Speed Mechanics and Movement Efficiency Clinic with Dan Pfaff: A Review

SSS member Emily Medina guest reviews Dan Pfaff’s recent seminar tour of Australia.


An unexpected benefit of lifting has been my newfound appreciation of physics. When we learn to squat, press and deadlift, we seek movement technique that allows the greatest amount of output from the full exertion we can give. This realization of efficiency, gives us the full bloom and benefit from our pursuit of strength and its derivative; power.


Similarly, we must also seek techniques of running that fully realize the contractile potential that we were born with and have developed through training. Hauling ourselves down the track, towards the try line or away from a defender in the least amount of time is known as the physical attribute of speed, and it is one of the most coveted attributes of athleticism.



I have observed some differences between the approaches to acquiring these skills. No reasonable person walks into a weight room and expects to be a, “natural squatter.” Much time is invested in learning what positions are needed; ample yelling from the coach cements these skills. The same process must occur when learning to run efficiently. Coaching facilitates skill development and reduces the likelihood of injury; this is true of both lifting and running.


The Four ‘R’s’: Reading, Writing, Arithmetic and Running

It has been my observation that coaching the execution of biomechanically sound technique is glossed over in favour of a dominant focus on energy systems conditioning- particularly the aerobic glycolytic system. While I acknowledge the contribution of task-appropriate conditioning, there are major improvements in speed to be made from acquiring fundamental biomechanical skills in running.


Running is a component of many of our lives. Perhaps you are a competitive athlete- you are a sprinter, or you play field, sand or court sports. Perhaps you run recreationally, or you’ve taken it upon yourself to complete a charity run. Perhaps your occupational requirements demand you meet certain testing standards. As a graduating physiotherapist, it has been my experience that a large proportion of patients seek treatment regarding an injury that is directly related to their running activity. The list of diagnoses is long, particularly in injuries featuring an aspect of chronicity- plantar fasciitis, achilles tendinopathies, ‘shin splints’, sports hernias, pubitis, adductor and hamstring complaints.


These are two culminations of the same issue: a lack of attention to efficient biomechanics. If efficient biomechanics are not coached, performance is handicapped, and injury more likely.


‘The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.’ I am sure that this sentence takes you back to primary school handwriting lessons. This phrase has the special distinction of containing every letter within the English alphabet, and gives us an insight into the ultimate purpose behind these lessons.


It was never about the fox. It never mattered that, ‘The fat cat sat on the mat.’ Nobody cares about the cat, or how fat he was. The point of these nonsensical sentences was to get a whole lot of practice at letter formation- your shapes. You traced out letters with extra care; the prestigious pen license a grand incentive to try your hardest.  The development of quality handwriting is analogous to the development of quality running mechanics. We must spend time practicing shapes at stationary and slow speeds.


With learning, we spend less time on shapes, and more constructing sentences and stories. Similarly, as we learn to run efficiently, we spend less time practising drills, and more time on the whole skill, speed and energy systems conditioning.


The periodical refinement of both running and writing skills are ongoing processes. Over time, both may become sloppy with fatigue or volume. However, we always have the ability to return to good quality technique, because of the initial time we spent carefully developing efficient shapes. When scribing a birthday card to Grandma, we don’t just scrawl out the message in illegible scribble. The purpose of the birthday card is not only to get words on paper. The purpose is for Grandma to feel cherished, and precise shapes help achieve this end. The purpose of running is to cover the distance as fast as possible; precise biomechanical shapes assist us in this endeavour.


Are your memories of school PE and extra-curricular sports filled with learning your shapes? Do you have fond memories of learning to march in ‘figure 4-shapes?’


Or, is it more likely that the taunting sounds of the masochistic ritual known as, “The Beep Test,” haunt your darkest dreams and send shivers down your spine?

When we sit our final Year 12 exams, we are no longer rewarded for just an attempted effort at an S. The same is true of running: we must emphasise quality before adding quantity.


Speed Mechanics and Movement Efficiency Clinic

On the 27th of September, I had the delight of attending a clinic with Coach Dan Pfaff, who was visiting from his position as Head Coach at the World Athletics Centre in Phoenix, Arizona. Pfaff’s experience, achievements and credentials are extensive, and include tutoring 49 Olympic athletes, 51 World Championship competitors and 5 world record holders. A full biography, and consistently excellent content, can be found at the Altis website www.worldathleticscenter.com. The event was hosted by LIFE (http://www.lifeforexcellence.com), at Sydney Olympic Park. The day began with a lecture, where Coach Pfaff explained his coaching philosophy.


Sprinting is a skill.

Pfaff began by outlining three disciplines that must each be given due consideration to comprehensively understand the skill of sprinting. These are:

–       Biomechanics: The laws of physics as they apply to movement.

–       Motor Learning: The act of changing or reinforcing the performance of a skill, in accordance with a predetermined model.

–       Kinesiology: The study of the human body in movement.


The interface between these disciplines is coaching: the application of science to the athlete in front of you. You need to make them more skillful. The process of coaching was likened to conducting an orchestra. Sprinting is a skill, and you have a lot of variables you need to direct and control. Your ability as a conductor, as a coach, is paramount to whether people get faster and stay healthy during their athletic career.


The development of a model

Biomechanics primarily determines the most efficient model we teach. However, we must also consider motor learning and kinesiology. Is our model achievable and replicable? Is it not only biomechanically efficient, but does it reduce risk and complaints of injury? These questions are the litmus tests to ensure soundness.


Coaching to improving speed.

“ We are trying to leverage variables to gain speed. We look at all variables on the table- what can we adjust, correct or smooth out?”

These variables included body type, health, kinetics and kinematics. We look at what we can play with, but we must also remain aware that the minute we change a variable, the whole system changes.

Primarily, the following variables are considered.

–      Levers and Axis-We look at the position and timing of the levers (limbs) and axis (joints). We analyse the angles and projections of force.

–       Momentum. Momentum builds through the run if the appropriate forces are applied. If certain physical laws are violated, then momentum will be diminished. The runner must therefore use compromised positions and sub-optimal strategies to continue. For example, take the sprinter inexperienced in competition. Under pressure of adrenaline and nerves, carefully drilled mechanics fly out the window. They are all stride frequency, and lack stride length. As momentum is not being optimised, the runner fatigues earlier. They get to mid-race and they feel momentum dropping. So, they start re-pushing and elongating, which cuts their flight phase and slows the runner.

–       Support and Flight phases– What does each phase look like? How long is each phase? What is the ratio between time in support and time in flight?


–       Pathways of the limbs and COM. There are certain angulations and undulations that are more efficient.


It is beyond the scope of this article to provide a full explanation of the particular start, acceleration and top speed mechanics discussed. However, it became apparent that while consideration is taken for the idiosyncrasies of the runner, some recurring features consistently emerge.


For example, in acceleration four consistent denominators emerge from inter-athlete motion analysis comparison:


1)    Is the foot dorsiflexed?

2)    Are the toes dorsiflexed?

3)    Does the body form a single line of force application?

4)    Are the arms split at appropriate angles?


In other aspects, such as block starts, variations may be required that are dependent on the physical capabilities of the athlete. The younger athlete lacking strength may require more open angles than the typical guidelines of: front knee at 90°, and back knee at 130°. A strong, powerful athlete may start with a front knee angle of 88°. Even in these cases, anarchy does not truly reign. Adjustments are rational, and the attempt is made to minimize violations of the laws of physics.


Injury Prevention


Building movement context and awareness is critical in preventing injuries. Strength and conditioning programs must provide exposure to both concentric and eccentric forces, as well as movement within all three planes. This is the benefit of performing a full clean from the floor, in comparison to a power clean from the hang position. A full clean builds context and awareness for on-field deceleration by introducing change of direction, amortization and deceleration factors.


Unique movement signatures are often common. Compensations may occur due to asymmetries, previous injury, or incorrect previous instructions.


It is important to identify and address the primary driver of an injury. Restrictions in one area of the body may set up technical flaws when running. The injury may occur at the site of technical breakdown, or it may cause collateral problems at other areas. We looked at film of an athlete who had been experiencing ongoing bilateral achilies tendonitis. In this athlete, a thoracic spine rotation restriction set up the achilles phenomena. The restriction changed the timing and mechanics between his spine, hips and left knee, which caused the athlete to ‘drop’ his left knee. In turn, this manifested in external rotation at the foot, setting up the ongoing achilles issues.


The athlete was able to run a 20.12 200m- but a price. That price was the down time required to recover after a race. Ultimately, it was a combination of manual therapy to the thoracic spine, shoulder and hips that improved his achilles; the pathology was upper body driven, and little treatment to the Achilles and lower leg was neither given or needed.


This level of detective mode is still the same model of investigation used with all runners, but the extent of tracing cause and effect is far greater than that of the low level novice. So, before anyone starts looking for an achilles problem derived from a thoracic spine rotation restriction, consider who you are working with first.


Manual therapy has a role in facilitating the correct execution of skillful running. After treatment, the athlete’s tendency to drop his knee disappeared. Pfaff asserted that in his earlier coaching career, he would have cued to keep the knee up, and both himself and the athlete would have been frustrated. You cannot over-cue a major ‘medical’ issue.


This Is Not a Drill: The Movement Screen

After lunch, we ventured outside to observe two youth sprinters run through a warm-up and series of drills. This allowed us insight into Pfaff’s coaching style and approach. An important feature was his treatment of each warm up and drill as a movement screen itself. The session included familiar drills, such as marching skips, B-skips, backward skips, side shuffles and crossovers.  As the athlete performed, we looked for shapes, asymmetries and the general readiness of the athlete.


Each drill offered focus to certain areas of the body. In marching skips, we observed the line the femur formed when the front knee blocks at the top of the step. The VMO should be in line with the umbilicus, so that it forms a diagonal vector when looking from above. If the deep six external rotators of the hip restrict this, increased force may be placed on the medial structures of the knee. In crossover stepping, we looked at the lateral structures of the thigh. If the athlete is restricted in the ITB and TFL, as they step over the hips tend to flare open. At this point, Coach described an analogy for the performance therapy model. The athlete is an F1 car, so we take it into the pit, figure out what is restricting movement, apply appropriate manual therapy to treat, and get that car back out on the track. In this way, performance therapy is integrated with performance of the skill itself.


Fascial Training

Fascia is the connective tissue that holds and packages our muscles, joint capsules, skin and organs within the body. The training of fascia has not been a major focus historically. This may have something to do with the need to remove fascia when preparing cadavers for study. However, an elastic fascial system will improve mobility and speed capacity. Fascial trains extend throughout the body, and Coach led us through a series of fascial stretches. The goal of this adjunct training is to stimulate fascial remodeling so that fibroblasts lay down a more recoil-like structure.


Dribbling and bounding

We observed a series of dribbling and bounding drills used for the purposes of motor coordination and development. The athlete was instructed to land on the heel, roll the foot and step to ankle height. The dorsiflexion of the toes and ankle was cued with yells of “We want to see the bottom of your shoe when you land! Land on your heel!” The athletes then progressed to stepping over at calf and knee height, and performing the drills at jogging speed. We finished with some straight and bent-legged bounds, before the fun of sequencing different drills into tricky combinations.

 Lest the heel first cue be misappropriated, it is important to again consider the level of the trainee you are working with. In efficient running, the athlete lands on the midfoot, with the toes and ankle held in dorsiflexion. After the midfoot strikes the ground, the heel contacts the ground. However, many novice runners demonstrate this type of foot contact:




This athlete has their heel way out in front of the hip, which creates a ‘braking’ force and increases the amount of time that the foot spends on the ground. The appropriate introduction of these drills will come after the fundamentals are well versed.

The dribbling and bounding exercises elucidate the role of motor control in dorsiflexion. While dorsiflexion is ideal for kinematic and hydraulic reasons, many athletes are unable to hold the foot in dorsiflexion. If the athlete can perform an ankle dribble at walking speed, we know that their issue is not structural. If they did not have the mobility or strength to hold dorsiflexion, they would not be able to do that. A lot of the time, athletic skill is about brain operation- coordination. Therefore, we master the slower speeds before adding speed, and certainly before adding volume.


Further, these drills teach a spectrum of vertical force production rate and magnitude, and a variety of angles of application. The purpose of them is to develop a contextual background for transition to top speed sprinting. If you cannot do these simple tasks in a controlled environment, the chances are not high that you will in real-time sport.


Future Directions

A seminar is only valuable if the new knowledge, skills and ideas catalyze a change in coaching and training methods. Without application, the unfortunate truth is that one has simply been entertained for a day. The following statements comprise the future directions shaped from the day.


1. Understand the optimal model

“It’s not about training harder or more, but about cleaning up the errors.”


Coaching starts and ends with the model. The model allows us the best possible path to success. It directs what we do in the time we have with athletes. It ensures we do not squander precious time, limited recovery capacity and staffing resources. The model allows for objective evaluation of an athletes performance, as we compare actual performance to the model of optimal efficiency. In this sober fashion, errors may be identified and corrected. The model is our KPI, but it is also our Kryptonite against well intentioned but misappropriated use of methodologies, such as running hills until you vomit, and party tricks on speed ladders.


Reading, film analysis and observing other coaches can complement an understanding of an efficient model, but we cannot forget the value of simply learning to run. These skills take on more significant meaning and awareness when time and effort is invested into the mastery process.


Coach Peter Upham will be coaching a running skills block, the details of which can be found here. It has been a highly valuable and worthwhile opportunity for myself, and I highly recommend this to athletes and fitness and therapy professionals alike.


2. Accelerate on a regular basis.

Acceleration is a complex skill, and as such, it must be practiced on a regular basis. Coach Pfaff described his programming, which includes 11 months of 3-4 firmly coached acceleration runs each session.


The regular practise of acceleration is imperative to reducing the incidence of injury. Pfaff explained a situation in consultation with cross-country athletes. These runners spent 4 months of the year ‘developing an aerobic base,’ which did not include any acceleration work. When acceleration was reintroduced, the injury rates went through the roof, and the skill model retention was almost non-existent. Dan pleads, if acceleration is dangerous, where is the data? ‘Show me the bodies!’ Basketball players play a 10.5-month season. What do they do all day? Acceleration, plyometrics and changing direction work. If we look at the injury history of NBA basketball players, there is no higher incidence of hamstring or adductor strains.


Rather, a planned, progressive introduction of acceleration, with good mechanics, prevents injuries. Acceleration is a key performance indicator of many sports, and must be regularly practiced.


3. The Athlete-Coach-Therapist Triad

This one is more for my fellow physiotherapists. Pfaff shared some poignant remarks regarding the need for an integrated model of therapy, in what he described as the athlete-coach-therapist triad.


(Paraphrased) “A good therapist can stand next to a coach or athlete and talk shop. They know the sport, they understand performance. They intimately know the demands upon the athlete. So, you have this combination of the therapist who knows their anatomy, their biomechanics, their motor control, their kinesiology, and, they can coach.”

A therapist must be familiar enough with the demands of the sport to communicate with personnel in other departments within the sporting environment. Performance and injury prevention are inextricably linked. Physiotherapists must understand how to run, turn, cut, and step in order to understand the cumulative stress this places on the athlete’s body. Further, it is imperative to monitor and manage metrics regarding the amount of each component within the sport. Proactive injury prevention requires pattern recognition, and the necessary medical data recording systems to identify, analyse and understand the patterns. Understanding the specific KPI’s of performance better equips us to support the athletes in our care.


Thank you Coach Dan Pfaff for the absolute privilege of an insightful and valuable learning experience, Brett Robinson at LIFE for hosting a well organized event, and his kind provision of further resources, and Coach Pete for providing me with the heads up and recommendation to attend the day.


Emily Medina holds a degree in Exercise and Sport Science from the University of Sydney and will complete a Doctor of Physiotherapy from Macquarie University in 2016. She has competed in Powerlifting, deadlifting 135kg at 65kg bodyweight.