Discover the science and strategy behind boosting your sprint speed in our latest blog post. We delve into the essence of stride length and frequency, and how you can harness their power to maximize your sprinting prowess. But there's more - learn how to increase your force output, and why developing force rapidly is critical for speed. If you're an athlete seeking to improve your performance or an everyday runner wanting to up your pace, our expert guidance on acceleration and maximum velocity mechanics is the game changer you've been looking for. Dive in and let's get faster, together!
Speed training. This probably is the most asked about topic I get from my athletes. Even a lot of adult athletes are runners. So, when they find out they can reduce their knee pain while running, they are all ears. Today, I’m not necessarily going to talk about pain management and running, although effective training will help. I want to go into some detail about why you should train for speed and how exactly to do that.
When we talk about speed training, we are mostly talking about sprint training. Obviously you have to learn how to change direction at some point; however, let’s take this one step at a time. There’s two main components of the sprint. There is the acceleration phase, or drive phase. Then, there is your upright, max velocity sprinting.
Some individuals out there, I won’t name names, are under the assumption that acceleration is the end all be all for speed training. If you can only choose one, if your life depended on it, and if you had to swear on your mother’s grave, they will argue that acceleration should be your path to getting faster and you can disregard upright, maximum velocity sprint training. I don’t agree with these individuals, and we will discuss why in just a little bit. But, let’s talk about what we are trying to do when we engage in speed training.
At the end of the day it comes down to two things: stride length and stride frequency. Stride length is the distance between each consecutive leg cycle and stride frequency is how often those strides occur. Why do we want to increase these things? Well, I’m sure it’s easy to imagine that if you take longer strides at a higher rate than another individual, then there is a good chance you will be faster than them.
To put this into perspective, an elite sprinters stride length is approximately 2.70m on average. A novice sprinter only manages 2.56m. Me, personally, I’d be happy to be over 2m. Those are just wonderful numbers, aren’t they? Unfortunately, they don’t mean anything unless we know how to change them.
So, how does one increase their stride length? For starters, increasing the amount of force you can put into the ground would be a great start. Force is any sort of push or pull that is exerted by one object (you) on another (the ground) in a particular direction (hopefully forwards). It was noted by my friends at the NSCA that to achieve these stride lengths, elite sprinters best friend was the amount of vertical force placed into the ground. However, force is not the whole picture when it comes to improving sprint ability.
The rate of force development is another important piece of the sprinting puzzle. Rate of force development is a fancy term for the rate at which force gets produced. In terms of force, maximum force production actually doesn’t matter much when it comes to sprinting. A strongman squatting 1000lbs probably won’t be faster than Usain Bolt squatting 405lbs. What does matter is being able to produce as much force as possible as quickly as possible. So, our training has to account for this. If all you’re doing is heavy squats and heavy sled pushes in the weight room, chances are you aren’t going to improve your sprinting ability much. It turns out that producing maximal force can take up to 300 milliseconds to produce and most sporting movements occur within less than 200 milliseconds.
You didn’t come here for a lecture, you came here to get faster. I’m going to teach you about the three ways to improve your sprinting ability: improve your rate of force development in the weight room, improve your acceleration mechanics, and improve your maximum velocity mechanics.
My statement earlier against heavier squats does not mean that heavy squatting will make you slow. Actually, that’s the exact opposite of true. Lifting heavy weights (above 85% of your max for 5 or fewer repetitions) will help improve your sprinting ability when done correctly. If you pair heavy weights, fast concentric movements (the point in the lift where you actually move the weight in a positive direction), and jumping together, then you’ll have just stumbled on a pretty potent formula for speed.
For weight lifting, here are some guidelines for making your strength translate to speed:
Why the rush to get down and up in your lifts? Well, it goes back to this concept of the stretch-shortening cycle of your muscles. Essentially, you want your muscles to have an elastic quality, almost like a rubber band. They should be able to rapidly snap force into the ground, like when you stretch a rubber band and then let it go. It turns out that lifting in a way that mimics the motion of a rubber band with a quick negative and quick concentric movement does that.
Speaking of this stretch-shortening cycle concept, jumping helps too. Pairing your weightlifting movements with jumps, especially depth-jumps, is going to be key for improving sprinting ability. Use vertical jumps to improve max velocity sprinting and horizontal (broad) jumps to improve acceleration ability.
Want to combine heavy weightlifting and jumping for the maximum benefit? Try olympic lifts! Olympic lifts are proven to improve the firing frequency and rate of force development in all of the muscles that mean the most to sprinting: the core, hips, and legs.
Also, mobility is going to be one of your best friends. If you can’t drive your knee high or effectively extend your hip, then you’re going to be out of luck when it comes to having good sprinting mechanics and force production. Here are a few stretches that will improve your mobility for sprinting:
When you’re on the field, how should you train? Well the answer is both simple and complex all at the same time. Firstly, what are we even trying to do when we do speed training? Well, most importantly, we are trying to improve our mechanics. It turns out that if you don’t improve your mechanics, but you try to lengthen your stride, you can actually decrease your stride frequency and lead yourself vulnerable to injury. This is usually in the form of overstriding, and you don’t want to be an overstrider, even though it sounds kind of cool.
Also, we are trying to improve the rate of force development and stretch-shortening cycle like I mentioned before. Now, instead of weights, we are using our body and incorporating even more plyometrics (jumping) into our speed sessions. Drills like jumps and bounds will be great for improving our neuromuscular efficiency. Don’t know what that is? Check out my blog on neurons.
Your warm up should have your most basic mechanics drills (don’t forget your activation circuit!). Then, you should move onto your plyometrics, and then your actual sprinting. Focuse on the things you suck at first, and then hone in on more complex activities. For almost everything, you should be using a work-to-rest ratio around 1-3 to 1-4. Use more rest for more intense activities, like actually sprinting. Speaking of which, only sprint as the last thing you do once you’ve done your warmup and plyos.
But, John, there are so many things to do, how do I know what to put where and who to do what!?
Simple, break it up into two different speed days to keep you organized. One, is for acceleration, and the other is for maximum velocity.
What even is acceleration anyway? We are going to talk about the exact mechanics next week. For the moment, just understand that it is the beginning of your sprint when you are trying to increase your speed from 0 to more than 0. Acceleration is the change of velocity of an object (hopefully, it’s increasing and doing so quickly). Velocity is simply speed in a direction (again, hopefully this is forwards).
Acceleration is vital to sports and also to sprinting really fast. Most of your time trying to catch someone or get away from your defender will be spent in this phase of your sprint. The highest rates of acceleration occur within the first 8-10 strides taken by an athlete. Up to 75% of max running speed occurs within the first 10 yards (if you don’t suck at accelerating). However, acceleration and max velocity running are trained differently.
When we train acceleration, we need to use drills that align with the mechanics that are used during the acceleration phase, or drive phase, of your sprint.
Like I said, velocity is speed in a certain direction. Maximum velocity sprinting is just that: the mechanics you use when running at your highest speed. We will discuss upright mechanics in the next blog. For now, just know that it is different than accelerating and needs to be trained differently.
I mentioned earlier how some people don’t think max velocity sprint training is just as important as acceleration. I said I don’t agree, and here is why. If you watch athletes move most of the time, they are jogging. They are not sprinting and they are not accelerating. They spend most of their time in a less-than-max intensity, upright run. Max velocity training has a direct impact on this form of running mechanic. So, max velocity training will make every athlete more efficient and able to last longer on the field. Also, it will save their joints from unnecessary wear and tear of running like a buffoon. And, it makes you faster. So, there you go. I’m right, they’re wrong.
Maximum velocity is usually reached within 4-5 seconds of your sprint. According to the NSCA, there is no exercise that “improves running velocity more than maximum-velocity sprinting,” (NSCA).
How will you know that you’re getting faster? Well, the best way is to time your runs. But, be careful, it is very important that you’re standardizing your testing procedure (making sure all tests are done the same way) to ensure that your results aren’t skewed.
A great way to do this is with a 60 yard dash. It is easy to find a field with marked lines, like a football field, and doing a 60 yard dash will make sure you get to top speed, unlike the 40. Also, make sure you use the same stance. I suggest using the traditional 3-point stance.
Look, here’s the deal. I just gave you a framework made of solid gold to help you get faster. If you can’t get faster now, there is nothing I can do for you (except personally train you, which I do offer, if you’re interested).
Brown, L. E., & Ferrigno, V. (2005). Training for speed, agility, and quickness. Champaign, IL, IL: Human Kinetics.
Haff, G., & Triplett, N. T. (2016). Essentials of strength training and conditioning. Champaign, IL, IL: Human Kinetics.
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