Shawn Windle, ATC, CSCS
When writing a program to enhance speed development in our athletes, we must first take a step back and ask what the demands of the sports are. Most sports require quick stops and starts (deceleration and acceleration) with several changes of direction. Basketball, volleyball, soccer, football, and lacrosse are a few examples of this in action. These sports differ from a 100M sprinter that accelerates from a dead stop and sprints to an end-point. The sprinter does not have to worry about anybody stepping out in front of him/her trying to slow them down from reaching the finish line. This is important to note because it can make or break the design of your speed program.
Athletes are mainly concerned with the development of acceleration rather than speed. Top speed occurs in approximately six seconds when running in a straight line with proper mechanics. Think about how many times straight line bursts lasting for 6 seconds occur in your sport. The average play in football lasts between five and seven seconds, but that play is usually made up of a series of changes in direction or collisions. It may take your basketball athlete five seconds to sprint to the other end of the floor, but it is usually not an all out sprint and many times the path is not direct. I think you can see where I am going with this. We must know what the demands of our sports are in order to develop a plan for our athletes to succeed. Are you training for speed or acceleration? Acceleration training work should be at distances that can be covered in less than 5 seconds.
Equally, if not more important, is training for deceleration and changes in direction. Changes in direction are commonly referred to as agility, which is the ability of the body to rapidly change direction under control. This is especially important since most injuries occur during deceleration with a change in direction. For example, non-contact ACL injuries most commonly occur when there is a sudden deceleration and some sort of rotation. By teaching athletes how to decelerate properly we cannot only help them to perform better in competition but also to reduce their likelihood of injury.
Linear speed or straight ahead running is generally regarded as a skill that one is either born with or not. Although that is true to some extent, we know that everyone can improve by completing drills in the proper sequence. Can we make everybody an Olympian? No! But we can make a difference.
Running Speed = Stride length X Stride frequency
Stride length is the distance covered by one stride. This is a highly trainable component for improving linear speed. Stride length is probably the easiest way of improving speed and acceleration. Techniques used to maximize stride length include dynamic flexibility drills, weight training, and resisted running.
Dynamic flexibility is the flexibility that we use during sport. I have yet to see someone need static flexibility while in the midst of competition. A first baseman doesn’t need to hold a split position while reaching for a throw from the shortstop. What he does need is the ability to quickly get into and out of that split position. Dynamic flexibility drills should be included into your warm-up to prepare the athletes for the specific movements that they will be required to perform in competition. So when doing speed workouts, we will always start with straight leg skips, high knees, butt kicks, cariocas, shuffles, and so on.
Weight training that focuses on the lower extremities needs to be emphasized. Strength exercises such as squats and lunges combined with explosive exercises like the hang clean and the hang snatch should form the cornerstone for your lower body program. Acceleration is represented as force divided by mass. With this definition in hand we know that we can experiment with the athlete’s body mass to find what changes bring about the greatest optimization of acceleration. Usually an athlete that decreases body fat will be able to accelerate more quickly. The other part of the acceleration equation that we can easily control is force. With weight training, we can increase the amount of force that the athlete can exert into the ground to help them to accelerate.
Resisted runs work in the same manner as weight training. Running against some form of resistance (parachute, harness, sled, stadiums, hills) forces the athlete to push harder into the ground through their legs. Resistance must be closely monitored so it does not interfere with normal sprinting mechanics. If the resistance is too great you will see that the athlete will quickly utilize the survivalist theory of finding anyway to get it done. Usually stride length will be negatively influenced and upper body mechanics will breakdown. When running on a hill, the recommended grade is 2-3%. This grade can usually be found on a football field. Football fields are built with a crown in the middle to allow for water runoff in the event of rain. When using sleds for resistance, 10% of the athletes bodyweight is recommended.
Stride frequency is the number of steps taken in a given amount of time. This component of speed is slightly more difficult to train due in part to genetic limitations. Techniques used to increase stride frequency are downhill running and towing. Both of these methods teach the body how to move faster than previously capable. Like uphill running, downhill running must be closely monitored. Angles that are too steep will cause the athlete to heel strike, which will act as a braking mechanism to slow the athlete. Similar grades should be used in both downhill and uphill running. Towing is when an athlete is pulled at speeds faster than accustomed to, usually by using a long bungee cord tied around the waists of two athletes. The lead athlete walks in front of the athlete to be towed until there is tension on the cord. When the lead athlete begins to sprint the athlete that is being towed must pursue the lead athlete while receiving assistance from the cord.
Lateral Speed and Agility
Lateral speed and agility should form the basis of your speed training. This is what separates those at the top of many sports from the rest. In football one can instantly think of the way Barry Sanders seemed to defy Newton’s Laws. Or in basketball, the way that Allen Iverson can dribble down court and break his defenders down with a crossover to the basket. And one final mental picture: a shortstop going to the hole to stop an assured base hit. All of these movements require lateral speed and agility.
Here is where knowing your sport becomes key in your teaching. How do you want your baseball athlete to steal a base? How do you want your soccer athlete to change their hips? You must know if you want to use a crossover step or to open your hips with the lead leg. If you watch an athlete over the course of a game they may use a combination of the two. Perhaps you only want them to use one. Maybe different scenarios require different movements. This is where you need to be clear in your teaching. Athletes at the age of 18 have already selected their preferred patterns of movement. It can be extremely difficult to break 13 years of movement patterns (assuming the athlete has been running since age 5). Think about how hard it would be to change a pattern in your life that you have been using everyday for years. Start writing with your left hand, if you are right handed. Would you be successful if you only practiced it for five minutes a day on Monday-Wednesday-Friday for four weeks (length of pre-season) and then be expected to be proficient at it every Saturday afternoon (game day)? Doubtful! This is why we need to address our movement strategies year round at slow speeds. Just as you would learn how to write with your left hand, you would start by printing slowly before doing cursive. We need to teach foot skills at slower speeds each day. If a proper base is not taught to the athlete, the survivalist theory will kick in during the game. The athlete will call upon the movement patterns that they have been successful with in the past.
Speed training, runs performed at 100% intensity, should be conducted as early in the week as possible. Fatigue grows over the course of a training week and speed is not an attribute that can be trained in a state of fatigue. Your speed training should also be conducted at the beginning of your workouts following a proper warm up and plyometrics (if scheduled).
Start training at slower speeds to perfect technical errors and while introducing new movement patterns. Next, progress to faster and more challenging assignments. Technique should be practiced at speeds of 60-75% maximum. This way the athlete can feel what is happening to their body and is able to make fine tune adjustments. Make sure there is adequate recovery between efforts. To optimize speed we must not have high levels of fatigue. Use work to rest ratios of 1:10 and higher. This means that if you sprint for five seconds you rest for 50 seconds. This should be a minimum ratio. I like to go even higher. Remember this, if the athlete is fully recovered that means that they have more to offer for the next sprint. You will find that the quality of your sessions will improve dramatically and after the workout the athletes will tell you that the workout was extremely challenging. If recovery is insufficient, you will get insufficient effort. Know what you are conditioning, the mind or the body.
Every aspect must be taught as a progression. You must crawl before you walk and walk before you run. Don’t start your athletes on a resisted running program if they do not have the skills to be successful at running.
Repetition is the key to life. The more you practice a task, the better you become at it. How fast do you want your team to be?