There are 3 specific things that will make you faster as an athlete. We have to cover a little bit of background info before we get to the specifics. The National Strength and Conditioning Association defines speed as stride length X stride frequency. Simply put, stride length is the length of each step, and stride frequency is the amount of time an athlete spends on the ground when his foot strikes between each step. Figuring out the best way to make YOUR athlete faster in the shortest amount of time depends on which phase of sprinting he is lacking in most.
STEP #1: Ask yourself this: does his foot hit the ground and slowly bounce back up like a tomato or does his foot bounce off the ground like a bouncy ball?
STEP #2: Ask yourself this: does he take really big steps and cover a lot of ground or does he take short/choppy steps and cover minimal ground?
You can analyze your athletes running form until you are blue in the face, but really what's important is recognizing their stride length and stride frequency and where they are lacking. It all comes down to Sir Isaac Newton’s second law of movement: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. You can only propel yourself forward while running if you generate force in the opposite direction, the amount of force you can create results in how much ground you cover.
Now don’t miss this part. In order to generate force into the ground, an athlete must have the strength to actually push into the ground. When a parent, coach or athlete says they are slow, often times it is a result of the athlete being weak. This summer we are having tremendous success making athletes faster without doing any formal sprint work. That’s right; no running form drills, no A skips/B skips, NONE of the traditional “speed” work. Over this summer, we have also had some athletes who have never lifted before hit marks they thought were untouchable in two months. Coincidence? I think not!
So what exactly are we doing with our athletes to see kids getting significantly faster in just a few weeks? Studies have shown an increase in sprint speed as well as broad jump and vertical jump following several things: max effort squats, resisted sprints, Olympic lifts, plyometric training, sprinting drills, and complex training. There’s your first hint – we really don’t have our athletes run all that much, but we are having kids get faster.
Improving speed really comes down to improving an athlete’s rate of force production, maximal force output, and improving an athlete’s efficiency with running mechanics. Improving all these variables will guarantee an improvement in running speed and agility.
#1 Rate of force Production
Have you ever had an athlete do a sled push and it looks like the sled is owning them? They are trying to push into the ground and they are swerving back and forth rather then driving the sled straight ahead. It’s easy to tell that these kids are slow – they aren’t able to produce force into the ground. The rate of force production is defined as the rate of rise in contractile force at the onset of contraction. In other words, how fast you can generate force within the working muscle. These slow kids are the ones that aren’t able to efficiently generate force and there are 3 key factors that determine how much force they can generate: neural input, muscle size, and fiber type. Greater neural input means faster and more efficient recruitment of skeletal muscle during the movement. Obviously a larger muscle will be able to generate more force, more muscle fibers =more crossing bridging=more forceful contraction.
How do we improve the rate of force production? Our number one method is through resistance training and plyometric training. They will both increase the amount of nerves that are used to activate a muscle, while increasing the amount of contractile elements in the muscle. Both of these things means one thing: Faster athletes.
#2 Maximal Force Output
Maximal force output is the maximal amount of force your body can generate throughout a movement. In the world of research, this is most easily measured with force plates. With our athletes, we can judge maximal force output by seeing how quick they can move a certain weight and also how much load is on the bar. An increase in speed on the bar with a set load and an increase in total load on the bar is a direct result of improvement in force output. To get an idea of what it looks like to move the bar quickly check out this video of Bobby squatting. Pay close attention to his explosiveness at the top of his squat.
The next video is of one of our top level beach volleyball players. He has spent minimal time in the gym and is working on being explosive, as you can tell from the video.
How do you improve maximal force output? You have to move some weight – towing/pushing a sled, using Kettlebells, barbells, or dumbbells.
#3 Running Mechanics
Running mechanics are the most obvious of all changes that occur. Improving running mechanics will teach the athlete how to move efficiently. In other words, they are expending fewer calories and getting every ounce of force out of their bodies. There is often a debate as to whether or not team athletes need to spend a lot of time on their running mechanics. Bobby, being a track guy, tends to say yes but acknowledges that there are more important things that should be worked on. Melissa, being a team-sport athlete, tends to say no and thinks a few simple running mechanics cues are really all you need for most athletes. We both agree that it would benefit you as an athlete and strength coach to focus more on the athletes efficiency during change of direction, and their ability to accelerate within the first 10 yards.
So where do you go from here?
Each of the factors mentioned above are very trainable. The trick to improving an athletes sprint speed is figuring out which factor will provide the greatest increase in speed. Within the past 4 weeks we have made some athletes significantly faster without doing any sprint work. How? Well these athletes were already quick, however they were really really weak. When an athlete has spent minimal time with weights, you know for a fact that their maximal force output and rate of force development have room for improvement. You will be amazed at how much faster an athlete can get by just improving their strength.