Speed is the name of the game, whether we are talking about an offensive lineman or a first baseman, faster is always better. The quest for speed has developed some very unique training methods to enhance it. What we tell our athletes is that the base of speed is always strength! What we do in the weight room is the foundation of everything that we do on the field to develop/improve speed. The speed development element in our program only works if the athlete is following through with his or her commitment in the weight room.
Depending on the time of year, and where we are during the training macrocycle, we will implement between 2 and 4 “speed-training” days each week. Each day will feature a different theme or focus such as plyometrics, agility, acceleration/deceleration, and even a speed circuit. Regardless of the training theme for the day, each workout begins with a dynamic warm-up and sprint mechanics/technique drills. At least 10 minutes each day is spent working “stationary” and “moving” sprint mechanics. The stationary sprint mechanics start with a series of arm drills and will progress through several variations of stationary and wall-sprinting movements. The moving sprint mechanics always includes different variations of “flying 20s” and several rotating series of starting and acceleration drills. Through repetition, most of our athletes develop outstanding running mechanics, no matter how slow they are! Our upperclassmen probably hear the cues “knee up toe up,” “drive the arms back,” “cycle the feet through,” and “drive the hips forward” in their sleep.
Taking the time to teach and develop proper linear running mechanics is essential to the overall development of an athlete; this is why we attempt to build it in to each of our speed, agility, and quickness sessions. Just as we would never allow an athlete to use bad technique in the weight room performing a squat or a snatch, we will not allow them to run with improper sprint mechanics either. At this level, we rarely get an athlete with that “innate” or “natural” speed, so we strive to give them any advantage that we can. Learning proper running skills and mechanics is an advantage.
It is my goal to focus the athlete on single-leg strength by giving rhetorical cues such as “how strong can we be on one leg.” In my opinion, the movements of cutting and running require the force of one foot/leg at a time generating as much force as is possible for that single foot/leg drive. My opinion of improving single-leg strength is based on the principle of the rate of force development, which is the speed at which force can be produced. Single-leg squats for strength provide a good base to increase the power of a single-leg jump that provides more force in the cutting foot.
With that being said, the focus of my speed training is to help develop the athletes to get from A to B as quickly as possible through teaching them to be more efficient in their (a) stride, (b) arm usage, and (c) foot strike and linear/lateral leg alignment to produce the most force possible. In deciding on speed drills, I evaluate the training level of the athlete and the mechanism of the sport (i.e., soccer versus basketball). I take a baseline timed sprint test, specific to the needs of that particular sport (i.e., soccer versus basketball) before the start of speed training. I will then periodically retest the same sprint to give the athlete and coaching staff tangible information about their progress.
As a preparatory work, I spend sufficient amounts of time with joint mobility of the ankle, knee, and hip. Lateral lunges with both feet flat, rotational lunges with the lunging foot flat, and leg raises with agonistic/antagonistic firing will teach each joint its job when it comes to efficient movement. If there are immobility issues in an athlete, they can be corrected by flexibility and proper muscle firings around that joint during the preparatory work. I believe that mobility in the leg joints accentuates the force and speed that can be produced. I like to use terms such as “mobile,” “open,” and “stable” to encourage the athlete in a positive manner that if he/she has some joint immobility, thinking about the purpose (stable/mobile) will help with the process (open). In another sense, if the pistons in the engine do not move well, the engine will not run as efficiently or fast as it could if the parts moved together.
Because of the complexity of sprinting, I feel a lot of “up-front” work is imperative—foot strike, body posture, leg drive, and the like, which is going to be repetitive for both the coach and athlete. I believe in spending time teaching the athlete correct body posture and where to properly strike the foot and the subsequent leg angle to propel them into their next step. I think the fundamental movements, such as clawing, wall hip and leg drive, and cutting footwork, need to be fluid independently before adding them into drills. I believe compartmentalizing these movements is beneficial in the beginning stages of speed training to form correct habits and correct inefficient movement. With my athletes, once the “up-front” work can be assimilated into drills and sprints, I start the athletes at half speed to reinforce the habits we formed and then gradually speed up the drills until we reach top speed for that drill. The depth of the speed training I teach is determined on how quickly the team or individual progress. Resisted sprints, overspeed sprints, and sled pushes are all great ideas, but only after the athlete has a base of movement and can sustain that movement when adding in additional modalities. There is not a limit I place on the athlete—if the athlete is proficient in the movement, we will continue introducing movement patterns or drills that test the progress capacity of the athlete—it's been my experience that it doesn't take much time to teach more complex drills if substantial time is spent teaching a solid fundamental base of running mechanics. A sample speed development session for a women's soccer team is shown in the Table.
Speed development is absolutely essential to most, if not all, athletes. A recent and significant trend in athletics is the increased speed at which individual and team sports are played and the speed and quickness of the competing athletes. To be competitive, the development of athletic speed should be a primary training concern for every strength and conditioning coach. The approach of a strength and conditioning coach to an athletic speed development program should be grounded in the fact that athletic speed can be developed and that athletic specific speed is different than track-specific speed. Nontrack athletes have different needs and must manifest their speed in a variety of conditions. These needs require the strength and conditioning coach to do much more than just adopt linear, track-oriented, speed training techniques that may have little carry over to the development of athletic speed.
When deciding which drills to use to improve speed, the strength and conditioning coach must decide what physical traits and skills are needed for athletes to run fast. Current research in speed development points to several areas that must be addressed for athletes to run faster and include the following:
- Apply more force to the ground, enabling athletes to then to run with improved stride length and frequency
- Run with a more efficient and “smoother” running motion while eliminating braking forces
- Decelerate less during maximum velocity work by developing an athlete's work capacity.
Therefore, a comprehensive speed development package for track and nontrack athletes should include a progressive year-round approach to total body strength and power training with weights, plyometric and jump training, agility and reaction training, specific upper-body and lower-body running mechanic drills, range of movement, and flexibility development. I choose my drills and exercises based on the following 4 categories.
- Specific and nonspecific strength and power—Weight training, plyometrics, resisted running
- Mechanics, coordination, and range of motion—Upper-body and lower-body posture and mechanics/sprint technique/sprinting/tempo runs/flexibility
- Overspeed training/maximum velocity—accelerations/starts/flying sprints/in and outs/downhill running/towing methods
- Quickness and agility—agility drills/plyometrics/reaction drills.
All of these categories can be used in the overall program to some degree throughout the training year. Current research on speed development grounds our speed development philosophy in maximizing force production. Improving force production by way of specific and nonspecific strength and power training should be a major emphasis for athletes every day. Depending on the time of year and the training objectives, exercises and drills from the mechanics, maximum velocity, and quickness and agility categories allow the strength and conditioning coach to continue providing a progressive training stimulus.
Strength and conditioning coaches often cope with limited amounts of time in which they can train their athletes. How the strength and conditioning coach decides to use that available time can determine the complexity of drills used. Like all drills and exercises, speed training techniques should be evaluated on their return on investment. Does the athlete derive an appropriate benefit or training effect for the time invested to learn the drill? Also, the strength and conditioning coach must be able to competently design, implement, and coach each drill. Ways to evaluate the effectiveness of the overall speed development program is with consistent and reliable testing and video evaluation of a team's running efficiency.
Just because a series of drills is more complex or is used by nationally known programs does not mean that it is a better drill. Advanced and complex drills may be eliminated from a team training plan because they are indeed too complex or time consuming for the population of athlete being trained. At some point, there are drills that may not be able to be mastered with the time available. I believe there is no single menu of speed training techniques or drills that strength and conditioning coaches can incorporate to produce significant improvements in an athlete's speed. Speed training techniques and drills are merely a small part of the much larger total speed development program.