In any sport, players and coaches are always looking to improve speed. Training solely in the weight room, however, will not result in anywhere near the same improvements in speed as participating in a well-thought-out speed and change of direction program. As coaches, we always hear about good speed programs, but what does that mean? What are the main components?
Throughout my years of coaching, I’ve created and modified my speed program to help my athletes gain speed as quickly as possible. One of the reasons I’m writing this article is because there are many resources to find good strength programs and progressions, but there are not nearly as many speed programs available. Just as different athletes need different strength programs, there are also different needs for speed training based on the athlete and the sport. This article will go in-depth with each component that a comprehensive speed and change of direction program should include.
Three Types of Speed Training
Athletes need to develop speed in all directions, not just linearly. This is especially true of field athletes. Since speed is the most sought-after element of sports, at Function and Strength we make sure our athletes get a half hour of focused speed training every time they come into the gym. We separate our speed training into three different categories:
- Max speed
Throughout the month, we set up a schedule to make sure all of our athletes get a variety of speed training. The first day has a multidirectional focus, which may include any type of change of direction, lateral movements, and backpedaling. The emphasis is on efficiently stopping or changing direction, as well as learning how to accelerate out of any turn or change of direction.
Our second component is an acceleration day, which includes linear running with a change from a slower speed to a faster speed. This may include static starts, walking-to-sprint transitions, or even a light jog to a sprint.Because of low temperatures, we can’t train outside in the winter. A non-motorized treadmill has been a game changer for developing top speed year-round with our athletes. Click To Tweet
The last type of speed training we do is our max speed day, which focuses on front-side mechanics and sprints reaching top end speed. We do this by using a non-motorized treadmill. Training in the winter can be tough because low temperatures don’t permit us to go outside. This treadmill has been a game changer with our athletes, as it has allowed us to develop top end speed year-round.
Warm-Up: General to Speed-Specific
As we prepare the athletes for the training session, we begin with a dynamic warm-up that goes from general to specific. The warm-up is specific to the type of speed training taking place that day. A multidirectional day should have a different warm-up than an acceleration or max speed day. Just like you warm up for squats by squatting, we should do specific speed drills as part of the warm-up. A max speed warm-up consists of more hamstring work than a multidirectional day, which has more lateral movements.
Sample General Warm-Up:
- Banded shoulder dislocate – 10x
- Heel walk – 10 yards
- Toe walk – 10 yards
- Spiderman stretch with rotation – 10x each side
- Narrow stance squat – 10x
- Lateral lunge + crossover lunge – 6x each side
- Banded adductor walk out and back – :20 each side
Video 1. This is a demonstration of the last two exercises of the general warm-up. Specifically, the adductors are often overlooked, so I like to do an exercise targeting the adductors during the general warm-up.
Following the general warm-up, we get into specific warm-ups for the type of speed work we will perform that day.
Sample Multidirectional Warm-Up:
- Side to side line hops (over, back, and stick) – 5x each side
- Lateral skip – 10 yards each direction
- Crossover skip – 10 yards each direction
- Side to side line jumps (rapid fire) – 2x :03–:05
Video 2. After the general warm-up, athletes perform specific warm-ups based on that day’s type of speed work. These include side to side line hops, side to side line jumps, and lateral skips.
Sample Acceleration Warm-Up:
- Front to back line hops (over, back, and stick) – 5x each side
- A-skip – 10 yards
- Fast feet – 2x :03–:05
- Falling starts – 2–3x 5 yards
Video 3. Front to back line hops, fast feet, and falling starts are three acceleration warm-ups our athletes perform on days we’re training acceleration.
Sample Max Speed Warm-Up:
- Snap skip – 10 yards
- High knees (progressively faster) – 10 yards
- Single leg buttkicker (progressively faster) – 10x each side
- Fast claw wall drill – 10x each side
Address Strengthening the Feet in Every Workout
At our facility, drills promoting ankle stiffness and strong feet are one component all athletes do every day—regardless of the speed work. Marv Marinovich, a pioneer in the strength and conditioning field, began to understand early on the role that strengthening the foot played in improving performance. In his book, ProBodX, he writes, “When you exercise barefooted, the nervous system and musculoskeletal systems are more likely to be engaged than if your feet were sleeping comfortably in high-tech shoes.” He continues, “Working out barefooted will improve your abilities in sports, such as running faster, jumping higher…or changing direction.”At our facility, drills promoting ankle stiffness and strong feet are one component all athletes do every day—regardless of the speed work. Click To Tweet
For this reason, we always do some component of our warm-up with shoes off. This may include slant-board holds, rolling on PVC, or some low-level jumping or hopping drills. The goal of all of these drills is to get athletes to minimize ground contact time when jumping or running.
Faster athletes produce greater forces into the ground over a shorter duration of time compared to slower athletes. The importance of strength and stiffness of the feet cannot be understated: Take a video of the feet of a few athletes accelerating and look at the differences in ground contact. When an athlete has a stiff foot, you’ll notice there is less movement of the heel toward the ground when they strike the ground as compared to a slower athlete.
Video 4. Pogo jumps with bare feet challenge the nervous system and musculature of the feet more than wearing shoes does.
Improve the Quality of Movement
As a coach, my No. 1 goal is to improve the quality of movement of my athletes. Simply improving mechanics is one of the easiest ways to improve speed. I want my athletes to understand how they should be moving when doing every type of speed drill. Just like any other movement or exercise, I first look to eliminate the gross faults of the athlete and then fine-tune their mechanics to get them moving as efficiently as possible. Improved efficiency means improving speed.
A good quality of movement means the athlete has proper posture as well as an effective position of the hips and a good shin angle. When performing any drill, think about the purpose of the drill and how to perform it as efficiently as possible. For example, if I have an athlete performing a side shuffle, there are a few things I’ll look at before the athlete even starts the movement. Do they have proper posture, or are they overly rounded in their back? Are they in an “athletic stance”? By that, I mean are they low enough with their hips, and do they have a positive shin angle to keep pressure through the ball of the foot?A good quality of movement means the athlete has proper posture as well as an effective position of the hips and a good shin angle. Click To Tweet
If the setup is not correct, I cannot expect the athlete to do the drill properly. Then I’ll have the athlete perform the exercise, and I’ll continue to look for quality positions and mechanics. This whole time I’m educating the athlete on what I want to see and how it can help them become a better athlete. If I just have my athletes go through drills without actually teaching them, then I cannot expect them to get better.
For acceleration training, I want athletes to master proper posture and focus on producing horizontal force to build up speed. Athletes who are too upright have a more vertical shin angle. This is not conducive to efficient acceleration. When the shin is vertical, the force into the ground is more vertical, which forces the athlete to stand upright instead of keeping a good lean for acceleration. To become more efficient at accelerating, I utilize a variety of drills, which may include:
- Starts from various positions
- Resisted sprints with a harness
I’m personally partial to using a shoulder harness because I’ve seen too many athletes lose posture and bend too much at the hips with a waist harness. Our maximum speed training still stresses good posture as well as proper front-side positioning of the hip, knee, and ankle. Backside mechanics include an emphasis on quick turnover by focusing on hamstring activation. Building a solid foundation of mechanics from the start sets the athlete up for success as they continue to train. If you don’t address mechanics, an athlete will quickly top out their ability to improve speed in all directions and distances.
Field Athletes vs. Track Athletes
Field sport athletes and track athletes have different needs when it comes to improving speed, due to the primarily linear nature of track sprints. Field sport athletes are constantly stopping, starting, cutting, and changing direction. Rarely in sport will you see an athlete sprint in a straight line without having to change direction or slow down at some point. This is the reason acceleration plays a more important role for field sport athletes.
Let’s look at basketball players, for example. If they can’t stop, start, and accelerate quickly, they’ll easily become exposed on defense and will have a hard time creating offense. At no point in a basketball game will an athlete reach top speed—the court is not long enough. All field athletes still need to train top end speed, but it should not be the only focus of their speed training. Their training should primarily emphasize acceleration and deceleration of movements. I’m a big proponent of the resistance drills Lee Taft uses with the band.
You can use the band as resistance to promote more strength through the movement, or you can use the athlete to pull the athlete into a change of direction, which will focus more on deceleration. You can do a number of variations of sprints, backpedals, side shuffles, and lateral runs with the band. Track athletes, on the other hand, still need to work on acceleration, but top end speed is more important due to the distances of the events.
Rehearsed vs. Reactive Speed Drills
A popular topic in articles and podcasts is transitioning from rehearsed drills to more reactive- based speed drills. In the book, Training for Sports Speed and Agility, Paul Gamble writes: “Alongside the acquisition of component movement skills there is a need for the athlete to be progressively exposed to an unpredictable environment to allow them to develop the ability to execute these movement skills under reactive conditions.”
Reactive drills can include reacting to another athlete or a tennis ball, or even sprinting to a specific colored cone. There is good reason to make sure both of these elements are part of a speed program. Just like hitting a baseball or kicking a soccer ball, running is a skill. If we think of running and changing direction as a skill, we need to make sure the athlete can perform the skill properly before transitioning them into a completely reactive-based program. If you have someone who wants to play ice hockey but has never skated before, will you have them just play games and expect them to reach their potential? No, you will go over all of the fundamentals to teach them how to stop, turn, cut, and transition from different positions, along with playing games to maximize performance.
The same principle should be applied to any type of speed drill. When looking at how skill acquisition occurs, it first begins with a conscious thought of how we want to move. As more practice of the skill takes place, execution becomes a subconscious thought until it happens without consciously thinking about it.
In our typical speed session, we cover the technique and mechanics of different movements, and then we utilize those movements in reactive-based drills toward the end of our speed work. Since sports involve the cognitive component of the athlete reacting to other players, the ball, and the speed of play, we make sure to get in some type of reactive speed work every session. While an athlete is focused on the cognitive components mentioned, they will not be able to think about any of the mechanics of sprinting such as posture, leg drive, or shin angles. This is why we reinforce good technique and eventually look for some carryover in the reactive-based drills.
Don’t Mistake Speed Training for Conditioning
A mistake many coaches make when it comes to speed development is not allowing ample rest between speed drills. This will compromise the quality of the speed work you are trying to do and will turn the session into conditioning.Strength coaches need to do their homework on understanding energy systems and the rest periods needed when the goal is improving sport-related speed. Click To Tweet
If you truly want your athletes to get faster, you need to focus on the quality of work you are doing. This means allowing time for the athletes’ ATP as well as CP (creatine phosphate) to be restored. Strength coaches need to do their homework on understanding energy systems and the rest periods needed when the goal is improving sport-related speed.
- When doing speed drills, an easy rule of thumb is to allow one minute of rest for every second of max effort work for complete recovery.
- For technique drills or drills done at submax speeds, you do not have to rest as long before starting the next drill.
- If the athlete starts to look slower or the mechanics get worse, allow them more rest.
- The time between drills is a great time to review a video of the athlete performing the drills.
How to Utilize Speed Drills for Conditioning
Conditioning for most sports should look to improve the repeated sprint ability (RSA) of the athlete. Very few sports require a steady state of output; instead, you may see the athlete walk, sprint, walk, jog, and sprint. This is typical as an athlete assesses the play and picks and chooses when to make a play and sprint. For this reason, athletes need to get used to doing lots of short sprints and recovering between them. Improving this quality is known as improving RSA. As an athlete gets closer to season, we like to use different drills as conditioning to help prepare them for the demands they will face once the season starts.Conditioning for most sports should look to improve the repeated sprint ability of the athlete. Click To Tweet
Let’s use a basketball player as an example, again. Instead of having them do repeat 60-meter sprints, I may have them do a multidirectional drill that is the same duration as their 60-meter sprint. This way I still work the energy systems the same way I would, but it’s more specific to the sport of basketball where they’ll have to change direction a lot more. This is a time coaches can get creative and pick conditioning drills based on the athlete and the sport.
Choose Drills That Address Deficiencies
The purpose of this article wasn’t to tell you what drills to do, but to provide a template of how to develop an effective speed and agility program for athletes. Look for the positions and mechanics you want your athletes to achieve during drills and pick drills to address the deficiencies. More challenging drills are typically longer in duration, include a form of resistance, or involve more acceleration and deceleration by adding in more changes of direction. Be sure to take these factors into account when developing a speed and agility program for your athletes.
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Gamble, Paul. (2012) Training for Sports Speed and Agility: An evidence-based approach. New York, NY: Routledge. p. 151.
Marinovich, Marv and Heus, Edith. (2003). ProBodX. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers Inc. p. 23.