Friday, February 29, 2008

Q & A: Dr. Ralph Mann--Track Expert on Being A Blur! speaks with one of the nation’s leading experts in the biomechanics of sports performance.

Many think that running fast is simply a matter of picking up your feet quickly. Ummm…better think again. had the pleasure to catch up with Dr. Ralph Mann—one of the world’s top authorities on biomechanics—to set the record straight.

Dr. Mann is the man, behind the man—teaching college and elite coaches the finer points of sprinting that helps the U.S. stay on top of the game. He is a doctor of mechanics, assisting runners with becoming human bullets. The results of his work can be seen in the mountains of U.S. won medals at world championships and Olympic Games.

Currently he serves as head of the Sprint / Hurdle division for Elite Athlete Program of USA Track & Field and leads the organization’s annual conference of the nation’s top coaches to discuss assisting runners on being a blur.

Dr. Mann’s manual, The Mechanics of Sprinting and Hurdling, is a must-read for track coaches and represents 25 years of research, filming, and evaluation of every top U.S. athlete. His book, Swing Like A Pro breaks down the skills of golf’s greatest champions.

Alongside being a researcher and author—he also has massive track cred. At the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, Dr. Mann clocked 48.51 winning a silver medal in the 400-meter hurdles and is a former world record holder. appreciates Dr. Mann taking time to talk with an upstart blogsite about the inner world of elite sprinting.

Question: How did you become involved in biomechanics?

Answer: My college degree was in mechanical engineering, so I combined my interest in mechanics and human movement.

Question: The casual fan may think that track is about running fast. How important is biomechanics?

Answer: Sprinting is not a natural movement. In mechanical terms, it is much different than casual running. We have filmed and analyzed more than 600 of the best sprinters since 1982, and they all display the same mechanics – some better than others, but there is only one way to sprint fast.

Mechanics is critical – with the level of competition in the sprints, a sprinter cannot be successful without sound mechanics. That said, the most important factor is the genetic ability to generate large amounts of explosive force.

Question: Since you have been involved in biomechanics how has the science evolved?

Answer: I was one of the group of biomechanists that started the sports science program for Track & Field in 1982. So, I have seen it go from startup to a major factor in preparing our elite athletes.

Today, the Sprint/Hurdle program uses computer modeling to both analyze and teach the athletes – often in real time on the track. In 1982, the sports science program was started because the U.S. was losing its dominance in track – especially the sprints. We have long since regained this dominance and maintain it despite the improvement in other countries sprinting programs.

The USATF High Performance Program in Sprints and Hurdles now directly affects all of the top men and women sprinters and hurdlers – through their coaches.

In addition, beginning this year, we have opened the annual Elite Seminar to a limited number (200) of developing coaches, and the response was overwhelming.

Question: How might your career as an elite 400-meter hurdler have differed with what is know today in biomechanics

Answer: I look back at what I did to excel in the hurdles and realize that my ignorance at the time limited my potential development in more ways that I care to count.

Question: What can young runners learn from biomechanics

Answer: All of research and all of the years of application have shown us that if an athlete is to be successful at the level that we are seeking to achieve, no area of performance can be ignored. Since it has become evident that the development of explosive strength and the proper mechanics to deliver the power are the two most critical factors in sprint performance, ignoring either will guarantee that the athlete will not achieve their performance potential.

Any serious sprinter needs to find a coach that understands the mechanics of sprinting (circa 2008), as well as all of the other performance factors involved.

Question: Can you name a few runners that have excellent biomechanics?

Answer: The sprinters that have stood above, even above the elite, level since 1982:

Short Sprints:

Carl Lewis Flo Jo

Long Sprints:

Michael Johnson

Question: What are the limits of human performance?

Answer: Any scientist that has answered this question in the past has been shown to be short sighted. I place no limits on potential.

By Jay Hicks, a.k.a. Track Evangelist

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