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.


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