Enhancing Speed for Sport by Matt Jessee
[This is a guest blog by one of our Athletic Interns, Matthew Jessee, an Exercise Science student from Appalachian State University]
Why is speed so important? Speed is a vital aspect to virtually all sports beyond track and field. When faced with equally talented and skilled opposition it becomes the faster person who breaks away for the touchdown, or gets to the loose ball first. This is why we train athletes to become faster. There are various methods used to enhance sprint speed such as assisted sprinting, resisted sprinting, strength training, and plyometrics.
You want to make sure your athlete is running correctly because proper sprint mechanics will make them more efficient at producing forces in the proper direction. This will ensure that their energy is being utilized to its fullest potential with minimal loss.
Assisted sprints are generally aimed at forcing the athlete to move faster in order to increase frequency. The theory behind this is that the athlete will have to take faster steps to keep up, and over time the nervous system will adapt to this new pattern. Some examples of assisted sprinting would include assisted towing, high speed treadmill sprinting, and downhill sprinting. The main goal of resisted sprinting is to indirectly increase stride length through training the muscles involved in hip extension. This would allow the athlete to efficiently push off with more force during each foot contact, in turn creating a longer flight phase and stride length. Some examples of this training would include resisted sprinting, and uphill running. Some things to consider if implementing assisted or resisted training are make sure your athlete is maintaining proper mechanics, and will the skills learned transfer well to the playing surface?
Strength/ power training is the next method. This is your work done in the weight room. The goal is to train your athlete to take advantage of all the adaptations that take place in your body following resistance training, as well as become stronger. You want to make sure your program will be transferrable to the sprinting (biceps curls won’t make you faster).This is known as the principle of specificity. The muscles most important to running are those involved in hip flexion/ extension, knee flexion/ extension, and ankle flexion/ extension with the musculature of the hip being most important. So exercises which reflect these mechanics are best, such as squats or their derivatives. Although squats don’t mirror the velocity of sprinting they can still be beneficial mainly for starting/acceleration. The best way to mirror the velocity of full speed sprinting is to incorporate explosive exercises such as the Olympic lifts. The Olympic lifts are highly dependent upon the same muscles that are used for sprinting.
Lastly plyometrics should be incorporated as well. Plyometrics are beneficial because they train the body’s stretch shortening cycle or SSC. The SSC is useful because it is a reflex which helps to produce greater muscle contractions (force) than a normal voluntary contraction alone. Sprinting is highly dependent upon the SSC, therefore training it can be highly beneficial. Like resistance training plyometrics should be specific in nature. You want them to look mechanically similar to running.
When training an athlete it is best to use a variety of methods for the most improvement. On any given day, those who come in to the Athletic Lab with the goal of improving their speed and performance can be seen using these methods to be at the top of their respective sports.