We all know what everyone says, speed is the name of the game. If you are talking professional sports, speed can also make you millions of dollars. Unfortunately, what we see in successful athletes isn’t always speed per se but a combination of multiple factors. For some field sports that involve more space, linear speed is real and definitely valuable. In some sports, athletes never get into full sprint mechanics, so the speed and quickness is about a number of factors, like brake/deceleration mechanics, reaction/movement time, or coordination and efficient movement patterns. For the sake of simplicity, I want to talk about training linear speed.
I for one have been a big proponent of the strength model for improvements in speed. I don’t believe enough athletes have maximized strength and power in their legs, especially the posterior chain to elicit their top speed. This is by no means the be all and end all of speed training, but a very simple place to start. While I’ve found that these increases in strength have high carryover for field sports performance, i’m not afraid to say that i’m always learning and trying to get the best approach for my athletes.
I recently came across a really interesting article in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise (Feb 2011) that may clarify the speed training game some more. In the study, researchers took a handful of physically active males and had them run sprints on a calibrated treadmill and track. They were able to calculate sprint times, ground reaction forces (the amount of force put into the ground by the athlete), vertical forces, and net horizontal forces. They computed ratios of the forces, then further determined a ‘force application technique variable’. What they found was that actual sprint performance was highly correlated with the variable of technique rather than the total amount of ground reaction forces.
What does this mean for coaches and athletes? Well, it means that we need to continue to spend time developing proper sprint mechanics to ensure athletes who need to work on linear speed are applying their forces in the best manner, not just the highest amount. When running mechanics are improved, then the application of greater levels of force will continue to improve sprint performance. This also tells me that the approach of running repeated sprints in order to improve speed WITHOUT supervision is not an appropriate method of improvement.
You may improve conditioning, but if everyone could improve their mechanics by just trying to run fast, we would have many more athletes running 4.4s or 10s 100m dash times. I once read a strength and conditioning program for an NFL team where the approach to speed development was the repeated practice of long sprints. “In order to get fast, you need to practice moving fast’ was the philosophy. This new research tells us that unless we are actually altering our biomechanics in a positive way, we may just be tiring ourselves out.