Speed is the game breaker.
We’re all familiar with the notion that speed is king. Sport science research has revealed that the fastest athletes sign bigger contracts and score more often than their slower peers.1,2There is no substitute for raw speed—it decides the moments that matter.3Seeing an athlete at full stride leaving the opposition in their wake is a sight to behold and the holy grail of sports performance. Coaches will pay millions for it and the good news is, with proper programming, anyone can develop their sprint speed.
I always ask my athletes what’s more important: making the break, or capitalizing on it? If you don’t end up with points on the board after working hard to evade defenders, it was all for nothing. Opportunities that aren’t capitalized upon are worthless. With this in mind, as a coach, I place a huge emphasis on developing maximal linear sprint speed in my field sport athletes. When one of my athletes makes a break, I expect them to outrun their opposite number.
Furthermore, maximal sprint speed has a trickle-down effect and can positively influence both multi-directional qualities and general running capacity. While the required deceleration and postural skills, along with the perceptual-cognitive abilities of agility, are not developed unless trained more specifically, the development of nervous system capacity to power out of good positions and run around a defender are undoubtedly linked with top-end speed. In addition, an increase in maximal outputs will reduce the relative intensity of all other sub-maximal work, reducing reliance on anaerobic energy provisions for general movements on the field and, thus, improving overall fitness.I don’t believe that speed is inherent and can’t be coached, and have the numbers to back me up, says @nathankiely1992. Click To Tweet
Some coaches argue that speed is inherent and cannot be coached. Most will pay a fortune to recruit speed, but dedicate little time to developing it within their existing athletes. I disagree with this notion and have the numbers to back it up. I work with athletes who have reduced their 40-meter sprint time by as much as 1.35 seconds. This would not have come about without proper coaching and programming.
All athletes can get faster than they already are, but like a tree from a seedling, it takes time to grow. While I have never seen a slow athlete become a fast athlete, there is always room for improvement, and that may be the difference between making and not making that game-breaking play.
Misconceptions About Speed
First, team sport is not all acceleration-based. The moments that matter most often require athletes to hit, or very nearly hit, absolute maximal sprint speed.3For example, in the sport I work in—rugby league—a quarter of all sprints are more than 20 meters and half are entirely linear in nature.4Ignoring the importance of straight line sprinting over longer distances can be costly, both in opportunities missed and injuries sustained. While many plays require short acceleration bursts, it’s the game-breaking plays—runaway tries or rundowns—that will require maximal outputs.
Next, sprint training isn’t necessarily any riskier than doing no sprint training. It doesn’t automatically lead to more hamstring or calf injuries. A properly designed and coached speed program will, in fact, address technique issues related to increased hamstring injury risk (overstriding), and build work capacity and robustness in your athletes by allowing them to adapt and become accustomed to high-speed running through a progressively overloaded program.5,6You can do all the Nordic hamstring curls and Romanian deadlifts in the world, but if you have faulty sprint mechanics, you will always be at an increased risk of hamstring injury.If you have faulty sprint mechanics, you will always be at an increased risk of #hamstring injury, says @nathankiely1992. Click To Tweet
The athletes who pull hamstrings in speed sessions are the same ones who would have done so at the most critical moment in a game anyway. So rather than allow it to happen on the field, leaving you a player short, diagnose and treat those at risk with a well-designed program. This is where a technical, rather than outcomes-based, approach becomes so important. After all, prevention is better than cure.
Lastly, repeated sprints aren’t speed training, they’re conditioning. To develop sprint speed, the legendary Canadian sprint coach Charlie Francis advised that each effort must be—at a bare minimum—above 95% of the athlete’s maximum. For this to then work, sufficient recovery periods must be in place. Otherwise, accumulated fatigue will lead to sub-maximal outputs and change your speed session into a conditioning workout.
Remember, rest is essential to the process of speed development. Team sports coaches often struggle to cope with the sight of athletes standing around during a rest period, and so I’ve developed a couple of sneaky tricks to ensure the session always looks busy enough to keep them off your back. More on this later.
I use a simple formula to prescribe rest periods with team sport athletes adapted from Dr. Mike Young at Athletic Lab. For every 10 meters of sprinting completed in any given rep, I aim for 30-60 seconds of rest. For example, a 40-meter sprint should be followed by a minimum of two minutes’ rest and ideally up to four minutes. The longer the better (so long as they don’t get cold in between reps).Many coaches don’t know which speed qualities are the real game breakers and how to train for them, says @nathankiely1992. Click To Tweet
While the importance of speed is well-established, many coaches don’t know exactly which qualities are the real game breakers and how they should be trained. Numerous myths are perpetuated without the scientific evidence to support them and dispelling these misnomers is essential to better training.
Principles of Speed
So, how do I build my speed program for the best results? All my speed training is based upon four basic principles:
- Minimal effective dose
- Bang for your buck drills
- A KISS technical model
These principles guide my periodization, session design, workout flow, and instruction. Without these basic tenets, there is no speed program, so understanding what they are and how they work is essential to better outcomes.
Exposure is a simple concept: To get better at something, you must practice it frequently. There’s no use throwing a speed session in every four to six weeks and expecting to make progress. Pushing a prowler and doing a hip lock drill in the weight room doesn’t address speed sufficiently either. You’ll end up repeating the same session and never progress either the technical components or the intensity of the training.Exposure is a simple concept: To get better at something, you must practice it frequently, says @nathankiely1992. Click To Tweet
I expect all my athletes to touch or very nearly touch top speed at least twice per week, with an eye on getting it three times if possible.5,6,7Consistent exposures throughout a season allows for maximal development, as well as an increase in work capacity and robustness—thus reducing injury risk.
Another way to approach exposure is through what Derek Hansen calls micro-dosing. I’m no expert on the topic and I’d suggest looking into Hansen’s work for more detail. However, the key philosophy behind micro-dosing is that the total weekly training volume is broken up into smaller, more frequent chunks. These chunks are then spread out, allowing for maximal intensity to be reached without accumulating too much fatigue in any one training session. For example, I have implemented “speed injections,” adapted from my time as an intern with the Australian Rugby Sevens program, and will “top up” my athletes with 40-meter sprint efforts when I am concerned that we may be underdone on our very high speed running volume.
Finally, on exposure, I use technical drills as often as possible. Maintaining consistent drilling themes throughout the season allows for repeated learning and progression of technical attractors. Having athletes think about hip lock, toe up, arm drive, and rhythm two to three times per week for a season guarantees greater long-term motor learning and skill acquisition.
Low-level sprint skill drills can be used in place of a generic warm-up that may otherwise include sumo squats, grass sweeps, and lunge and twists. Make warm-ups contextual and create specific themes that create positive adaptation. Every movement should have rhyme and reason and not be implemented “just because.”
Minimal Effective Dose
Minimal effective dose is all about volume. What is the smallest amount of quality work needed to drive adaptation? Dr. Mike Young advises that team sport athletes should complete 200-300 meters of total sprint volume in a dedicated sprint session.
I’m a big fan of the “less is more” approach and take it a step further by knowing I can “top up” sprint volume across multiple sessions in a week. Thus, I use a simple formula to devise my total sprint volume for my one dedicated speed session of the week. I aim for just half of Dr. Young’s suggestion and build the rest up on other days. We typically complete 120-150 meters of total maximal sprinting (excluding stride throughs) in any one given team sprint session, which takes 15-20 minutes from walking in cold to completion.Understand the importance of a ‘less is more’ approach for developing speed in team sport athletes, says @nathankiely1992. Click To Tweet
It’s essential to understand the importance of a less-is-more approach for developing speed in team sport athletes. Total stress to the system can be immense for a field sport athlete, especially in season. Regular team trainings can include heavy contact, wrestling, high-intensity intervals, and lactate laden small-sided games. In addition, it is not uncommon to have two heavy lower-body weight sessions in a week. All these factors mean the fatigue/recovery glass can often be teetering on empty. Therefore, it’s essential we do the least we can get away with whenever we want to add any other additional training.
Furthermore, a low volume starting point has two benefits. First, it allows for greater long-term growth. If we start with a high volume of sprint training, we quickly realize the downside of the principle of diminishing returns. There are two rules true of all training.
- Everything works, and
- Everything will eventually stop working.
If we know that everything will eventually stop working, we should make sure to save the most advanced and hardest training for as late in the athletic development program as possible. If we start with a high volume of sprint training, we will leave ourselves no room for additional volume to be added when we reach an inevitable plateau. Start small and build up slowly.
Second, acute spikes in high-speed running are associated with increased risk of injury. Earn the right to use high volumes by building up appropriately.
A question I get asked frequently is: “Which drills are best for developing speed?” Well, first, let’s address a slightly different question. Do drills develop speed at all? My answer would have to be “no.”
Rather, based on experience I have come to the belief that drills provide a neural priming effect and context to establish positions and orient force production at lower speeds than in all-out sprinting. When sprinting at 10m/s, it can be quite difficult to execute various fundamental technical positions. Thus, the practice of sprint-specific drills can help athletes to develop an understanding of the technical elements required to sprint in the most efficient manner. Exposure to maximal sprint speed is what develops speed, but we can only optimize this and reduce the risk of injury after we establish good technique.
So, how does a coach decide which drills to use? I have the less-is-more approach. All my drills are either specific strength or hip, trunk, and foot strike orientation drills. This is the biggest thing I have seen my athletes struggle to execute and which I see as having the greatest return on time invested.Running fast is peripheral to the overall goal of being a good player in the sport in question, says @nathankiely1992. Click To Tweet
I’m always looking to create gradually more complex “A” series progressions. I do not typically use B-skips or dribbling drills. This is because I believe we get our posterior chain development from our prime times and I find dribbling drills reinforce the short, choppy steps that are often already a technical issue for my athletes. Remember, running fast is peripheral to the overall goal of being a good player in the sport in question, so using as few drills as possible to address the basics should be paramount. That’s not to say these drills have no place, just that their place isn’t at the starting point of my program.
Therefore, I have a set of six simple main drills with appropriate progressions for each:
- Lunge pattern
- High knees
- Prime times
- Acceleration bounds
I do use other drills (and by no means do I claim these are the only ones that work—this is just what I’ve found to work for me) in a corrective manner with individuals who I believe could benefit from a specific drill. However, in general, these are all that I will use. I see drills 5 and 6 as “special strength” exercises aimed at developing explosive strength and I’ll use one or the other to complement the physiological response targeted through the particular training block we’re in.
My technical model is built around the “keep it simple, stupid”(KISS) principle. If I can create a system so simple that every athlete in my squad can know the key aspects by the end of pre-season, then I am already ahead of the ball. Remember, we’re not working with track sprinters here. An understanding of the intricate details of optimal sprint technique is very low on your athlete’s list of interests. Being able to get some key points across in as few words as possible will reduce confusion and increase buy-in from your athletes.
There are other great models out there, such as rhythm, projection, and rise or PAL, and I do use concepts from these in my own system. My model (PARF) consists of four key components: Posture, Alignment, Range of movement, and Force orientation.
- Posture is inclusive of the following areas: In acceleration, “head to heel, strong as steel,” with aggressive shin and torso angles using gravity to help you “fall forward.” At top speed, running tall with shoulders back and down, big proud chest with head and eyes up at the target, and hips remaining high and neutral (imagine being pulled up by a rope attached to your head).
- Next, alignment revolves around the limbs, hips, and shoulders. Arms and legs should drive directly at—not across—the target, and the hips and shoulder should remain square (brace abs to deflect a punch to keep core engaged).
- Then we focus on range of movement, I ask athletes to aim for a parallel thigh at terminal knee drive and hands working “face cheek to butt cheek,” or “from your eyes past your hip pocket.” Arms work from the shoulders, not the elbows.
- Finally, force orientation. Research shows that it’s not how much force you can produce, but how fast and accurately you can apply and orient it, that determines sprint performance.8,9During acceleration, it is essential that we drive back and away to “spin the earth” or “push the ground away.”
In upright running I take a leaf out of Ken Clark’s coaching cues and ask my athletes to “cock the hammer and strike the nail” or “make the ground pop.”10A powerful and stiff foot strike from above to under the hips is essential during upright running conditions and is key to creating robust and versatile maximal velocity sprint technique.
Underpinning all programming decisions with these four principles ensures field sport athletes will get greater development and retention of maximal velocity sprint speed. The moments that matter in a match rely on game-breaking speed, and a simplified framework or training system gives all coaches and their athletes access to this attribute.
Game-breaking speed is what wins or loses matches. All athletes have the potential to develop greater maximal outputs. Now I would like to explore more deeply and reveal the specific details of what this looks like in practice.Game-breaking speed is what wins or loses matches, says @nathankiely1992. Click To Tweet
My solution is one dedicated 20-minute speed training block per week and at least one additional exposure to very high speed running during training. If possible, a third exposure may occur in the game itself. However, if it does not, then it falls upon the coach to utilize a “speed injection” to top up the athletes.
This process may be made far easier by using wearable technology, such as GPS, that can identify peak sprint speed—albeit with some degree of error—during a session or game. When using this type of technology, I look for peak sprint speeds to reach at least 90% of maximum; this is somewhat contradictory to the 95% rule of Francis (mentioned earlier). However, with so many other stress variables in play, along with the error associated with GPS units, it’s hard to tell what a true maximum on any given day for your particular athlete may be.
Initially, I always start with a four-week block of maximum-velocity focused sprint work. I use a long to short program—but short to long can work just as well—because of the typical postural nature of most sprints in field sports. Gabbett highlights that nearly 60% of rugby league sprints occur from a walking, jogging, or striding start.4Therefore, aggressive acceleration postures are, in fact, less common than you may think. This is why I like to teach “upright” mechanics first, before layering more explosive acceleration work on top later.
Following our maximum velocity block, the focus shifts to the technical aspects of acceleration. We never stray too far away from one end of the velocity spectrum. A vertical integration approach means we will always train both top speed and acceleration, it’s just that the focal point will shift from block to block. Remember, there are many other aspects involved in the training of field sport athletes, so keeping a consistent theme in speed training will allow for long-term steady progression in outcomes. In acceleration, we execute our drills sometimes using partnered band resistance to potentiate and reinforce positive postural lean.
My dedicated speed sessions involve three components: warm-up, specific exercise, and sprint work.
The specific technical warm-up consists of drills with gradually increasing movement velocity interspersed with short, sharp “stride throughs” that bleed technique from drills into gross motor movement patterns. These drills are typically some variation of a lunge pattern/A-march, an A-pop, an A-skip, a high knees, and a bounding drill (with the variation dependent on session goal—acceleration or maximum velocity). Each drill is usually completed for just one or two 10m repetitions followed by a 10-meter walk-in stride through at 80%, 85%, 90%, and 95% relative intensity.
To create buy-in during the sometimes monotonous “warm-up,” I create competition among my athletes. Athletes perform their drills in waves of four athletes at a time, allowing me to observe and correct technique without having too many athletes going at once. We then rank each wave of four athletes based upon the quality of their drill execution, with winners praised and losers ridiculed (in a light-hearted manner). Any time there is competition in training, athletes naturally want to perform. For those who have not previously taken our drill component seriously, I’ve found this leads to immediate changes in our session quality.Do not sacrifice drill quality—this is where the learning occurs, so ensure it is done well, says @nathankiely1992. Click To Tweet
I’m a huge fan of breezing through the warm-up as quickly as possible. The athletes want to train, and that’s where they’ll develop the most. But do not sacrifice drill quality—this is where the learning occurs, so ensure it is done well.
Following the A series drills and bounding in our warm-up, we enter a constraints-based sprint exercise. Environmental factors are manipulated to create tasks where the only way to successfully complete the drill is by optimizing technique. If technique is faulty, the athlete fails.
The selection of this exercise is entirely dependent upon the training block and, again, KISS rules all else here. During maximum velocity blocks, the constraints-based exercise will be a wickets or mini hurdle run drill, and during acceleration a resisted or incline sprint will be used.11Both these drills have endless variations, so subtle ongoing progression can occur throughout the season within the context of the specific drill itself.
For example, the wickets drill can be progressed by crossing the arms; holding a dowel on the shoulders or overhead; running with a ball in one arm, switching the ball-carrying arm mid-rep or making or receiving a pass on the fly; or by competing with a teammate or against the clock. Likewise, in acceleration, progressions could include heavy prowler pushes (Joe DeFranco style), grandstand or hill sprints, three- or four-point start sled sprints (progression in velocity from ~50% up to 90%), and band-resisted sprints, with competitive and non-competitive variations.11
I have selected these two key exercises because of the way they enable the athlete to explore the perceptual motor landscape and find movement solutions without active verbal cueing from the coach. When dealing with 40 athletes, it can be a godsend to just stand back and observe rather than actively coaching every single rep. The wickets drill forces athletes to find good posture and front side mechanics all on their own. Likewise, resisted sprints are a must, not only for developing aggressive acceleration posture and horizontal force production, but also for developing highly movement-specific strength in athletes.
After our drills and constraints-based exercise we enter the fun part: live sprinting. From my experience, competition is the key to getting the most out of this area of training. Whether it is competition with oneself via the stopwatch, or among peers running side by side, there must be a win or loss component to drive intensity. Typically, I utilize “heats” of three or four athletes pitted against one another.
It’s important to ensure these races are going to be as competitive as possible—for instance, in rugby do not match your prop with your fullback, or if they’re running against one another, create a handicap by giving the slower athlete up to a 10% head start so both athletes will need to run hard all the way through. I’ve found handicaps particularly useful in addressing the common phenomenon where faster athletes “turn it on” for only a fraction of the rep (enough to develop a lead) and slower ones give up quickly once left behind. This setup allows for a good mix between intensity, walk-back recovery time, and session flow.
Rumpf et al. demonstrate that for the best results, sprint training should be completed over distances greater than 30 meters.7This fits excellently with Dr. Young’s suggestion that team sport athletes should complete repetitions that fall between 30 and 60 meters in distance. For these reasons, I follow a linear distance regression throughout my training blocks, starting at longer distances with few repetitions and finishing with shorter distances for a greater number of reps. Total sprint volume remains consistent across all sessions. Table 1 shows an example of a four-week training block.
|2 x 60m linear sprint – non-competitive in block 1
|2-3 x 50m S run race
|3 x 40m linear sprint race
|4 x 30m tag (various start positions)
Table 1.An example of my four-week training block. I follow a linear distance regression throughout my training blocks, starting at longer distances with few repetitions and finishing with shorter distances for a greater number of reps. Total sprint volume remains consistent across all sessions.
Our speed work is progressed through varied starts (prone, supine, half kneeling, drop and roll, or chase). This mixes chaos into the equation to link the pure linear speed we’re aiming to develop with the realities of field sports. Curvilinear runs may be introduced later in the program to create greater specificity in our workouts. However, I never stray too far from the pure maximal outputs that can only be achieved with more focused sessions. Introducing too much chaos just serves to add more of what a field sport athlete already gets in their regular training. The only way to create real development of sprint speed is by “filling the gaps” with more pure training sessions.
Previously, I mentioned having some sneaky tricks up your sleeve to create the illusion of busyness within your speed sessions. This can be a lifesaver if, like me, you’ve worked in scenarios where coaches become skeptical of training that involves any standing around.
The trick to this is to superset or complex a series of extensive or low-level plyometrics, medicine ball throws, ball skills, or core exercise after each repetition of your sprint workout. Some simple throws against a brick wall or lateral hurdle hops can add a physiological benefit to the development of your athlete and create a better flow to the session. Consider working your plyometric exercises on the field rather than in the weight room to fill this void and build a greater holistic approach to training.
In my experience, it is hard to ask for anything more than one 20-minute block of dedicated speed work per week. As physical preparation coaches, we still need to fit multi-directional work, energy system development, and strength work into our programs. Therefore, it is essential we are cognizant of all the factors that need to be addressed, particularly in season when coaches rightfully need more time to work on the technical and tactical elements of the sport. Thus, finding ways to “top up” our exposures to maximal velocity sprinting can be tricky, yet very important.
The ideal scenario is one where athletes reach top speed in regular training. Manipulating existing training drills to include some small elements whereby athletes are required to really turn it on is the gold standard of tactical periodization—where all essential elements are addressed through intelligent and integrated training design. However, if this can’t happen, it becomes imperative that we find another way to expose our athletes to top speed.It is imperative that we find a way to expose our athletes to top speed, says @nathankiely1992. Click To Tweet
One way of doing this is by using the same warm-up regularly and building towards one maximal effort before moving into team skills. Alternatively, Leicester City FC demonstrated during their remarkable 2016 Premier League victory season that speed top-ups could be effectively implemented at the conclusion of a training session. I have never done this, but it may be worth considering if you have no other options. If you do this, be very wary of volume and ensure athletes who really aren’t up to it after a hard training session are identified and pulled out.
What I typically do instead is ask my athletes to give me one or two maximal efforts of either 40m or a simple 10m fly at the conclusion of our multi-directional work. I do this then because I know they will be warm, but also fresh. Therefore, without consuming much time, I believe this is the best place for this work to be done.
Having various options open to you for alternative means of topping up exposure to maximal velocity sprinting is the best way to go about it. Having an agile mindset will allow you to fill the gaps in whatever manner is the most appropriate, given the sometimes unpredictable week-to-week grind that is often associated with in-season training.
A Foundation for Speed Training
There is no substitute for raw speed in field sports. Understanding how, when, and what training modalities are best used for developing this game-breaking quality is the cornerstone of overall athletic development. Establishing a clear and simple model built on strong fundamental principles removes doubt from the decision-making process for physical preparation coaches and allows for optimal outcomes over the long term. I hope the examples I’ve presented in this article give other coaches some starting points or ideas from which to build into or upon their own ideas on speed training for their athletes.
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