In the first part of this (now 4 part) series, we discussed the common misconceptions surrounding speed development. If you missed that, you can check it out here.
This section will build the case that speed can be improved by breaking down all the elements that go into being a truly fast athlete. Those elements are:
- Total-body strength in relation to body mass
- Explosive power
- Core and hip stability
- Ankle Rigidity
- Proper sprinting and cutting mechanics
Improvement in any of the following areas can lead to gains in speed. Developing all six areas, which a well-designed athletic development program should do for you, can lead to transformational change in time.
So let's take a deeper look at each to understand what they do to help you play faster.
An elite sprint stride combines a high knee position on the front leg with a fully extended trail leg. Essentially, you want maximum separation from your front knee to your trail knee in order to maximize the length of each stride.
A lack of mobility in your hips will limit your ability to achieve maximum separation. This limits the length of your stride, which in turn causes you to cover less ground.
Translation - It makes you run slow.
There comes a point where extra mobility doesn't do you any more good, but if you identify a limitation and adjust your training to correct it, a longer stride and faster sprint times await you.
A second way mobility limits your movement skills comes in to play with cutting/change of direction.
Sharp cuts require you to drop hip level while bending at the hips, knees and ankles. Limitations here can make your cuts awkward, potentially leading to a dreaded non-contact knee or ankle sprain.
Total Body Strength To Body Mass Ratio
There's two ends to this that are commonly used to improve in this category.
You can heavy strength train to gain speed.
You can diet to lose weight.
Either, or both, of these approaches can yield positive speed benefits for a young athlete under the right circumstances. Adding strength is like adding horsepower to a car, and losing weight is like making a car more aerodynamic.
The problem lies in gaining strength AND WEIGHT simultaneously, or in losing weight but not staying strong.
It's a fine line to walk. Your strength workouts can be manipulated to avoid excess body mass while getting stronger, and of course the healthier you eat the better chance you stay lean.
The sports world is littered with success stories of athletes who improved their ratio in the off-season, but far too many younger athletes overemphasize one side and fall into 'if some is good, more is better' mindset that throws off this delicate balance.
Developing Explosive Power
One piece of improving your stride length and cutting skills is to improve mobility, as we discussed above. The other is to actually have the horsepower to cover more ground in each stride when accelerating, and when re-accelerating after a cut.
Research shows that the athletes who cover more ground in their first 3-4 strides while sprinting tend to be faster over longer distances. Power training can help you to improve in this area when done consistently and correctly.
Athlete workouts should be filled with explosive power movements. Plyometrics, Olympic Lifts, and other power exercise variations should be a staple of training for any sport that has a speed component to it. These are not just for contact sport athletes, but for everyone who needs to play faster.
Core & Hip Stability
It often gets overlooked, but another huge piece of developing elite speed and agility is having little to no torso movement in your stride.
Excess bending or rotation drains energy and power from your sprint stride. Excess swaying during cutting movements creates weight shifts that make it hard for you to change direction quickly. Core stability training plays a role in fixing both issues.
Developing greater stability in your hip muscles plays a big role in keeping your knees from buckling, which at higher speeds can cause injury. But for younger athletes who are not yet powerful enough to create the forces that cause injury, it results in slower cuts.
Core & hip stability certainly isn't the most exciting part of speed development, but it is the underlying foundation that must be in place for all these other areas to have maximum effectiveness.
Another seemingly minor area to develop is a stable, rigid ankle joint.
In a previous article we referenced the 'foot as a diving board' analogy. The analogy being if you think of a diving board that has plenty of tension built up in the springs, you can launch out further than one that has loose or less wound up springs.
Your foot acts as a springboard, so building up more tension and rigidity in your lower leg muscles helps you get off the ground faster. An athlete who doesn't have this will run squishy, stuck on the ground for a split second too long on every stride as if they were running through 6" of water.
Proper Sprinting & Cutting Mechanics
This is the part that most people think of as sprint training, and as with any other skill an improvement in technique can clearly lead to greater performance. There are dozens of different little things an athlete can improve on to sprint and cut faster over the course of their training.
What gets lost is that technique training can only have so much impact if all of the previous areas are not also addressed.
This is likely why you hear so many voices still believing that 'You can't train speed!' You need a comprehensive approach to have real impact.
Once you break speed development into separate parts, all of which we know can be improved through training, it is hopefully easier to see that speed and agility improvement is absolutely achievable for the young athlete who truly commits themselves to getting it.