There are thousands of ideas and resources regarding speed training. Nearly every single conceivable physical movement has been recommended as THE secret to increased running speed.
Therefore, you definitely should…
lift weights/stretch/pilates/agility ladder/yoga/dance/run for “aerobic base”/on and on… to gain speed.
And sure – many exercises and methods CAN potentially help an athlete increase his or her running speed, especially when there is a relatively low level of baseline fitness. But what are the BEST methods for taking a decent athlete to the next level?
Lift weights…how? What exactly should be stretched? How much strength/flexibility/agility/conditioning is enough?
Well, here I will attempt to summarize a few of the best practices and non-negotiables regarding speed training.
1. FORCE/body mass is KEY
Above all else, the athlete must be capable of generating a high amount of force per body mass. Force…into the ground! I’ve said it before, but many of the leading lines of coaching as well as peer reviewed research on sprinting indicates the generating FORCE is far more important than agility, leg turnover, and a host of other factors.
Now, how does one generate a great amount of force into the ground per body mass? Well, it depends.
Some athletes generate a ton of force but high body mass (or poor body composition) is a barrier to moving quickly. A clear example of this would be the typical linemen or even first basemen who may or may not need to move quickly. Most athletes will benefit tremendously from gaining some muscle mass in order to drastically increase their potential to generate force. Generating force into the ground also requires core strength. Sprinting with a weak core is like trying to shoot a cannon out of a canoe. Pilates type moves MAY help with core strength for sprinting, but far better options include deadlift variations, single leg squats and lunges, rows, chin-ups, and various planks and loaded carries.
“Quick feet” are over rated when it comes to speed. Go ahead and use the agility ladder to warm up and increase foot coordination. But “slow feet” are almost always a symptom of hip weakness. For speed, strong and stable hips and core are where it’s at.
2. Flexibility matters
Limited hip and ankle range of motion is a common barrier to achieving great speed. Again, it depends on the athlete, but stretching the ankles and hip flexors is a safe bet. Attention to detail is in order. With simple movements such as these, athletes often compensate (for a tight ankle) by letting their foot arch collapse or (for tight hips) by rotation of the pelvis and spine. These translate to “energy leaks” when sprinting.
In many instances, what appears to be “tight hamstrings” or “hip stiffness” is core weakness. Over the years, the brain has learned to effectively “hit the breaks” on hip and knee movements in order to protect the spine from injury. The solution to this is not yoga or any traditional stretching, but to challenge the athlete to maintain their spine in a neutral position while gradually increasing degrees of freedom (various directions and magnitude of movement) at the hips and knees. In practical terms, this looks like side, backward, and rotational lunges, single leg squats and dead lifts (done well!), split stance rows, tubing rotation pulls, and presses.
You absolutely can have too much of a good thing. Being hyper flexible, as seen in most yoga DVDs, is NOT GOOD for speed. Working on SPECIFIC tightness with SPECIFIC flexibility moves is worthwhile. But introducing more general slack into a system that is already moving too much is not helpful for the core stability that sprinting demands.
3. Springiness Matters
Some athletes with adequate flexibility and strength still move like a tight ball of tinfoil. The are not springy and struggle to generate force QUICKLY.
In weight lifting, long levers usually work against you. But this is not the case with sprinting where long levers are good so long as power remains high. All the strength in the world cannot substitute for a springy athlete with joints that work in synch to produce a powerful and large range of motion. This quality is best trained through plyometric and sprint training with attention to form. The details depend on the athlete, but an important cue is “move with intensity but remain relaxed.”
4. Conditioning Matters
I still think that to be the fastest version of themselves, athletes absolutely MUST be accustomed to the idea of running in a total body, all-out effort, while maintaining good form and a “relaxed but intense” mental state. Top speed sprint training is done in brief, powerful bursts with prolonged rest periods. “Conditioning” to build endurance or generally get in shape looks a little different.
This is a place that I’ve changed my tune a little, having found value in not always going -all out-.
Long distance runners can repeat 100% effort over a short sprint with little difficulty. But they almost always lack the explosive power and are not moving very fast to begin with. Strength/power athletes typically move with a high top speed but have greater difficulty repeating maximal efforts. For these athletes, submaximal sprints are worth the time and effort to practice achieving and maintaining correct form and gaining physical conditioning without the long drawn-out cardio. This is not long distance aerobic type running, but powerful efforts with focus on form and building sprint capacity.
I know from experience that hill sprints done with 101% effort leads to form break down and physical exhaustion after only two or three efforts. But doing them with 88-95% effort allows me to repeat and maintain quality efforts in a greater overall workload.
5. It depends
Truly, some investigation is required for a given athlete to fully realize their speed potential. Some athletes need more of a conditioning and springiness focus while others need to gain core stability and hip flexibility. Some athletes need to simply gain some muscle and learn to move powerfully rather than drift.
Some athletes will benefit the most from getting their deadlift up one hundred pounds, while others may benefit from lightly loaded lunges emphasizing a large hip range of motion in all directions, or more of a plyometric focus emphasizing total body power.
Individual athletes present with different energy leaks that become more apparent with full effort sprinting, especially when under fatigue. Look for them!
The best conditioning program for any given athlete depends on their current physical status as well as their individual goals.
Do you have any experience or thoughts regarding speed training? Do fill us in! Figuring out YOUR best game plan is not rocket science. But it takes a little time and effort, usually beginning with a detailed physical assessment.