. You are in better shape than the race pace, so to speak. Having a kick is an indicator of everything. There is no specific training – it is all the training.

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