Whether racing to the finish line, end zone or first base, athletes rely on speed to be successful. That's why improving speed is so important among the three fundamental pillars of athletic success—strength, skill, and speed.
Like the first two pillars, improving running speed initially needs to be coached, followed by repetitive technical application. It also needs to be accompanied by a regular strength/power program. Although the speed component of any human endeavor involves some genetic predisposition, speed can be improved through the development and mastering of specific movement patterns. (See Head-to-Toe Sprint Mechanics.)
Athletes have performed specific drills to improve speed for many years, notably in track & field. Coaches of other sports, understanding the need for a consistent stimulus for speed development, have incorporated these strategies with their athletes. Typically, progressive drills are performed at a high intensity to re-program the rate at which muscles respond to the ground and how quickly they can move in space.
Once an athlete is properly warmed up and still relatively "fresh" (prior to a training or practice), he or she can perform multiple movement drills that generate power through the ankle, knee and hip. The following specific drills to improve speed cover detailed physiological and biomechanical components of speed development, including, but not limited to, overload, force development, maximum velocity, neuromuscular learning, and progressive periodization. If each of these areas is maximized, speed improvement in all sports can, and will, occur.
The A-Run or A-Kick is a dynamic speed drill that mimics the proper movement pattern of a sprint. The A-Run emphasizes the heel-to-butt movement, which places the shin as close to the hip as possible during the swing phase of a stride while also placing the hip in the proper parallel position with the ground to promote sufficient stride length. Practice these components repeatedly. Over time, the speed and distance of the movement will increase. Once you master these technical aspects, you should perform the drill as fast as possible in a 10-meter area for three to four sets. If fatigue causes either a slowing of leg movement or a technical error, shorten the distance and reduce the sets. The goal of the progression is to perform fast and technical A-Runs up to 50 meters for five or six sets. Recover on the walk back to the starting line. Focus on:
- Intense, fast movements
- Increasing sets before distance
Split Squat Jumps are used to improve power, strength, and acceleration. They resemble some mechanical aspects of forward sprinting. The goal is to improve power, notably during the acceleration phase of running. The initial position of the drill forces you to produce the maximum amount of power in the front leg. This is followed by an explosive movement vertically, switching legs at the peak of the jump and landing under control, ready to perform the same movement again. Power is enhanced by spending as little time as possible on the ground and producing as much power and height as possible on the vertical component. Arm swing should mimic the sprinting movement. To maximize effort on each jump, keep repetitions low initially (four to five reps per leg for three to four sets). Do not exceed 10 reps per leg. Once you can perform eight to ten reps per leg with maximum power, you can add dumbbells or preferably a weighted vest for more resistance. As more resistance is added, reduce the repetitions. Recovery should be one to two minutes between sets. Focus on:
- Maximum effort on each jump
- Increasing reps before adding resistance
This is a traditional approach to improving speed, especially during the time when training devices were applied before proper mechanics were learned at high velocities. It is a simple approach to educating athletes about body control at peak velocity. This drill should be performed after the first two, because it combines all phases of speed development—acceleration, attaining maximum velocity, and maintaining maximum velocity. Once you have attained maximum velocity, sustaining it for as long as possible should be your goal. As soon as velocity diminishes, the set is complete. Distances should initially range from 20 to 40 meters and progress to no more than 100 meters, unless your particular event dictates otherwise. Perform four to six sets. Implements such as parachutes, sleds, bands, or pulley systems can be added once you demonstrate proper body control at high velocities. Focus on:
- Combining the speed development drills
- Body control and technique at high velocities
- Maximum sustainable effort
These specific drills to improve speed should be performed between 3 and 5 days per week, even in-season (although with reduced repetitions at the same high intensity). In addition, a strength/power program should be ongoing. Adequate and structured strength training gives athletes the stamina they need to meet the demands of their sport and its speed-specific training demands.
These tools for success are challenging, but they may be the difference-maker with respect to winning a scholarship, attending the college of your choice, making the varsity and winning.
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