When Coach Keith Ferrara got his first university strength and conditioning job, he literally had to build his program—and facility—out of a storage closet. Read on to discover the six essential steps he took to successfully build a collegiate sports performance program from scratch.
Measuring how fast an athlete can go from point A to point B is a vital part of evaluating how training programs are performing. Many different options exist with sports timing, and we review the key players in speed testing and training here in this article.
Buying a timing system means you value objective feedback and want to see the cause and effect to working with athletes. It doesn’t matter if you are a weight-training-based coach, a team coach, a talent identification professional, or a technique guru—measuring speed matters. Timing systems can’t assess every movement, and they are not perfect with validity of speed since many sports have small idiosyncratic parts that make them different than track and field. On the other hand, linear speed is still a major factor as to whether athletes succeed or not. For instance, while it’s fine for Tom Brady to run 5.2 seconds at the NFL Combine, no receiver or defensive back will ever be drafted with that type of general speed.
When making the decision to invest in timing systems, you should determine how often you plan to actually test speed. This is highly related to the level of athlete you are working with, as well as the sport. Surprisingly, some coaches spend enormous amounts of money on equipment that measures everything else besides the most coveted quality in sport—athlete speed—and wonder why they seem to have inconsistent results year after year. If you are focusing on conditioning and strength training and only test speed once a year, it may make sense to leave timing systems alone and simply use a chronometer video product like Dartfish or Kinovea. However, if you are trying to improve speed, in any fashion, testing it frequently requires a system that can time quickly and accurately.
Another factor to think about is testing versus training, as some products are not great for measuring a lot of athletes quickly and some are horrible for daily use with athletes. Some of the systems available can do a combine or testing day with large groups of athletes because they use timing gates and RFID sensors to organize who is actually running, but some, like the open source products, are more appropriate for research settings. Remember that the Olympics don’t use any sports testing timing systems at all; they still use high-speed camera-based options and sometimes manually capture an athlete’s time from a photo finish. Sport timing systems are about convenience, while track timing systems are about competition timing and not day-to-day operational testing.
How Timing Systems Work
The majority of timing systems still use technology that is decades old and rely on infrared beams with timing gates. A timing gate is simply a pair of tripods placed at specified distances that relay data to a hub or collection device for display or data collection. The assumption with timing gates is that, if the beam breaks for a fraction of a second, it means an athlete has passed that exact distance at that moment in time. Unfortunately, using a beam isn’t perfect for all conditions because a running body may have arms and legs in front of the center of mass, and those few inches will trigger the beam early, thus resulting in some very small accuracy issues. Some products use double beam systems to ensure that no false (read, faster) measurements are collected, and many of the larger systems have tall tripods so nearly the entire body is measured.
Nearly every timing system is reliable; but again, as with any technology expect them to fail, sometimes at the worst time imaginable. We always suggest having a video camera and mini cones as backup if the testing is important, and coaches should record video of athletes anyway. Times are very important, but how you get to point B from point A is also just as valuable.
Challenges With Measuring Speed in Research and Training
Measuring speed isn’t as simple as setting up some cones and using a stopwatch. While the use of hand times is good for some situations like conditioning and long sprints, electronic timing is instrumental for seeing true change in athletic speed. The core challenge with speed testing is actually deciding on the type of protocol to use, since reliable speed and valid true measures of speed are difficult to discern.
The best step in testing speed is to determine if you are testing first movement, off a reaction stimulus, or first foot fall in the sport of track and field. A video will be able to detect when an athlete moves, but block sensors know when force is being produced. A contact mat can determine when the first step is made, but it doesn’t equate a reaction to a gun. Finally, reaction time is just a summary of when an athlete is triggered to respond, and has no connection to the movement strategy afterwards, as an athlete can stumble out and have a poor start with an amazing reaction time. As you can see, how you decide to test speed requires a lot of thinking about details, and details matter with short periods of time that mean everything in sport.
Research on speed testing is sometimes brilliant and sometimes a scientific embarrassment that makes coaches cringe. The issue with many sport science research studies is that the timing protocol may be different based on the construction of the experiment or the access to equipment and facilities. A simple 10- or 20-meter sprint can be radically different when a timing gate is used and an athlete is rolling into it a meter back than when an athlete uses a touchpad to initiate the timing process from a stationary three-point start instead of a lean.
We also have the issue with some programs using a manual trigger to see first movement; all it takes is a middle-aged volunteer deciding to take a day off from coffee to taint the data. The starting process for testing is potentially the most at-risk point of data integrity failure. For years, athletes have found ways to inflate their times or performances to get better numbers, even it means their training process could be impacted.
The priority in testing for speed is to accept that interchangeability of times or performances between multiple programs or research is not likely possible, due to all of the variables involved. This is fine for personal data comparison or to tease out changes in research, but it does create problems in the way interventions are weighed. The need for comparing populations besides subject descriptions in studies relies on the quality of data, and some studies show such poor validity of actual speed for 10-meter sprints that we have to take the findings with a grain of salt.
Absolute abilities need to be compared to similar populations so we can decide if the value of implementing the information from the research is worth it. Several times in both research and coaching records the context for the way the data was collected makes a strong conjecture for what works or is not very difficult. When timing on your own, make sure the procedure is very carefully implemented to ensure that it’s repeatable each sample period or the analysis becomes highly suspect.
The Challenges of Measuring Agility With Timing Systems
Change of direction (agility) with athletes is a bit of a gray area since even linear speed testing has limits to its carryover in games. Testing or timing “lateral” speed is second tier when it comes to performance evaluation, due to the limitations of the equipment and context of the measurement. Agility testing still has value though, as global ability to change direction has some merit with athlete development, but the priorities should focus more on the capacity to eccentrically handle the forces and be exposed to realistic environments.
Some of the systems, like Fusion Sport, provide lights to help add in a component of reaction to the agility assessment equation. Choreographed agility tests are valid ways to estimate general agility skills, but they don’t provide enough information to determine who will be the best on the field. Like linear speed testing, poor scores are viable ways to see gross problems, but fast times could mean the athlete is just practicing to the test.
Getting better at taking a test is not the same as being smarter or knowing the material. Several combine and training facilities do an excellent job at getting better on tests, but don’t help the athlete get better on the field. This is perfectly acceptable, though, as the business of sport encourages preparing for general athletic tests, so criticisms on preparing an athlete for agility tests by repeated rehearsals is a moot point.
Since most of the timing systems are designed for linear speed testing, timing gates that are large and bulky provide poor simulations to game requirements. Visually seeing a sea of tripods is not natural, and most of the athletes look down at cones or other equipment instead of keeping their eyes on other athletes, a ball, or field landmarks of interest. Many coaches currently use a 5-10-5 test, as well as other sensors, to evaluate how an athlete is elusive—an arguably more valid measure of agility outside of reactiveness. Do what you think you need and keep updated with the research that is constantly peeling the onion back with athletic motion.
The Top 6 Sport Timing Systems
Some open source products and other custom systems are not listed here because most coaches want to buy something that fits their needs, not make their own timing system. Coaches who say they can make their own system for less money are indeed right, but the same coaches who claim they can build their own seldom do because they are lost in a vast wasteland of other projects. Companies like Chronojump provide materials and software for timing, but, again, you have the responsibility of self-support for anything you buy in the open source world. The list provided contains the most commonly used and purchased products that have been around for years, thus ensuring that they have both a history and a good reputation.
What is not shared in each summary are prices and details like battery types and other small features. For the most part, pricing is hard to give, as many distributors will sell bundles and discount based on deals—something that is annoying to coaches who just want to know what the true cost is. We share some general information about the company on the product list, as well as how the data is collected and the unique elements of the product. Except for Freelap, most of the products are IR systems, which means they use timing gates with infrared beams. Some of the systems are used in research—in fact, nearly all of them at some point—and all of them are accurate for everyday training.
Brower Timing: The most common timing system in the U.S. is still Utah-based Brower, which has been around for decades. The system is single beam and require a lot of set-up time if preparing for multiple splits. The system is dated, meaning it requires household batteries and uses readouts that seem stuck in the 1980s, but because the product is straightforward, it keeps selling. The Ski option connects to a smartphone, but requires a transmitter link to do so. Some research used the timing system for simple experiments, but over the past year more of the studies used other options like Microgate and Swift.
Freelap: This Swiss option is perhaps the most unique system on the speed timing market. What is different about the Freelap product system is the transmitters are tiny and don’t take up valuable track real estate. The product is also the only wearable model, as a chip is required for each athlete to speed up workflow and to indicate the athlete moved past the transmitter’s magnetic cloud. One benefit we love is the ability to time multiple athletes at the same time, with the equipment taking very little time to set up. The data is sent to an Android or Apple iOS device instantly, instead of only being stored locally on the sensor.
Fusion Sport: Fusion Sport is another Australian company, known for an Athlete Management System called Smartabase. Like Swift, they have a jump mat option and focus on turnkey data collection to analyze aspects of testing athletes. The lights on their timing system are used for gross reaction and decision-making benefits that the other systems, except for the Swift product, simply can’t provide. Like Swift, they provide a great organizational tool: an RFID wristband device. The system is very popular and is used internationally at clubs and major performance institutions.
Microgate: This Italian company has two primary timing systems: a conventional gate system (Witty) and their Optojump system, which resembles a train track, only with hundreds of IR beams along the way. Microgate have an IMU system, but it’s not really used for timing athletes for speed. While the Witty system has no special features, it’s a high-quality design and offers promise to coaches.
Swift Performance: Swift Performance is an Australian company that provides a jump mat and enterprise timing system for research and serious teams, mainly rugby. One of their key features is a connection to an iPad, as many coaches want data to go straight to their hands instead of a laptop. Swift has a great history of working with research universities and published studies have used their equipment. One of the strengths of the Swift timing system is the Speed Start. Instead of the common button starting pad, this system uses a beam near the ground, giving it a natural feel for many athletes.
Zybek Timing System: Zybek Sports is another U.S. company, based on Boulder, Colorado. Like Brower Timing, they have other products, like training equipment, but focus on timing systems. One of their key successes is that they have been part of the NFL Combine in Indianapolis for years. They have a very extensive focus on agility measurement and have several bundles that focus on American football tests. In addition to their hardware, they help facilities assess speed better with a program called S.A.T.
Most of the companies allow for incremental purchasing, meaning you can buy a start and finish bundle and add more splits if you want. Some also provide popular packages for a small discount. Price points are highly sensitive to key details like the design of sensors, indicator lights and battery life, and relay ability to tablets and handhelds. Our suggestion is to look at the type of environment you plan to be in and whether you are training with the system consistently. If you time speed a lot, go with Freelap or the two American products. If you are doing research, go with the Italian or Australian options.
Getting Started With Sports Timing
A word of wisdom when getting started with timing systems is to practice a few times before adding speed testing to your program. Nearly every system is stable enough to provide a reliable and effective way to measure speed, but some demand more administrative duties than others. Budgeting is perhaps the No. 1 factor in selecting a timing system, but the cost is not just price; it’s also how much time and effort it takes to provide timing for your athletes. We have used nearly every system and each has its own pros and cons, but just getting a sample of how fast an athlete can sprint is invaluable. We highly recommend getting a timing system to evaluate your program.