Jerva Performance

Speed Development for Sports

◆ ☕️☕️ 10 min read

“Speed kills” is a common saying in the sport performance field. Due to the time-constrained nature of most sports, velocity is often the show. Force production means nothing if it cannot occur fast.

Despite what some old coaches might try to argue, speed is a trainable quality. Athletes aren’t necessarily born fast. Sure, things like muscle fiber composition, which is strongly affected by genetics, plays a big part in producing fast movement, but that is not all that counts.

There is a large technical component to running fast. Optimizing the athlete’s execution of sprinting will help them move faster. Sprinting and its components, like acceleration, are skills. Skills are trainable.

Moving at maximum velocity is unlike any other movement. If we approach this from the perspective of ground contact times, there is data on how world class male sprinters have a ground contact close to 0.08s at maximum velocity. That means that, on every step, they only touch the ground for that amount of time. Such motion requires a lot of elasticity from the athlete. The athlete has to have a highly developed stretch-shortening cycle in the lower limbs to even attempt to move at such speed. No other movement comes close to this. Still, a lot of coaches approach this from the strength development side of things and explosive power training. And there will be carry-over from developing those qualities to make the athlete move faster. But if we are not incorporating sprinting directly into the training plan, we are missing out on potential gains in performance.

Strength and power training will never come close to matching the requirements of running at high speeds. Having more maximal strength will help with sprinting, specifically in the acceleration phase, as strength is required for the athlete to overcome the inertia of their own body and start moving in the first place. And explosive power development will also feed into that to some degree. But even in the case of power training, where submaximal loads are moved with the highest intent, the speed of movement never comes close to that experienced in sprinting. In the case of plyometric training, which is a tool often used for power development, the slow stretch-shortening cycle activities have a ground contact of more than 0.25s, whereas the fast stretch-shortening cycle activities are slightly faster than 0.25s. These contact times are still far from the reported 0.08s. Speed training is the most specific training we can do to actually make the athletes move faster.

There is always the argument that sport-specific training will take care of the athletes running fast. But unless you’re a sprinter, how often are proper running mechanics and quality of running the focus of sport-specific training sessions? These sessions are for what the name states – sport specificity. Whereas most sports involve running, the emphasis will still be placed on specific sporting movements, techniques, and tactics. As such, training for speed in its own right is justified.

The structure of such training really depends on the demands of the sport and the specifics of the athlete. A thorough needs analysis is required to determine the present state. You would never train a sprinter for speed the same way you would develop the speed of a team sport's athlete.

A 100m sprinter starts from the blocks, they respond to an acoustic signal to start their sprint and perform a linear run for a predetermined distance. A team sport's athlete, such as a football player, will never start from the blocks and hardly even from a static position. They also don’t respond to an acoustic signal, but more often to a visual cue. Neither are the runs always linear, but more often the players are required to run in curved lines, sometimes control an instrument of the sport, such as a ball with the feet, and be prepared to decelerate, change direction, jump, throw, or kick the ball at any given point in time. They will also run as far as the task requires, which is rarely more than 50m, thus never actually reaching their maximum running velocity on the field.

The context is entirely different. The sprinter will have to train to start and exit the blocks effectively, accelerate effectively, run at maximum velocity effectively, and be able to maintain running at maximum velocity for the length of the race. A football player really only needs to emphasize acceleration, as this is the main form of speed in a team sport setting.

So what does an actual speed training session look like #

Regardless of whether you're dealing with an actual sprinter or someone who just has to run as part of their specific sport, technical sprint drills are often included in the session's warm-up. These drills include simplified or isolated versions of specific movements that occur during actual running. As such, they can be used to emphasize proper posture and limb mechanics.

Some of the most common drills are the Mach drills by a former Polish sprint coach Gerard Mach. The Mach drills are great to go over some of the technical concepts of sprinting.

The A drills are particularly popular due to the involvement of appropriate knee lift and hip extension pattern relevant to sprinting. These drills can be either done in marching, skipping, or running versions.

The marching A drill is good for beginners to focus on the correct path of limbs and introduce the concept of tall posture.

The skipping A drill achieves similar goals as the marching variation, but encourages higher movement velocities and force generation from limb movements to cause a dynamic skipping rhythm. A strong upward arm and leg movement by opposing limbs is combined with a strong downward arm and leg movement by the other limbs. The result is a snapping movement that pops the body upward on each foot contact.

The running A drill builds on the limb and postural mechanics of the 2 preceding drills but adds the element of limb velocity and running rhythm. In this drill, the athlete has to cycle the legs up and down aggressively to create significant downward force into the ground. Each ground contact makes use of the elastic properties of the lower legs and feet, which results in bouncing on every stride. The arms swing similarly in range to the marching and skipping A drills but are moving at a much higher frequency, matching the legs on every stride. A good target to aim for in this drill is to be able to complete at least 30 strides of the drill over a 10-meter distance.

In case of the A drills, it is important to note that whereas they can be effective, they are predominantly focusing on vertical force production. Sprinting, however, requires significant force production in both the vertical and horizontal directions. As such, it is worth considering the incorporation of exercises that help with horizontal force production, such as bounding for distance to name one.

Another drill often incorporated to address acceleration technique is the wall drill. This drill, however, does not involve the coordinated arm movements essential to effective sprinting. It can have a place in the overall training plan, but should be included with care.

It's important to remember that the drills are add-ons to target specific shortcomings or fill in the gaps in the athlete's technique. Drills on their own are hardly effective for speed development. Don't get lost in doing all the fancy sprint drills. To become faster you need to sprint fast.

In terms of the actual sprint work, improving sprinting requires maximum intensity and quality of movement. Technical quality is important and less is more. Higher training volume doesn’t necessarily mean greater improvements in speed development.

To maintain the quality of work, optimal rest periods are key. Derek Hansen has suggested using recovery periods of 1 minute per every 10 meters ran with maximal intent. For sub-maximal efforts, the rest periods can be shortened. For the maximal efforts of advanced athletes, the rest periods might even need to be made longer to account for the increased stress these athletes experience as they are able to produce more force and do it more effectively to reach very high movement velocities.

Additionally, having a proper loading strategy is necessary to get the most out of training. The 3 main approaches are the short-to-long approach, long-to-short approach, and the concurrent approach.

The Short-to-Long Approach #

This approach starts with short acceleration distances which are lengthened over time. The intensity of all accelerations should be 95-100% of maximal intensity and full recoveries after each sprint are required.

The intent with this approach is to build up the athlete to withstand high-intensity acceleration in an effort to attain maximal speeds. Accumulating high-intensity acceleration volume doesn’t just improve the athlete’s ability to accelerate, but it also strengthens the athlete’s CNS and the peripheral muscular system to handle the repeated demands of sprinting throughout a competitive phase. As such, this approach is desirable for team sports that require repeated short sprints throughout the contest duration.

Team sport athletes who employ the short-to long approach start with relatively short distances of 5 to 10 meters, working on reaction time, starting strength and explosive power. Running drills are incorporated to help establish proper posture and limb movement patterns from the outset. As the training program progresses, athletes cover distances of 20 to 40 meters since most team sport athletes will almost never need to sprint further.

The starts used by team sport athletes include a combination of hard and soft starts. Hard starts include all starts that require more strength and power, such as push-up starts and three-point starts, and are more suitable for shorter distances of 10 to 20 meters. Soft starts, such as falling starts, are employed when more energy must be applied over a longer sprint distance in training.

The Long-to-Short Approach #

In a long-to-short approach, athletes run distances longer than they would in competition and then gradually decrease the sprinting distance over time, increasing the velocities of the runs through the progression. The intent is to gradually approach the competition distance and desired velocity as the athlete works from a general preparatory phase to a competitive phase. Because lower velocities are applied in the early stages of a long-to-short program, recovery times can be shortened significantly between repetitions and sets.

The Concurrent Approach #

A concurrent approach combines aspects of both short-to-long and long-to-short training to arrive at a training program tailored to the needs of the athlete and the constraints of a particular training location. The concurrent approach works well for athletes who require greater development of both the alactic and lactic anaerobic energy systems for competition distances between 100 and 400 meters. Longer sprints also have the effect of teaching athletes to relax through the effort and manage their energy over a given distance. Relaxation is a key component to effective sprinting.

In the end, which approach is used does not matter as long as the training has the desired effect, which is the improvement of performance in competition.

Sample Short-to-Long Speed Session for Team Sports in a 10 Meter Emphasis Phase #

Sample Short-to-Long Speed Session for 100-Meter Sprint in a 0 to 30 Meter Emphasis Phase #

The described sample sessions are just simple examples of how to integrate the concepts discussed above. Speed development is a very complex topic and many layers can be added on to what has been included in this article. By no means is this all there is to it. It's worth considering however, if making things more complicated is actually worth it.

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