While acceleration gets the most love when it comes to team sports, top-end sprinting is arguably just as important.
If you watch a game, many of the game-breaking plays involve top-end speed, with the faster athlete successfully making the big play. So while athletes may not always reach their top speed, it's importance shouldn't be diminished.
Top-end speed is also the most sought after quality coaches look for in athletes, but at the same time, arguably the most difficult to improve. It takes a lot of patience and trust, and it's easy to forgo that process and instead train for things that are easier to progress—hypertrophy, strength, work capacity, mass gain, etc.
If you want to get faster, you need to emphasize and prioritize speed. View the weight room as an accessory to speed, not the other way around. If you do this, and trust this for years, you WILL get faster.
So how can you start this journey? First, let's take a look at what you should be looking for during top-end sprinting.
1. Upright Body Position
Acceleration is characterized by some degree of forward body lean, but top-end speed is characterized by an upright posture. With that being said, the majority of the key positions during acceleration hold true during top-end speed, just with upright form. We still want to see a straight line from head to hip, with the athlete being tall at ground contact, expressing quality front-side mechanics, while minimizing excessive back-side mechanics.
2. Knees Even
Probably the most important position to look for is the positioning of the knees at ground contact. As the foot contacts the ground, is the recovering knee even with the grounded knee? If not, the athlete is likely kicking out the backside. This is obviously inefficient and is often associated with an excessively anteriorly rotated pelvis and the next stride landing out in front of the center of mass , a speed killing cycle.
3. Ground Contact Times
For very fast sprinters, ground contacts will be approximately .10 seconds or less. For most team sport athletes they will probably fall in the .10-.13-second range. These ground contact times are about half of what is seen during acceleration phases.
This means athletes have less time on the ground to produce force and more need for elastic components and impulses. To maximize these things, posture and mechanics are key to maximize the reactive and elastic contributions.
What this also means, is the actions of top-end sprinting occur so quickly it is advisable to record and break it down frame by frame. Things happen too fast for the un-trained eye, that video will give you a much better understanding of what's really happening.
Finally, remember sprinting induces up to 5xBW ground reaction forces and up to 7xBW muscle forces. It is extremely taxing and provides a stimulus that no other mode can simulate. No matter what you do in the weight room, it won't come near the forces and neural stimulus sprinting provides. This is why top-end speed can drive up weights, but weights won't drive up speed.
Top-End—What To Say
As the coaching world continues to grow and expand, it's becoming more evident that what we say, and how we say it matters! It's not just X's and O's, it's about communication and stimulating motor learning, and it's taught by the words we use.
As we touched upon earlier, the ground contact times during top-end speed are around 10th of a second. This is not enough time to actually consciously think about something or elicit change while on the ground.
This means our coaching needs to move away from words and cues that try to create images of force production, and instead focus on things that shift attention to the air or a more natural and neural response. Words should be short and sweet, with emphasis on being like a spring or pogo, like "snap," "whip," "bounce" or "pop."
How We Get There
- Sprint! This is most obvious, but also the most neglected. Not many team sports put aside time to actually sprint, or at least emphasize top-end speed. We all have big lower-body or upper-body days, but how many have a top-end speed day? A day when the only goal is to sprint maximally with full recovery and just a few reps. All it takes is 2-5 reps of 40's or fly 10/20's with 5-10 minutes rest between reps, once or twice a week. If you want your athletes to get faster, prioritize your speed sessions instead of your lifting sessions.
- Sprinting is a neural activity with very little time spent on the ground or in the air. So providing external stimuli that naturally force the body into correct body positions is in many cases better than trying to "coach" mechanics. So things like wickets, running barefoot and many of Frans Bosch's drills (running with arms overhead or crossed) will unconsciously put athletes into better positions and allow self-organization of movements.
- 5 Resisted Speed Training Methods That Will Increase Your Top Speed
- 3 Speed Workouts to Improve Your Top-End Sprints
- Michael Johnson Performance Series: 3 Drills to Increase Your Top-End Speed