The strength numbers swelled. The vertical jumps ascended. The body compositions leaned out and muscled up. But for nearly 40 years, Mike Boyle's athletes never got as fast as he felt they should.
Boyle, one of the world's elite strength and conditioning specialists, will tell you as much.
"I talk about the whole idea of 38 years at the train station, waiting for my ship to come in. I'm like, 'How can you be so wrong for so long, when you're doing the same thing, supposedly at a really high level?" Boyle told STACK. "Then, in year 38, you're like, 'Wow. You've missed the boat on this thing.'"
Boyle's trained athletes as a staff member of Boston University, the Boston Red Sox and the Boston Bruins. He's helped the U.S. women's national ice hockey team develop into a world power. The gym he co-founded, Mike Boyle's Strength and Conditioning, is regularly named one of the best gyms in America. Yet for a long time, he—like the overwhelming majority of strength and conditioning coaches—had trouble developing speed.
Now, MBSC athletes are genuinely getting faster for the first time in forever. To sum up Boyle's speed epiphany in five words: "Get a timer. Start timing."
Boyle discusses this and many other of his latest thoughts and strategies in Functional Strength Coach 7, which includes roughly 7 hours of exclusive video content. The shift in how he trains speed was largely inspired by the work of Tony Holler and his Feed the Cats methodologies.
Boyle and MBSC began regularly timing their athlete's sprints in 2018. Suddenly, sprints were being tested 4-8 times a week rather than a couple times a year. Boyle says it's been the most impactful programming change they've implemented in the last decade.
"You say to a kid, run a 10-yard sprint. That kid probably runs a 10-yard sprint the way he feels like running it. The reality might be that it's at 80-percent of his max speed. If we look at the Charlie Francis stuff saying we've gotta be above 90, 95 percent (to actually get faster)…We start looking at the math and saying if we've gotta be above 95 and someone runs a 1.50 10-Yard Dash, if they run a 1.58, you're not in that 95 or above range," says Boyle.
Boyle's athletes ran plenty of untimed sprints over the years, but he now believes those might not even qualify as real speed work. Why? Because timing changes everything.
When the athlete doesn't know how fast they're actually running, it's very difficult for them to self-organize and train with intent. They don't know if something just felt fast, or if it actually was fast. They don't know how long they must rest between reps to maintain top speed. But once sprinting becomes "gamified" with consistent timing, buy-in shoots through the roof. The results have been eye-opening. Boyle points to his teenaged son, Mark, as an example. He's dropped 4/10ths of a second off his 10-Yard Dash in a single year.
Boyle kicks himself for not realizing this sooner, because when he thinks back over his long career, the most success he's had helping athletes improve speed was when he was preparing NFL hopefuls for the Combine.
"We knew they had to be able to run a 40 and we had to time some kind of sprint. And for us, it was exactly like we're doing it right now. 10s, 10s, 10s. Starts, starts, starts. But always timed. And those guys, we saw really substantial increases in speed. I had that kind of like 'Duh' moment. I can't believe I didn't put two and two together at an earlier time," Boyle says.
"We need to get away from looking at sprinting as a test. Because that's what it always was, it was a test. Like 'OK, we're going to do all this training, then we're going to test you in the whatever—the 10, the 20, the 40, the 60.' And I start looking at it and thinking 'No, this is where we're completely wrong.' Sprinting is a tool, and we need to make sure the tool is a part of the program all the time."
For many years, experts stressed the importance of getting stronger to get faster. And while this is true, the impact your Squat and Deadlift max has on speed has likely been overstated. For one, the vast majority of weight room exercises train vertical force, yet sprinting is more horizontal by nature. But perhaps more importantly, even the fastest lifts occur at just a fraction of the speeds achieved during sprinting.
"When you start looking at meters per second, the fastest (weight room) thing was Power Snatch at 2.5 meters per second. We could take an average high school kid and they'd run 8 meters per second. You start looking at that—'Wait a second, the slow kids can do something three times faster than the fastest people can do in the weight room?'" says Boyle, who's seen thousands of athletes get significantly stronger yet achieve only middling gains in speed.
"I think the whole velocity-based training thing is kind of a waste of time. People are using TENDOs and bands and chains, and they're trying to speed up slow exercises. You look at that and think, 'Why would somebody (do that) instead of just choosing a fast exercise?'…What's going to get you faster is the physical act of running fast."
MBSC athletes are regularly timed in a 10-Yard Dash and a Flying 10 performed with a 10-yard run-in. Integrating a "Flying" type of sprint is important because it helps ensure athletes are receiving regular exposure to speeds at or near their max velocity. Boyle acknowledges that there's likely benefit from making the sprints longer (Holler utilizes timed 40s with his athletes), but he wanted to start relatively short for injury-prevention purposes.
The athletes typically run two or three timed sprints, two times a week. All times are logged so progress can be tracked and immediately communicated to the athlete. MBSC utilizes Brower Electronic Timers, which are vastly more accurate than timing by hand. Boyle believes the investment in such a system is more than worth it, as buy-in dramatically increases when athletes know their times are legit.
While Boyle used to be afraid that more timed sprints would cause more injuries among his athletes, he's found the opposite to be true. MBSC athletes performed somewhere between 20,000-30,000 timed sprints last summer, yet reported zero sprint-related injuries. Boyle's now fallen more in line with the recommendations of noted sport scientist JB Morin, who believes regular top-speed sprinting may in fact be the most effective method of vaccinating the hamstrings against injury.
After seeing how safe their 10s and Flying 10s have been with the athletes, Boyle's thinking about extending the distance. One caveat to all this? No racing. Not only is it more difficult to get accurate times when two or more people are running simultaneously, but racing increases the risk of an athlete overreaching. An athlete's competitive fire to beat their own time should be more than enough motivation.
In Functional Strength Coach 7, Boyle expands on this seismic change in thinking on speed—and discusses why "I don't have the space" is one of the lamest excuses for not sprinting your athletes. Check it out here.
Photo Credit: PeopleImages/iStock
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