It seems comical that it’s taken 50 years of strength and conditioning for coaches to realize that you have to run fast if you want to get faster. The concept directly follows the principle of specificity. Training adaptations will only come to the specific muscle groups, intensities, metabolic demands, and movements that are trained. In short, you get better at the things you train. That’s fairly agreed upon as it relates to strength and skill development. If you want to be a stronger squatter, you should probably squat. If you want to power clean more weight, you should probably do some power cleans. Yet, when someone asks how to get faster the usual response is to tell them to get stronger.
One of the reasons the strength and conditioning community always turns the conversation back to getting stronger is that it’s what most of us coaches relied on during our own athletic careers. Want to be good enough to start on varsity? Get stronger. Want to earn a scholarship? Get stronger. Want to avoid getting injured? Get stronger. Want to come back from a devastating injury and prove all the doctors wrong? Get stronger. See the pattern? Most strength coaches were not blessed genetically. They weren't able to slack off at practice and magically dominate on game day. Most of them have a warrior’s story about being the first to practice and last to leave. Spending countless hours watching film and perfecting their technique. Going to war in the weight room just for the possibility of earning a starting role. The stuff all good sports movies are about. We have a lot of pride and appreciation for what some hard work in the weight room can do for someone because it was a savior for most of us. So, when any athlete asks how to deal with a setback or how to pursue a goal, we turn to the weight room.
Fast is Strong, Strong isn’t Fast
Unfortunately, when it comes to getting faster, the solution isn’t found in the weight room alone. Sprinting drives weights. Weights don’t always drive sprinting. Take a look at what happens when someone pursues either extreme. The strongest people in the world have a hard enough time walking, let alone sprinting. I’m a big fan of Brian Shaw, but he’s probably not going to make it down a 100m stretch under 15 seconds. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the fastest people in the world are surprisingly strong for their size. They don’t have perfect technique, but they can usually move a significant amount of weight.
Despite the evidence of sprinting improving speed and strength, strength coaches continue to get hung up on solely using strength training to improve speed. This mistake is perpetrated when coaches take their athletes through their first semester of lifting and see small improvements in speed. Theoretically, one might assume more lifting will then result in more progress. However, these improvements are mostly due to those athletes having a novice training age. When you’re in your early years of lifting, you will see improvements across the board from anything you do. That’s why there are so many lifting programs out there that work. Even an elite college athlete will see progress from something as simple as goblet squats if they’ve never lifted before. Once you’ve progressed out of this beginner stage, you stop seeing weights impact speed. An athlete who goes from squatting 185lbs to 285lbs will likely see improvements in their speed. An athlete who goes from squatting 495lbs to 585lbs, likely won't. Ultimately, the same way a powerlifter needs to squat to increase their squat strength, an athlete needs to sprint to increase their top speed. Really fast people are pretty damn strong. Really strong people aren’t very fast.
Run as Fast as Possible
Alright well if weights aren’t the answer, then how do we make people faster? Use the same approach that's used for strength in the weight room. Challenge the threshold for speed using progression, overload, and specificity. Progression usually has to do with the sprint variation, the distance selected, and how fast it allows the athlete to run. For example, if you have an athlete sprint as fast as they can with their hands on their head, they won’t be able to reach their actual top speed. However, you’ll still be overloading that variation. If you have an athlete sprint 15 yds they’re not going to be able to reach their top speed in that distance, but they’ll probably be able to go faster than if their hands were on their head. That's progression. You can extend the distance, turn it into a race, run on different surfaces, throw on spikes, or change the variation. Any of these examples are ways to manipulate the speed at which your athlete can run. With proper planning, they can be used to progress and overload speed. The specificity is simply sprinting. The end goal is to progress your athlete to hit their true top speed during reps to drive an adaptation of speed.
Run as Fresh as Possible
One mistake many coaches make is they have their athletes run numerous “sprints” with short rest. In the same way, adequate rest between sets is crucial in the weight room to lift heavy, it’s important between sprints to be able to run fast. If you’re performing twelve 200m “sprints”, you’re not training speed. If you’re running ten 40 yds “sprints” with 30 seconds of rest, you’re not training speed. If you want to take your athletes through true sprint training, you need to allow for full recovery between reps. This duration depends on the intensity and duration of the sprint. Another component to consider is, once you stop running fast, you’re no longer training speed. After that, it just becomes conditioning. Completing the number of sprints you planned for means nothing if the last half of them are all slow. Fast is within 3% of your best time that day.
A Tool Not a Skill
A common reason strength coaches don't include sprinting at top speed in their training is that they claim it goes against sports specificity because their athletes never hit top speed during their sport. Never mind that they also don’t squat down with 300lbs on their back during their sport either. The flaw in this argument is that it looks at sprinting with the wrong perspective. Performing sprints isn’t about getting better at sprinting, it’s about using them for the adaptation that comes from running at top speed. Use them as a tool to increase speed. Not drill to develop a skill.
Those coaches are correct that most sports don’t allow athletes to reach their top speed. More often sports are a collection of short accelerations, sprinting while tracking a ball or, sprinting while fighting for positioning against an opponent. All of which are performed at submaximal speeds. Fortunately, that’s one massive benefit of training top speed. If you increase your maximal speed, all submaximal values increase along with it. For example, most athletes reach 80% of their maximal velocity by 10 yds. If you’re able to increase their maximal velocity, you increased what 80% is.
Endurance Without Endurance Training
An unexpected benefit that comes from improving top speed is the phenomenon of speed reserve. If you increase someone’s top speed, you increase their capacity to run at slower speeds. In a study by Petway et al., they found the average max speeds of elite NBA players is 18mph. An athlete who can only run 19mph is going to fatigue much faster than an athlete who can run 22mph while trying to keep up with the pace of the game. The faster an athlete gets, the easier it is for them to travel at lesser speeds. That's right. You can increase your endurance without running gassers, 300yd shuttles, or poles.
Top speed sprinting is truly the tide that lifts all boats. It increases maximal strength capabilities, improves accelerations, enhances endurance, and develops speed! When properly programmed, this tool can be of use to not only track athletes, but athletes of all sports. Whether you're bound to a 92-foot court, or a 100-yard field, including top speed sprinting in your training cant have a positive impact on performance.
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Josse, 17 Apr. 2020, simplifaster.com/articles/nfl-speed.
Petway, Adam J., et al. “Training Load and Match-Play Demands in Basketball Based on
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