The Need for Speed: shortcuts to increase your maximum velocity, sprint efforts and high-speed running
By Damian Kovacevic
What you need to know:
- In almost every sport, speed is king.
- Sled pulls, prowler pushes, banded running and hill sprints can improve our running technique and provide us with a novel strength stimulus.
- Of all strength exercises, the concentric-only trap bar deadlift has produced some of the best results in improving speed.
- Caffeine can enhance performance in high-intensity activities, including team sports such as Australian rules football, soccer and rugby.
- Unweighted, free sprints are still our best way to improve explosive acceleration and speed.
Speed is king
In almost every sport, speed is king. Possessing explosive athletic abilities may decide the most important activities within a match. If a player can reach the highest speed attainable at any given moment before their opponent, it could decide if they are first to a ball in dispute, able to move into space before an opponent to shoot, pass or receive the ball, or able to press an opponent in possession to block or disrupt their pass or shot on goal.
These three shortcuts will provide you with the best chance to increase your most explosive athletic movements.
- Resisted running
Resisted running has previously copped a bad rap amongst speed experts, with them declaring that the additional load negatively alters the natural running mechanics of an athlete. Thanks to the latest research in sports science, we can just about dispel this misguided belief completely. As it turns out, resisted running – which can be in the form of pulling sleds, pushing prowlers or running with power bands – actually improves our acceleration technique, when incorporated into a properly prescribe speed development programme.
Pulling sleds or pushing prowlers enables us to maintain a forward lean, which is essential for proper acceleration. This constant forward lean, all whilst overcoming additional resistance, forces us to:
- remain low, as opposed to popping up into an upright posture too early in the acceleration phase;
- maintain a positive shin angle with each foot strike, where our knee is in front of our toe, enabling us to apply more force back into the ground whilst minimising overstriding; and,
- positively adapt to a novel strength stimulus, bridging the gap between the weight room and the running track, by overloading the glutes, hamstrings, quads and calves with the added load.
For pulling sleds, research suggest that we apply ~70 – 100% of our own body weight to the sled. Researchers found this to be the optimal loading conditioning for the development of horizontal power (i.e. acceleration).
Note, if you don’t have access to the necessary equipment for resisted runs, remember that the incline of hill sprints can provide a very similar training stimulus.
- Concentric-only trap bar deadlifts
Get stronger and we become faster – it’s as simple as that. Ryan Flaherty, Senior Director of Performance at Nike, was once quoted as saying “…the simpler you make your training, the better the results become”. We have all been guilty of getting caught up in the novel or minute details of our training programmes, when simply just sticking to the basics would have yielded the biggest and best results for our performance.
That is where systematic strength training comes in. Strength training is one of our greatest avenues to improving our strength-to-weight ratio. Essentially, this ratio calculates how much force we can produce relative to our body weight, which is paramount to speed.
The findings of Flaherty’s most recent research suggested that of all strength exercises, the trap bar deadlift produced the best results in improving this strength-to-weight ratio, and subsequently, improving speed.
Specifically, Flaherty’s trap bar deadlift protocol recommends completing 3-4 sets x 5 reps at 85% of 1 rep. max., superset with a basic plyometric exercise, before resting for 4-5 minutes. What makes this protocol different from most? …dropping the bar at the top of the movement with each rep.
Flaherty’s explains, “What happens a lot of times is people get stronger AND add lean muscle mass, which increase their body weight… and that does not necessarily make them faster or any more explosive, because they have increased their body weight at the same rate as their strength”.
Working the concentric phase of the trap bar deadlift only – ripping the bar up off the floor – stresses our neuromuscular system enough to increase strength, without tearing the muscle fibres -which would usually lead the muscles to grow in size.
Caffeine has been shown to be an effective ergogenic aid, enhancing our athletic performance. It appears to do so via its influence on our central nervous system, reducing our perception of effort – exercise feels easier – and reducing our perception of fatigue.
It is particularly effective in enhancing performance in high-intensity activities of prolonged durations, including intermittent, field-based, team sports such as Australian rules football, soccer and rugby.
It is recommended that it be consumed 15-60 min prior to competition, in low-to-moderate doses (~3-6 mg/kg), as there have been shown to be no further benefit when consumed at higher doses.
Our performance hack – save on the expensive pre-workouts, and opt for a simple, black coffee instead.
With all of these performance shortcuts in mind, let’s not forget that our bodies adapt specifically to the imposed demands placed upon it. That means that unweighted, free sprints are still our best way to improve explosive acceleration and speed. Along with your free sprints, implement these three shortcuts this preseason, and enjoy the newfound athleticism!