Speed Training for Athletes

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Track and field coaches divide sprint training into three components; acceleration, maximum velocity, and speed endurance. Acceleration is the process of increasing your velocity. Maximum velocity is running all out. Speed endurance is your ability to maintain your maximum velocity. For a sprinter, all three are important. For a jumper, they may just focus their training on the first two.

For non-track and field athletes, this is a little more difficult of a concept. A world-class sprinter may take 60-80 meters to reach maximum velocity. The truth is that the faster someone can sprint, the longer it takes them to reach maximum velocity. The distinction between acceleration and maximum velocity sounds like splitting hairs, but it’s actually important because sprinting technique is a little different between the two.

During pure acceleration, the first few steps, the athlete is low to the ground. They are focusing heavily on front-side mechanics while sprinting (i.e. knee up, toe up, pushing the body as they sprint). As their velocity increases, they become more upright and as that happens they begin to focus on backside mechanics as well (bring the heel to the hip, drive the foot down towards the ground using the hip muscles). Their sprinting focuses on pushing and pulling the body along.

Outside of track and field, rarely do athletes get to run in a perfectly straight line for 60 to 80 meters. Athletes have to take a few steps, change directions, react to situations, and factor the ball into the equation. This has led to the thought that athletes don’t need to perform maximum velocity work in their speed training.

The challenge here is that maximum velocity is the goal whether the athlete takes three steps or runs for 100 meters, in other words this is where the athlete is attempting to get to. The other challenge is that after 5-10 meters, the athlete will be running upright and will be using both front side and backside mechanics even though they aren’t at maximum velocity yet.

What this means is that by failing to focus on some maximum velocity training, we may not be preparing our athletes for outliers during the game (i.e. there are times when people make mistakes and the athlete gets to run flat out for 40 meters) and we are not preparing our athletes to be running with proper technique. All of this combined can limit performance and increase the odds of injuries.

With training time being limited, there are a number of tools that can be used to help focus on this without devoting an exhausting amount of time to it. These include:
• Sprinting technique drills: Technique drills are done at slower speed than sprinting and break the motion down into its components. These can be used as warm-up, mobility work, and to reinforce proper technique. Note that these are not a substitute for sprinting, but when combined with the other tools can be very effective at reinforcing good habits.

• 40-60 meter sprints: The best way to train athletes to run at maximum velocity is to have them do it. Sprints at this distance require a serious warm-up, must be done at 100%, require full recovery, and the coach must consistently focus on good technique. Performing a thorough warm-up, three to five of these sprints, then doing some shin splint/hamstring work will make a very effective speed training session.

• Flying sprints: After the athlete has consistent technique, these can be introduced into their speed training. This is a little more game-specific in that the athlete must learn to run in different gears. Classically this involves a 20-40 meter run up, followed by sprinting 20-40 meters all out. But, this approach can be modified for athletes to reinforce the need to change gears while having great technique. Again, three to five of these sandwiched in between a warm-up and injury prevention exercises makes an effective workout. For example:

o 20 meter run up
o 10 meters all out
o 10 meter jog
o 10 meters all out
o Etc.

A few quick principles for the strength coach when it comes to speed training in general:

• More is not better. More leads to fatigue, which leads to poor mechanics and learning to run slowly. Both of these are things we don’t want to teach. If our intent is to work on speed, focus on quality over quantity. If our intent is to work on conditioning and mental toughness, then that’s something else but the downside is that by doing 50 40-yard sprints (for example), we’re teaching bad habits.

• Full recovery. Give the athletes two to three minutes between each sprint so they are able to run with good mechanics and at full speed.

• Promote competition. Athletes will perform better with competition, whether it’s against other athletes or against the stopwatch.

• Strengthen the hamstrings. The hamstrings need to be strong in a lengthened position. Lots of RDLs, good mornings, back raises, etc. should be used in a program.

• Focus on one speed quality in each workout. Have a day devoted to acceleration, a day devoted to maximum velocity, etc. You can have more than one day each week devoted to the same thing, but the idea is to focus the athlete in each session. A sample week for a typical field sport athlete might look like:

o Monday: Lower body weights, acceleration
o Tuesday: Upper body weights
o Wednesday: Conditioning
o Thursday: Lower body weights, maximum velocity
o Friday: Upper body weights
o Saturday: Acceleration, plyos

John M. Cissik is Director of Fitness and Recreation at Texas Woman’s University in Denton, Texas and founder of Human Performance Services, LLC, a limited liability company established to provide athletes and their coaches a resource to aid in improving their athletic performance and to develop research based strength and conditioning programming.


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