Introduction – The Truth about Getting Faster. It is common for people to think of elite sprinters as having the ‘natural’ gift of speed, and in many respects, this is true. Genetics are probably the most important determinant of sprinting potential. However, what many people don’t know is that it can take anywhere from five to ten years – or even longer – to develop a world class sprinter to his or her potential. Some of today’s top sprinters in the world are in their early- to mid-thirties, and still haven’t achieved the peak achievement of their career. This tendency for sprinters to develop late in their careers has important implications for athletes in other sports who want to improve on the sprinting capabilities.
One of the most important facts about sprinting is that speed is an acquired skill. This means that in order to reach your full sprinting potential, you have to work hard to develop a number of key athletic qualities, including:
- Technique and Posture
- Neuromuscular Recruitment
- Maximal Strength
- Flexibility for Increased Range-of-Motion
These athletic qualities will be explained in greater detail, along with tips for enhancing each quality, later in this article. But first, it is important to learn what kind of sprinting capabilities team sport athletes need to enhance their performance in their sport.
Training for the Right Kind of Speed. You can’t train a team sport athlete exactly like a 100m sprinter. A 100m sprinter is trained to run as fast as possible over the entire 100m distance, managing his/her energy supply and technique to get the most out of his/her body. In most team sports, there is no possibility that a player will need to sprint at 100% effort for 100m. You will rarely see a team sport athlete sprint at max effort for more than 10-20m. Only for specific situations, such as a breakaway in soccer or a long pass in football, will a longer sprint come into play, and even then, the sprint will not be much longer than 30 to 40m. Thus, sprint training should reflect these aspects of the sport.
This brings us to the concept of “speed reserve” introduced by Canadian sprint coach, Charlie Francis. If we assume that most team sports are performed at 60-80% of top speed, the goal should be to increase top speed ability so that sub-maximal runs are also faster in speed. Increasing top speed, increases the “speed reserve” available for sub-maximal activities, as shown in Figure 1. By increasing top speed, not only are athletes able to perform at lower speeds more effectively, but also more efficiently so that they can perform at these speeds for longer (i.e. throughout an entire competition). This concept is consistently demonstrated when mature athletes compete against adolescent athletes. The maximal abilities of the mature athletes are so far above those of the young athletes that when they compete together, the mature athletes can literally “jog” throughout the competition, never really get tired, and still compete well above the abilities of the younger athletes.
Figure 1 illustrates the difference in velocity between an athlete’s linear 40-yard sprint, and the same athlete’s velocity during a running play carried out in an actual football game. When compared to his top speed, it is apparent that this athlete does not run at the same speed during a game – primarily due to the fact that there are other people on the field trying to tackle him. Some coaches may argue that because he only run’s at 6 to 8 m/s when playing football, there is no need for him to train at faster speeds. I would argue that increasing his ability to accelerate to beyond 10 m/s will enhance his ability to be effective at lower game velocities, and make it easier to maintain those game speeds throughout the entire game.
Technique and Posture. In most game situations, athletes are required to run fast over a short distance from a standing or jogging start. So, acceleration is a relatively significant aspect of game play. An important point to remember is that accelerating requires you to move the full weight of your body quickly over a given distance. This can be achieved quite easily by simply adjusting your posture. The optimal body position for accelerating is a lean position at approximately 450 from the ground. As the body begins to accelerate and greater speeds are attained, the athlete’s posture will slowly begin to become more upright. This type of acceleration posture is why Track and Field sprinters use starting blocks. The blocks put the athlete in a lean position and allow him/her to make use of the strong hip extension muscles (i.e. gluteus maximus) to apply force to move the body forward. The lean posture also takes advantage of gravity’s pull on your body.
Drills for Acceleration and Speed. A few simple drills that will help build proper technique and power for accelerating effectively are presented below.
- Push Up Start. The “push-up start” drill can be performed slowly or in one quick motion. When first performing this drill, it is good to work through it slowly. Get the athlete to start on the ground, push up into an extended position and then step – so that the foot is either under or behind the hip. From this position, the athlete can start quickly into a sprint. The cues that you are providing the athlete out of the start are:
- The hand on the same side of the front foot should lift off the ground and fire forward explosively. Once you lift the hand, the body will follow suit.
- Keep the head in line with the spine. If the athlete lifts the head too soon, he/she will stand upright and lose their optimal acceleration position.
- In the acceleration position, the hands will cycle in front of the body – from your hips to in front of your face – to ensure that more weight is positioned forward. The athlete should feel like they are being pulled forward.
You can also start the athletes explosively from the full down position. This works well because they will naturally assume the correct sprint position as they accelerate off the ground. The less you can get them to think about the technique – especially at full speed – the better off they will be.
- Med-Ball Push Start. This drill is used to develop starting strength and overall power. The athlete starts by holding the ball high under the chin in a slight crouch posture. In order to get into the optimal posture for starting, the athlete will fall forward slowly and then launch the ball forward. The throw should feel like a pulse originating from a two-footed push (even though the feel can be staggered). The pulse-like throw will allow the athlete to extend their body quickly, but still permit them to get into stride quickly and accelerate.
- Falling Start. The previous two drills involve greater strength and exertion. This drill allows the athlete to accelerate with relaxed form – with the focus being on good technical execution. In a semi-crouch position, both hands are kept in front of the body to ensure that more weight is situated forward. The athlete then begins to fall forward, and fires the hand on the same side of the front foot to help extend the body forward into the acceleration position. As with previous drills, the hands cycle from the hip to in front of the face to ensure that weight is distributed forward. The emphasis is on leg turnover and relaxed form, not pushing or struggling.
Neuromuscular Recruitment – Training Your Brain for Speed. The most important thing to remember about getting faster is: “In order to improve your speed, you must run fast in training.” So, running up and down a track or a field at 60-70% of your max speed will not make you a faster runner. You must run in the realm of 95-100% effort to make advances in sprinting speed. In effect, you need to train your brain to activate and recruit your fast twitch muscle fibers to move your body quickly. The more muscle fibers you ‘teach’ your brain to recruit, the faster you will be able to accelerate. But in order to train at this high intensity, you must be fresh and well rested before each workout, and each rep. A few key tips to remember when planning and implementing sprint workouts are presented below:
- Emphasize “quality” for each sprint. Sprint at 100% for the entire distance. Remember, if you don’t run fast, you won’t get faster.
- Adequate rest and recovery between sprints should be incorporated into your program. Rest at least 90 seconds between sprints. Don’t rush through a speed workout. Adequate rest and recovery should also be provided between workouts. Don’t do two sprint workouts on consecutive days. It takes 48 hours for the central nervous system to recover from high intensity sprint training.
- One way to motivate yourself to run faster is to race against or chase your teammates for the sprint drills. This will ensure that you are giving each sprint 100% effort.
- The total volume for individual sprint workouts should not exceed 300m for team sports athletes (i.e. 10 reps of 30m sprints, or 3 sets of 5×20m sprints). The neuromuscular system becomes very fatigued beyond this point for the average team sport athlete, the body cannot produce 100% effort consistently, and technique becomes sloppy (potentially resulting in poor technique).
Maximal Strength Development. In order to accelerate your body weight, you must be strong enough to exert the required force. Maximal strength must be achieved over the ranges of motion required for effective sprinting. Most athletes can do exercises with their own bodyweight to develop the necessary strength requirements for sprinting. Squatting, lunging and jumping drills can be used to develop necessary leg strength. Push-ups, dips and pull-ups are good for preparing the upper body for the rigors of sprinting. Various abdominal exercises can be performed to train the hip flexor strength required for driving the knees high in the acceleration phase of sprinting. You don’t need fancy equipment to develop strength – you just need a bit of hard work and a well-planned program.
Using free weights is also a good way to develop the strength and coordination required for sprinting. The following primary weightlifting categories make up a well-rounded program for developing strength and explosive power:
- Squats – Including back squats, front squats, overhead squats and lunging movements.
- Pulls – Including deadlifts, cleans and snatches.
- Presses – Including bench press, incline press, shoulder press, and jerk press.
In order to contribute to the development of your sprinting abilities, these lifts must be conducted at a high intensity (85-100% of max), for low reps (2-5 reps) and with adequate recovery between lifts (2 to 5 minutes).
Explosive and Elastic Power. Jump exercises and medicine ball throws are effective means of training starting strength and explosiveness. If using jumps (or plyometrics), it is advisable to follow a gradual progression of work to ensure that athletes do not experience overuse or stress injuries, particularly in the feet, ankles and knees. An example of how to progress with your jump program is provided below:
Phase 1 – Jumps Up (3 to 6 weeks) – All jumps in this phase are performed up onto some form of box, platform or steps. The idea is that athletes can work on jumping explosively upward without having to deal with the undesirable side effects of absorbing all of the landings from a significant height. You can have an athlete jump onto a box, then step down and repeat more jumps (i.e. 6-10 jumps each set). Jumps up can be done from a crouch position, with a counter-movement, with a step in, or with several small jumps preceding the jump up.
Phase 2 – Jumps Over (3 to 5 weeks) – Jumps in this phase are done over distance across a gym floor, rubberized surface or grass/turf field. They can consist of jumps over hurdles, cones or other safe obstacles. You can also hop or bound over a distance in series of 6 to 15 hops/bounds. The idea is to focus on quickness/quality of ground contacts while maintaining horizontal velocity.
Phase 3 – Jumps Down (3 to 6 weeks) – These jumps focus on elastic strength and the ability to rebound off the ground after jumping down from a height. Box heights should be no higher than 18 to 20 inches, with athletes starting at very low heights (i.e. 10 to 12 inches). The choice of box height should be based on the quality of jump up off the ground observed by the coach. Athletes should be rebounding quickly off the ground. If the ground contact is long, loud or slapping, the athlete is likely working with boxes that are too high for their capabilities.
Medicine ball throws can be used as preparatory work for jump training. Explosive MD ball throws typically involve the same mechanics as sprinting or jumping and can be a good way to develop effective starting and acceleration abilities. Push throws or reverse overhead heave throws are some of the more common explosive throws. Rotational throws and additional abdominal based work can be added to develop overall strength in movements related to your sporting event.
Flexibility – Increasing Range of Motion. There are two ways to run faster: one way is to increase stride frequency, and the other is to increase stride length. Maintaining a regular stretching and flexibility program is one of the less strenuous ways of making yourself a faster sprinter. As your flexibility increases, you will become more accustomed to applying force over an increased range of motion and, in total, generate more force over each sprinting stride.
Your flexibility program should be two pronged – (1) work on passive stretching outside of your regular training activities, stretching at least once a day, with stretches held for 60 seconds; and (2) work on dynamic flexibility during your warm-up and workout routines, doing gentle arm and leg swings and rotations, working on the elastic properties of your muscles and connective tissues. These activities will also contribute to the prevention of injuries.
Conclusion. Every athlete has the ability to increase his or her sprinting and accelerating capabilities. You simply need to work hard and work smart. The strategies presented in this paper can provide you with a starting point for your training program. Even minor adjustments in posture and technique can make you a better sprinter after just one training session. Finally, remember to warm-up sufficiently before doing a sprint training session. Gradually, build up to higher intensities throughout your warm-up before going ‘all-out’ in the workout. A proper warm-up before competition will also contribute towards enhanced performances in games.
Derek Hansen works with athletes in all sports, including the Canadian National Team. To read more from Derek, go to http://www.strengthpowerspeed.com/