Despite its reputation as being risky and non-specific to sport, here are three reasons why non-track athletes should incorporate top speed sprinting into their training.
There is no denying that acceleration is the name of the game in sports. After all, most game-changing actions – like breakaways in football, close plays at first base, fast breaks in basketball, etc. – rely on short bursts of speed that (generally) last between 3-8 seconds.
For that reason, it's often said that top speed sprint training (i.e., maximum velocity sprinting) is useless for non-track athletes. That acceleration is the only speed quality worth improving.
However, while it may be true that acceleration is the more critical "speed quality" in the context of competition, the truth is that top speed sprint training is far from useless. On the contrary, training to improve one's maximum sprinting velocity can (and should) be a mainstay in all athletes' programs, whether they're a track athlete or not.
1. Improving top speed improves acceleration.
To quote Cam Josse, an Athletic Performance Coach at Indiana University, "Small advancements in maximal velocity can lead to large changes across the entire acceleration profile."
In other words, when athletes increase their top speed, they're also improving their accelerative abilities.
As an illustration, think about top speed like absolute strength in the bench press (i.e., a one-rep max). If athlete A can bench 300 pounds whereas athlete B can only bench 200 pounds, it goes without saying that athlete A will be able to lift a submaximal weight – say, 135 pounds – at a far higher velocity than athlete B on the first rep (let alone every rep that follows).
In the same sense, athletes who can reach higher top speeds are inherently able to accelerate more rapidly and efficiently at the onset of a sprint.
By and large, the impact that top speed has on acceleration is attributed to the fact that improvements in one's top speed – like improvements in absolute strength – coincide with an enhanced ability to exert more force. Given that being able to exert high levels of force into the ground is crucial at the onset of a sprint, it makes sense that increasing top speed leads to direct improvements in acceleration.
In looking at the research, Dr. Ken Clark – a well-renowned speed and biomechanics expert and Kinesiology professor – studied the relationship between maximal velocity and overall speed amongst 2016 NFL combine attendees. After diving into their 10-yard split numbers between each 10-yard segment (e.g., 0-10 yards, 10-20 yards), Dr. Clark found that the athletes who reached the highest peak velocities showed the best sprint times at every 10-yard split, whereas those with the lowest peak velocities showed the worst times.
There were no athletes with "good" acceleration times and "bad" top speed numbers or vice versa. On the contrary, the relationship between both qualities was almost entirely linear. It was subsequently concluded that being able to reach higher maximum velocities improves an athlete's ability to hit better times at any given distance. That maximum velocity training is critically important for enhancing overall sprint performance.
2. Increasing top speed enhances conditioning.
On the surface, the idea that improving top speed improves conditioning is somewhat counterintuitive as they're two completely different qualities. However, the "speed reserve" concept introduced by Charlie Francis paints a clear picture of how top speed and conditioning go hand-in-hand.
The premise of the speed reserve concept is simple: the faster an athlete can run at top speed, the greater their sub-maximal speeds – and thus their speed reserve (i.e., the difference between maximum speed and maximum aerobic speed) – will be.
In other words, by increasing their top speed, athletes will find it easier to achieve and maintain faster sub-maximal speeds without spending as much energy as previously required.
For example, if athlete A has a top speed of 20 mph while athlete B has a top speed of 15 mph, athlete A has a higher speed reserve (by definition). Taking the speed reserve concept into account, athlete A can get tired and run at 80% of their top speed (16 mph) and still beat a completely fresh athlete B. Even if athlete B can sustain their energy for a more extended period, they're still at a disadvantage due to the glass ceiling of their top speed capabilities and smaller speed reserve.
What's more, a more significant speed reserve also equips athletes to sustain repeated bouts of sprinting more effectively. Say, for example, that athletes A and B have to run five 40-yard dashes in quick succession, and that their best times are 4.5 and 5.0 seconds (respectively). Athlete A, in this case, can clock in at 5.0 seconds – athlete B's best time – without surpassing 90% of their top speed, which allows them to leave some gas in the tank. On the other hand, Athlete B has to exert 100% effort to reach that same 5.0-second time, an effort that's nearly impossible to replicate without adequate rest.
Athlete A's higher top speed capabilities allow them to achieve and maintain a time of 5.0 seconds without expending all of their energy, whereas athlete B – with their lower top speed – will inevitably burn out and slow down on each repeated bout.
In both cases, athlete A's higher top speed capabilities allow them to achieve and maintain faster (or equal) speeds than athlete B while requiring significantly less energy.
3. Maximum velocity sprint training reduces hamstring injury risk (when progressed appropriately).
Despite the common notion that maximum velocity sprint training is inherently risky for athletes – most notably in reference to hamstring injuries – the truth is that strategically exposing athletes to maximum velocity sprinting is arguably the most effective method for bulletproofing the hamstring against injury.
A recent study involving 32 soccer players sought to compare the effects of eccentric hamstring training via Nordic hamstring curls versus sprint training on muscle architecture and sprint performance (Mendiguchia et al., 2020). To measure muscle architecture, they focused on the fascicle length and muscle thickness of the biceps femoris – the most commonly injured muscle of the hamstrings – given that both measures have proven to be useful in predicting (and reducing) hamstring injury risk.
After six weeks, they found that the sprint group outperformed the eccentric hamstring training group in increasing both fascicle length (16.2% vs. 7.3%) and muscle thickness (5.8% vs. 5.0%) as well as sprint performance (by 3.37%).
A similar study labeled sprinting as a "potential vaccine for hamstring injury" after finding that elite Gaelic football players who were exposed to maximal velocity sprinting were 3x less likely to suffer from injury than those who were not (Malone et al., 2017).
The reason why maximum velocity sprint training reigns supreme for reducing hamstring injury risk is three-fold:
Better mechanics = reduced injury risk. It doesn't matter how many Nordic hamstring curls and Romanian deadlifts an athlete does if their sprinting mechanics are subpar. After all, faulty mechanics (e.g., over-striding, poor foot placement) are at the root of most hamstring injuries. For that reason (among others), improving top speed mechanics via maximum velocity sprinting should be a top priority.
Specificity. Above all else, nothing comes remotely close to sprinting in terms of the demands that are placed on the hamstrings – namely, the fast eccentric contraction rates and maximal levels of recruitment – when an athlete is at top speed. While increasing eccentric hamstring strength is undoubtedly valuable for reducing injury risk, sprinting in and of itself is irreplaceable in an effective hamstring training protocol.
Eccentric strength. To piggyback on the previous point, maximum velocity sprinting is the only "exercise" that induces sprint-specific hamstring activity at unparalleled contraction rates. Moreover, as the previously mentioned soccer study suggests, sprinting at maximal speeds has proven to be unmatched for increasing the fascicle length and muscle thickness of the biceps femoris compared to conventional hamstring training. As a bonus, maximum velocity sprinting has been shown to induce tissue healing and repair in injured athletes, further reinforcing the importance of doing so regularly (Edouard et al., 2019).
It's worth mentioning that acceleration-focused sprinting is also valuable from an injury reduction standpoint, and – for some athletes, it may be the most appropriate starting point. What separates maximum velocity training is its specificity – as most hamstring injuries (57%) occur during high-speed sprinting actions – as well as its eccentric demands (Arnason et al., 2008). Compared to the lower body angles employed during acceleration, the upright posture that coincides with higher-velocity sprinting places significantly higher eccentric demands on the hamstrings, which ultimately allows for greater adaptations to occur.
Avoiding top speed training altogether in fear of injury is far riskier than doing so while training. All athletes will inevitably have to sprint at high speed at some point, and, as such, should train accordingly. While exercises like Nordic hamstring curls and similar alternatives are undoubtedly useful for reducing injury risk, there's nothing that can replace the explosive and dynamic nature of maximum velocity sprinting.
To be clear, coaches and athletes shouldn't throw caution to the wind and run an hour's worth of 100-meter sprints on day one. Above all else, the key to implementing maximum velocity sprint training is to take a strategic approach with a gradual progression plan.
The following guidelines should be considered when getting into top speed training:
Precede top speed training with acceleration-focused sprinting. In the same way that athletes should get familiar with goblet squats before moving onto back squats, so too should they get comfortable running acceleration-based sprints of 10-20 yards before moving onto top speed training.
Prioritize flying sprints over long-distance sprints. Flying sprints involve gradually building up to a maximum velocity sprint with a pre-determined "fly-in" distance. As opposed to running a full 30-yard sprint, for example, a 20-yard fly-in followed by a 10-yard sprint (i.e., gradually increasing speed between yards 0-20, then sprinting between yards 20-30) is generally safer and more effective for working on top speed with less risk.
Take a short-to-long distance approach. In the same way that acceleration should be a pre-requisite to top speed sprinting, too should longer fly-ins and flying sprints preceded by shorter distances. The following plan of progressions is a practical example:
- Weeks 1-3: 5-yard fly-in + 10-yard sprint
- Weeks 4-6: 10-yard fly-in + 10-yard sprint
- Weeks 7-9: 15-yard fly-in + 15-yard sprint
After a few months, most athletes should be comfortable with 20-30 yard fly-ins and 20-yard flying sprints (and beyond, if necessary). For most athletes, Dr. Ken Clark has suggested that a good rule of thumb is to stick between 20-30 yards for fly-ins and 10-20 yards for the flying sprints.
Keep the volume relatively low. It's essential to keep the number of flying sprints fairly minimal. Between 3-5 repetitions is typically adequate for younger and less advanced athletes, whereas more advanced athletes may benefit from as few as 1-3 repetitions. The quality of each sprint is far more important than the total quantity.
Ensure adequate rest periods. Adequate rest in between sprints is paramount to ensure maximal effort and full recovery. Coach Tony Holler, for example, has spoken about how he may provide upwards of 6 minutes of rest in between sprints (depending on the distance/duration).
Time everything (if possible). The importance of timing athletes' sprints can't be understated (see: 'This is the Single Most Important Part of Speed Training – And You're Probably not Doing It') As Mike Boyle has said, "If you aren't timing, you aren't doing speed training." To be fair, flying sprints are difficult to time by hand, so we use Brower Electronic Timers. Regardless, timing by hand is still worthwhile as the consistency of feedback is more important than the exact measures.
1. Arnason, A et al. "Prevention of hamstring strains in elite soccer: an intervention study." Scandinavian journal of medicine & science in sports vol. 18,1 (2008): 40-8. doi:10.1111/j.1600-0838.2006.00634.x
2. Edouard Pascal, et al. "Sprinting: a potential vaccine for hamstring injury?" Sport Perform Sci Reports. 2019;1: 1–2. 10.1136/bjsports-2015-095359
3. Malone, Shane et al. "High chronic training loads and exposure to bouts of maximal velocity running reduce injury risk in elite Gaelic football." Journal of science and medicine in sport vol. 20,3 (2017): 250-254. doi:10.1016/j.jsams.2016.08.005
4. Mendiguchia, Jurdan, et al. "Sprint versus Isolated Eccentric Training: Comparative Effects on Hamstring Architecture and Performance in Soccer Players." Plos One, vol. 15, no. 2, 2020, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0228283.