Almost every sport involves an element of speed, whether it’s sprinting to a loose ball or flying past a competitor in the last hundred meters of a race, speed is a key component in nearly all sports. A review of literature on the topic shows that many coaches consider speed the most important of athletic abilities. Despite its importance, many programs do not put emphasis on speed training or speed training is not implemented as effectively as possible. Some equate this to the common misconception that speed cannot be trained. While there is certain genetic limitation on every athlete’s abilities, acceleration and top speed can both be greatly enhanced through proper training.
There are three main types of speed in the running world. There is accelerative speed: how fast one can move their body from rest to top end speed; absolute speed: the speed at which an athlete is traveling once they have stopped accelerating; and speed endurance: the athlete’s ability to delay deceleration after absolute speed is reached.1 Spring sports such as baseball and softball generally only require acceleration training while in lacrosse more of the absolute speed and speed endurance come into play.
Just as one must master the proper golf swing before achieving excellence on the fairway, an athlete must become proficient in proper sprinting mechanics before any sort of improvement can be expected. It is for this reason that the basics of sprinting must first be addressed before speed training can take place. Although some sports such as lacrosse require something to be occupying the attention of the arms these guidelines should be held in mind for every athletic endeavor. Proper sprinting mechanics for during acceleration requires:
- The body to be at a 45 degree to the ground
- Big, strong, powerful steps driving the legs creating a 90 degree angle at the knee
- Extension of the hip, knee, and ankle when pushing off the ground
- The foot in a dorsi-flexed (pulling the foot up) position during knee drive
- Big arm swings, with the elbows reaching shoulder height ideally at a 90 degree angle.2
Proper sprinting mechanics during absolute speed do not change except that:
- The body has an erect posture
- The foot plants under the knee and drives down and back. Cycling back by snapping the heel up to the butt and back out in front to plant under the knee again.2
Once these mechanics have been deemed acceptable speed development training may commence. Boo Schexnayder, the jumping coach of the LSU track team who recently coached team USA at the 2008 Beijing Olympics also trains his athletes to increase their speed as it is an integral part of jumping. Coach Schexnayder does this by training all three types of speeds separately, although for athletic purposes coaches may easily mix these different types of speed in practice and still observe quantifiable results.
To train accelerative speed Coach Schexnayder has his athletes use starting blocks or begin from a three point football stance and accelerate with good form anywhere from 10-40 meters. 40 meters is the longest distance an athlete needs to reach their absolute speed and therefore repetitions should fall within this range. Speed cannot be trained slowly and for that reason quality should always take precedence over quantity. Once the athletes begin to tire the training must be concluded. Coaches can also use weight sleds to mimic the angle that acceleration takes place at and provide additional resistance to the specific muscles targeted during acceleration, for very ambitious coaches or athletes running stadiums simulate the mechanics that are used during acceleration however these are very challenging and sometimes dangerous, if used no more than 7 or 8 repetitions should be done. A similar and more accessible way to practice the technical aspect of acceleration speed is by doing hill sprints, the athlete will be forced to drive the knees at an angle similar to that of acceleration sprinting.
Absolute speed obviously can only take place after acceleration has been achieved and therefore absolute speed training is an extension of acceleration training. Sprinting intervals from 40-60 meters is considered absolute speed training, anything more than 60 meters is speed endurance. Absolute speed training should be kept between 6-10 repetitions, and a greater rest period should be given to ensure quality of work.
Finally, speed endurance can be tailored to the sport at hand. If there is more running then the endurance aspect may be emphasized more by increasing the number of repetitions. However always keep in mind that to be fast you must train fast and repetitions should not drop much below maximal sprinting effort. For this reason Coach Schexnayder says that three sessions of acceleration, absolute, or speed endurance training a week is sufficient. If employed in the appropriate manner these training sessions can result in a much stronger, faster, and more agile athlete.
Speed plays a role in almost every sport. It can determine who wins the loose ball, who is safe at home, and who crosses the finish line first. Before speed can be enhanced good sprinting mechanics must first be observed. Every athlete has their limits, but nearly everyone can improve upon all three aspects of their speed with proper training.
1. Schexnayder, Boo. Gaining Ground: Speed Development for the Horizontal Jumper. Techniques. LSU Sports Information. August 2007. Accessed April 15, 2013. http://sacspeed.com/pdf/Speeddevelopment.pdf
2. Mac, Brian. Speed Training. Brian Mac Sports Coach. Accessed April 15, 2013 http://www.brianmac.co.uk/speed.htm