One of the most critical aspects of any training program for an athlete is how they approach developing speed. There are many misconceptions out there that may be interfering with how to best approach improving this vital sport skill.
In an effort to cut through some of the confusion associated with getting faster, we present the following eight concepts to help clarify how to best approach building speed:
1. Distance Running Is Counterproductive to Developing Speed
Much like strength training involves using heavy weights to get strong, speed training involves moving quickly to get fast. You can bench press 100 lbs for a million repetitions, but it won’t do much for you when its time to go for that 300 lb lift. Running a mile or more at a jogging pace is a great way to get in better shape, but it will never make you faster.
In fact, it will actually make it more difficult. Your body constantly adapts to the stresses imposed on it, but it can only adapt to so much at once. Long-distance runs send the message that its time to focus on building lung capacity, strengthening the heart, etc. This takes away from your body’s ability increase the rate at which muscles fire, and all of the other adaptations that make you faster.
Simply put, trying to do two things at once will only make you 1/2 as good at both. Unless conditioning work is an immediate need, it’s best to limit the time spent on it while you are focused on building speed.
2. There Is A Lot More To Being Fast In Sports Than Lowering Your Sprint Times
Athletes in many sports, football players mostly, obsess over 40 yd dash times. Baseball players do the same for the 60, but there is a lot more to playing fast in sports than sprint times.
For all the hype around the top 40 times at the NFL combine, they actually include two short distance agility tests (L Drill and Pro-I) to assess draft picks. Although that is just one example in one sport, it signals the more universal reality that change of direction and first-step quickness are both more valued commodities in sports than the over-glorified skill of straight-ahead speed.
A quality speed development program combines sprint work with both cutting and reaction drills. To supplement this, athletes likely will also need to develop their balance, core strength, ability to absorb force, and flexibility, all of which can develop your ability to move better on the field.
3. It Requires Attention To Detail
Where should your toes point when sprinting? Which leg should you put your weight on when cutting? Where should you always take your first step to begin a sprint?
These all may seem like insignificant details, but they are some of the crucial elements that can make you a step or two faster than you already are. It is the finer points of running technique that should be your main focus while training. It can take months to add enough power to drop 0.2 of a second on an agility or sprint test, but you can get the same decrease (or better) in 10 minutes by fixing a flaw in your technique.
A trained coaching eye is an invaluable resource in developing great form, but athletes need to take responsibility as well. Once you are taught how to do things right, you should have a good feel for when a cut, first step. or other movement skill was done properly or not.
4. When Learning A New Skill, Begin By Practicing At Less Than Full Speed
Think back to when you first learned long division in (hopefully) elementary school. It likely was a tough concept to grasp in the beginning because there were so many concepts to combine all at the same time. Most of us had to take our time to get it right at first. Eventually, when the process became more automatic, we could speed up the skill to get it done faster.
Any time you are learning a new way to improve a technique related to speed, the best way to properly develop it is to train it at a pace which allows you to get a feel for what’s happening first. Then, you can gradually add speed. Eventually, like that division, with practice you will make the new skill automatic and be able to ratchet up the pace until you have mastered the skill at top speed.
5. Each Skill Needs To Become Automatic Before It Really Helps In Games
Any improved movement skill you develop in your workouts will not help much during the heat of competition if you have to think of how you are supposed to move. All sports require athletes to focus on other things instead, like team strategy and awareness of what’s going on around you.
After you master a more efficient technique during training, the next step is create a more random environment to perform it in.
Here’s a simple example of what that means. Let’s say you have learned the proper first step technique for moving laterally (to the side). When your coach tells you to go left, gives you a few seconds to process the information, and then says “GO!”, you have perfect technique and take off explosively. But then your coach takes away telling you which way to go beforehand, and now you have react quickly either left or right on their movement. Will you still be able to do everything perfectly, and just as fast, without thinking?
This is the random environment that defines sports, and it involves being ready to efficiently move left, right, forward, backward, and everywhere in between. After mastering all the details of movement training, the final step that will help transfer these skills in game conditions is to work on them in unpredictable environments.
6. How To Add Resisted And Assisted Training
Resisted training uses simply adds more weight to your frame while running. Weight sleds, vests, and other objects are commonly used, along with uphill running. Assisted training pulls you at higher speeds using tubing, or downhill running to teach your arms and legs to turn over at faster speeds.
Both are valuable additions to building straight-ahead speed, but are often misused to the point that they become counterproductive.
For resisted drills, running should still be done at full speed. If you are using too much resistance it will cause you to move slower, and interfere with your technique. More is not always better, and it would be wise to start light and gradually build up over time.
For assisted drills, these exercises should not interfere with proper technique either. To have your arms flailing all over the place while performing a tubing-assisted run will not help you in games. It may apply when running from a burning building, but that likely isn’t what you’re training for. Moderation is the key here, as well. Start with light pulls, and strive to keep quality form while progressing to higher speeds.
7. Getting Stronger Can Help Build Speed
Speed comes from power, which can loosely be defined as strength generated quickly. Adding strength does transfer to moving faster, and some exercises are particularly helpful.
One-leg strength drills are often overlooked, but are great for building speed. You are always pushing off of one leg when running, and supporting your body on one leg requires strength and stability in many different muscles that do not get challenged in two leg drills, like squats and deadlifts. There are many variations of squats and lunges that you can perform to build one-leg strength.
This is not to say that all two-leg drills are useless, because Olympic-style lifts like cleans can build tremendous amounts of power. Plyometrics are also good to use, when performed properly. Two-leg exercises like these that help you absorb force will get you off the ground quicker with every stride. One-leg versions of these drills can be problematic at first, because they can lead to overuse injuries (like tendonitis) fairly easily.
Lower body training is not the only way to build speed in the weight room. Core and upper body strength help to maintain proper torso alignment. They also help to generate faster arm action, which in turn forces the legs to turn over faster to increase stride frequency.
8. It Is A Long-Term Process, Requiring Dedication And Patience
It has been said that speed is a trait you build from year to year. More so than any other skill, it requires you to take the long view when it comes to seeing results. Impatient athletes who want to be faster overnight will quickly grow frustrated with the process. Unfortunately many give up too soon, not persevering to reap the vast benefits of proper movement training.
In any season when you are not playing a sport full time, you should dedicate at least three 30 minute workouts per week towards speed development. Unless you are already knowledgeable on the subject, find a quality coach in your area who can teach you how to move efficiently in your sport. Armed with the right information, and a stubborn desire to hang in for the long term, you will get that extra step or two you need to take your game to the next level.