Speed Training for Athletes
By: Travis Hansen
I think if you were to ask how many coaches and trainers throughout the country find it beneficial to integrate “Top Speed” work into their training on a regular basis with all of their athletes, the answer would be very few. I can see why most would neglect this approach since it’s not always specific, but I think there are several reasons for why it would help complement a total athletic training program, and develop other common qualities as well. Below I’m going to discuss a few reasons why I think you should implement this type of training with all of your athletes regardless of their sport.
#1: Top Speed –> Acceleration –> First Step Continuum
Jimson Lee over at speedendurance.com shared a 100 meter split analysis a few years back that really made me realize just how important it was to have great top speed even if your sport is primarily reliant on maximal power and acceleration capacity across short distances (10-20 yards). Here is the table below.
What you will notice in this chart is that each of these elite sprinters 10, 20, and 40 meter splits are insanely fast when you consider all of the variables. For example, Bolt who we all know is not the strongest starter, still yields a 2.87 second 20 meter split! If he were timed utilizing a combine approach (half electronic) and measured in yards it would be even more impressive. What’s important to understand here is that having great top speed requires that you be able to create an explosive first step and accelerate rapidly, and it builds each of these skills as a natural by-product of this style of training. I like to call it the “Top Down Relationship.” If you analyze the 10 and 20 yard splits from any of the elite combine performers who recorded a blazing 40 yard dash, you will immediately realize all three work together to elicit a better overall split. Anecdotally, I’ve also noticed my fastest athletes over the years generally dominated every phase of a sprint or speed based activity, not just one. Furthermore, a study in 2012 by Triplett showed that most sports do involve running at maximum speed and it could help improve athletic performance. 1 Now I know many are going to automatically attempt to rebuttal the study I shared and the whole notion of top speed training by saying that the ratio of plays performed at top speed is minimal, and that mainly the need to increase speed quickly through better acceleration is much more critical than how fast the athlete is capable of running. I wouldn’t argue this by any means, but I think there is more too be appreciated with top speed training for athletes. First, lets look at Westside Barbell’s training template. It consists of max effort heavy work and dynamic effort speed based work. I view linear speed and sprint work in much the same light. The start and short distance stuff helps build and express single leg strength and power, while longer distance sprinting at or near top speed helps really build speed and power. Some of the adaptations derived from each working distance will be different as well. At the start, there is very little momentum and longer ground contact times. An ideal scenario to apply as much strength as possible. As an athlete picks up speed we move to the other end of the spectrum and now momentum is high and ground contact times are very short. I displayed a chart in my book that showed the average ground contact range of a sprint at .08-.12 tenths of a second depending on the speed of an athlete. Not very much time to apply force to say the least, thus the need to possess very high levels of speed and power to prevent any deceleration and loss in speed. Moreover, don’t you think if an athlete possesses great muscle recruitment velocities at top speed with very little time to produce force into the ground, doing so at the start with much more time to apply force will be relatively easier and they will be faster there? The next reason why I think top speed work is so valuable for athletes is due to the fact that it is very hip dominant in nature. Check out the picture below and you will see what I mean….
Look at how far behind the hips the balance foot is at push-off. Pure hip dominance and hyperextension! What do vertical jumping, broad jumping, planting, cutting, braking, balancing, a hip turn, crossover step, swinging, throwing etc. all share in common? The need for powerful and strong hips, and top speed work serves a great specific source of training for improving this ability. Charlie Weingroff and Bret Contreras also had some good research on just how active the glutes and hips are during sprinting. “Finally, hip strength appears to be more important than knee or ankle strength as far as sprinting is concerned, and the hip extensors are likely the most important muscles for forward propulsion (2,10,14,25,29,36,46).” 2 Last but not least, top speed training creates a strong metabolic disturbance inside our body and really helps develop the alactic energy system pathway, so that we are in better sport specific shape, and so that we can improve our speed endurance and nearly sustain our peak speed performances over several repetitions. So how do we improve our top speed exactly? Like other skills, I don’t think there is a single best technique you can perform, and it’s going to be based on the structural strengths and weaknesses of any given individual. However, in my experience there definitely does seem to be re-occuring techniques that help get the job done well. Here is a list of drills that I recommend along with a video of one of my favorite drills: “The Modified Reverse Hyper.” I took this one from my friend/mentor Kelly Baggett. Kelly is absolutely brilliant and used a heavy dumbbell originally, but we’ve found that plates work better as a means of adding overload throughout a training cycle.
THE TOP 5 TOP SPEED DEVELOPMENT EXERCISES: #1-40 OR 60 YARD DASHES #2-FLYING SPRINTS #3-MODIFIED REVERSE HYPERS #4-HEAVY SINGLE LEG WORK (RDL’S, LUNGES, SPLIT SQUATS, ETC.) #5-LOW FREQUENCY PLYOMETRICS (BOUNDING VARIATIONS, BROAD JUMPS, TUCK JUMPS, BARRING JUMPS, HIGH HURDLE JUMPS, ETC.)
I just want to add a bit more before I leave you on the reverse hyper and the other drills as well. First, I hope all of the ladies noticed my killer hair wings as I was providing Scott a spot. Second, you will notice that the reverse hyper literally replicates the same range of motion and joint action angle as top speed sprinting. As a result, this specific strength exercise will have vast carryover as soon as an athlete starts to become more upright after the start and initial acceleration phase during a sprint. On a final note, the heavy single leg work and low frequency plyometrics do an absolutely fantastic job at making sure that an athlete can counter high impacts that occur during the landing phase of a sprint. I’ve noticed that often times athletes will lose overall leg stiffness and collapse as they try and increase their speed. A number of things occur when this happens that causes deceleration or the loss of speed. Dominate these drills and you will immediately notice better economy and a “gliding” action as athletes quickly bounce off the running surface quickly into their next stride.
SCIENTIFIC REFERENCES: #1-Triplett, T. Power Associations with running speed. Strength and Conditioning Journal 34: 29-33, 2012. #2-http://charlieweingroff.com/pdf/TheTopFiveGluteExercises.pdf Coach Travis Hansen is Director of the Reno Speed School and author of the speed development book 'The Speed Encyclopedia'.
**If you're a speed training nerd like us, you should definitely check out this resource – The Speed Encyclopedia.