As an athlete, developing speed is one of the most important aspects of your athletic development. Elite speed will enhance performance in nearly every sport. In fact, many studies suggest that speed is the deciding factor between starters and non-starters in team sports (1) Now, for those who read my post on reaching your full potential, do you remember when I said we have a genetic ceiling? Well, speed development is one of those skills each person has a ceiling for. If you’re like me and have a low ceiling in this area, don’t quit and run away (no pun intended). You can still be fast if you know how to train to be fast. Here are the basics to improving speed.
Strength & Power Development
There is no magic trick on becoming crazy athletic, and it’s not complicated, but it is hard work. If you need to develop speed, agility, jumping ability, etc you don’t always have to isolate each of those areas. Standard resistance training has been shown to be effective in developing all aspects of athleticism. However, the way you lift weights is what is going to set you apart. 1) you need to know what exercises to do 2) the amount of rest in between sets 3) the intensity of the lift 4) and the amount of reps performed. For speed development specifically, core lifts such as: Squat, deadlift, power/hang clean, RDL, olympic lifts are great exercises for sprinting performance. Aside from that, strength and power are two different concepts. Strength often refers to the maximum amount of weight you can lift, or the maximum amount of force you can exert. For core lifts you want to keep the rep ranges from 1-6 to elicit the necessary strength benefits. Pure strength training has been shown to increase power, but this method is often called slow-speed strength, and in sprinting we want to be fast! Strength training develops high force production which is crucial throughout all phases of a sprint (acceleration, maximum speed, deceleration). Let’s say two different people have the same maximum speed, but the first person can get up to his maximum speed quicker than the second. Who will win the race? The first person. The two will likely have similar strength, but the first person has greater power, which allows him to get to his maximum speed quicker. Therefore, power training is crucial to speed development. Power is the amount of work done over time, and can be emphasized through implementing the stretch-shortening cycle. The best way I can explain this is through an example. If I told you to stand in place and jump as high as you can, what would you do? You would drop down to a quarter or half squat and jump. Now, I tell you to squat down to the half or quarter squat and hold it for 5 seconds before jumping. Which jump will be the highest? The first one. That is because of the stretch shortening cycle. As you squat down to jump, your posterior leg muscles (hams, glutes) are stretching (often called the eccentric phase). This stretch stores up energy that we can use for power in our upward phase (concentric) of the jump. When we stretch our muscles in the downward phase of the jump and hold it there, the energy that was stored up dissipates, causing us not to jump as high. Practicing the stretch-shortening cycle is the link between power and speed that enhances sprint performance (1). You can do this through weight lifting lighter loads than you’re normally used to, but lifting them with maximum force. For example, I can squat 100 pounds for 6 reps with maximum strength. To emphasize the stretch-shortening cycle for power, I could put 75 pounds on the bar and do it for 6 reps, but do each rep with the focus of moving the bar as fast as I can through the upward phase of the motion. Plyometrics is also a great way to train power and the stretch-shortening cycle.
Stride Rate and Stride Length
Next, stride rate (the frequency of steps or foot strikes) and stride length (the length of each step) are the two main components of speed (1). If stride length is kept constant throughout the sprint and the stride rate increases, you will increase velocity (1). If you think about it, when you start a sprint your body needs to overcome inertia (Newton’s 1st law). The initial change in speed is due to increasing stride length. As you overcome inertia, your stride rate begins to increase, resulting in increased speed (1). The combination of increasing stride length and rate during the acceleration phase causes us to reach maximum velocity. The more powerful you are, the quicker you get to the maximum velocity. With that being said, stride length increases to about 8 m/s (1). From there an increase in speed will be due to increased stride rate. Because of that, developing stride rate seems to be more important than stride length (1).
Elite sprinters generally have 5 strides per second, and are tall with long legs making their stride length longer (1).
Below is a great drill for developing stride rate 🙂
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(1) Hoffman, J. R., & National Strength & Conditioning Association. (2012). NSCA’s guide to program design. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
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