Athlete speed is a priceless commodity, yet after a century of science and old-fashioned trial and error, improving a human body’s ability to run fast is not a clear road. The most common approach to improving speed is also the most contested theory in coaching: how fast one needs to sprint in training to get faster in competition.
I have followed traditional speed development models, such as the USATF coaching school and NSCA guidelines. I consider these starting points, not prescriptions. I’ve also applied various schools of thought from more experienced coaches, which worked marvelously or backfired in my face. I only started to make progress consistently when I started to question everything. The concept of velocity bands was the result.
Any coach can use velocity bands for their program. The process creates a construct of what will work in your situation. Velocity bands do not refer to a method of training; they’re a process of revealing and creating one’s own method.
What is a Velocity Band in Speed Training?
Defining a velocity band is easy: it’s an expected time range for an athlete to hit during workouts. The difficulty is making the bands so precise they are perfect for a specific training session, and this means the range must be especially narrow.
It’s easy to prescribe a wide range of times, but much harder to nail down a small range that elicits specific improvements or even maintenance. Prescribing times that are potent to development becomes more challenging during the session, the season, and career as the athlete advances.
Here are examples of using velocity bands in speed training:
1. Recovery Workouts: Apply velocity bands to a recovery run used for conditioning. Or an activity that works on athlete form that also facilitates recovery (not straining but still training). Typical ranges are about 60-80% of personal best times, depending on the athlete’s needs and the goals for the days after the session.
Twenty percent is a very wide range, meaning the possible times or speeds prescribed to an athlete are extremely variable. A jog and a fast run are very different training modes even though they’re technically both tempo running. Using a 20% prescription is too loose for my taste. Velocity bands tighten up the prescription by adding more precision to the needs and demands of training while providing flexibility.
2. Speed Endurance: Use 150s. An NCAA athlete who’s been recently running a 10.4 with no wind but has a 10.31 PR needs a velocity band fast and narrow enough to challenge him and not too wide that it allows junk volume and bad foot contacts.
Some athletes are not great trainers. While one 10.3 athlete may run faster practices, a universal prescription may not be appropriate; it may need to be a tad slower for some.
For track athletes who are coming from basketball and are new to the sport, a range from 15.8 to 16.2 may not seem impressive. But they have less anaerobic abilities—no longer than 4 to 5 seconds.
3. Specific Physical Preparation Phase (SPP) of Training: During SPP, an athlete usually experiences fatigue and stiffness when transitioning to higher velocities. Use a maximal fly sprint of 20 to 30m with a long acceleration.
For a really good high school sprinter, the band would be anything faster than 1.0 per 10m, meaning the goal of the workout is to get to 10 m/s and stay at that speed. The next year, this athlete may hit o.97 or similar, thus running at 10.3 m/s, a very small change time-wise but a great improvement overall. While the band might be indefinite because it’s “open,” the likelihood of the expected times are narrow—this is about what’s probable.
Coaches who often time their athletes may already do narrow bands. If practices are not timed, however, intermediate and elite athletes may stagnate sometime during their careers (no program is perfect). Velocity bands are not solutions; they just provide a better means to prescribe training with a tighter leash.
Why Your Program Works, Why it Sometimes Fails
Like nearly all coaches, I’ve had some great talents who set records at big meets, and a few athletes who struggled to adapt to any type of training. Some college athletes responded well and set personal records. And some never found a way to improve in meets even though they performed great in training.
Speed is still mysterious. Even the best coaches in the world have seen athletes fail in the biggest meets or competitions. I’ve experienced shock when an athlete had an amazing performance even though their training was miserable.
We can forensically try to explain what went wrong or map out what went right. But the reality is modern sprint theory still lacks a universal language. On paper, workouts should be easy to share and analyze, but that’s not the reality.
Without actual velocities, athlete effort, and some physiological monitoring, we’re playing a guessing game using scientific hunches. To fix this problem, start with the most important part of coaching: sharing experiences with others, including coaches and future athletes. Without records and history, we restart the coaching process instead of building on the shoulders of giants.
The first and perhaps most important step is to understand speed workouts in terms of time, distance, and intensity. Although this seems straightforward, it’s one of the biggest challenges. Coaches don’t know what they don’t know or what they think they know.Velocity bands combine effort, actual speed, and comparative point of development. Click To Tweet
Speed is a combination of the athlete’s intent, their state of adaptation, and their output results on the track, not splits or instantaneous velocities. Velocity bands combine effort, actual speed, and a comparative point of development. I’ve separated these concepts into three distinct points to make velocity bands easier to digest.
- Body Speed: An objective measurement of how fast an athlete is moving in time and space.
- Athlete Effort: The amount of intent and energy an athlete produces in the repetition.
- Adaptation Point: The current point in speed development of an athlete’s career, season, and training cycle.
These are at the heart of understanding how athletes respond to their sprinting programs.
Of course, many other factors are in play: jumping, lifting, mobility, energy system work, rehabilitation, mental development, and technique. It’s not that these other factors are not important; they are essential. But it’s harder to simplify how a seasonal plyometrics program connects directly to running from point A to point B. Relaxation and rhythm are also concepts that are very difficult to measure objectively.
These areas of sprinting are the future metrics of choice, but for now, it’s important to have a framework for what is primary and available.
What You Need to Design Velocity Bands
Again, velocity bands are not a training system; they are a way to create and refine a system regardless of your philosophy. Many roads lead to Rome. Some get there consistently, some faster, and some only if everything works correctly.
Velocity bands are about getting to Rome on time, with fewer injuries, and with as many athletes as possible. The soul of velocity bands is improving the accuracy and precision of your program or your athlete’s speed program.
I’m not trying to convince you that one system is better than another. Every program has pros and cons. I tend to try to slow cook, but when pressed, I do play the riverboat gambler when little time or talent is available.
Below are three issues you must consider, or velocity bands are not for you.
1. Timing Speed: If you are not timing, you are estimating—period. Some coaches are amazing and can see speed like a human computer and perhaps are so gifted they don’t need this article. These coaches, however, can be counted on one hand for the entire planet. You don’t have to time every rep, but not testing a program assumes every athlete is improving every season. I have yet to see this happen except for youth programs where kids become faster just from aging.
2. Analyzing Speed: When you’re timing, analyzing speeds makes sense. No promise or guarantee exists when you time your athletes, but you’ll have a better chance of getting help from other coaches or solving problems yourself. Whatever program you have, consider these questions: Do the times change or improve based on your expectations? Are the velocities achieved in training matching up to the season plan for everyone?
3. Recovering from Speed: Athletes need time to recover. Regeneration from all parts of training and life stress requires repeated timing and a system in place to monitor fatigue and power changes. Monitoring helps expose why speeds are trending up or down due to fatigue rather than adaptation. The “Preparedness and Readiness” model proposed by Val Nasedkin from Omegawave is a great place to start to see how the body adapts to the specific neurological and biochemical strain of speed.
I did not include athlete effort. For me, this is always the most challenging objective measurement. I will mention, with some hesitation, a very unscientific concept called athlete trust, where a coach and the athlete have mutual respect for the training process which becomes their binding element. When a coach’s request for honesty does not match the athlete’s execution, problems with training evaluation occur. An example is when an athlete goes all-out and claims they were going smooth. At this point, we may only get subjective feedback. I offer some creative ways to evaluate sessions later in this article.
Defining and Creating Velocity Bands for Your Program
If you sat down and considered the three key issues mentioned above, congratulations. You’re now ready to create your own velocity bands. What do velocity bands look like and how can they work for everyone?
The answer is simple; velocity bands are the range of speeds needed to either achieve a positive adaptation or maintain a previous adaptation.Velocity bands are the range of speeds needed for improvement or maintenance. Click To Tweet
While most coaches are tough on themselves, they don’t like ripping their programs apart. Velocity bands require coaches to be ruthless to their programs to the point of possible emotional discomfort.
Of course, velocity bands are only running speeds, not weights, throws, or jumps. Lifts and other components feed into speed development, but starting with velocity bands provides an excellent check and balance system for nearly any program.
Some running-based programs—meaning higher volume, long to short plans—tend to use slower speeds and allow races and intensification to help an athlete improve over time. Other purist programs are short to long and use speed and careful loading to get athletes faster.
Composite programs tend to use both approaches concurrently in a holistic and structured way and are often very effective but prone to inconsistency. It doesn’t matter which program you administer, what matters is that it’s done in a tactical way to encourage growth and consistency. Adding immediate feedback with speed management in a training session is the golden approach.
Guidelines to Popular Workouts with Velocity Bands
Any running workout can use velocity bands, provided the math is done in advance, and the coach has the ability to make appropriate adjustments on the fly. I’m all for autoregulation and have written articles on it. For a plan to be good, however, we must be able to follow it without too many unexpected detours.
Here are a few examples of velocity bands based on common workout staples you’re likely already using.
1. Block Starts: Short sprints from any position are less fatiguing and will replicate competition times much easier than maximal speed workouts. Athletes can do block work earlier in the season. Short work, too, because it’s safer and less risky in the fall. Athletes also can rest less.
While not perfect, doing block starts in groups raises the adrenaline for more arousal and faster outputs. Block starts are hard to evaluate because an athlete can go all-out and muscle the run with great times, but the transfer to longer races or games is not perfect.
2. Accelerations: Longer 20 to 60m sprints will begin to expose athletes to near maximal speeds, or at least close to near maximal. Unless the workout is a pure one-repetition time trial, athletes will pace the workouts and not give 100% effort, even when told to do so. A 3 x 4 x 50m is not a joke when athletes are expected to leave all their energy on the track. But the times will not be 98% of competition times, just percentages of the time trials.
We can also evaluate athletes’ splits since many longer reps can be done to examine late acceleration changes. The first 10 to 20m might be slower than preceding tests, but the coach can tell the athlete to focus their effort on the last 10 to 20m.
Earlier articles have discussed acceleration work with resisted options in great detail with the review of the 1080 Sprint as well as the work of George Petrakos. When using velocity bands, compare velocities with the same resistance load and specific set-up since the athlete can drastically change times with the same distance and load.
3. Flying Sprints: Compared to acceleration, the ability to replicate maximal velocity is much more difficult according to unpublished research from Germany. I believe peak velocity is harder to create because, without first accelerating, it’s impossible to reach high speeds.Peak velocity is hard to create; it’s impossible to reach high speeds without first accelerating. Click To Tweet
Also, most programs work on acceleration or conditioning first, so the sequence of training takes priority. Regardless, most maximal velocity development exposes an athlete to better training velocities and improves the athlete, even if they’re 8% slower than game or meet times. Athletes will adapt to programs and progress after a few seasons. Over time, the natural maximal speed gap will close due to their progressions.
Although 3 to 5 flying 20s with 8 to 10 minutes rest is very taxing, the goal is to hit incrementally faster velocities by pushing slightly more each year. Even an athlete hitting the same speed as earlier in the season with a similar time is an improvement. I’ve seen some athletes hit amazing times in practice after learning to relax, while others struggled to hit solid performances because they needed longer runs (i.e., submaximal runs) to find their groove.
4. Speed Endurance Runs: Reps for a 100m athlete versus a 400m athlete are going to vary in length, volume, and speed. Based on the season and program, speed endurance runs can be very fast close to competition because they are specific. Many classic long to short programs are much slower because they’re used in the fall. A program can have an athlete run 30 seconds per 200m rep all the way to 21.5 seconds, depending on the desired goal.
Pacing is the only unique aspect of the workout. Many athletes want to see how they finish, many programs make efforts to keep speeds steady for rhythm, and some come home fast, so they’ll be mentally prepared to handle end of races.
During speed endurance workouts, because fatigue manifests during the repetition rather than during the set, velocity bands can be more split-specific than any other workout. I’m a fan of 150s. They’re short enough to expose athletes to great mean velocities for adaptations while being safe enough to prevent deep neurological fatigue that seems to occur with fly sprints.
I believe the 150m is a great maximum velocity developer because the gross exposure to a mix of fast running and byproducts forces the brain to make relaxation decisions. Although the velocity is probably a lot less than short fly workouts, 150s are not as exhausting to the nervous system.
Factors to Consider with Velocity Bands
You’ll need to account for an athlete’s other areas of training when developing speed and use this information to raise or lower their velocity band speed. Also, as the athlete improves, the band might have the same intensity but the times may rise to continue improvement—unless the athlete is using competition to race themselves into speed. No matter how talented an athlete is, the stimulus for adaptation needs to be fast running; deciding not to include games or meets means failing to see the big picture.
Most Common Factors to Keep in Mind
- Athletes who do more off-track work will probably need a slower and narrower velocity band because less margin for error exists.
- Some athletes who split their resources with jump training may have the same velocity bands, but the speed workout volumes are much smaller.
- The calendar will show how some athletes improve; using the LSU testing protocol is an excellent way to see how training times improve. Testing early, even with longer runs, directly follows training changes over time.
- Long to short programs are very slow with high volume to fast with lower volume models. Be careful that overuse syndromes don’t manifest later in the season from too much running. Also, overly specific weight room exercises that replicate running exacerbate pattern overload syndromes. Remember to contrast imbalances rather than pile onto the problem.
- Conversely, short to long programs are fast to faster with distance. These programs are very volatile but have a logical progression. Retesting and timing are more important with models that build both speed and distance throughout the season.
- It tends to be easier to create velocity bands in running programs because sprinters are more experienced. Simple programs that are conservative in the fall with grass strides and patient progressions need speed work in the late winter, if no indoor races occur.
- The talent that grows from racing as competition is the ultimate workout stimulus, but failure to prepare properly paints the athlete into a corner. Also, several unique tendon adaptations come from heavy weight training. This is why some athletes succeed for short time periods while others have longevity.
- Less talented athletes should understand that their programs need to vary more than the programs for gifted athletes, for two reasons. First, most athletes succumb to overtraining by trying to outwork their more talented peers, and it backfires. Second, less talented athletes need the same types of work but may need a program that fosters more change than their elite peers, who better use competition.
Coaches can get lost in the details about why athletes will fatigue, improve, and respond differently to different prescriptions. Instead of worrying about overlooking the missing link to better workouts, settle for small errors and avoid big mistakes.
Time, Evaluate, and Prescribe Your Workouts Better
It’s no mystery that timing is the first step to using velocity bands, and I recommend finding a way to test at least periodically. Using velocity bands isn’t a strict decision to stop or continue a workout; it’s a way to make plans more accountable and leave a trail of clues as to what may work again later.
Early in my career, I timed occasionally, thinking I had other fish to fry. I regret this now because there were many mistakes I couldn’t identify and some successes I couldn’t repeat. No matter what type of program you use, try making it tighter in the future by using velocity bands.
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