August 16, 2009, Sutton Arena Athletics Stadium. I was training with my sprint group on the outside track doing series of sprints. I remember it was a cold evening but we were all in good spirits, we were excited!
The World Athletics Championships was taking place in Berlin and tonight was the night of the 100m final. Needless to say, as a sprint group, it’s the highlight of the competition. The world was ready to see the 100m final showdown between Usain Bolt and Tyson Gay and so were we (after our 3 x 3 120m sprints of course).
Usain Bolt went into the race being the clear favourite. He already held the world record and looked in good form going into the final. As the race was approaching our entire sprint squad ran from the track and inside to they gym where we knew there was a TV we could watch the race on.
We crowded around the one TV showing the competition, eager to see Bolt’s performance. In our minds we all expected a win, but there was a real buzz around the club that we were about to witness something special. We were right!
From the gun Bolt got away cleanly and was out in front by 40m and streaking away from the pack. There was no chance of anyone catching him. Bolt finished the race in the time of 9.58 seconds, smashing his previous world record. Tyson Gay came in second, running a PB and a National record and still wasn't even close to Bolt. The crowd went wild and the celebrations began.
After the race I made a joke…”well at least we can all go home now, no point in continuing training, no one will beat that.” We had a laugh and began to head back outside. On my way out I was stopped by one of the coaches. He didn't find my joke funny. He told me that I’m not training to compete with Bolt. I’m here to improve on my current level of ability and become the best athlete I can be. Bolt just broke the world record, but look closer, even he can improve, my coach told me.
I took his words to heart. I watched the final back over and over again. My coach was right! Bolts run was far from perfect. He rolled his shoulders inwards. He pulled his trail leg behind his body, instead of towards his hips. He looked around TWICE! (once to his right to see where Tyson Gay was and once to his left to look at the clock). I realised Bolt could have run faster that day.
Point being, even the best in the world can improve and have things to work on to increase their speed. Not all athletes will be able to reach world class levels of speed. However, through specialised sprint training and technique work, most athletes will be able to vastly increase their speed. Follow this guide and you'll be on your way to boosting your speed and improving your performance.
Often when people think of speed, they think of how fast a person can move from A to B. However, not all sprints are equal, therefore it’s important to break down the different components of speed so that you can identify suitable training methods to improve performance for a specific event or sport.
There are three components of speed that I will speak about. These are, acceleration, maximum velocity and speed endurance. It’s important that you understand each component to implement effective training.
Acceleration is the change in rate of velocity. Acceleration in terms of sprinting is positive acceleration where the athlete is getting faster. Let’s think of a 100m sprinter in the starting blocks. When the athlete gets into the set position they are starting at a low angle relative to the ground. When they blast out of the blocks its vital that they drive forward with the shin rather than the foot to build momentum.
Problems with the acceleration tend to arise when athletes lift their knee up too quickly. The issue with raising the knee is that it forces the torso into an upright position and you lose momentum. During a 100m sprint you should be looking to accelerate for at least 30m. You often see in professional races that some athletes will come up early and be in the lead after 30-40m, however they will be overtaken by an athlete who spent the first 30-40m accelerating. Remember, you win nothing for covering the 40m first.
During the first two steps out of the blocks it's important that you actually have your centre of mass in front of your contracting foot because this allows you to decrease breaking force. In practical terms what this means is that it will allow you to generate a larger force out of the blocks, overcome inertia and continue accelerating down the track across the first 30-40m.
To improve your acceleration you want your training to include lots of short, brief bursts of high intensity sprints accompanied with adequate periods of rest. Rest periods at or close to full recovery are necessary because the central nervous system controls the speed at which your muscles contract, along with your coordination.
Maximal velocity is the fastest velocity an athlete can achieve in a single speed bout. Non track athletes usually reach their maximal velocity at around 30m or so. Elite track athletes can stay in the acceleration phase for a little longer, which means they’ll reach their maximal velocity at around 40-50m.
Speed endurance is the ability to maintain speed during a single bout. It refers to the ability to maintain maximal or near maximal sprints at, or very close to maximum speed. Examples of this can be seen in the 200m and 400m sprint races.
Dedicated practice to improving your sprinting efficiency once at maximal velocity and your speed endurance for the 200m and 400m is vital because it's often not the quickest athlete that wins, but the athlete that slows down the least.
To improve these factors you should be aiming to perform longer sprints (at least 200m). In the sprinting world, speed endurance training is mainly carried out by 200-400m sprinters but this type of training is also beneficial to games athletes such as footballers and rugby players, where the duration of the match is long and there's a lot of stop-start action.
It’s important that you work on your sprinting technique during training if you want to improve your ability to run faster. The best way to improve your technique is to incorporate technique drills as part of your training session and obtain feedback on your form during maximum sprints from your coaches observation or through video analysis.
Often when I ask one of my athletes to do something to improve their form they state that they feel they are running slower than normal. This is okay as some movements may feel unnatural to begin with but stick with it and in time it will become second nature and your sprinting will improve.
You want to get to work on your technique and form as soon as possible and get rid of any bad habits. If you practice with bad habits then they will transfer into you sprinting and effect your sprinting ability. The longer bad habits are practised, the more difficult it will be to correct them. As well as this, poor motor patterns can lead to injuries such as shin splints and tendonitis. So it’s well worth spending time on.
Correct sprinting mechanics will help you to generate a greater force from the muscles during foot contact time with the ground. This will decrease energy leaks when force is transferred from the floor, to the legs and up to the trunk.
Athletes with a higher degree of strength and power are able to generate more force. In theory, the more power an athlete can generate into the ground, the faster they can run.
Note: Performing Olympic lifts during strength training sessions can help improve your explosive power with short bursts of high intensity activity.
I always get asked the question on whether we work to improve stride frequency or stride length, or which one is more important. First let's define the difference. Stride frequency is the ability to repeatedly cycle the legs at speed, whereas stride length is the total distance covered with each foot strike.
Many coaches may have a different opinion but I believe that this it’s not a simple one over the other answer. You need to take into consideration that every athlete is different. In some cases, having a greater turnover may be more beneficial than a longer stride and vise versa. The truth is that if you can improve both, then you will improve your speed. Technique work can help improve both stride frequency and length.
Note: When trying to improve your sprint stride it’s important that your efforts don't cause detriment to your form. For example, overextending your leg or ‘overstriding’ for hope to cover more ground could negatively affect foot placement (remember when sprinting you need land and push off of the balls or your feet).
Landing flat footed or on your heels means you won't be able to generate as much force going into your next stride. This will ultimately reduce your speed, not to mention the increased risk to your hamstrings when put under such pressure.
Flexibility and mobility are two important aspects when sprint training. Having poor levels of flexibility can be highly detrimental to your performance, especially if you have a low level of flexibility in the hamstrings.
You need a degree of flexibility and mobility to be able to move the limbs across the range of movement necessary to run quickly. You should try and incorporate some form of flexibility or mobility drills into your training. I get my athletes to perform various mobility drills as part of their warm up, and we perform static stretches at the end of every session.
A good dynamic warm up will facilitate faster muscle contractions. This allows for greater blood flow and a greater amount of oxygen to be delivered to the active muscles that are contracting.
I suggest doing 5 minutes of cardiovascular activity followed by dynamic stretching and drills to increase your mobility. Normally we avoid any static stretching during the warm up and save it for the cool down. If for any reason we do perform static stretches, we hold each stretch for around 10-15 seconds only.
If your performing lots of high intensity sprints without adequate recovery then you will suffer from fatigue a lot quicker. Therefore you need to allow enough time to recover between sets to repeat the sprints at the same intensity.
You should take around 5 minutes rest for sprints performed at 85-100% for distances that cover up to 60m. The rest time should then be increased as the distance in sprint length increases. It’s important that you give your body enough time to recover when training at high intensities as you are much more susceptible to an injury while you're in a fatigued state.
The ability to perform maximally over a number of sets is dependant on the type of activity and the amount of rest that follows. Activity lasting from 6-8 seconds at maximal or close to maximal intensity can put a lot of stress on the central nervous system and the short term anaerobic system.
The ATP-PC system, as the name suggests, relies preliminary on stores of ATP and CP to maintain high intensity activity at short explosive bouts. These energy stores are the preferred sources of energy when sprinting and can take 5 minutes to recover.
You should also consider the recovery time between one training session to the next. It makes sense that if you are training at a high intensity then you need to allow for adequate recovery before repeating.
Frequency: Consider how many training sessions you are performing per week. You need to give your body time to recover from any training completed.
Training intensity: You should be varying your training intensities. Split your sessions up into light, medium and heavy training days. You don't want to perform two hard training sessions on consecutive days. This can lead to unnecessary fatigue and injury. Usually our heavy training sessions are followed by either a light session or a rest day.
Time: The length of your training sessions will also affect your recovery. In some cases it may be better to split a long training session into two over the course of a day
Type: It may seem like common sense but if improving your speed is your main focus then any sprint training should be performed first in your session. I see many athletes complete a strength training session, then head to the track to perform sprints. The problem is that the muscles will be fatigued.
Note: The central nervous system won't be able to contract the muscles as quickly, and if you're in a more fatigued state, you won't be able to perform your sprints well enough to optimise your speed. So, if speed is the goal, perform the sprints first, or split your training into morning and evening sessions.
When you integrate strength training it's important that you remember that strength is a secondary component. Your main goal is to increase your speed, not to become a bodybuilder. Also, strength sessions do not solely involve lifting weights. Keeping this in mind will help ensure your training is purposeful when in the gym.
We have 3 different types of strength training sessions that we use. Maximum strength, explosive strength and reactive strength.
Beginners always start with maximum strength sessions so that they can begin to build a foundational level of strength before going into more explosive exercises. Maximum strength training performed at maximal or submaximal effort usually involves compound multi joint exercises such as the Barbell back squat, deadlift and bench press. This type of training is very effective to build muscle and create connective tissue tolerance for preparation for more intense training.
Explosive strength training will allow you to produce more powerful movements. Some examples are Olympic lifts such as the snatch and power clean. During theses types of exercises you will continue accelerating through the movement up until the point of release.
The third type is reactive strength training. The type of exercises performed overload the mechanical phases of the sprint. This means the type of exercises will more closely resemble sprinting, with the focus being on minimal contact time. Examples of exercises to perform are plyometrics drills, sled runs and weighted vest sprints.
Prevention is always better than cure and the best way to prevent an injury is to always apply safe training practices. Follow the checklist below to stay safe and help prevent injury.
Sled sprints are a great way to reinforce correct positioning when accelerating. It creates the same positioning needed during the drive phase. The trick here is to not use too much weight or resistance. You don't want it to be so much of a struggle that you can't push the sled at speed. Piling on lots of weight is not going to help increase your speed and could lead to an injury.
If you don't have a sled then you can use a harness with weight attached or a weight vest. We sometimes use a hurdle, and accelerate, pushing the hurdle down the track for 30-40m. I actually recommend this as it’s actually a lot easier and faster to set up if you have them available.
During the exercise you want to really attack the sprints as you would if you were exploding from the blocks. Take powerful, quick strides, driving your feet hard into the ground and gradually increasing your stride length each step. Keep a straight line going from trail foot, hips and head.
Hill sprints are another great training method to increase your speed. They are also useful in reinforcing correct sprinting technique as you are forced to run on the balls of your feet while driving up an incline surface. Drive up the hill and then walk back down.
You need to drive up the hill/incline with forceful exaggerated strides, whilst fully extend the leg. This can be extrememly difficult and tiresome if you are new to it or a beginner. I recommend starting out with a small incline and gradually increasing up to 20% as you begin to advance.
You can set a distance that is suitable for your ability level (as well as the incline itself) but we usually use distances between 30-50m.
Plyometric training will help develop your reactiveness and the ability of the legs to express power. Performing plyometric drills requires you to absorb and then release force in an explosive movement. Therefore this type of training is excellent for sprinters as it closely mimics the movements needed to sprint effectively.
Make sure you perform any plyometric training safely, in a safe training environment. Do not perform any plyometric drills if you suffer from joint pain in the legs, have shin pain or ankle pain.
You must develop a solid base of strength before conducting any plyometric drills otherwise the large force reacting on the feet during the explosive movements could cause you problems or lead to an injury.