Speeding Up

From stretch cords to barefoot workouts, the number of new ideas in speed training can seem overwhelming. This article aims to sort them all out—as fast as possible.

By Vern Gambetta

Vern Gambetta, MA, is the President of Gambetta Sports Training Systems in Sarasota, Fla., and the former Director of Conditioning for the Chicago White Sox. He is a frequent contributor to Training & Conditioning and can be reached at www.gambetta.com.

Training & Conditioning, 12.9, December 2002, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/tc/tc1209/speedup.htm

Speed is probably the most prized of all athletic qualities. It is also the most elusive. As a strength and conditioning coach, I probably spend more time working on increasing athletes’ speed than on any other physical quality, because it is so important to success.

Despite a plethora of research and practical coaching information there are still many myths and misconceptions surrounding the development of speed. Prime among these is the notion that speed can be improved in a few days of training. Unfortunately, and despite much marketing hype to the contrary, there are no shortcuts or gimmicks that can produce instant results.

However, speed and all of its component parts can be significantly improved through the application of a sound systematic training methodology. This means that speed work must go hand-in-hand with strength and power, overall fitness, and flexibility. A limitation in any one of these areas can have a significant negative impact on the athlete’s ability to improve his or her speed.

One of the biggest mistakes I see being made today is looking at speed training in isolation. The increased awareness of the need for speed has given rise to the speed specialist who just works on speed. But if this person is not on the same page as the sport coach and the strength coach, there are sure to be problems. A careful balance of strength training, skill training, and speed training must be blended to achieve optimum results.

Of these, perhaps the most often-overlooked is strength. Good leg strength and core strength are essential prerequisites for speed, yet so many young and developing athletes are deficient in this area. Those deficiencies must be addressed before they can begin any kind of comprehensive speed development program. Keep in mind that this must be functional strength development. If not too pronounced, these deficiencies can be addressed concurrently with speed development.

Overall, don’t plan to see any significant changes in speed until after at least six weeks of concentrated work. This time commitment is necessary because speed is a fine motor skill and the nervous system takes time to adapt to the changes. The notable exceptions are individuals so woefully deficient that a few mechanical changes can result in dramatic differences. But you won’t see too many of those.

You must also know what your objective is when training speed. It will always be one of two things: to improve an athlete’s sprint mechanics or to help the athlete break through speed barriers. Also know whether you should train straight-ahead speed or lateral speed (see Sidebar, “Two Types,” at the end of this article).

With your objective known and a time frame in mind, you can choose exercises accordingly. Two more tips before I critique the type of exercises available: utilize speed training sparingly and use a blend of various techniques rather than focusing primarily on one.

With those guidelines in mind, let’s take a look at some strategies for increasing speed. Each of the following exercises and drills, for the most part, targets one aspect of speed. Remember that sport-specific speed is made up of constituent parts, each of which must be worked on in proportion to the needs of each athlete and sport.

Pulling resistance sleds or other heavy objects, such as tires, emphasizes backside mechanics, which is the pushing or driving phase of acceleration. This phase is, in reality, only six to eight strides in most situations. Therefore, towing heavy resistance over longer distances should not be done—it will significantly alter sprint mechanics in a negative way.

The biggest fault that I see with most players is an inability to shift from the driving/pushing acceleration phase into a sprint position where their hips are under them. Excessive pulling of heavy resistance sleds only serves to accentuate this problem.

How heavy is too heavy? The 10-percent rule holds true. Generally, the resistance should not exceed 10 percent of the athlete’s bodyweight. A corollary to the 10-percent rule is that it should slow the athlete down no more than 10 percent of his or her best time for the distance he or she is towing. If the resistance is so heavy that it does not resemble the dynamics of sprinting, then there is a real chance that there will not be any benefit to performance on the track, field, or court.

There is much controversy surrounding running on sand, but I think it can be a great tool. This is especially true for team sport players who have poor running mechanics, particularly those who are prone to overstriding. You cannot overstride on sand. Running on sand forces the athlete to get his or her foot in proper position in relation to his or her center of gravity. It also magnifies any fault in the stride.

Sand is especially good for lateral speed and agility work. The athlete who is unwilling to “take a chance” and plant hard can do so on sand, because there is less coefficient of friction. Therefore, there is little danger of injury.

It also requires tremendous core stability and dynamic postural control to sprint or do agility work in the sand. That means it works the athlete’s core at the same time that he or she is working on sprint mechanics.

It is important to remember that sand work is a tradeoff because it significantly increases ground contact time. So do not overuse it. Employ it to correct a problem, then get back to firm ground. I use it a maximum of two days a week during certain phases of training. Most of the time, it is only one day a week.

Sprinting barefoot, provided the surface is firm, forgiving, and free of all hazards and the athlete doesn’t have any foot problems, can be very beneficial for speed development. Barefoot running helps teach the athlete to use his or her feet to their fullest and to contact the ground correctly.

I have found it particularly effective in correcting the athlete who runs heavy and flat-footed. It is virtually impossible to run heavy when barefoot.

Where does top speed fit in for the athletes who play games? It is important, but not a major component of performance. It plays a greater role in field sports, like soccer, where most of the starts are moving starts, than in sports like football or baseball, where athletes start from a stationary stance. In sports with moving starts, athletes get closer to their top speed. Therefore, for these sports, it is more important to work on this component at various phases of the year.

I have found that the most effective way to train top speed is by dividing 40- to 60-meter distances into 10-meter segments where the athlete alternates sprinting and floating. The float is not a noticeable decline in effort but rather a relaxation. It teaches the athlete a subtle changing of gears and emphasizes control of the stride that has an important transfer to the field.

There are many ways to over-speed train. Some are better than others—both in terms of effectiveness and safety. The basic problem with over-speed training is when coaches try to get the athlete to run faster than he or she is capable of running. We need to rethink this concept.

I prefer the term assistance training to over-speed training. By definition, assistance training utilizes methods that enable the athlete to run at his or her best, or even slightly faster, with a relaxed effort that incorporates sound sprint mechanics. The key is relaxed effort. If the athlete looks or feels like he or she is overstriding and hanging on in desperation, then the assistance is too great (see Sidebar, “How Relaxation Works,” at the end of this article).

Frankly, I know very few athletes at the world-class level who use over-speed training because the risk of injury is too high. Simply put, they’ll push themselves too far and put themselves at risk of muscle pulls, at the very least.

It is an activity that is more applicable for the developing athlete who has sound sprint mechanics and is seeking refinement. Every assisted sprint provides the feeling of running fast while allowing them to remain relaxed. It also enables the athlete to increase stride length, as well as get in more repetitions of maximal speed sprinting without the fatigue factor. Some specific over-speed training methods are discussed below.

High-speed treadmills: The current fad in over-speed training is high-speed treadmill training. This results from a misinterpretation of limited scientific research. Conclusive research has proven that over-ground running and treadmill running are different. Further, high-speed treadmill training predisposes the athlete to hamstring injuries.

The athlete can get away with some level of poor mechanics on the treadmill because the treadmill does some of the work. For example, because the treadmill moves under the foot, it is possible to overstride. The treadmill also does not teach the athlete to use the ground properly, since ground contact is actually increased. If this pattern is repeated enough so that it is learned, it will transfer negatively when the athlete runs on the ground and may result in hamstring pulls because of the athlete’s learned tendency to overstride.

Stretch cord or rubber tubing: This is another method of over-speed training that has been commonly used, but it’s no better than high-speed treadmills. Because the tubing or stretch cord does not provide a constant pull, the athlete is jerked to start. There is also the chance that at some point the tubing will break or the athlete will trip over it.

I witnessed a demonstration at a national coaching convention where two coaches were having athletes tow each other with bungee cords. The sprint mechanics of the athletes being towed were terrible—they were breaking and overstriding in order to protect themselves from falling.

The presenter was timing the athletes and telling them that they were up to half a second faster than they were when they had run solo without the bungee cord. Of course they were faster, but the mechanics they were using to achieve the time had no resemblance to correct sprint mechanics that would transfer to the field of play.

Towing: I prefer towing athletes to higher speeds with a cable pulley system that is commercially available from several different manufacturers. It is much safer because the way the devices are designed, the athlete is pulled with progressively greater tension, as opposed to being jerked. Also, if the person towing lets up on the tension or the athlete becomes uncomfortable, there is a quick release hook on the towing belt. To further ensure safety and consistency in the pull, I never allow an athlete to tow another athlete.

My goal in using this device, particularly with younger athletes, is to give them the feeling of running fast while relaxed. I tell athletes to run at 90-percent effort and let them achieve the other 10-percent through the towing. That way, they are consistently able to run at their top speed while staying relaxed. There is no straining. The emphasis is always on correct sprint mechanics.

Downhill: This can be effective if you can find the correct hill. The decline should be no more than two percent. I have found it best to use a short downhill to overcome inertia and get up to speed, and then sprint a certain distance on the flat. This seems to have a positive carryover, but it is not something that I use very often, simply because it’s often hard to find a good hill. Not only should the slope be very gradual, but you need good footing that’s free of hazards, and it should ideally be 60 to 80 yards in length.

This entails combining resistance and normal sprinting. Examples include an uphill sprint finishing onto level ground, harness sprint and release, and running from sand onto level ground. Basically, the goal is to teach the athlete correct mechanics by feeling the position of the body as it makes the transition from resistance to top speed. This is good to break speed barriers. But be sure to keep the total volume low.

It is also possible to combine resistance, assistance, and normal methods into one workout. It is probably best to use resistance first, followed by assistance, and then normal sprinting.

Are sprint drills important? Yes, but they must be done properly and the athlete and the coach need to know where and how to fit them into a program. For the game-sport athlete they are less important than for someone like a track sprinter.

Sprint drills emphasize hips tall and other postures and positions that are not rewarded in sports that demand stopping, starting, and direction change. Therefore, for those sports, I like to use selected sprint drills to warm up before certain workouts, but not too many at other times.

Even for the sprinter, it is important to beware of drills for drills’ sake. A few drills well executed are more important than a whole gamut of drills done in a sloppy manner. Also, it’s important to note that many of the popular sprint drills are not technique drills; rather, they are specific strength drills designed to strengthen various aspects of the sprint stride.

When putting any of these training tools to use, keep in mind the following speed-training tips:
• Be systematic
• Have a plan
• Be intense
• Less is more
• Teach, learn, and practice sound mechanics
• Beware of drills for drill’s sake

By employing these guidelines into your athletes’ training, and allowing enough time for changes to become deep-rooted, you’ll see significant improvements in their speed. And you’ll notice it in their games.

Two Types
It is useful to divide speed into two types: straight-ahead speed (sometimes called linear speed) and lateral speed and agility (which are so interrelated that we’ll treat them as one). The former is most easily measured but the latter often provides more rewards in sports that require starting, stopping, and changing direction. Those broad categories can be further broken down into component parts in order to apply them to actual sport movements, or sport-specific speed.

Straight-Ahead Speed (SAS)
Top speed
Speed maintenance

Lateral Speed and Agility (LSA)
Changing direction

All of these components represent opportunities for improvement if they are approached as part of a total system of speed development.

How Relaxation Works
Especially with the young athlete and the athlete who plays games, there seems to a fundamental dichotomy between effort and relaxation. They think that in order to run faster or move laterally more effectively, they have to try harder, when, in effect, the opposite is true. The key to moving more effectively and running faster is relaxation.

This does not mean being passive. It means concentration and attention to relevant cues, such as a tightness or tension in the face or neck. As soon as athletes start to tighten up, their movements become choppy and, to some extent, restricted.

Relaxation should be stressed in all drills. Cues for relaxation should be developed for each athlete so they can learn to force themselves to relax as soon as they begin to feel tense.