You know that speed kills. And as strength and conditioning professionals, we're always racking our brains trying to get our athletes faster. Here's a four step teaching progression that works wonders for new athletes.
Speed -- It separates good from great, and it truly is an equalizer or game changer.
For strength coaches, and coaches in general, speed is what helps us compete. It gives us a leg up on our competition at any level. Anyone who can harness the sheer power and beauty of speed will be sought after to train athletes or they will incorporate those ideas into their own programs.
So it is very true . . . Speed is the end-all be-all.
The First Rule of Speed: Perfect Technique
While I was in college I had a professor that liked to argue that you are born as fast as you will ever be. “You cannot make anyone, much less an athlete, faster than he/she already is,” he would say almost every class.
I will give him that genetics does have a role to play in speed because some people are genetically gifted to be able to run fast on their own. What I will not give him is the fact that if I can get my athletes squatting 2.5 times their body weight, they can and do get faster.
Speed is about hard work in the weight room, learning mechanical advantages for getting faster like:
- A proper stance
- Taking off low and hard during the drive phase of the sprint
- Arm drive
- Leg drive
- Fingers spread and jaw loose
- Not bobbing the head and not swinging the arms side to side
- (Most importantly) getting the knee and toe up so you can drive the legs hard into the ground, creating as much force into the ground as possible... after all, for every action (force) there is an equal and opposite reaction (force)
The Second Rule: Use The Warm Up To Teach!
Where does speed start or, for lack of a better term, come from?
Speed starts in the dynamic warm-up for my athletes.
What we are teaching our athletes during this time is knee and arm drive, and you will hear me constantly giving cues to keep the knee and toe up and get the arms from pit to pocket.
Pit to Pocket means you get the elbows even with the arm pits and on the drive phase get the elbow back to where it looks like your hand is going into your pocket... and do all of this while staying relaxed.
Every move is intended to simulate the mechanics of sprinting. Here's how we do this:
Image 1: Integrating skill and development exercises into your dynamic warm up allows for additional exposure to proper sprinting technique.
Progression 1: Wall Runs
Depending on the day we are on, we will do a series of “Wall Runs” once we have completed our dynamic warm-up. This is where we will have our athletes lean on a wall at a 45-degree angle with one leg in the start position with the knee up and toe up.
On the whistle, the athlete will drive the up leg down and the down leg up to simulate running for a series of 3 to 4 reps on each leg.
This is to be performed as fast and efficiently as they can do. Again, this will performed for a series of 3 to 4 reps per leg for 3 to 4 sets.
Progression 2: Arm Pump Drill
In this drill, we are trying to get our athletes to pump their arms as fast as they can. We have them take a knee, keeping the chest up with good posture, and we will go through a series of arm drives slowly building to a top end and attempting to maintain it for a series of 7 to 10 seconds. This is done while keeping the fingers spread and the jaw loose, staying relaxed.
The purpose of this drill is to try to change old habits when it comes to running. We are trying to instill in our athletes how to carry proper form and technique all while staying relaxed. We are constantly cuing spread fingers and loose jaws, as well as relaxed shoulders.
You simply cannot be as fast as you could be if you are running all tensed up.
Progression 3: Chasing the Rabbit
This is a drill I really like. I feel it teaches our athletes how to get up off the ground and chase another athlete down. This happens in sports quite a bit, especially in football.
The way we set the drill up is simple, and by the time we get to the drill, our athletes are warmed up and ready to run. We do not allow our athletes to pick their partner anymore; we pick the partner for them. This cuts down on brother-in-law competition where your buddy makes it easy on you, and you on him.
Once we have the partners picked, we will have them lay on their stomachs, and on the whistle, they must do a push up start and try not to get caught inside a 30- to 40-yard area. Another way we challenge them is to have the athletes start on their backs, flip over on the whistle to a push up, then move to a full sprint trying to catch their partner.
You can do this with close starts or give the rabbit a 5-yard head start, anything that will make them compete and run fast to catch the “Rabbit.”
Progression 4: Stance and Starts
Any display of speed starts with the stance and start.
- In track you have the starting blocks
- In football you have a 3-point stance
- In swimming you have starting platform
- And the list goes on...
The one thing they all have in common is that they all start with the application of force to propel the athlete forward to go as fast as they can for the prescribed distance.
Teaching the stance and starts is sometimes a hard thing to do just because it is hard to get some athletes into the positions you need them to be in. It is an uncomfortable position, but once you get used to being there, it really is very beneficial to the athlete.
We start our athletes out in finding what foot placement and proper stagger works best for them. It is all about them at that time because we want them to put up the fastest time they can. We get the feet in the right position, we then move to the back, and then move to the arm and hand placement while keeping the head tucked.
Once they are ready to run the prescribed distance, we have them perform the test. At this point you hope all that you have taught them comes into play. We teach our athletes to blow the 10- and 20-yard portions of this test out of the water. Then inform them to run as fast as they can and maintain the rest until you complete the test.
The start (drive phase) is where your time is made better, average, or worse. Coming out of the initial drive phase will result in a slower time. Unnecessary arm movements and swinging the arms side to side will result in a slower time and will also turn a 40- into a 45-yard dash because the body will follow the arms, and you will be running side to side instead of a straight line.
It is also important to keep the head still, fingers lose, and jaw relaxed. Anything, as small as it may seem, can slow you down.
Learning More About Speed
ETSU Coach and USA Track and Field guru Brad DeWeese is a master when it comes to teaching speed to our Olympians that compete in track and the bobsled and is most known for being Lolo Jones’ bobsled and sprint coach.
He is currently teaching and coaching at East Tennessee State University, and he, along with Mike and Meg Stone, run the Olympic Training Center located on the campus of ETSU.
We all know it comes down to stride length times stride frequency (SL x SF = Speed). Speed as the ability to accelerate, magnitude of maximum velocity, and the ability to maintain velocity against fatigue, as Coach DeWeese states, encompasses three external forces that determine acceleration: gravity, wind, and ground reaction force (GFC).
The GFC is something that can be controlled by the athlete through biomechanics, which in turn can be influenced by proper strength development and physiological changes.
Make Your Athletes Faster
When everything is said and done, speed is what we as strength coaches and sport coaches are after. It is a difference maker when it comes to competition. Through a comprehensive strength and conditioning program along with proper coaching cues and the athlete’s desire, you can and will make your athletes fast.
The reason you become faster is that you become stronger. When you become stronger, you can apply more force into the ground and the added strength allows you to drive the arms faster as well. I always focus on this principle: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.
The harder I hit the ground, the harder it hits me back, thus propelling me down the field, track, or court faster than my competition.