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Sprinting requires coordinated efforts from all of the major muscles in your lower body. It's a compound movement, meaning there's movement occurring at multiple joints. When you sprint, the muscles throughout your legs handle the activity occurring at your hip, knee and ankle joints. Sprinters will often consider their gluteus maximus muscle, which is one of the strongest muscles in the body and responsible for hip extension, to be the most important to their ability to run fast. However, the contributions from the other muscles in the lower body shouldn't be overlooked.
Two phases make up the sprinting movement: takeoff and recovery. The takeoff phase of sprinting, which occurs as you push off the ground and straighten your leg, consists of explosive hip, knee and ankle extension. It's this full extension of these lower body joints that drives force into the running surface and subsequently propels you forward. During the recovery phase, which occurs following each takeoff phase, the hip joint flexes, meaning you pick up your leg and knee, bringing the knee toward your chest.
Gluteus Maximus and Hamstrings
Hip extension is the primary joint movement during sprinting that is of most interest to sprinters because it's the most influential on how explosively you'll travel forward. The gluteus maximus and hamstrings work together to explosively extend your hip joints as you drive your foot into the ground to propel yourself forward. The gluteus maximus is the largest muscle in the body and it's located in your buttocks area, originating at the back of your pelvis and then inserting at the top of your femur bone. The hamstrings are a collection of three muscles that run down the back of your thigh, originating at the back of your pelvis and then inserting at the back of the bone in your lower leg.
Hip Flexors and Quadriceps
The hip flexor muscles, which include the iliopsoas, pectineus, sartorius and tensor fascia, as well as the rectus femoris of the quadriceps, perform hip flexion when you're sprinting. This is during the recovery phase, as you pull your knee up toward your chest. Although the hip flexor movement doesn't produce any power that propels you forward, it's the timing and coordination of the hip flexion component that sets your legs up for the explosive hip flexion component.
Not to be overlooked are the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles of the calves. These two muscles are responsible for plantar flexing your ankle joints, which occurs during the takeoff phase as you push off the running surface and drive yourself forward. Although the calf muscles do not produce a large percentage of the power in sprinting, full extension during the takeoff phase is essential for maximizing forward propulsion.