There are two kinds of speed. The most trained speed is straight-line or sprint speed. The most important, in terms of the athlete is sport speed. A very fast straight-line speed athlete may not be as valuable if his/her speed cannot be converted to sport specific speed. Since most team sports and non-track sports do not have much straight line running, it is more important to have a combination of agility and quickness. These two components make for better sport speed. Another key component of sport speed is the level of conditioning of the athlete. A very fast athlete that tires quickly will not be able to use his/her speed in the final period/quarter or few minutes of the game. At this point, the “better” athlete may lose to the more conditioned athlete. Not only must we help our athletes become faster, but we must help them develop an overall ability to call upon their speed when it is needed, even when the athlete is exhausted.
This is the ability to turn straight-line speed into “useable” speed for sport. Often we find that athletes run a very fast 40, 60, or 100 yard dash but their speed is only “good” when they get open to run free. The reason, is that while the athlete may have excellent stride mechanics, his/her acceleration, agility, quickness, or strength may not be adequate enough to get the athlete into the “open” position. For example, a wide receiver in football that can run a very fast 40 or 100 but gets held up at the line of scrimmage by the defender, cannot use his speed to break away. That is not to say that he doesn’t possess sport speed, but due to the lack of strength or agility, his sport speed may be hampered. Also as the game progresses and the wide receiver becomes more tired (working against his opponent) he may not be conditioned enough to make the big play (when he does get open). Furthermore, running down field while looking back at the quarter back and/or making a cut or move to get open, and then catching the ball (while running) is very different then straight-line running.
In order for an athlete to be successful, the speed he/she possesses must be able to be used when and as needed during the game. That means that not only must he/she be fast, but must also be conditioned. Therefore, it should be obvious that sport speed is sport specific, and should be trained according to both the sport’s physical demands and movement patterns and the sport’s energy system requirements. In other words, if the sport is soccer, training speed should be done by teaching the basic elements, working on the technique, and then incorporating it into an anaerobic lactic acid/aerobic interval conditioning program. If the sport is more like football, then some more powerful speed movements should be incorporated into an anaerobic alactic/anaerobic lactic training program. In soccer, it is unlikely that the athlete will be held up at the line, like in football, hence drills may be more straight-line oriented from a moving start (generally always moving in soccer). With football, the drills may begin by starting against resistance and/or making a “first move” prior to having the straight-line sprint. In either case, the rest to work ratio should be equivalent to the demands of the sport.
When training for speed development, more time should be spent on the actual conditioning of speed then on increasing straight-line speed. Often conditioning coaches attempt to increase speed for testing purposes (this may be important when sending the athlete to the “next” level for testing) but that is not as important as developing the athlete’s speed for his/her sport. Sport speed drills may be the same as straight-line drills but performed with less rest or may be more similar to the sport’s requirements. Agility drills may actually have too much movement to help build speed, but will improve start/stop and directional ability. The following are sport speed drills. They are modified agility drills in that they are similar with less rapid directional change (straights are longer).
Speed is affected by the athlete’s ability to rapidly shift direction. If an athlete cannot change direction and resume speed, he/she will inevitably be beaten. Often the footwork involved in shifting directions is the most problematic area. Also, the ability to accelerate very rapidly after a direction change is very important. The most common problem is the switch from back-pedaling to forward running. An athlete that has good footwork and acceleration can back-pedal longer (not to mention speeding up his/her back-pedal ability), giving him/her more time to react to the play’s movement. Again, this illustrates the importance of sport-specific speed training.
Cross-over footwork drills should be heavily emphasized as most sports require this kind of direction change. In fact, in sports where the distance that needs to be covered is relatively short, direction change itself may be the limiting factor. For example, a baseball player leading off at 1st base has a better chance at stealing 2nd if he had a good first cross-over step. Since the baseball player starts facing the pitcher, the second he decides to steal, his first step may be the difference between a stolen base and an out. Since the distance between bases is 90 feet (30 yds) and a player takes about a 15-20 feet lead (5-7yds), there is not much room to practice straight-line running (especially when the player slides for the last 5-10 feet). Footwork is the key to success in this example. With many other sports, the movement pattern starts defensively (on the lookout for the play) then switches to offensive (heading to the play). Therefore the direction change followed by the immediate acceleration is usually the determining factor. Drills should attempt to have rapid direction change followed by 10-30 yard acceleratory sprints to help increase sport speed. However, practicing very short rapid change agility drills often help the athlete develop overall footwork, balance and coordination. In sports that have contact, this type of training is important because the athlete often finds him/herself in awkward positions after being pushed or jostled.
When creating agility drills it is nearly impossible to simulate game-like conditions and that should not be the goal. The goal of an agility drill should be to stimulate athlete awareness (foot-eye coordination) and promote direction change with acceleration.
Each of these drills can be used to create directional change. Also each drill can be combined to form several more drills. Each drill features the basic step of cross over, back-pedal, or side-step, prior to sprinting in a straight-line direction. In each case the athlete performs the required step from A to B and then sprints straight to C. Emphasis is placed on footwork and the directional change and the first few steps in the sprint. Cone markers for A to B should be about 7-10 yards and C should be 15-20 yards away from B. Each rep should be performed at top speed. Repetitive short rest sets will produce a sport speed similarity. Notice these exercises are not complicated like a complex agility drill, thus progression and learning should be quick.
First step speed best describes quickness. That is the speed developed within the first few steps, produces a quick action. Obviously quickness refers to a power or an explosive movement. Acceleration is also a key element of quickness. Being quick is probably the best measure of athletic success as it relates to speed. An athlete than can spot the place to be and get there quickly is more valuable then having ultimate top end speed over 40-100 yards. Quickness is more important because most sport actions occur within short distances as in the case with football, basketball, hockey, baseball, tennis, volleyball, etc.
Quickness is hard to train because it encompasses reaction time and skill. A quick athlete usually has good peripheral sense in that he/she knows where to go and how to ‘turn on the jets” to get there. By developing good agility and practicing quick reaction type drills, the athlete can better develop quickness. A good method for developing quickness for sport is to perform the same drills above, but make point C a reaction point. When the athlete reaches point B, throw, kick or pass a ball (soccer, football, basketball, baseball, etc.) towards point C (you can also point). However, point C is unknown to the athlete until he/she reaches point B, where the coach then directs the athlete to quickly react and get to the required point.
Developing speed is only truly sport specific if can be reached within the first 10 yards. If an athlete can run 100 yards but needs 40 yards to accelerate top speed versus the athlete that can get it done in the first 10-15 yards, he/she will not get a chance to use his/her speed effectively. And even if he/she runs a faster 40 or 100, doesn’t mean that he/she will beat his/her opponent. The quicker athlete will win, especially when the play itself may only cover 10-20 yards. Quickness is reaction, agility and first step explosion.
Now more than ever before, coaches are turning to the use of resistive devices to help increase speed. While there are many devices, the general effect is the same; increasing strength. The actual speed is only increased because the force production from the muscles is greater. And while the debate will forever go, the same effect probably can result from strength training alone and practice of the movement. While proponents of skill transfer believe that running against resistance is more closely related to running then resistance training coupled with running, the research does not support it. However, that is not to say that research suggests that running without resistive devices produces better results. Unfortunately, not much research has been done on resistance training for and with sprinting. In fact, if you are a believer in specificity and skill transfer, you could argue that running with devices could in fact develop skills specific only to those devices and cause a negative transfer to sport. Again, this is just theory without practice.
Using resistive devices may work, probably do not produce negative results, add variety, present a challenge, and for the most part, are quite safe. Therefore if you can afford to buy the devices, you should have the luxury. Remember, when working with large groups, in a short time period, this may not be the most effective method for training sprints.
The type of resistive devices vary from using resistive tubes (strong rubber bands like bungees), to ropes, to sled pulling, to running with a small parachute pulling behind, to using manual resistance or people working against each other. The net result is that either the athlete has to run by pushing or run pulling an object. For most athletes pulling would probably be most sport similar, however, football, rugby and other contact sport athletes could possibly benefit by pushing exercises. Manual resistance can either find one person hanging on to the person running or one person pushing against the person running. In either case, pushing or pulling, the net result is to strengthen the leg and hip muscles where the bulk of the running force is produced. If resistive running causes the athlete to use more upper body, then the exercise has lost its benefit to increasing speed.
David Sandler, MS, CSCS*D
Co-owner/President of StrengthPro Nutrition and its parent company StrengthPro Inc. of Las Vegas and former University of Miami Assistant Strength Coach and Head of Baseball. David has been a consultant and advisor on strength and power for 17 years working with many diverse organizations and clients groups. He has delivered more than 100 presentations worldwide and authored or co-authored four books and more than 75 articles in both peer-reviewed and lay publications. He is completing his doctoral degree at the University of Miami.