Speed training is an often-butchered type of performance training. Old-school methods and strategies that aren't supported by science are still far too common. Unfortunately, they make you slower and rob you of precious speed in your sport.
Below, I break down the four most common speed training myths and provide advice (supported by research) on how to actually get faster.
Speed Myth 1: More Muscle or Body Weight Will Make You Slower
If you talk to just about any trainer, coach or athlete these days, they will tell you that you need to get as lean and light as possible to run faster. However, what kind of body types will you immediately witness when you watch some of the fastest men or women in the world run the 100-meter dash at the Olympics? They're all jacked.
Have you ever observed an elite sprinter or an extremely fast athlete who weighed only 140 pounds? In a majority of cases, the answer is no. So why is everyone looking to get lighter?
The truth is that there are reasons why these guys are big and fast and why you should be looking to mimic their physique as much as possible. When we analyze the science, it should be of no surprise why size correlates with speed.
First, when we add positive muscle mass, we increase our muscles' strength potential. I've heard figures anywhere from 2 to 5 pounds of strength per pound of muscle, according to old Soviet training literature and other authorities on training. I don't think it matters too much what the number is exactly. What's important to understand is that real world evidence on gaining size would at least support the fact that the strength and power gains become greater than the actual quantity of muscle gained. What does that mean? It means that our relative strength or strength-to-bodyweight ratio potential increases considerably.
In a study from 2005 in The Journal of Experimental Biology, researchers took 45 of the fastest male and female sprinters from 1999‐2013, and assessed their physical composition. More specifically, they examined 100-meter runners all the way up to 10,000-meter runners. They concluded that bigger athletes were better suited for sprinting, while smaller and lighter body types were more conducive to long-distance running. Also, ground forces produced from the 100-meter group were up to 2.5 times their body weight, according to the study.
Speed Myth 2: You do not need strength to run faster
Carrying more muscle mass is valuable for sprinting. Strength is no different. We can just apply simple physics here to make a strong case for strength as an essential training attribute to improve running speed.
- Force = Mass x Acceleration.
I'm sure you've all seen this standard equation at some point, and it has huge application in the context of speed development. What it means is that the more force or strength you can apply into the ground at a given body weight, the faster you will accelerate.
It's almost that simple. The direction in which we apply force and the rate we apply force are also important elements, but raw and robust strength levels are essential and very influential in determining current and potential speed performance.
Let's look at a few popular studies to confirm the need for higher levels of strength for improved sprint performance. The first study, performed in 2009, was published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. It involved 17 Division I‐AA collegiate football players. Subjects were divided into two groups, those who squatted 2.10 x their body weight or more, and those who squatted 1.90 x their body weight and less. The former group had significantly lower sprint times than the weaker group.
The second study was also from the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research and published in 2012. Nineteen professional rugby players were tested in the Back Squat for 1 rep, and 5-, 10-, and 20-meter dash at the onset of the study. After one month of training, each player's sprint time decreased.
The third study filmed a group of male and female sprinters at various competitions to assess them biomechanically. What they found during their analysis was that horizontal velocity is key for maximal speed, and that is best achieved with both strength and technical proficiency in sprinting.
Lastly, I would like to discuss some common arguments made against strength training for speed. The most common is that strength training causes injury.
Risk of injury is a major area of concern for coaches and parents. Many studies have measured the rate of injuries associated with weight training compared to the rate in other sports. For example, a study published in the November/December 2001 issue of the Journal of American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons cited research showing that in children ages 5 to 14 years, the number of injuries from bicycling was almost 400 percent greater than the number of injuries from weightlifting. There's more.
In a review paper on resistance training for prepubescent and adolescents published in 2002 in Strength and Conditioning Coach, author Mark Shillington reported on a screening of sports‐related injuries in school-aged children and found that resistance training was the likely cause of only 0.7 percent (or 1,576) of injuries compared with 19 percent for football and 15 percent for baseball.
The truth is that weight training and competitive lifting are among the safest activities an athlete can participate in.
Speed Myth 3: You Have to Run at High Volumes Frequently to Get Faster
Intuitively it makes sense that if you want to get better at something you have to do it frequently. Unfortunately, too much of a good thing can definitely be bad. The reason for this is due to physiological limitations of the human body.
Really high intensity efforts such as maximum effort weightlifting, jump training, Olympic lifting, intense competitions and sprinting heavily tax the body's central nervous system (CNS). You can view the CNS as your body's battery, which drives energy into your working muscles and other aspects of your system. It does not have the ability to adapt and store more energy, like your muscles can, and as you improve it fatigues more easily, unfortunately.
The nature of these activities suppresses the CNS, and you will not perform as well if you do them too often. This is especially true if you are significantly fast and strong already. Thus, careful manipulation and scheduling of all training-related variables (recovery periods, intensities, frequency, sets, reps) become imperative for favorable development and adaptation, which leads to greater speed.
A common mistake is to sprint too often. Not only does this increase injury risk, it prevents a sufficient window for recovery when the body can actually improve and restore itself so it can operate at maximum capacity when the time comes. If you want to know more about this, check out my article, "11 Essential Rules to Athletic Program Design" at my website, www.renospeedschool.com. You need to ensure you are not sprinting too often. There are a few studies that support limiting conditioning and sprinting to improve speed performance.
Speed Myth 4: Sprinting Technique Is the Most Important Factor for Speed
I break this down in the above YouTube video, so check it out if you would rather watch a video than read about it. Contrary to popular belief, power is absolutely the master regulator of speed. For those who are unsure, power is a product of speed x strength. In other words, the person who can generate the most force the fastest will have better power output. In the Journal of Biomechanics in 2012, researchers found that the main predictor and limiting factor of sprinting speed was power.
Another study involved a control group and a series of powerlifters, sprinters and Olympic lifters. Researchers wanted to measure relative power ratios (bodyweight to power), and absolute power from all of the participants in each group.
Subjects performed a Vertical Jump, a Smith machine Squat, and a Smith machine Squat-Jump. The results showed that the sprinters had the highest relative power (power to body weight ratio) and best vertical jump height, while the Olympic lifters generated the highest total power output. Powerlifters had the highest levels of absolute strength. Surprisingly though, sprinters and Olympic lifters possessed similar levels of strength. What was most convincing about this study was how much more total power the three achieved relative to the control group, indicating a very strong need for power. It was dramatically higher in the three types of athletes, indicating how important power is to general athletic performance and speed.
Another study, in The Journal of Biomechanics in 2010, examined Usain Bolt's past performances in the 100-meter dash to see what gives him the edge in competition. The researchers concluded that Bolt is superior primarily because he is able to maximize his position on the Force/Velocity Curve and generate more power into the ground than any of his competitors.
Technique is absolutely important, but it takes a backseat to power. To illustrate this point, consider an NFL athlete who is extremely fast, but exhibits pitiful sprinting technique. He can get away with this deficiency because he possesses so much power, which still enables him to blaze on the field. On the other hand, take a young athlete who runs pretty and demonstrates proper form according to his trainers and coaches but goes nowhere. It's because he has no horsepower.
For more information on how these exercises will increase your speed, check out the Speed Encyclopedia.
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