Deconstructing Running Speed

“He or she needs to get faster.”

Of course, there are as many trainers and coaches promising faster speeds as there are athletes who want to be faster. But who has real understanding that is practical and easily implemented while practicing, playing, and attending to life outside of the sports?

I stood beside the parent of a boy who loves soccer. He was going on his third indoor soccer game of the day, playing for two different teams. He is a large, technically strong, hard working kid. He can play in three, four, five games, every single day. But I can see it from the sidelines. He is not going to substantially improve his sprinting ability unless he builds strength in the anterior core and improves his hip range of motion.

Another young man who I know is scrappy on the soccer field, and small. His endurance is excellent and this spring he is doing some middle distance running events for the high school track and field team. I will be surprised if this improves his sprinting mechanics and overall body power, areas for him which deserve the most work. It’s certainly not going to help his strength and size.

Long distance running is fine. But it just doesn’t look or seem all that…athletic.

There is a girl who will play soccer eight days per week if you let her. She is springy and skilled, but needs to develop strength on the ball. She could play, practice, and even do speed and agility work for every hour of every day. These practices will fill and refine the “soccer bucket” that she carries to the field every day. But she needs, more than anything, some strength training and recovery to build a larger, more diversified bucket.

There is no -one path- for every athlete to become the fastest possible version of themselves. There’s no stretch, no footwear, no one exercise or pre existing exercise program, no single cue for running technique, and no “hack.” That’s why I laugh at the Facebook and Youtube ads that use scare tactics to convince parents that an online speed program is going to make their child a top-in-the-nation college recruit. You can’t focus on specific areas of need if you don’t know the individual athlete to identify what that may be.

The real question is: Where are the athlete’s “gaps” and what is the best use of his or her limited time and resources to bring them closer to their full speed potential?

  1. Flexibility matters – foot/ankle, knee, hip and trunk rotation range of motion need to be examined in isolation as well as integrated. Joint range of motion often is influenced greatly by resting alignment.
  2. Strength matters – strong leg and core muscles are able to generate more force into the ground for powerful stops, starts, and top speed sprinting.
  3. The ability to generate power (per unit body weight) matters – whereas strength can improve an athletes ability to generate force, plyometric exercise variations are usually needed to improve the athletes ability to translate that force into fast and efficient movement of body segments.
  4. Technique matters – not everyone moves the same, but there are a number of sprint technique benchmarks that most athletes should at least examine and improve, especially where there is an issue with injury or sub-optimal performance.
  5. Conditioning matters – you cannot achieve or sustain top speed if you’re constantly battling fatigue. But running to “get in shape” and running to improve acceleration or top speed are definitely two different things.

Some strong and powerful athletes are out of shape or run with poor form. They would benefit from focusing on their general conditioning and running mechanics. Some athletes are plain weak, or stiff, especially if they are caught in the middle of an adolescent growth spurt. They would benefit most from focusing on improving their controlled mobility before worrying too much about conditioning or plyometric/power exercises.

Most people (kids and adults alike) enjoy doing what they’re naturally good at, working on their strengths. But knowing where our gaps and weaknesses lay, and working specifically to address them, is where the greatest potential for improvement lies.

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Additional original entries on training for speed here.

Also this essay talks about common training practices that do and do not make a difference in sprinting speed.

For a short and sweet list of what to do and not to bother with, see this essay.

And this was an idea for an easy gauge on whether or not an exercise is effective for improving sprinting and acceleration.



Growing up, baseball and basketball were my passion. Throwing hard, running fast, and dunking a basketball were all I had for life goals. In elementary and middle school I was decent. Well above average for that level.

As my teammates and competition matured, I was late to the party. I suddenly found myself a boy playing among young men who were bigger, faster, and stronger. At the age of 17, I took to resistance training. I saw some improvement that nearly every beginner observes.

But this essay is not about all the lessons that I learned from running myself into the ground through my high school senior and undergraduate college years. This story takes place before I trained too often, with the wrong focus, for too long, with too much intensity.

It’s good to remember what it was like to be a child and adolescent whose world revolved around fun and sports, mostly ignoring the ones who knew what I needed. At around the age of fifteen, my father, uncles, and coaches encouraged me to hit the weights. I wanted nothing to do with the discomfort and discipline and effort.

“Nah. I’m good.”

It took over a year to get me into a weight room. I stood near the entrance of the Mount Pleasant High School Field House, watching various athletes mill about the room. Everyone seemed to know what they were doing. They sat on various metal gadgetry and knew how it worked. A handful of senior football linemen were set up around the bench press like a camp fire in Alaska. It did not appear that they were going anywhere soon.

At the near side of the weight room was a less robust, more rusty bench press. Of course, my first resistance exercise of all time would be “bench!” I walked over to inspect the barbell, one large plate perched with great heft on each side. Forty-five was forged into the side of it. I recognized that I should start with something smaller. I picked up a plated that said “Ten.” But the medium plate, the twenty five, seemed juuuuuust right. Besides, what if the group of lineman saw me bench pressing only twenty pounds?
First I had to remove the 45s from the barbell. Being large and metally, I tugged one of them aggressively. It slid across the barbell, much easier than anticipated, arriving at the end before I had the chance to establish adequate grip. Forty five pounds of metal free-fell from waist height directly on to my right big toe.

I limped a small circle, pretending that did not just happen and my right big toe was not screaming. The slight dizziness that I experienced called for a trip to the water fountain. I eventually came back to the 45-lb plate laying flat on the floor, smooth side up. I slid it across the ground, unable to get my fingertips beneath it’s square edge.

And with that, my first work out was complete. There would be no gains, not functional training, not even a single set or rep. I did discover that the coefficient of friction between smooth metal surfaces is minimal. My toe had a (rather mild) fracture. The crack it made with every step for the next few years would be reminder of that day, and why it took another 6 months before I would give resistance training a go.

The 45 lb plate lay on the ground, taunting me as I limped past it and out the field house door. I plopped down in the grass with my back leaning against the brick wall, and waited for my my mom to come pick me up.

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A MUST Read Before You Deadlift

Here is an important bit of perspective to consider before jumping into dead lifts.deadliftp

I have friends and colleagues who think that dead lifts are awesome. There is no better single exercise for adding muscle to the frame of a human! Dead lifts are possibly THE key fundamental movement pattern for athletes to ingrain and develop strength through the posterior chair (hamstrings, hips, lower and upper back) as well as functional core stability that translates to optimal performance.

I also have friends and colleagues who think that dead lifts are terrible. They only see wrecked spines and pointless toil. Some orthopedic specialists advise all of their patients to avoid bending and lifting as much as possible.

So, who is right? Are dead lifts awesome for you or going to destroy you? The truth, of course lies somewhere in the middle.

Dead lift yourself!

Dead lifts – done correctly – absolutely do strengthen the supporting spine muscles. In nearly twenty years of working as a physical therapist, I’ve witnessed how one of the most valuable things that I have to offer clients with lower back issues is teaching them exactly when (timing in recovery), and how to lift well. Some can jump right into it while others need to practice a lot of foundational work to prepare them for a dead lift.

**It is my belief that any reasonably healthy person, given at least 6 months of training, can and should be able to easily dead lift their body weight off the ground. This is a great exercise in learning to use the entire body as a functional unit and stay healthy. We all have to lift, so we need to learn how to develop a strong back and hips, and to do it well.

Dead lift twice your weight!deadliftp2

Are you making a run as a serious, high level athlete? Dead lifts are a critical part of the formula to increase your size and strength. You will need to (eventually) be able to fairly easily dead lift twice your body weight. Strength/power athletes like baseball and football can often use a little more dead lift (than double body weight), and some endurance athletes a little less. But yes, even endurance athletes can and do benefit tremendously from the priming of the nervous system that dead lifting demands.

Now, is dead lifting twice your body weight healthy? I do know that staying super strong helps prevent other athletic (and general life) injuries. If will help you to function optimally. If programmed in a long-term, reasonable plan with reasonable repetitions, dead lifting that much can do little harm. But no, I do not claim that dead lifting twice body weight is particularly healthy.

The other half of the coin is that athletes can also use this as a general guideline to know when enough strength is enough. For example, if you want to get faster for soccer but can already dead lift twice body weight, you should not suspect that your speed issues are due to weakness. You may need to work on conditioning, mobility, or running technique, but additional strength is not likely to provide much payoff.  If you are a pitcher and want to throw harder but can already dead lift 2.2 X body weight…trying to dead lift 2.6 X body weight is not likely to provide much velocity pay off. If you pitch and can lift only 275 lbs…well then, you will surely stand to improve performance by getting stronger.

Triple body weight and beyond…

Lastly, if you are seriously nuts about doing what it takes to make yourself as big and strong as possible, or you love competing in Olympic Lifting, Power Lifting, Crossfit, or Strong Man type competitions,  then you will benefit from moving toward the rare air of a triple body weight dead lift. You can be smart about this, and pursue it in a manner that minimizes the damages. But don’t think for a minute that this is -good- for you. I mean, it’s a worthy and fun challenge in the same manner of gymnastics, downhill skiing, and steer wrestling. At some point it is definitely hard on the body. You will eventually hit your limit and strain something. Count on it.

So there you have some perspective on dead lifts.

For health? For optimal performance? For pushing the limit of size and strength?

As always, it’s your call.

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