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Improving Speed (Part 1)

This article is the first of a four-part series that will address different types of training to improve speed for all types of athletes. Here I present a background on the components contributing to speed which will lay the foundation for the following articles offering specific training methods and exercises to improve speed.

Future articles will discuss how to first increase strength, strength-speed, and finally power to ultimately improve sprinting speed. These methods can and should be used in the off-season before specific speed work (ladders and drills), and will provide the groundwork that you will need to become a faster and more explosive athlete.

Linear speed is the ability to cover a given distance as fast as possible in a constant direction. Speed is a large component of athletic ability in many sports. The 100 meter sprint is the perfect example of linear speed, but speed is important in other sports as well, for example: base running in baseball/softball, during a breakaway in hockey, or while running routes in football.

So what contributes to speed?

Sprinting consists of two distinct phases:

1. Start/Acceleration phase is where the athlete builds up speed from a dead stop. This phase requires explosive strength- the ability to exert high levels of force against the ground quickly in order to propel the athlete forward as fast as possible.

2. Maximum Velocity phase is where the athlete has now reached top speed, and must maintain it for the given distance. This phase is determined by the interaction between:

Stride length The distance covered in a single step or stride. This can be improved to a certain extent through increasing lower body strength, however; leg length is a major contributing factor as well. An optimal stride length exists if the athlete over-strides (takes too long of steps), unnecessary breaking and the loss of momentum will occur, and speed will be decreased.

Stride frequency The number of steps taken per unit of time. This on the other hand, is a matter of power. The quicker that force can be applied into the ground, the shorter the ground contact phase will be, and the more strides will occur per unit of time. Once maximum speed has been reached, stride frequency is the major determining factor of speed.

usain-bolt2In addition to acceleration, stride length, and stride frequency, sprinting technique also contributes to speed. Sprinting technique is all about efficiency of movement. The more efficient the movement, the less energy it will take to sprint at a given speed. However, sprinting technique makes up a comparatively small fraction of the speed equation. Yet, the first things many inexperience strength coaches want to work on are sprint and ladder drills.

While it is true that the strongest athlete doesn’t make the fastest athlete, strength is certainly a major component of speed. For example, you will never see the world’s strongest deadlifter or squatter beat Usain Bolt in the 100 meter sprint, but similarly, a weak athlete will never reach their maximum potential for speed by just performing sprint and ladder drills. A strong and explosive athlete can get away with less than perfect technique, but deficiencies in strength and power cannot be overcome even if an athlete has perfect technique. Strength and power must be addressed before speed and technique work can improve speed performance.

In review, the components of sprinting speed- and their determinants are:

  • Acceleration- explosive strength
  • Stride length- strength and leg length
  • Stride frequency- power
  • Sprinting technique

Part 2 – Improving Speed with Strength