By: Michael Zweifel
One of the most frequent question coaches get is, “Can I get faster?”
The short answer is a big YES! You can definitely improve your speed.
The long answer is: Everyone’s genetic profile limits the ceiling they can reach, but I have yet to find an athlete who has reached that ceiling. It’s not always easy and a ton of factors go into enhancing speed, but every athlete I’ve ever met has the potential to improve his or her linear speed.
Here are three major ways you can improve your speed:
Mechanics and technique most definitely matter, and anybody who says differently is dead wrong. As research on sprint mechanics continues to pour in, it’s becoming clearer that mechanics play a huge role in developing speed.
In fact, the orientation of force application into the ground may be more important to performance than the total amount.
Many coaches tend to think that it’s all about strength, and though strength matters (see No. 2), it’s only a part of the equation. Athletes can’t just improve their Squat or Clean and magically get faster—or at least reach their speed potential.
To sprint fast, you need to exhibit adequate technical proficiency. Improving your acceleration and top-end sprint mechanics can be as small as altering foot strike by a few inches, body posture by a few degrees or leg path by a few inches.
Small changes often make a huge difference, but they don’t come easy, just as learning the Power Clean doesn’t come easy; but they are necessary if you truly want to maximize your speed improvement.
It takes time and understanding motor learning, and being able to convey context and intent to the athlete.
For acceleration, 3-step bursts are a great way to give athletes a chance to get a number of repetitions to gain the feeling of posture, rhythm and rise during acceleration. We perform these almost every day, and we also review video to give athletes context and visual feedback on mechanical/technical errors.
For top-end speed, wickets are a great example of environmental constraint that naturally guide the athlete into feeling proper top-end speed technique. Here is Altis explaining the wicket runs.
Strength is a touchy matter, but the truth remains: Strength matters!
Depending on the level of experience, age of the participants, and length of the study, there have been mixed results. For example, it has been shown that it takes exceptionally large increases in 1RM Back Squat strength (~23-27%) to only slightly increase sprinting speed by 2-3 percent.
So during speed actions, athletes are only on the ground for ~1/3 – 1/7 of the time it actually takes to express max force production. This demonstrates the disconnect between max strength and speed, and instead demonstrates the ability and rate to apply large forces in shorter and shorter times.
Having more strength will give you a higher ceiling, but ultimately it comes down to being able to express high forces very quickly. A huge misconception is that producing large forces at slow velocities correlates to producing large forces at high velocities.
So when I hear coaches say strength is the number one factor to increase speed, it can’t be supported. This might work for young or inexperienced athletes, but tons of other factors come into play.
Up your relative strength capabilities with the Trap Bar Deadlift and Bulgarian Split Squat.
We are combining elasticity and stiffness because they are closely related and are often used interchangeably.
As we touched upon earlier, ground contact times are much shorter than the amount of time it takes to express max force. Given this, elastic abilities become ultra important to transmit “free” forces from muscle and connective tissues. Stiffness is tremendously important to resist deformation and provide a stiff structure for the elastic properties of muscles and connectives tissues to be fully expressed.
We are looking to enhance stiffness throughout the body, but especially in the lower leg—to act like a pogo stick, with as little deformation as possible and great elastic return. We tell our athletes all the time that having a strong and stiff foot/lower leg complex is like having brand new, pumped up tires. Having weak feet/lower leg complex is like trying to drive on flat tires. You are very inefficient and lose force transmission from the hips.
Two ways to develop elasticity are through 1. Low-Intensity, High-Volume or 2. High-Intensity, Low-Volume.