Speed Training Program

by Kent Oglesby

The development and enhancement of speed is an important element in any athletic program which involves extensive running. The fundamentals are essentially the same whether working with a 100 meter sprinter, marathoner, soccer player, or a football corner back. The application of speed to each may be vastly different. The intent of the following paper is to develop a program that can be used by any athlete who wants to develop speed. For a sprinter, it may be the primary focus; whereas for a soccer player, it may be an element in a much larger program that requires many other skills. What follows is not meant to be comprehensive in its content, but rather a brief overview of the important elements of speed training.

The basics of running speed include:

  1. Stride frequency
  2. Stride length
  3. Reaction time
  4. Acceleration
  5. Strength
  6. Power
  7. Speed endurance
  8. Flexibility
  9. Mechanics

The difficulty with developing speed is that basic neuro-muscle pathways need to be "reprogrammed" or enhanced in a manner that becomes automatic. Otherwise, under the stress of competition, the athlete reverts to form elements that essentially inhibit speed in the first place. Add to this the fact that certain genetic or body types essentially give us upper and lower limits to what is possible. However, that being said, the individual athlete can make great strides (pun intended) in improving speed by working consistently on the elements of the following program.

The warm-up - Sprint work is best conducted during the warmest part of the day and ideally during the warmest part of the year. Speed requires that the large muscle groups be warmed up, flexible, and relaxed. Conditions that are too cold cause the athlete to "tighten" muscles up as an involuntary reaction to the cold.

  1. Start with at least a 12-15 min jog
  2. Followed by 15-20 minutes of stretching--Use a systematic approach. Have in mind a routine and follow it. Pay attention to balance of muscles: right side vs. the left.
  3. Finish the warm up with a few easy strides. Strides should cover a distance of approximately 80 meters. Beginning with an easy jog, slowly accelerate to a moderately fast pace that feels relaxed and fluid.

The drills - After the warm-up period, execute the following drills in 2-4 sets of repetitions. The drills may be considered a part of the warm up prior to a specific event or as an end in themselves whose aim is to develop different aspects of speed conditioning. The drills go by a variety of names. Descriptions of each are inadequate for properly executing the drills. A coach needs to evaluate and adjust each drill while demonstrating proper technique.

  1. High knee marching- As the title implies, this drill imitates a marching step that emphasizes high knee lift, with alternating arm brought to chest level and a push off on the forefoot.
  2. Toe tappers- With legs extended, alternately "tap" lightly and quickly of of the forefoot.
  3. Bounding (both on the level and on an incline)-This is a power drill that emphasizes an explosive vertical push off of alternate legs with simultaneous opposite arm drive. Using an upward sloping hill accentuates the explosive power element.
  4. High knee repetitions- In quick, alternate lag motions bring the knee up as high as possible without compromising the upper torso form. Quick turn over and forward motion are important elements of this drill.
  5. Butt kickers- Opposite of high knee, the runner brings the heel alternately up to touch the "butt" in quick, continuous motion. Arms are emphasized as well.
  6. Alternate foot, butt kickers- This is the same drill as Butt Kickers, except that there is a complete stride or two between each "butt" kick. The emphasis is on rhythm and relaxation.
  7. "Pawing"-In this drill the runner uses the high knee motion and then extends the leg out perpendicular to the body. Avoid a kicking motion. It should feel more like an extension of the leg forward. Rhythm and forward, fluid motion are important.
  8. Trunk rotation-With arms extended and eyes kept focused perpendicular to the direction of motion, the runner moves laterally, crossing alternate feet. The drill should feel like it stretches and loosens the trunk.
  9. Butt burners- While standing in place the runner brings both heels up to the "butt" in quick succession. Sets of 10-20 should be done.
  10. Easy strides- At the end of the drills, the runner should take 4-6 easy strides that emphasize a relaxed and fluid motion that incorporates quick turnover.

All of these drills should be done on the track or on an even grassy surface, except for the bounding which should generally be done up hill. Pace out a course of about 40 meters and do the drills within those boundaries.

Plyometrics - "As the feet strike the ground during running, every impact is accompanied by a eccentric-concentric tension generation pattern. The term plyometrics refers to training exercises that augment or increase concentric power output by means of a closely linked preceding eccentric (stretch) loading. Bounding and jumping simply exaggerate it." (Martin, Coe: Training Distance Runners: Chicago, Leisure Press, 1991) Another method of applying the plyometric concept is the use of boxes of differing sizes to jump up and down on to enhance strength and quickness of leg turnover. The athlete needs a coach to demonstrate this and adjust the height of the necessary boxes. Essentially, the athlete uses a box to exaggerate this eccentric-concentric loading method.

Assisted Sprinting - There are a number of devices that may assist the development of speed. In general, they fall into three categories: resistance devices (parachutes and the like), over-speed devices (towing or bungy type devices), and quickness devices (ladders or slats). However, a cost free method of assisted sprinting simply utilizes a 100-150 meter slightly down hill grade (preferably on a soft even surface) which helps achieve assisted acceleration (downhill), and resistance training (uphill). Such repetitions should focus on proper mechanics and staying in control. The aforementioned drills will assist in developing quickness and leg turnover.

Weight Training - Depending on the athletes needs, weight training is an important element in developing the power and strength necessary to run fast. For a sprinter it is absolutely necessary. For a marathoner, it may be a necessary element in conditioning the muscles (especially the upper body) to help hold form in the latter part of the race when severe fatigue develops. Use a health club and develop a routine using machines or free weights that address all muscle groups. If you are a 100 meter sprinter, you will need both high reps with low weights complimented by power lifts on heavier weights with few reps. A marathoner might only need upper body weights with high reps and very low weight. Work out a program that addresses your needs and follow it.

Nutrition - While not recommending the life of total renunciation, it is important to note that consistency of training, sleep/rest, and good nutritional practices are of the utmost importance. Evaluate your time and goals and establish a good routine. Think about your eating habits. Get some advice. But keep fads in perspective. A well balanced diet is really all you need plus maybe a supplementary vitamin together with Vitamin E and C. Easy places to cut back are chips and cookies; while important foods to add are vegetables, fruit, and plenty of protein. Additionally, hydration is VERY important. Drinks lots of water consistently.

Injuries - Injury management is extremely important. The likelihood that you will experience some from of "injury" is fairly predictable. Speed and quickness always puts you on the edge of what your body can accommodate. Consequently, it is of the most importance to monitor what is happening to you physically. Soreness is not an "injury"; however, distinguishing that condition from the onset of an "injury" is not always easy. Talk to your coach. Practice good warm up habits. Know when to go to the edge and when to back off. Better to be under trained and get to the event than never to toe the line. Get good gait analysis from a knowledgeable source. Make sure your shoes do not contribute to injury through being too old or not helping address certain bio-mechanical problems you might have.

Finally, find balance. Your life doesn't end when you come off the field. In fact, the rest of your life is why you where on the field in the first place. Lifestyle is not a technical element of speed; however, it can significantly add to or detract from training.