By Robin Pritchard - Owner of Fortis Training (email@example.com)
Speed separates the best from the rest. Train fast to run fast.
Reading time: approx. 5 mins
For: athletes who want to get quicker.
Speed. You’re either born with it or without it, right? Well, not exactly…
It’s true that your morphology (i.e. your genetic makeup and fibre-type composition) will affect your maximum potential for running quickly(1) however most of us never actually realise our true potential.
Why is speed important?
Being fast is what distinguishes the elite players from the rest and is often what prevents ‘talented’ athletes from reaching the pinnacle of their respective sport.
Think of pretty much any land-based sport that requires some level of athletic ability. In every single one of these sports, it is an advantage to run faster (e.g. rugby union & league, football, cricket, tennis, hockey, American football, baseball, AFL)
The best athletes across all sports tend to be the quickest ones. Being the strongest player on the pitch means nothing if you can’t use it to your advantage. If you can’t keep up with the action or you can’t actually express your strength, then you probably won’t get better or progress to the next level.
Here's an example of how fast professional sport is at the top level...
Why don’t we reach our potential?
Below elite sport, it’s probably because we don’t train speed enough, or for that matter, in the right way. Above all else, the best way to get fast is to sprint… regularly. If we never expose our body to a maximal intensity effort, then unfortunately, it will never have the chance to adapt. I’m not advocating that you now go out and sprint every single day, though I would suggest that at least once per week, you sprint at a maximal intensity or close to it.
Besides this, there are of course drills we can do to encourage our body to move in the most efficient way possible. Sprinting is a skill. Watch 10 different people sprint and you’ll probably see 10 different techniques. All movement has variability, as renowned sprint coach Franz Bosch states when discussing skill acquisition and motor control (2).
However, when it comes to sprinting, there is an ‘ideal’ that we would like to get as close to as we can. There are some key attractors (common technical points) to help us do this, namely utilising the hip extensor reflex, preventing rotation at toe-off and foot placement on ground contact – again, Bosch discusses this in more detail (2).
Phases of the sprint cycle - from https://simplifaster.com/articles/altis-kinogram-method/
What do we need to do?
Whilst we still need to be strong in order to put force down into the ground, there is a point where many coaches argue that getting stronger no longer becomes beneficial to performance (2,8). Once we reach this point, training needs to focus on being as efficient as possible throughout the running stride – meaning that we need utilise as much of the force that we produce as possible in order to propel ourselves forwards as quickly as possible.
To improve a skill, training needs to be specific - sprinting is a non-negotiable if you want to improve speed. Going through a series of drills at a low intensity will have very little transfer to your running performance. In order to run fast, we need to train fast.
The biomechanics of running at lower speed (i.e. jog, run) is different to that of sprinting, as are the ground reaction forces and stride frequency. We are training a different skill if we don’t expose our body to high speed running (i.e. >8m/s). To improve a skill, we need to train the skill to ensure it becomes autonomous and executed efficiently under pressure.
2. Train technique
There are a number of key ‘attractors’ that need to be present in order to help us run quickly. One of these is the absence of rotation at toe off (when your foot leaves the ground). If you rotate when you run, you are leaking energy from the system that is not helping to drive you forwards Put simply, most people will tell you to drive your arms straight forward and back in order to minimise the amount of rotation when you run (a point of view that I also used to subscribe to). However, this is backwards. Our arm movement during the running stride is a compensatory mechanism – it is not driving the rotation, but it is merely reacting to it.
In order to train this attractor, try running ‘without arms’. The theory goes that our body will ‘self-organise’ to be able to run without rotation. In fact, Bosch argues that the best athletes are the ones who show minimal decrease in performance when performing drills ‘without’ arms compared to with them (2).
(no copyright infringement intended)
An efficient technique puts more of the force we produce into the floor in the right direction to propel us forwards as quickly as possible.
3. Improve leg stiffness
Think of your lower limbs as a spring. A stiffer spring will be able to transfer force more effectively from one end to the other, i.e. from our hip, through to the floor via our foot. Elite sprinters have a contact time on the ground of approximately 0.09 seconds (7) which means they are able to transfer a lot of force incredibly quickly. Also interesting is that elite sprinters apply more force in the first half of the ground contact, meaning that they need a stiff ankle to increase the amount of vertical force they apply to the ground at top speed (3).
Developing a stiffer spring can be done by choosing exercises that require you to produce high forces in not very much time (think repeated hurdle jumps or reactive pogo hops). The Rugby Strength Coach (Keir Wenham-Flatt) goes into more detail about this here.
4. Train the posterior chain
It’s long been known that the hamstrings play a crucial role in sprinting. In fact, hamstring injuries are the most common soft tissue injury in most field sports (4,5,6). However, the true nature of the muscle action that the hamstring undergoes during the running stride has been debated. Bosch argues that the hamstrings are predominantly isometric (same length) through the stance phase, which means that we should train the hamstrings isometrically so that they act to extend the hip and prevent flexion at the knee.
The ‘Bosch SL Iso Hold’ is one such example of an isometric muscle action which fulfils the criteria at the knee and hip. If you haven’t done so already, give this exercise a try.
In order to run fast, we need to train fast - sprint at least once per week.
Improve your technique - include ‘no arm’ running drills in your training.
Specificity – train hamstrings in isometric conditions.
Trappe S, Luden N, Minchev K, Raue U, Jemiolo B, Trappe T. A. (2015). Skeletal muscle signature of a champion sprint runner. Journal of Applied Physiology 118, 1460–1466.
Bosch, F. (2014). Fine-tuning motor control in High-Performance Training for Sports. Edited by Joyce, D., Lewindon, E.
Bathgate, A., Best, J. P., Craig, G., & Jamieson, M. (2002). A prospective study of injuries to elite Australian rugby union players. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 36, 265-269.
Brooks, J. H. M., Fuller, C. W., & Reddin, D. B. (2006). Incidence, risk, and prevention of hamstring muscle injuries in professional rugby union. American Journal of Sports Medicine, 34, 1297-1306.
Woods, C., Hawkins, R. D., Maltby, S., Hulse, M., Thomas, A., & Hodson, A. (2004). The Football Association medical research programme: An audit of injuries in professional football - analysis of hamstring injuries. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 38, 36-41.
Rabita, G., Dorel, S., Slawinski, J., Sàez-de-Villarreal, E., Couturier, A., Samozino, P., Morin, J-B. (2015). Sprint mechanics in world-class athletes: a new insight into the limits of human locomotion. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 25: 583–594.