Updated: Sep 3, 2020
"Not everyone can become fast ... but everyone has the ability to become faster!"
Uncomfortable truth: not everyone can become “fast”. Now, we all love our parents, but if you're not naturally fast you can probably blame them. Your genetics largely determine your speed "ceiling". So unfortunately, doing all the sprinting practice and drills in the world isn’t going to turn you into a world-class track sprinter.
"Gee thanks for leading me down a path of false hope" is probably what you're thinking. But hear me out! I know I said not everyone can become "fast", but I believe everyone has the ability to become faster!
The aim of speed training, or any training for that matter, is to improve from where you currently are and onto a path towards your full potential. There's an abundance of different things we can do either on the track or in the gym to kickstart that process. By getting just a little bit faster, that improvement in speed could be the difference between you and your opponent in a match defining sequence of play.
In Part 1, the focus was on how sprint training and optimising technique can improve speed. This time, the focus will be on how undertaking strength, power, and plyometric training, or a mixed methods approach, can yield the greatest improvements in speed!
What is a Mixed Methods Approach to Speed training?
A mixed methods approach to speed training involves programs that include both specific (sprints, technique drills) and non-specific (plyometric training, and heavy and light-load resistance training) training modes. The best bang for your buck will be from sprinting and getting that right, however, that’s only one piece of the puzzle. Plyometric and resistance training complements sprint training well to unlock your full speed potential (14, 15).
Looking at the right side of the picture above, sprinting and technique drills do a pretty good job of filling your speed bucket, but it’s not quite full. There’s still room to add more water. This is where plyometric and resistance training come into play. While they don’t add as much water to your speed bucket as sprint training would, they help fill the speed bucket right to the brim.
As I highlighted in Part 1, sprinting can be broken down into two phases: acceleration and top speed. Despite some similarities, these phases are distinctly different and as such training for each phase should be managed accordingly. Acceleration is largely dependent on strength, while the ability to reach and maintain top speed is dependent on the elastic properties of the muscles and tendons in the lower leg, particularly the calf and achilles.
Acceleration and top speed is a bit like the chicken or the egg. It’s not necessarily a matter of being better at one, so you train the other. There’s a relationship between the two. Typically, athletes with better acceleration abilities can achieve higher maximal speeds, but the inverse of this is also true (2). An appropriately managed speed training program for team sport athletes should therefore develop both acceleration and top speed abilities.
"What's more important than raw strength is the ability to express this strength fast!"
As mentioned previously, to accelerate quickly and overcome inertia large forces need to be rapidly applied to the ground. As such, there is a strong relationship between lower body maximal strength and sprint performance, particularly in the acceleration phase (1, 10, 17).
Max strength is not the be all end all when it comes to speed, however. I doubt the world’s best powerlifters are going to be the quickest off the mark in a race. What’s more important than raw strength is the ability to express this strength fast! The best sprinters can generate the large forces required at a faster rate and the reason they can do this comes back to their strength and power.
A concept known as the force-velocity curve can help explain this. At one end, we see that producing large forces comes at the cost of movement velocity (i.e. you’re going to move slow when moving something heavy). At the other end, moving at high velocities compromises our force producing capabilities. During acceleration, the place we sit along the force-velocity curve will change the further we run, starting higher up as we initially accelerate before progressing down the curve as we start moving faster.
It’s therefore vital to train each component of the force-velocity curve to maximise your acceleration potential. Not only is success in so many field and court sports predicated on the ability to produce short, sharp bursts, but being able to reach higher speeds faster than your opponent can put you at a distinct advantage (3).
Training to Improve acceleration
There are two categories to group drills into when trying to improve our acceleration ability – specific and non-specific. The rationale behind specific methods is that they overload the athlete within the specific movements of sprint acceleration (7). While effective, specific methods aren’t always accessible or practical in large group settings.
Examples of specific acceleration drills include:
Heavy (80-90% BW), moderate (50-60% BW) and light load (20-30% BW) sled pushes. Using different loading allows for work along multiple components of the force-velocity curve (12)
Resisted sprinting via weighted sled towing (~20% BW) or resistance bands
These drills improve acceleration by:
Increasing acceleration-specific force production into the ground which can increase stride length (5, 6)
Increasing triple extension strength and power
Reducing ground contact time (16)
Increasing the size and rate of motor units sent to the muscles by the central nervous system
Improving overall coordination (6)
As for non-specific methods, this will be your general strength and power training that is performed in the gym. They improve acceleration by increasing the overall force producing capacity of the legs. Coming back to the force-velocity curve, this shifts our curve to the right. This means that you can generate more force at higher velocities than you could previously.
Another great thing about strength and power training is that you are hitting several birds with one stone. So not only do you reap some speed benefits from strength and power training, but it can also improve agility (13), jump height (13), muscle mass (13), and reduce injury risk (8).
Non-specific exercises to improve acceleration are any exercises that target the force generating muscles in sprinting, such as the glutes, quads, hamstrings and calves. My go to exercises include:
Squat variations – back squat, front squat, split squat and single leg squat
Deadlift variations – trap bar deadlift and romanian deadlift
Lunge variations – forward, lateral and reverse lunge
Loaded jumps – squat jump
Heavy and light-load step ups
As our rate of acceleration decreases, we get closer to reaching top speed. At top speed, our stride frequency is much higher than during the acceleration phase. This is due to the increased need to produce high forces with shorter ground contact times for forward propulsion.
This places high demands on the elastic qualities of the muscles and tendons in the leg, particularly the calf and achilles. The stretch-shortening cycle can help to describe what occurs at these sites during sprinting.
The stretch-shortening cycle is a muscle’s ability to stretch and recoil. As a muscle stretches (or lengthens) it begins storing energy that can then be used to generate force when the muscle contracts. This action is like stretching out an elastic band then releasing it, causing the band to quickly snap forward.
During top speed, there is high demand on the stretch-shortening capacities of the muscles in the leg to propel ourselves forward as our overall force producing capability is reduced because we are moving so fast!
Faster and stronger athletes can “stretch their elastic band” faster and with more force which results in greater elastic energy returned while sprinting (4). It’s important to get the most energy out of the stretch-shortening cycle as
possible as it is essentially free energy.
To reap the full benefits of the stretch-shortening cycle, we also need a good degree of joint stiffness. In the stretch-shortening cycle, there is a short transition period between the muscle stretching and then shortening. Having adequate joint stiffness ensures that this period is as short as possible to minimise energy leakage, particularly from the calf and achilles to the foot.
A good way to visualise elasticity and stiffness is to think of two basketballs - one fully inflated and one that’s a bit flat. The ball that’s fully inflated is going to bounce up higher with less effort compared to the flat ball which will require a more forceful push to bounce higher.
While running, particularly at high speeds, we want our ankles to be like fully inflated basketballs so we can run faster and more effortlessly. In the case of your ankles being a bit “flat”, thankfully there is plenty we can do to pump our metaphorical basketballs full of air.
Training to improve top speed
Outside of sprinting, plyometric training is arguably the next best thing to improve top speed (11). Plyometrics involve producing force with quick ground contact times which develops the stretch-shortening qualities of the lower leg muscles, similar to sprinting. The degree to which plyometrics develop the stretch-shortening cycle varies on an intensity continuum.
On the lower end you may have an athlete perform double or single leg pogos which are low impact. At the higher end for a stronger, more experienced athlete you could have them perform a triple hop for distance which is higher impact. It’s up to you to know where you or your athletes sit on this continuum to appropriately prescribe plyometrics.
For plyometrics it’s also important to keep the direction of force application in mind. While vertical jumping variations can be great for developing the stretch-shortening cycle, it’s not quite applicable to sprinting. Therefore, we want to prescribe plyometric drills that involve the athlete moving forward.
The best bang for your buck plyometric drills for speed include:
Bounding - sprinting is essentially very fast bounding
Hopping - For sprinting, it's best to cue for speed. Can be very high impact if you emphasise distance
A-skip and piston run
Pogos - great to develop ankle stiffness
Recently, there has been growing popularity in the use of isometrics to develop sprinting power. Isometric exercises involve the muscle producing force while remaining at one length (e.g. pushing against a brick wall).
Isometrics are believed to improve top speed as the muscles in the leg act isometrically during the ground contact phase. Being stronger isometrically will result in greater joint stiffness which is key in maximising the benefits of the stretch-shortening cycle.
You can see an example of a sprint-specific isometric exercise here.
speed training considerations
1. Sprint every week!
Exposing athletes to high speeds (90-95% max) during training prepares them for the sprint demands of competition. Sprinting regularly also has a protective effect against injury (9). The less often you sprint, the more likely you are to get injured when it comes to sprinting in your sport!
2. A little goes a long way
We want to “microdose” sprinting during training to ensure we maintain sprint quality. The more sprints you prescribe, the more tired your athletes will be. This makes it harder to achieve the high speeds necessary to reap the most benefits of speed training. Over the course of a week, 6-10 sprint efforts totalling 90-120m of max speed distance (different to total distance) is recommended (9).
3. A tired athlete is a slow athlete
Perform your speed work at the start of the session when athletes are fresh to ensure you’re reaching maximal velocities. Either after a sufficient warm-up or as a continuation of the warm-up is the best time to implement this.
It’s also very important you undertake adequate rest between sprints! 2-3 minutes rest after each sprint effort (yes 2-3 minutes!) is required to sufficiently replenish the energy stores we utilise to achieve maximal velocities while sprinting. Insufficient rest will result in running at sub-maximal velocities that won’t elicit sprint-specific adaptations.
Now, resting this long between efforts isn’t very practical in team sport settings. Expect to cop an earful from the head coach or the players themselves if you leave them standing around for that long!
Two ways to work around this are:
Alternate between low-intensity technique drills and sprint efforts
Have players participate in some stationary “touch” skills after each sprint effort
complementary speed Program
This is just a brief snapshot of what a speed program may look like if you train twice a week. A well managed speed training program will be appropriately tailored to suit the needs of the group and include the necessary progressions moving forward.
Note: A well designed warm-up will include some higher speed running towards the end to prepare the body for training. It is ESSENTIAL that you do not perform max velocity sprints before completing an adequate warm-up.
There you have it. That's Part 2 of TRIAX's guide to training for speed development!
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about the author
Strength and Conditioning Coach
B. Ex&SpSc (Hons) | ASCA L1
Available for individualised online coaching
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