Nothing changes the dynamic of sports quite like speed. Whether it is a sprinter lining up to run a 100-meter dash or an attacker sprinting to win a ball in soccer, these four keys are vital to maximizing speed and getting the most out of your sprinting.
1) Timed Sprints
Timed sprints are a game-changer when it comes to getting faster. Let's face it: An athlete that lines up to sprint knowing they're on the clock is more likely to run with increased intent and exert maximal effort. Charlie Francis has outlined the importance of sprinting above 90-95% effort to get faster. For example, if an athlete can run a 1.50 timed 10-yard dash, they need to be under 1.60 to reach that 95% range. In this case, the addition of the timer provides consistent feedback and ensures that athletes are progressing, which helps to drive performance. Other top coaches like Tony Holler and Mike Boyle have also found great success with timed sprints, citing them as one of the primary reasons for their athletes' success. Since we started implementing timed 10-yard sprints into the programs of our athletes, we've seen many of them cut their times by over half a second. This speaks to the power of consistency and training with intent, which is due in large part to the timing component. In a day and age where 40-yard dashes get all the hype, implementing timed 10-yard sprints regularly is a simple and effective way to see sprint times rapidly improve. From a risk/reward standpoint, they check the boxes of being safe, effective, and efficient, especially within large group settings. Whether it's a full team or an athlete working one-on-one with a coach, utilizing timed sprints is a surefire way to see big improvements and make sprinting "fun."
2) Flying Sprints/Max Velocity Work
While there's no denying that acceleration is a vital part of sports, maximal velocity training is largely neglected. The research of Dr. Ken Clark has highlighted the effect that top-end speed has on acceleration and proves why consistently training both is key. The figure below outlines how even small improvements in max velocity can positively impact the acceleration profile. As Carl Valle has said, "The destination of acceleration is top-end speed." Running near or at top-end speed can present favorable neurological and physiological adaptations that can improve acceleration. Also, maximal velocity work has the unique ability to prepare the body for overload better than the most explosive weight room movements. While maximum velocity work is important for track sprinters, a practical way team and field sport athletes can expose themselves to top-end speed training is via flying sprints. The idea behind flying sprints is to build up for a set distance and be near or at top speed for a 10-yard segment before decelerating. A general guideline is to perform a 20-yard build-up and have timing gates set up between the 20-30 yard marks to record the time. It has been recorded that even some of the most elite track sprinters are around 90% maximal speed by the 20-30 meter mark within a 100-meter dash race. It is worth noting that generally speaking, elite sprinters take longer to get to maximal speeds than the average team athlete. As a result, many "traditional" team sport athletes will be above 90% of their max velocity within 20-30 yards, which makes that distance a good sweet spot when incorporating flying sprints for maximal velocity purposes. From a big picture standpoint, flying sprints are a great risk/reward play. They limit exposure to long bouts at a top-end speed, which carries more injury risk, but still check the maximal velocity-based training box to enhance the complete speed profile. Flying sprints also reinforce the notion that utilizing a timing system is one of the best investments you can make.
3) Sprinting OR Conditioning
If speed kills, why should we continue to train athletes to be better at jogging? Give me the athlete that can make a game-changing play to win a game over the one that is purely "conditioned." The idea of doing repeat "sprints" at sub-maximal intensity for "speed" training only leaves people gassed and burned out, which is a recipe for sub-par performance on the playing field. Besides, if rule #1 is "do no harm," but we instill fatigue-driven training, aren't we inviting an increased risk of injury? At its core, sprinting is very explosive and should be treated as such. One of the best ways to do so is to ensure adequate recovery time and focus on quality rather than quantity. To maximize your recovery, a good rule of thumb is to rest one minute for every 10 meters sprinted. Training to get faster must be the main priority in speed training, not conditioning. Increases in sprint speed also lead to increases in an athlete's "speed reserves." The figure below from Derek Hansen outlines how getting faster can increase sub-maximal speed capabilities, which has a direct carryover to field sports. Quality-driven sprint training requires fatigue-free repetition. Ditch the endless gassers and make sprinting a priority in your training.
JB Morin, a leading expert in the field of speed, has outlined the importance of horizontal force application when it comes to sprinting, specifically as it relates to acceleration. Morin has noted that as continual improvements in unresisted sprinting become marginal, implementing resisted sled sprints can be a game-changer to unlock untapped potential. Applying high levels of force into the ground is imperative when accelerating, but the direction of that force is also key. In this case, sled sprints are an excellent way to elicit improvements in horizontal force application in a powerful manner. Initial ground contact under or slightly behind the hips is optimal as it helps eliminate any braking forces in the initial acceleration period. Besides, due to the weighted nature of the sled, it reinforces good angles at the torso, hips, and shin, which allows for optimal acceleration mechanics. There have been differing opinions over the years in regards to ideal loading for resisted sled sprinting. One study performed by Matt Cross and colleagues concluded that anything in the range of 69-96% body weight is optimal (friction conditions dependent) to maximize power output, which makes that a good place to start. From a timing standpoint, Mike Boyle suggests that the load on the sled should be set so that the athlete can hit about 1.5x their regular 10-yard dash time. For example, if an athlete runs a 1.5-second 10-yard dash, they should be able to sled sprint that same distance in 2.25 seconds or less. Also, since so many power-based movements (e.g., cleans, snatches, vertical jumps) are vertical in nature, sled sprints are an unmatched way to develop horizontal power and directly enhance the sprinting profile.
- Mike Boyle's Conditioning Rule for Athletes
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- 3 Special Strength Exercises for Better Jumping and Sprinting