In track and field, and running events in particular, the competitive skill is singular. If you’re a sprinter, you can focus on sprinting from a young age and continue to perfect your skills and techniques as you age. This makes the training simpler. It’s not easy, mind you, but you can find a coach who will teach you how to sprint better and focus on that one thing.
Non-track athletes, however, have two skills that affect their competency: their sport skill, and also their sprinting ability. If I’m a football receiver, I can work on how far my pass patterns are and how to catch the ball until I’m blue in the face, but if I don’t figure out how to run faster, it may never matter since I can’t escape the defenders. Speed training is extremely important in field sports. Yet, in my opinion, the coaches and decision makers in sport severely underappreciate it.
Athleticism Needs to Match Skill
I’ll give you an example. I started playing football at 12 years old; before that, I played soccer. During my high school career, I played two to three football seasons in the same calendar year. By the time I reached university, I had 10 seasons of football under my belt. My football IQ and skills allowed me to be a competitive player. I was lacking something, though: My athleticism didn’t match my skill. Not only was I generally weak, as I had only puttered around a gym with no guidance, but I also had zero technical skill in sprinting. How did I go 10 years in a sport, with a plethora of different coaches, organizations, and levels, without ever learning to sprint properly??
The one thing I used to do on every play was sprint. Whether I made a tackle or an interception, or was away from the ball, I still sprinted every play. It wasn’t until I made it to the university level that I had a sprint coach for my team. So, NOW I got to learn how to run better? REALLY!? Isn’t it a little late? I can only imagine what learning some of the fundamentals at an early age could have done for my youth career. In fact, working with this sprint coach is what inspired me to focus on speed in my own coaching.Sprint training is important in field sports, yet many athletes never learn to sprint correctly. Click To Tweet
The 3 Most Important Components of Speed Training
We have quite a lot of athletes practicing their sports who may not be joining track and field any time soon. Whether you’re an independent or team strength and conditioning coach, you have to take the place of a track and field coach. In my experience, there are three things that non-track (field) athletes need to focus on most when it comes to speed training:
Output and Direction
As coaches, we know that two major factors affect speed: the force we put out and the direction we apply that force. When athletes can do both of those things really well, they will be successful. Teaching the importance of shin angle (the direction we apply force to the ground) to young athletes creates the groundwork for technical cueing through nearly every other drill. What do I mean by shin angle? The angle that an athlete’s shin produces as he makes impact with the ground dictates the direction of the reactionary force coming up from the ground. His goal in acceleration is to have a shin angle with a significant horizontal component to drive him toward his target. This is why sprinters get down in the blocks and football players get down in a three-point stance—they’re creating a shin angle that’s as horizontal as possible.
Many athletes have heard the statement: “Speed is about stride length and stride frequency.” If they don’t understand shin angles, their interpretation of this statement can lead to damage and injury. What results is a group of young athletes who overreach to try and force their stride out longer.
Figure 1 below is a perfect example. This is one of my athletes and the image comes from a session we did together. His back leg is leaving the ground and has a “positive” shin angle, but he reaches too far with his front foot and actually hits the ground with his front shin completely vertical. Thus, he creates a braking mechanism for himself and makes things difficult.
Create a rule when coaching that the angle from the ground through the shin should point in the direction that the athlete plans to go next. Unless he’s braking (negative acceleration), his foot should never strike the ground in front of his knee, whether in a start or at speed. Athletes need a simple understanding of how to best apply their force (direction) to help them sprint and change direction faster.
Once my athletes understand shin angle, I can trust them to identify some of their own issues on film. This allows them to create better habits of positioning on their own.
I think it’s safe to say that anyone who understands sprinting knows that acceleration mechanics are important for success. In field athletes, this is even more apparent. The problem is that many field athletes jog around between sprints or even stand and wait. This means that any time something happens where an athlete needs to sprint (with the exception of defensive linemen), they are in an upright position and don’t understand the fundamental techniques of acceleration. This makes “sprinting” to a ball/spot/player all the more difficult.
These athletes need to learn how to create a positive shin angle (image above) and positive body position by creating a forward lean toward their target. This photo is a much better example of positive shin angles and a body leaning toward its target. This will result in a significant amount of force down and back, which will propel the athlete forward and create acceleration. Our body is not set up to accelerate very quickly when we’re completely vertical. Teaching your athletes to use a few acceleration steps with a good forward lean will allow them to reach top speed that much faster.
As simple as it sounds, athletes need to learn how to apply a large amount of force to properly accelerate and decelerate. Certain athletes can already do this fairly well and that’s why this has fallen to third on the list. However, even at high levels, there are a large number of athletes who might be exceptional based on their skill set, but lack the aggression and force production to create large amounts of power from each foot strike.
This is what I call, “Going nowhere fast.” The athlete knows he’s supposed to move his limbs quickly but doesn’t know how to apply force to the ground. His limbs move like lightning but his body does not displace quickly (actual speed). Remember, speed is a measurement of distance over time, so no distance means no speed.
Sometimes this can be addressed through cueing and putting them in a scenario where they can focus on applying force without the need to worry about external factors (ball, players, etc.). More likely, you will need to add in various plyometrics to create more power per step (see video below). In order for any athlete to become a fast sprinter, they need to be able to create huge forces for acceleration and then maintain stiffness through maximal velocity.
Video 1: Two Bounding Drills that Demonstrate the Power Created by Correct Shin Angles
Don’t Ignore Speed Development
When it comes to sports coaches, they want to spend all their time focusing on their sport skills. However, when it comes to field sports, this means holding back the athleticism of their players. As strength and conditioning coaches, we need to insist that these players need some time devoted to pure speed development. I guarantee that, given the choice, every coach would rather their athletes play at a faster speed. We just need to help them understand how to get there.
Since you’re here…
…we have a small favor to ask. More people are reading SimpliFaster than ever, and each week we bring you compelling content from coaches, sport scientists, and physiotherapists who are devoted to building better athletes. Please take a moment to share the articles on social media, engage the authors with questions and comments below, and link to articles when appropriate if you have a blog or participate on forums of related topics. — SF