Neural influences on sprint running: training adaptations and acute responses

Sports Med. 2001;31(6):409-25. doi: 10.2165/00007256-200131060-00002.


Performance in sprint exercise is determined by the ability to accelerate, the magnitude of maximal velocity and the ability to maintain velocity against the onset of fatigue. These factors are strongly influenced by metabolic and anthropometric components. Improved temporal sequencing of muscle activation and/or improved fast twitch fibre recruitment may contribute to superior sprint performance. Speed of impulse transmission along the motor axon may also have implications on sprint performance. Nerve conduction velocity (NCV) has been shown to increase in response to a period of sprint training. However, it is difficult to determine if increased NCV is likely to contribute to improved sprint performance. An increase in motoneuron excitability, as measured by the Hoffman reflex (H-reflex), has been reported to produce a more powerful muscular contraction, hence maximising motoneuron excitability would be expected to benefit sprint performance. Motoneuron excitability can be raised acutely by an appropriate stimulus with obvious implications for sprint performance. However, at rest H-reflex has been reported to be lower in athletes trained for explosive events compared with endurance-trained athletes. This may be caused by the relatively high, fast twitch fibre percentage and the consequent high activation thresholds of such motor units in power-trained populations. In contrast, stretch reflexes appear to be enhanced in sprint athletes possibly because of increased muscle spindle sensitivity as a result of sprint training. With muscle in a contracted state, however, there is evidence to suggest greater reflex potentiation among both sprint and resistance-trained populations compared with controls. Again this may be indicative of the predominant types of motor units in these populations, but may also mean an enhanced reflex contribution to force production during running in sprint-trained athletes. Fatigue of neural origin both during and following sprint exercise has implications with respect to optimising training frequency and volume. Research suggests athletes are unable to maintain maximal firing frequencies for the full duration of, for example, a 100m sprint. Fatigue after a single training session may also have a neural manifestation with some athletes unable to voluntarily fully activate muscle or experiencing stretch reflex inhibition after heavy training. This may occur in conjunction with muscle damage. Research investigating the neural influences on sprint performance is limited. Further longitudinal research is necessary to improve our understanding of neural factors that contribute to training-induced improvements in sprint performance.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological / physiology
  • Electromyography
  • Fatigue / physiopathology
  • Gait / physiology
  • H-Reflex / physiology
  • Humans
  • Motor Neurons / physiology
  • Muscle Contraction / physiology
  • Muscle Fibers, Fast-Twitch / physiology
  • Muscle, Skeletal / innervation*
  • Muscle, Skeletal / physiology*
  • Neural Conduction / physiology
  • Physical Education and Training*
  • Reflex, Abnormal / physiology
  • Reflex, Stretch / physiology
  • Running / physiology*