Stepping Backwards to Run Faster
Whilst observing and working with numerous coaches conducting speed/agility/change of direction workouts I’ve noticed that a good amount of coaches do not allow the players to perform a false step (also known as a plyo step/rhythm step/backward step) before accelerating. I’ve had debates with several coaches in the past about this at various universities and training facilities, as my philosophy is to actively promote this ‘step back’ and develop my athletes ability to use it effectively, whereas theirs is to either deliberately set the athlete up in a split stance or to tell the athlete to consciously avoid stepping back. I wanted to investigate this difference in coaching philosophy and give a definitive, research-supported answer.
If positioned in a parallel (shoulder/hip width) stance, an athlete’s natural reaction will be to take a false/backward step prior to commencing forward motion. Many coaches deem this backward step to be literally ‘a step in the wrong direction’ and believe it is less time efficient (a ‘wasted movement’) than a forward step. This has resulted in coaches deliberately stopping their athletes from using this technique. Numerous articles (both academic and non-academic) have been published that state that taking this approach may be a mistake.
To provide an evidence-base I recommend reading the research paper by Frost (2008). The researcher took 27 male athletes and tested them in three sprint-start stance conditions – parallel with a false step, parallel with a forward step, and a split stance. They found that the false step was superior to the forward step, particularly over the first 2.5m. The split stance resulting in quicker movement over the first 2.5m and was therefore superior to the false step in this regard. However another study cited in the article found that more horizontal force and power could be generated at push off due to the presence of a stretch-shortening cycle in the false step (hence the alternative name ‘plyo step’). The reason the split stance results in slightly quicker sprint times is because the center of mass does not have to be shifted and thus sufficient horizontal impulse can be generated more rapidly (albeit not as much total force as the false step). The article concluded that they are unable to justify the deliberate removal of the false step when coaching athletes as it is clearly effective in improving sprint performance in distances as short as 2.5m.
Despite the results of the aforementioned study I can understand many coaches’ rationales for not utilizing the false step in sports such as football. Firstly in football there are numerous stoppages between plays, due to this the athletes are able to set up in a split stance which was shown to be effective over short distances, and if athletes have perfected this starting position they may get better results than the participants from Frosts study. In addition, this split stance is a more stable position (particularly for the defensive/offensive line) as players only have fractions of a second to hit or brace to be hit.
In other sports I believe that the false step should be encouraged, particularly in those sports that lack sufficient time to allow players to reset into a split stance position before commencing play. It is a natural response for athletes and will result in faster sprint times than a forward step and almost equally as fast as a split stance, with the added benefit of more horizontal force being produced due to utilization of the stretch-shortening cycle. Also with practice and coaching the false step may promote a more horizontal torso position that will be beneficial for optimal acceleration mechanics and force production, whereas the forward step may actually increase the likelihood of an athlete stepping forward excessively and creating a braking force thus slowing them down.
- Frost, D. M., Cronin, J. B., & Levin, G. (2008). Stepping backward can improve sprint performance over short distances. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 22(3), 918-922. https://www.cscca.org/document?id=162