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Developing Speed

Developing speed is a highly sought after component of sports performance. Here we will look at the development of speed in basic terms. This article is aimed at providing a simplified and minimalist approach to sprinting faster over distances ranging from 5m to 100m.

What is Speed?

Simple question right? But many people may not truly understand what speed actually is. In the basic sense it is travelling fast on foot by way of running. The faster one moves the more speed they have. However it is a little bit more than that. Usain Bolt has speed, but it’s a different speed than an NFL football player that covers much shorter distances and must hit their top speed a lot sooner. Speed is what it needs to be for the specific task at hand. In order to understand what speed is lets look at the pieces that make up speed as a whole.

1. Starting speed - this is the speed at which someone is able to go from a completely static position to sprinting at high speed.

2. Acceleration - acceleration is the continued increase of speed as an athlete keeps running. This can be viewed in many ways and is different for each different task. Acceleration for a 200m sprinter is generally more gradual and there is generally more acceleration in the tank. They have a higher top speed than someone that needs to run no further than 30-40m, however they take longer to get there. The short distance sprinter of a team sport like American football hasn’t got the luxury of accelerating over a long distance, they need that top speed as immediately as possible.

3. Sustained speed - sustained speed is how long an athlete can maintain their top-end speed. This is important for the track sprinter that needs to keep accelerating until top speed and then maintain that top speed for as long as possible during a race. Someone requiring shorter bursts of speed that last 3-5 seconds sprint in a different pattern, where acceleration is sharp and top speed needs to be reached and maintained for a shorter period of time.

4. Repeat speed - repeat speed is the ability of an athlete to sprint a given distance, recover and then repeat the same or similar distance multiple times with minimal variation in sprint times. This is useful for the track athlete in order to effectively train at higher volume. However repeat speed is needed in actual competition by athletes that need to sprint multiple times during a game such as rugby, Aussie rules or soccer. For this reason a team sport athlete will train at varying distances with shorter rest times.

Components of Speed Development

There are various components for developing speed. These are the basic foundations necessary for all speed development programmes, whether for the sprinter or for the team sport athlete.

1. Strength - developing raw horse power in the way of strength is an absolute necessity for the further development of speed at the higher end of one’s potential. Without strength everything up the line suffers. Strength is the very beginning, the very foundation that every other component is built on in order to arrive at functional and applicable speed at the highest level.

2. Biomechanics - biomechanics are important for developing speed and are best trained from the very beginning of a speed training programme. What are biomechanics? This is the development and perfection of the actual sprinting technique, the stride length, stride frequency and everything that relates to the actual technical aspect of each part of a sprinting movement. Greater biomechanical efficiency means greater use of an athlete’s raw physiological capacity.

3. Power - power is the transfer of strength into speed and acts as a combination of the two. Power can be defined as force x velocity, which really means strength x speed. You can’t have power without strength and you can’t have speed without power. Power is the bridge from strength to speed. Strength is built as a foundation, however it is by no means a specific skill for the sprinting athlete. Strength movements, due to the high level of force applied, are generally performed at a sub-standard speed compared to the end-result/final outcome. In order to be able to use that strength it is necessary to apply force at maximal velocity.

4. Transfer - transfer is where all skills and physiological capacities are applied to the actual task at hand. If an athlete has developed a solid foundation of strength, biomechanical efficiency and power they are ready to transfer this to a focused effort of specific speed training. It is at this stage the athlete is primed to turn all other efforts into the final desired outcome. This becomes an ongoing, continuous process, where greater strength is built, power is regularly developed and improved, biomechanics and technique correction occurs and is all consolidated with the specific task of repeated speed training. Speed will improve marginally as a result of improvement of any of these four components, with greatest improvements occurring with combined improvement of all or multiple components.

Developing Speed - A Basic Plan

This is a very basic overview for developing speed. Obviously there are many other technical aspects to developing speed, however this will cover only the basics and serve as a means to provide an outline for further study and development.

Step One - Build the Engine

Building the engine refers to the development of strength and the basic raw physiological foundations needed to base further training from. Use the basics of heavy compound barbell lifts, kettle bell training etc. Deadlift, squat, bench press, kettle bell swings and the like. Follow a basic plan of attack and build as much initial strength as possible without a significant increase in muscle size and body weight.

Step Two - Build Power

Power is absolutely essential in developing speed. Power is strength expressed in high speed movements. This is developed through speed lifting such as Olympic lifts and through plyometrics training. By the time you have sufficiently covered step one and two you are well primed with a foundation from which to launch specific speed training to the maximum allowable potential.

Step Three - Efficiency and Biomechanics

Here you will begin working on speed specific drills that correct and develop biomechanical efficiency and expose weaknesses. It is here that you will learn how to sprint piece by piece and make improvements until effective technique becomes second nature.

Step Four - Final Phase

By this stage you are strong, powerful and have perfected at least the basic biomechanical techniques for sprinting. This is an ongoing phase that involves specific speed drills performed at 90-100% intensity. This is pieced together with ongoing strength and power development and continuous correction and development of biomechanical efficiency.

Conclusion

Developing speed is a complex beast and requires more than just heading down to your local sports field and running 100m repeats. Speed comes in many shapes and sizes, with some needing high top-end speed and gradual acceleration, while others require powerful take-off and hitting top speed early.

Take a basic and minimalist approach to the development of speed, don’t over complicate it. Follow the pattern I have outlined here, it is the process used by myself and by the best of the best sprint coaches around the world. It is a fool-proof formula if followed intelligently. Remember, when all else fails, get stronger.

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YOUR COACH – Chris Lyons

Chris Lyons is an experienced strength and conditioning coach, having trained athletes of all ages and levels since 2002. Chris specialises in coaching athletes for speed and power specific to fast-moving sports such as rugby league, rugby union, soccer, Aussie rules football etc. Since 2002 Chris has conducted close to 15,000 hours of training and coaching directly with athletes and members of the general population. From this experience comes Sprint Ninja, based on tried and tested training methods combined with up to date research. Chris continues to challenge himself not only as a coach, but also as an athlete, competing in sprinting events, strongman and Olympic-style weightlifting.

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