Improving your speed

Mar 24, 2017

Speed is needed in every sport. A football receiver needs it to run down a pass, a baseball player needs it to run the bases or track down a fly ball, a tennis player needs it to return a serve. It is important to maintain your speed training throughout the year so your muscles and nervous system always keep the feeling of moving fast. You can develop this skill using sprint drills – an effective way to train your body to move quickly.

An athlete’s mobility, core strength, strength endurance and technique influence speed.

  • Mobility is your ability to move freely.
  • Core strength is your structural foundation for sport.
  • Strength endurance is being able to maintain your strength for a long time.
  • Technique is how well you move without losing ideal form.

Be sure that you develop all these aspects before and throughout sprint training.

The development of speed is very specific and to achieve it, be sure that:

  • Flexibility is developed and maintained all year.
  • Strength and speed are developed at the same time.
  • Skill development (technique) is learned first, rehearsed and perfected before you add high levels of speed.
  • Speed training includes fast and short sprints so your nerve, muscle, and energy systems can adapt and develop.

The muscles of the core stabilize the trunk during locomotion and assist in rapid and powerful leg and arm action. Be sure to address postural needs first (core) before any intense sprinting is done in practice. The strength to stabilize your trunk is used to transfer forces from your limbs, and important for improving speed. When you start a sprint, you actually extend (straighten) your ankle, knee and hip. While stopping you instead flex (bend) the same three muscles. These triple extension and flexion muscles need to be worked in the weight room through maximal strength and acceleration; two closely related areas. Spend time developing maximal strength through traditional exercises such as squatting and different types of Olympic lifting movements.

Proper rest times are another important aspect of sprint training. When planning a training week, speed work should be done after a rest period or light training. Be sure that any other training that day is low in intensity. As with all exercise, during a sprint training session include a good warm up of the entire body.

Developing speed is done year round with variations of the amount of sprinting, the distance of sprints, and the rest time between each. Generally during the offseason, you perform longer sprints with less rest time between to build a sprinting foundation. In preseason, the sprint distance is shortened and the rest time increases to develop strength endurance. During the season, the sprint distance is very short and you want more recovery time to develop explosive power. For sports with short spurts of speed, the recovery time can remain short so it is more realistic to competition.

The actual distance of these sprints depends on the sport you are training for. For example, a marathon runner would consider an 800m a short sprint while a rugby player would think of a 400m as a long sprint. In fact, if you are not a distance runner, there is no need to run long distances. Training at significantly longer distances with a slow pace reduces the explosive part of speed. When using any type of running for conditioning, condition for your sport. You can get in shape using many exercises that encourage explosive power instead of slow aerobic running. Talk to your coach about exercises and distances that are best for your sport.

To improve your speed, follow these general principles:

  • Choose a realistic goal for your event and then work on running at speeds that are faster than your goal for short distances.
  • Teach your body to train at your goal pace so your coordination, confidence and stamina are at the speed you want to be at.
  • To work on your cardiovascular capacity and maximum intensity level, include some light pace runs to allow recovery from the speed sessions. 
  • Always work on range of motion (mobility) in all joints to prevent injuries and improve speed. The hips are especially important because they affect your ability to reach maximum speeds. 

Technique is the most important part of sprinting that needs to be practiced over and over at slow speeds. Taking time to develop the proper positions of running makes an easier transition to maximum speed sprints. It is not fully understood why but your coordination and timing of nerves and muscles must be practiced at higher speeds to establish the correct patterns of movement for performance.

Sprinting speed can be developed in a number of ways including downhill sprints, stadium stairs, wind sprints, and sprinting.

Hill Training: Should be done with no more than a 15° decline for 40-60 metres and then maintain your top speed for another 30 metres; Rest for 1-2 minutes before repeating for a total of 5 sets. Downhill training can be a safer alternative to developing sprint speed as long as you are in good condition, have a proper warm up, and use a grass-cushioned hill.

Stadium Stairs: This drill is great to focus on powering through the sprinting motion when pushing your leg back. Be sure to have good form and full mobility as you swing your arms with the elbows staying at 90o. Power up 30-40 steps, walking back down and repeat the cycle for a total of 5 sets. 

Wind Sprints: This drill will help add resistance to your sprints so you can improve both the strength and speed of your strides. The “wind” can be provided by a strong head wind, a training parachute, or a trail runner wearing a harness and breaking behind you. Sprint at top speed into the resistance for 15 to 30 seconds, rest for 1-2 minutes and repeat for a total of 4-5 sets. 

Sprinting: To improve how to sprint, you need to sprint (principle of specificity). Follow the general guidelines for the season you are in when considering length of sprint and amount of rest time. To add a challenge to your sprinting, perform a 50-60 metre sprint followed by fast lunges (10 per leg) and calf raises (10 per leg); Rest for 1-2 minutes and repeat 4-5 times. Fast lunges are performed by standing in the typical lunge position (front leg bent at 90 degrees, rear leg for balance) and quickly switching leg positions while remaining in the same spot. Calf raises are performed by exploding onto your toe in a standing position and holding for 3 seconds.

Sprinting and changing direction is a common part of sport. It is used for all types of athletes to catch a ball, run the bases, and get in position to hit. You can develop this skill throughout all your seasons using over speed assistance, stairs, or resistance. All athletes benefit from including this type of training to their program. Remember that to perform at your best you must maintain the need to train speed!