Speed kills. Speed changes the game. Speed can't be taught...or can it?
It's fun being fast.
Speed is defined as the distance traveled per unit of time. How long does it take from point A to point B?
Speed is something that is a factor in many sports and is a complete game-changer in some. The ability to steal bases with ease, run down balls in the outfield, beat a defensive back, race down the court on a fast break are all situations in which speed plays a direct role.
But how do we train for speed?
Training for speed, agility, and quickness is different than most other training. The athlete MUST allow for sufficient rest between each iteration to allow for cardiorespiratory recovery. This affords the athlete the ability to perform at max effort during each iteration, which is optimal.
Science of Running Speed
For an in-depth, scientific look at the science of running speed, click the picture below.
In the picture above, IC stands for "Initial Contact."
Below is a picture of proper running technique from the National Exercise Science Trainers Association.
The first step in increasing the speed of an athlete is correcting form. Here is what it looks like from the front (this is an aspect of speed training overlooked by many coaches and trainers). The athlete MUST remain properly aligned with the mechanical movements in order to optimize speed.
When it comes to most sports, we want to be able to move fast. Typically, when speed is discussed, people refer to linear speed (straight line). Aside from track and field events, rarely do athletes ever engage in linear distances of more than 25-30 meters. It's important to broaden our scope when discussing speed. When an athlete accelerates, decelerates, or changes direction, speed is involved. Throwing a medicine ball against a wall or pitching a baseball also involves components of speed. Speed, combined with strength, makes power.
While genetic clearly play a role in speed development, techniques and drills can be used to improve speed mechanics. When we break down "speed" into subcomponents, we can focus on them and improve overall speed. These components are:
In addition to these components, as mentioned above, mechanics are vital. At all times when conducting these drills, quality over quantity should be followed. Science shows it takes an average of 300 repetitions to learn a skill, and slightly over 3000 to break bad habits. The concept of speed training is to learn to move correctly, then to do it fast.
Upper Body Drills
Definition: The rate of change in one’s velocity per unit of time.
Since athletes frequently accelerate, decelerate, and change direction, having a proper and effective acceleration technique is one of the most important aspects of speed, regardless of the sport.
While training for maximum speed may be flashy and exciting, rarely is it ever achieved in most sports. Considering the fact that athletes rarely run in straight lines of more than about 25 meters before making a directional change, acceleration may be the most important speed component to focus on.
Deceleration training is critical as well, especially when discussing injury prevention.
Why is acceleration so important?
According to an analysis of the 100-meter finalists at the 1998 Olympic games, maximum speed was not reached until at least 50 meters.
It's one aspect of speed that we can all improve on.
Definition: The distance covered per step.
To increase speed you will need to increase stride rate or stride length, or both. Is it more
advantageous to focus on one aspect than the other? Like most fitness-related aspects, the answer is, “it depends”. Every athlete is unique, therefore he or she must be assessed and trained accordingly.
There should not be a “cookie-cuter” approach when creating training programs. Certainly, movements and drills will benefit multiple populations, however, the coach or trainer must focus on the individual’s unique goals when creating programs.
Stride rate versus stride length can be broken down in three ways:
1. Athletes who tend to have longer stride lengths tend to be more powerful and should focus more on stride rate and neuromuscular work, which would be considered the weaker of the two variables. In the same respect, athletes who have a faster stride rate should focus more on strength and power work to complement their faster turnover.
2. Stronger athletes should work on their strength and power training, which will continue to improve their chosen variable. Likewise, athletes who have a fast turnover should continue to train on stride rate since that is the chosen variable they excell in.
3. Focus on both stride length and stride rate to afford the body the ability to improve on both aspects of speed.
The four basic characteristics to be considered when maximizing stride rate and length are:
1. The athlete's body should maintain a forward lean that results in a lower center of mass, which causes momentum in a linear direction.
2. With the push-off from the ground during the propulsion phase, the foot/ankle complex should be flexed upward (dorsiflexion). At ground contact, the athlete extends the ankle.
3. During the recovery phase, the ankle of the free leg should be dorsiflexed while the knee and hip are bent. This allows the foot to pass under the glutes and a more rapid turnover at the hip.
4. For the upper body, the athlete should initiate arm swing from the shoulder joint with the elbow flexed to approximately 90 degrees. Swing the arm forcefully to allow the body’s stored elastic energy and stretch reflex to provide much of the arm’s forward propulsion.
Stride-rate drills require a solid base level of coordination, strength, and body awareness, so caution
is advised when performing stride-rate drills. The purpose of these drills is to create a faster
leg turnover. Since the body is not initially accustomed to this increased stride rate, landing heel
first with the foot in front of the body’s center of gravity is common. This over-striding form is inefficient
and results in essentially “putting on the brakes” with each stride. If proper attention to detail
and technique is not followed, this “braking” will place additional stress on the ankle, knee and hip
Whenever possible, perform these drills on appropriate surfaces such as grass or turf, and avoid
harder surfaces like concrete.
***SPEED TRAINING IS NOT AN ENDURANCE EVENT***
Practicing moving and accelerating faster helps to condition the neuromuscular system to improve the motor neuron firing patterns of fast twitch muscle fibers. Two variations of basic speed training are assisted and resisted speed training. Assisted training (also called overspeed training) helps to improve stride frequency. Resisted speed training helps to improve speed-strength and stride length.
Here are a few drills to improve speed.
Drill #1 - Bounding
This is a plyometrics exercise. Along with a strength training program, plyometrics will help to improve your sprinting power.
Jog into the start of the drill for forward momentum.
After a few feet, forcefully push off with the left foot and bring the leg forward. At same time drive your right arm forward.
Repeat with other leg and arm.
This exercise is an exaggerated running motion focusing on foot push-off and air time.
Drill #2 - Alternating Strides
Speed training drills like these help to develop foot speed and coordination.
Set up a series of cones in a straight line. The first 10 cones should be about 1 meter/yard apart. The next 10 should be 2 meters/yards apart.
From standing start sprint the total length of the cones taking one step between each marker.
The cones close together will encourage faster, shorter strides. You can gradually decrease the distance between cones as you progress. Walk slowly back to the start to recover.
Drill #3 - Alternating Starts
The basis of these speed training drills is a 10-20 meter/yard sprint. You should focus on accelerating as quickly as possible by powering away with your arms and legs. If your sport involves reacting quickly from different starting positions (as most sports do) try to vary the starting position. Examples include doing a press up then sprinting, sitting on your hands, lying face down, doing 5 squat jumps before sprinting etc.
Drill #4 - Accelerating Sprints
This drill requires you to mark outdistance of about 100 yards/meters where you can sprint in a straight line. You also need to mark a halfway point either with some landmark or a mark on the ground. Starting at one end, gradually accelerate to reach full speed at the halfway point and continue to sprint to the end. Slow down gradually to a jog, turn and walk/jog back to the start. Speed training drills like these help to develop speed and power endurance. Remember though the emphasis should be on the quality of the sprint so allow plenty of time to recover as you walk between sprints.