Gabriel Mvumvure, assistant coach for sprints and hurdles at Brown University, presents the home workouts and exercise diagrams that he provides his athletes to maintain mobility, speed, and power while they are on breaks away from the school’s program.
By Carl Valle
Overspeed may get most of the attention in coaching circles, but assisted speed is perhaps the most missed opportunity in maximal speed development. For years, overspeed towing has frustrated coaches because, while the potential is there, harnessing the benefits has been a tactical struggle. Ask the average coach what assisted speed is and they may reference my past articles or bring up wind or decline sprinting, but no real blueprint exists.
This article is the framework for assisted speed; an opportunity that I believe is realistic now that the technology is more than sufficient to bring value to, not only track athletes, but any athlete needing to connect their genetic potential to their current abilities.
Overspeed, Assisted Speed, and Supramaximal Speed Differences
Confusion exists in defining how fast an athlete can sprint on their own, and with external help such as assisted speed systems. My earlier article on overspeed and assisted speed was a good middle step in getting a firm footing with maximal velocity development, but only after a few months of training did I understand both the applied and theoretical models. The struggle I had with defining what speed modes were available came from simple issues with the absolute best performance versus an athlete’s relative abilities. Coaches and athletes need to know how to improve speed abilities, not just see the effects of better conditions on times or velocity readings.
Separating external variables of techniques that elicit faster times but not necessarily provide adaptations that produce faster athletes is the soul of this article. An athlete can get towed by an elastic cord and run faster times, but the training session may not transfer later when they’re running without any assistance. Only when a method develops speed from actual neuromuscular adaptations does the technique have merit or is it purposeful for coaches.
If I had to go back in time and do things over again, I would have looked at getting more arousal information from skin conductance adrenaline, or perhaps electromyography. None of the measures would have been valid enough to draw a perfect conclusion, but all of it pieced together could explain why some athletes can “bring it” to practice and why some are clutch at meets or games.
A good revelation of the mystery of maximal speed and improvement of it is to measure the effort and intent of the athlete while either competing or training. Intent and effort, along with the environment, determine fair and proper comparisons. An athlete’s best maximal speed performance in terms of peak velocity is the absolute standard of what an athlete can do, period. Whether it’s a practice, game, or meet, the best performance value in meters per second is the baseline comparison for all other situations. To summarize the differences between the three common terms with speed, here are the definitions in simple language:
Supramaximal Speed: A velocity that an athlete can’t perform volitionally on their own and is faster than their absolute ability.
Assisted Speed: Any external solution that provides additional velocity to the athlete at any time during sprinting.
Overspeed: The use of external assistance to create faster velocities than an athlete can achieve on their own at that time point.
The small differences between the three terms are slightly unclear only because technology and sport science are more accessible to a very narrow segment of speed training. As technology and facility design increase, the definition of assisted speed terminology will be refined.
Why Most Overspeed Programs Fail and How to Fix Them
If overspeed training works well, why haven’t we seen dramatic changes in maximal velocity in race performance? I believe there are several reasons that stagnation occurs, such as genetic limits and other key factors, but one idea that we don’t fully understand is the biology of maximal velocity, in general. Specific modalities, like overspeed options that expose athletes to higher-than-volitional speeds, have no blueprint because there is no standardization or training theory detailed enough to enable coaches. If I had to summarize the state of sport science maximal velocity, it would fall somewhere after witchcraft, at best.
An athlete’s best maximal speed performance in terms of peak velocity is the absolute standard of what an athlete can do, period.
Coaches understand the running mechanics and ways to improve technique and perhaps loading, but the deep biology underneath is still an abyss. For years, coaches have employed specific techniques and equipment with various results, but no available refinement is like what we have with resisted techniques. One of the reasons is that most sports are about acceleration, and even track and field only has one true maximal velocity event. Because maximal speed is such a rare event, not enough resources have been allocated to understanding and improving top speed. The lack of attention and innovation explains why there hasn’t been much evolution in development over the last few decades.
Another area with maximal velocity that still hampers athletic development is simple timing. Athletes are still rarely measured during training and in testing. Some coaches avoid measuring because it’s inconvenient to them or they just like measuring things in the weight room, but if speed was so precious, I would like to believe it would be evaluated objectively.
Speed is still poorly measured to this day and this is just madness. Not knowing speed attributes makes developing those qualities a crap shoot. The reason many athletes improve is simply just from time and hard work, along with staying healthy. Unfortunately, when improvement stops, the window to get better also shrinks as the athlete ages. Therefore, a working model of maximal speed depends on measuring speed as accurately as possible. Until the athlete is timed, modalities are not going to be employed properly.A working model of maximal speed depends on measuring speed as accurately as possible. Click To Tweet
Finally, the equipment and facilities that enhance speed have been expensive, inconsistent, and hard to find. I can count on one hand how many facilities have a true one- to two-degree slope. Machines that provide overspeed towing have been around for decades, but most of them are homemade and simply not commercially available. Bungies and elastic cords may be available in catalogs, but manual towing is so inconsistent and risky they never caught on, for good reason. Overspeed was mainly a false hope and often risky for athletes, so coaches worked on acceleration and speed endurance and left maximal velocity to technique work.
Solving the overspeed gap requires the obvious resources: time, money, and expertise. At lower levels, overspeed is unlikely to be needed at all, but as improvement diminishes, you have to discover coaching-specific breakthroughs in order to break records or personal best performances.
Measuring Maximal Velocity in Training and Competition
One surprising challenge is measuring maximal velocity with athletes. I made a case for resistance to test athletes in a post about using therapeutic loads to estimate velocity abilities here. With maximal velocity testing, athletes need to be fresher and the acceleration pattern needs to be longer. The more elite the athlete, the longer the runway needed to hit their maximal velocity. A longer repetition requires more work, so volumes are always a struggle when trying to develop top speed.
Measuring and recovering from maximal speed testing and training is a universal constraint, and a few solutions will be covered later. The key point here is that the opportunity to measure maximal velocity is rare because the simple need of being able to sprint at top speed safely requires essential prerequisites.
Teasing out maximal speed requires sampling recorded peak velocities or splits from races, and repeating the process in training. Team sport usually has fewer opportunities to test speed formally, but any time you train speed, it’s worth it (and not that difficult) to add measurement. The longer the flying zone (distance of maximal velocity), the greater the need for a smooth and gradual acceleration. I broke down testing for maximal speed in a guest article here, but remember that additional interpretation is needed because arousal and preparation levels will cause speed to be lowered significantly from games or meets.I tell athletes they are their times; their practices usually tell the story behind those times. Click To Tweet
The more testing you do, the better the data is, but the key is the difference between the best competitive performance and the best all-time training performance. While it’s brutal, these two times tell enough about where the athlete is speed-wise, their competitive ability, and how they go there training-wise. I explain to athletes that they are their times, and their practices usually tell the story behind their times. Assisted speed can help transform training improvements into results in real competition.
Evaluating Assisted Velocity Profiles
Once an athlete and coach have training speeds and performance times or velocities, the next step is to see how assisting those speeds can lead to potentially greater speeds later. Assessing absolute abilities, then breaking down pathways to improving those speeds, is the name of the game in speed development. An assisted velocity profile is an extension of unassisted speed, meaning that without knowing what an athlete can do on their own, assisting speed is too experimental. Coaches and athletes don’t have too much time for trial and error and, while a little experimentation is necessary, it’s better to come up with a model or framework to cut out as much failure as possible.
Many athletes need to train faster, not just train faster than what they can humanly do on their own. For example, for most of the year athletes are nowhere close to their best meet or competition times, especially track and field sprinters. A sprinter in the fall is simply training to train, for the most part, as their speed is not likely that seen in the late summer. It’s a major advantage to have an athlete train early in the season at velocities that are close to what they could muster on their own in the spring and summer. Without oversimplifying speed development too much, a safe bet is that coaches really want the athlete to get faster, faster.
Assisted speed profiling is nothing more than seeing the gaps among the absolute best performances in competition, training, and the current level of ability. Athletes will rarely be able to elicit all-time best speeds in practice or training, so the key to developing maximal speed is bringing the relative best ability out sooner by literally assisting them with towing or other means. Assisted speed is about either going faster earlier or going the same speed with less effort.
How and when coaches decide to assist athletes is very much up to the speed data they are recording in practice; otherwise, it’s just a complicated guessing game. In my opinion, assisted speed is going to be the most popular option because doesn’t expose the athlete to something they have never done, such as supramaximal speeds. The leap to running faster in practice than in meet performances is too large to implement in most situations. Down the road, exposure to “greater than” meet performances might be a tool for setting personal bests and breaking records, but assisted speed is too awesome to skip.
Loading Maximal Speed and Assisted Speed
Four primary loading options exist with assisted speed when developing maximal speed with athletes. Loading is more about volume and intensity than the technical qualities, but just distilling loading to how many sprints and how fast is too crude, and dangerously dumbed down. When developing maximal speed with assistance, the same rules apply as without assistance. They are:
- Sprint only when fresh and prepared to perform maximal speed.
- Volumes must be very low in order to reduce risk of injury.
- Maximal speed should be done only with healthy athletes.
What changes with assisted sprinting is that it allows for slightly more work to be done because acceleration is less demanding and maximal velocity zones are supported by light assistance. Towing directly complements traditional speed programs by adding that small dash of extra boost without disturbing mechanics. Mechanics can be at risk when the speed is not personalized and is simply dialed up to arbitrary velocities.
Towing directly complements traditional speed programs by adding that small dash of extra boost without disturbing mechanics.
I only use 1080 Sprint assisted speed because it’s safely removing horizontal load and not dragging at set speeds. With every step, athletes are subtly changing their speeds instantaneously, so a system that adjusts at very high frequency is vital to removing any potential hazards. Assisted work is like a wind on your back at all times; only this time, it’s on command at the levels requested by the coach.
- Coaches can set assisted forces to hit very fast speeds with a lot of assistance while the athlete is performing at maximal effort earlier in the season.
- Coaches can set assisted forces to hit very fast speeds with small amounts of assistance if the athlete is feeling great and performing maximally.
- Coaches can set assistance forces to hit normal speeds with a lot of assistance while athletes use less-than-normal efforts to work on technical abilities.
- Coaches can set assistance forces to hit normal speeds with assistance that enables the athlete to hit great velocities, but with far more repetitions than normal.
All of the above options are just my own experiences from early experimentation. I expect the community to grow and refine the options to something beyond my framework, but until now the options of assisted speed were flat times rather than interactive bionic exchanges of force transmission. Maximal speed development is nothing more than exposure to learning, but the windows, being infrequent, reduce the rate of learning. With assisted speed now more super fluid instead of glorified rubber bands or brainless motors pulling athletes, the option is gentle and effective.
Creating a Maximal Velocity ‘Brainprint’ With Assisted Speed
The final step with maximal speed improvement is creating a clear model for coaches and athletes based on their sport and their development. It would be unprofessional for me to say I have the winning concept, but we can build upon the work of coaches who have previous knowledge on the subject. I have done a lot of maximal speed work with team sports to reduce hamstring injuries and clear a path to enhance acceleration.
When I only worked on short acceleration, I improved quickly. But our absolute improvement made the most change with short initial speed. Having efficient maximal velocity in my program allowed for more efficient acceleration, and we saw better scores in repeated sprint tests and even conditioning tests like the common shuttle options.
Even more surprising was a rehabilitation project I was part of that used assisted speed to get athletes out of the movement stereotype that guarded muscles. The ability to move with freedom at very fast velocities without maximal effort reeducated the nervous system at the highest level. The new speed concept I learned with the 1080 Sprint was not training the body to run faster, but hacking the brain to allow the body to sprint without inhibition. The idea of training a human body for maximal speed is something Mother Nature didn’t invest in much biologically, so it’s our job to work with what we have and bend the rules but not break them.
We have already made progress in sprinting with all of the great coaching concepts, but besides better talents, are things much different than the 1970s and 1980s? My suggestion to coaches in the speed game is to tweak the variables in training just a little, by adding assistance earlier in the season, and making it more frequent during maximal speed phases and when athletes are transitioning to competition. Track and swimming coaches have more time to work with, but the same plan can be used for team sports with truncated or scaled approaches. Coaches already have an idea on planning the season, and many have succeeded with their periodization strategies. The next step is to train speed with higher velocities, and that means earlier and/or faster.
Zooming into the actual sessions, assisted speed requires slicing the process very thin, meaning the goal is not to get seduced by aggressive velocities. Just adding a touch of speed and decreasing load allows for more frequency of speed work and more total repetitions. Being lured into “speed greed” will, like any modality, backfire. Too much overload will exhaust the body or even acutely injure it. Coaches should never radically change programs that are working, so, again, the 1080 Sprint is the final piece to a well-designed program.
Assisted speed is about raising the base level of velocity higher so the platform is elevated, not necessarily trying to reach speeds faster than ever before. Assisted speed is about boosting the athlete’s ability. If the athletes hit maximal velocities never before reached, it’s likely the process was a smart one because the system works with them and what they bring; it doesn’t dictate a speed that may not be appropriate.
Is the 1080 Sprint Right for You?
Honestly, the 1080 Sprint is not for everyone. While the system is an investment, if you are looking into options that are major advantages at maximizing talent, no other system is close. My own personal history with the 1080 Sprint started when Randy Huntington shared the technology, and it took me a full year to be comfortable with just the idea of towing because I was fearful of the unknown. Now small therapeutic assistance is just the right amount to make small changes without athletes feeling strange or coaches worrying about injury.
If maximal speed is something precious, investing in a 1080 Sprint is the best choice for anyone wanting the premium tool for peak velocity.