Speed Training

Doug Lentz and Andrew Hardyk


Hours spent developing speed through training ironically turn into a payoff that lasts only for a few seconds, even for world-class athletes. While most sports other than track sprinting do not offer the platform to showcase maximum running speed, sprint training lies at the foundation of numerous athletic activities.
Just think of how many critical game situations in various sports are won or lost by the ability to shift, when needed, into a higher gear. The bottom line is that a successful speed-training regimen can playa major role in making athletes more successful in many sports. The ability, for example, to speed up in order to chase down a free ball in a basketball game may make the difference between winning and losing. Unfortunately, many people subscribe to the philosophy that speed is something one is born with, not something that can be improved through training. So they spend little time on speed training. However, both experience and research have shown that a good speed development program can be incorporated into almost any workout regimen and can produce noticeable increases in speed.
To get maximum results from speed training, there are numerous factors to consider above and beyond pure genetic potential. These include stride length, stride frequency, strength, power, functional flexibility, acceleration, and proper technique. This chapter includes guidelines for speed development, drills for maximum speed attainment, and other matters of significance that contribute to improving speed.


For most sports, acceleration---the rate of change in velocity---is the most important component of speed development. In other words, being able to accelerate quickly means that the athlete can go from a stationary or near-stationary state to his or her maximum speed in a very short time. All athletes accelerate by increasing both stride length and stride frequency.
One way to increase stride length and stride frequency is to increase overall functional strength throughout the entire body. Improved strength levels will allow athletes to produce greater amounts of force while at the same time decreasing the time spent in contact with the ground. Training the body to use the attained strength gains in a powerful fashion is the key to improving acceleration. In a nutshell, the most powerful athletes spend less time in contact with the ground, have longer strides, and can take strides more rapidly than their less powerful counterparts.
The highest rates of acceleration are achieved in the first 8 to 10 strides taken by an athlete. Close to 75 percent of maximum running velocity is established within the first 10 yards (9 meters). Maximum running speed is reached within 4 to 5 seconds for most athletes.
To ensure a proper transition to top speed, quick running steps should gradually increase in length until full stride length is achieved. Explosive starting actions require the application of forces through the hip, knee, and ankle joints; and the execution of quick running steps requires tremendous elastic strength in the hip and knee musculature. Good mobility in the hip joint will assist athletes with leg separation during the "knee-lift" phase. Elastic strength prevents the leg from collapsing in the knee and hip regions during impact with the ground and also reduces
the time that the foot is in contact with the ground.

Stride Frequency and Stride Length

The two main factors in running speed, as you might have guessed by now, are stride length and stride frequency. Increasing one or both will result in increased speed. However, they are interrelated in such a way that increasing one often results in the reduction of the other. For example, in an effort to increase stride length, an athlete may reach too far forward with the lower leg, resulting in over-striding. This decreases stride frequency, which results in a lower running speed. Good coaching is important to ensure that changes in stride length and frequency actually result
in positive gains.

Stride frequency is measured by the number of strides taken in a given amount of time or over a given distance. By using good sprinting technique, stride frequency can be increased without sacrificing stride length. Increasing stride frequency is important because the athlete can only produce locomotive energy when his or her feet are in contact with the ground. The more often the feet touch the ground, the faster the potential running speed. This idea must be balanced with the fact that large amounts of force and power are necessary during the limited ground contact time
in each stride. Modern sprint technique effectively maximizes this combination.
Sprint-assisted training is one technique that can be used to improve stride frequency. Assisted sprinting will allow athletes to develop the feel of running at a faster velocity than they would be capable of running normally. This added dimension of supramaximal speed enables athletes to improve their running mechanics at a faster rate than would be possible unassisted. By not having to run all-out but still being able to achieve a speed that is at or slightly above their unassisted best, athletes can learn to relax more easily at high speed. Some of the traditional assisted methods of training include downhill running and towing (see drills). To avoid injury, athletes should be well versed in the mechanics of proper sprinting form and adequately warmed up before attempting this type of training.
While stride frequency is calculated in terms of the number of steps taken per minute, stride length is the distance covered---measured from the center of mass---in one stride during running. Research has shown that optimal stride length at maximum speed is normally 2.3 to 2.5 times the athlete's leg length. A common mistake made by many young athletes is to try to take strides that are too long in an effort to attain or maintain top speed. When this happens, they have a tendency to overstride and ultimately slow themselves down because of decreased efficiency
in force production. Most athletes develop their optimal stride length as proper technique and strength/power improve.
Stride length can be enhanced by improving sprint mechanics (see the following section on proper technique) and the athlete's power, absolute strength, and elastic strength through numerous forms of training. These include strength training; the use of weighted pants, weighted vests, running chutes, and harnesses; and uphill running (see drills). Coaches must be careful not to get too carried away with these different "resisted methods" of training. Overuse of these methods can adversely affect running technique, thereby undermining the overall process of speed development. Many books are available that discuss weight training and plyometrics in greater detail.

Proper Technique

Sprint mechanics is another term for sprint form or sprint technique. Proper mechanics allow the athlete to maximize the forces that the muscles are generating. This greatly improves the chances that an athlete will achieve the highest speed expected of him or her, given his or her genetic potential and training. Good technique also increases neuromuscular efficiency. This, in turn, allows for smooth and coordinated movements that also contribute to faster running speeds.
There are three main elements to concentrate on with regard to proper sprinting mechanics: posture, arm action, and leg action. Posture refers to the alignment of the body. An athlete's posture changes depending on which phase of the sprinting action he or she is in at a particular time. During acceleration, there is more of a pronounced lean (around 45 degrees from the horizontal plane). This aids in overcoming inertia. As the athlete approaches his or her maximum running speed, posture should become more erect (around 80 degrees). Regardless of the phase of sprinting, one should be able to draw a straight line from the ankle of the supporting leg through the knee, hip, torso, and head when the athlete's leg is fully extended just before the foot loses contact with the ground.
Arm action refers to the range of motion and velocity of the athlete's arms. The movement of the arms counteracts the rotational forces generated by the legs. Because these leg forces are substantial, vigorous and coordinated arm movements are necessary to keep the body in proper alignment. This is important in all phases of sprinting, but it is crucial in the initial acceleration phase.
Leg action refers to the relationship of the hips and legs relative to the torso and the ground. Making explosive starts and achieving maximum speed require extending the hip, knee, and ankle in a coordinated fashion to produce the greatest force possible against the ground. Also, in order to keep the stride frequency high and the stride length optimal, proper recovery mechanics-that is, what the leg does while it is not on the ground-are important. When coaching speed mechanics, keep these other important factors in mind:

1. Head position: The head should be in line with the torso and the torso in line with the legs (at full extension) at all times. Do not allow the head to sway or jerk in any direction. Try to maintain a relaxed neutral position with the jaw relaxed and loose.

2. Body lean: Running can be seen as a controlled fall. As already mentioned, one should be able to draw a straight line through the body at full leg extension during each stride. The body should have a pronounced forward lean during initial acceleration, while at maximum speed it should be erect and tall. Concentrate on complete extension of the hip and knee joints as the foot pushes the body forward.

3. Leg action: The foot should remain in a dorsiflexed (toes up) position throughout the running cycle, except when the foot strikes the ground. At this point, the weight should be on the ball of the foot (never on the heel), directly under the athlete. As the foot leaves the ground, it follows a path straight up toward the buttocks. Simultaneously, the knee rises up and the thigh is almost parallel to the ground. The foot then drops down below the knee. At this point, the knee is at an angle of approximately 90 degrees. The leg aggressively straightens down and underneath
the body to the ground contact point. This process is repeated over and over with each leg. The greater the running speed, the higher the heel should kick up. Failure to achieve a high rear-heel kick will reduce stride frequency, and the athlete should avoid placing the foot in front of the body when making contact with the ground. He or she should practice running as lightly and quietly as possible with correct foot-to-ground contact.

4. Arm action: Aggressive arm action is a must. Each arm should move as a whole, with the elbow bent at about 90 degrees. The hands remain relaxed, coming up to about nose level in the front of the body and passing the buttocks in the back. Arm action must always be directly forward and backward, never side to side. Arm swing should originate from the shoulder and not involve excessive flexion and extension of the elbows. The hands may be kept open or slightly closed, but always relaxed. The athlete should keep the thumb side of the hand pointed forward and up at all times during the movement; do not allow the wrist to move.


As top speed is approached,
1. the head is held high,
2. the torso becomes more upright,
3. the shoulders and head are relaxed,
4. the driving leg is fully extended to the ground, and
5. the heel of the recovery foot comes close to the gluteus.

Practicing the drills listed at the end of this chapter will improve proper technique, thus increasing running speed.

Developing Your Speed Potential

While there is no magic formula for developing or increasing maximum running speed, there are some specific guidelines that anyone can follow when training for speed improvement. Simply put, running brief and intense sprints with plenty of rest between repetitions is critical. Sound programs emphasize technique, starts, acceleration, speed endurance, and relaxation. Use these guidelines:
1. All speed workouts must be performed when the body is fully recovered from previous workouts. A tired, sore, or over-trained athlete cannot improve his or her speed capabilities. Therefore, speed training is most effective at the beginning of a workout session.
2. Proper sprinting technique must be taught to and mastered by athletes through the execution of many perfect drill repetitions over a long period of time. Speed does not come after one week of drills. It is derived over many months of hard work and hundreds of drill executions.
3. All sets and repetitions within a speed workout must be accompanied by adequate rest. The athlete's heart rate and respiration should return to almost normal levels from the previous drill. Any sprint drill that lasts 6 to 8 seconds, at a maximum or near-maximum effort, will have implications on the short-term energy system (ATP-CP) and the central nervous system. A one to four
work-to-rest ratio is recommended as a good estimate.
4. Speed workouts should vary between light, medium, and heavy days. For example, back-to-back hard days would not be beneficial to speed enhancement. This would inhibit adequate recovery.
5. Track the total distance run by the athlete during each maximum speed workout.
6. To fully achieve maximum speed, the athlete must learn to run in a relaxed manner while at the same time producing maximum effort. This is much easier said than done, of course, especially with junior and senior high .school athletes. Overexertion will produce extraneous body movements, which will detract from the power required to go fast.
7. Speed endurance can be accomplished by running longer intervals-165 to 440 yards (151 to 402 meters)-or by decreasing the rest between short intervals to between 20 and 65 yards (18 and 49 meters). The latter is a good choice for many sport-specific applications.
8. All speed workouts should be preceded by a dynamic warm-up and flexibility routine, which will prepare the athlete for maximum efforts.


It's important to pay close attention to the last guideline. A proper warm-up for sprint or acceleration training will prepare the athlete for the maximum efforts necessary for speed development. The purpose of the warm-up is to increase specific muscle and core body temperature. Good examples of an active warm-up routine include jogging (forward and backward), lunge walking, calisthenics, skipping, or any other aerobic activity. The general warm-up should typically be 5 to 10 minutes long with the goal being for the athlete to break a sweat. Generally, the warm-up should begin with slow, simple movements and move toward quicker, more complex movements.
After mild perspiration has been achieved, dynamic flexibility movements should follow. Dynamic stretching increases range of motion in the major joints utilized in sprint training and helps to stimulate the nervous system. Examples of dynamic flexibility include but are not limited to arm circles, trunk twists, stepping knee hugs, high kicks, lunging walks with rotations, walking on tiptoes, walking on the heels, ankle rotations, and leg swings. Another benefit to dynamic flexibility exercises is the variety available to coaches and athletes. We suggest mixing up the order occasionally, but ensure that athletes have hit the shoulders, torso, hips, quads, hamstrings, calves, and ankles. Dynamic flexibility routines should be 10 to 15 minutes in duration.
Recent research suggests that traditional static stretching impairs maximal force production and may even contribute to muscle injuries in dynamic activities that directly follow the stretching. Therefore, it is advisable to avoid these types of stretches until after all speed/power movements are completed-that is, at the end of the workout session during the cool-down.
Although true maximum speed may seldom be achieved in most sports settings outside of track, the ingredients that help to improve the times of track sprinters will work just as effectively for athletes in almost every sport. Many coaches and athletes look for the quick fix or "magic pill" for increasing maximum sprinting speed. In actuality, the formula is quite simple: make the muscles stronger and more efficient via a sound strength-training regimen combined with improved sprint-technique training. Incorporating different speed modalities into an athlete's training regimen can break the monotony that sometimes sets in even while following a sound program, but be careful not to overuse them. Prioritizing and individualizing are critical in today's sports environment. Increased competition and focus on winning, coupled with less time to achieve the necessary level of fitness provides a daunting challenge to coaches and athletes alike. Devising a systematic, disciplined approach is a must. The drills in the following chapters should be used to maximize speed with this in mind.


FROM: Training for SPEED, AGILITY and QUICKNESS: Editors: Lee E. Brown and Vance A. Ferrigmo--Chapter 3