Train Fast, Be Fast: Tips For Building Faster Athletes

If you are spending all your time training straight line speed, you aren’t trying to get fast...

...unless of course, you are a track athlete. Then, by all means, continue.

But, if you are in every other sport where running speed is a major component of your competition, you need to reconsider your approach.

Straight line speed is the single most overrated tool in almost any athlete’s arsenal.

Unfortunately, we all seem to be completely mesmerized by 40 times and other generic means of measuring speed.

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Now, before you get your panties in a wad, I probably need to qualify what I’m saying.

Top end sprint speed (what most of us think of as speed) is nearly impossible to tap into during most sporting events. Top end, where the sprinter/athlete has resolved all other phases of sprinting (particularly the acceleration phase which is the bulk of even a 100 m event during a track meet) is like a unicorn in most sporting events.

I would venture to guess that a kick-off return might be the only time when that top end is seen, and that is only when the runner has found open field, and only if he’s had an unobstructed dash to the end zone early in the run. Maybe a go route when the db is beaten off the line, and the pass is thrown perfectly which covers more than 70ish yards.

Then… that is when spending large amounts of time working straight line speed pays off.

But the big question is, how often do we see these things? Does it make sense to focus large amounts of time on working one quality that happens less than 3% of the time during a game?

My hope is that this article hits the desk of high school coaches all over the country. The reason for that hope is most all of our sports are stale with old ideas and traditions that aren’t serving our kids anymore.

We have come light years in the past 25 years when it comes to understanding the science of training, the intricacies of movement, and the truth about getting fast. Over are the days when you simply get to regurgitate “what you did when you played” when it comes to prepping your athletes.

Especially with football, it’s time to stop running gassers or timing 40s every week... it's time to get to work on things that are going to get your guys legitimately ready to play.

Speed Kills

When you think of so-and-so who is lightning fast, what are you thinking about?

  • That guy who is able to explode off of the line and get by the defender?
  • Are you thinking of that person who can redirect on a dime and find an opening?
  • Are you talking about that guard who can reach an opponent in an outside shade?
  • Or, gasp, are you talking about that athlete I spoke of above, who is breaking into the open field, running straight, pulling away from a defender?

Good news for all of you is I’m talking about all of those instances and more.

Legitimate speed is not confined to a singular quality. Speed is quantified in multiple arenas, not just the straight line.

The most devastatingly “fast” athletes I have ever coached ran "good" 40 times… not "great" 40 times. And the fastest guys I have ever coached were, in a normal play, never able to get out and run to the open field where they could put their true speed on display.

Change of Direction

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If we are talking about speed, particularly in football, the only place you need to invest your time is here: change of direction.

I have worked in this business for almost 20 years, and played for 13 seasons. I have spent 75% of my life as either an athlete or coach. I feel like I have seen it all. And no matter where I spend any of my efforts, we always end up back here.

To be honest, I’m a snob when it comes to this aspect of speed development, but if you were to talk to any coach who has played against my teams, they all will tell you one thing: those Cal Poly teams are fast.

Change of direction speed is an all-encompassing discipline that covers primarily acceleration and deceleration. But the most compelling idea is that it governs speed (acceleration and deceleration) front to back, left to right.

Again, I ask you coaches, when you watch a great runner run, how many times does he alter his line to gain open field? Watch the greatest runner we have probably ever known run, Barry Sanders, and take note of all of the small redirects (and some of the big ones he became a legend for) to find a seam so he could get to the end zone.

  • Speed is about being able to alter your line, suddenly, without major drop offs of pace.
  • Understanding leverage, center of gravity, foot spacing, contact points with the ground, when to run in the forefoot, and when to let the heel hit the ground… all of these are things that make a good runner great.

If your athlete does not have the control of his body to make a move or two (and no, I’m not talking jukes or any of the backyard BS that some of you are thinking) and then accelerate by his opponent, he’s not truly fast.

There is always going to be someone in his way, or some sort of defender he will have to negotiate.

Sports Specificity

Football is an anaerobic, change of direction sport… period. It is a high intensity endeavor that is filled with countless redirects that eventually decides the winner.

If you are spending your valuable time working on anything that doesn’t fall within those two variables (anaerobic/change of direction) you are not prepping your athletes appropriately.

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Can you recreate game conditions during some of the cone drills that you would use during a training session? Probably not. But I can guarantee you: 100s aren’t even in the same neighborhood as a football game.

You need to make sure all of your training drills mimic, metabolically, some of the conditions that your athletes are going to face during the course of the game. Therefore, your drills should have several ultra-high intensity redirects followed by moderate spells of rest.

Think of a play and a huddle:

  • They go out
  • They put their hands down
  • Then they go like their hair is on fire for about 6 seconds
  • They then gather to huddle
  • They stand with their hands on their hips for another 25ish seconds
  • And then they repeat

Your conditioning drills need to follow this pattern. Their bodies need to adapt to very specific stimulus. So make sure you are providing it.  

Gassers and some of the favorite “usual” conditioning drills are getting them prepared to run about 65% of top end and teaching them how to pace. Two things that would get anyone benched in a game. So stop doing it.

What we all need to understand is we are trying to build an athlete who can give a tremendous effort (getting the heart rate high) and then recover or slow their heart rate enough to give the exact same effort - all within a huddle’s worth of time.

For those of you who are married to the idea of setting some kind of aerobic capacity, I’ll tell you what I tell my athletes and coaches: my athletes get their aerobic work when they are waiting for their next turn in line.

Strengthen The Ankles, Knees, and Hips

How many of you stay up at night worrying about injuries? There is nothing that can derail a team like a couple of catastrophic injuries.

We spend the entire off-season training our faces off, and we coaches spend countless hours developing skill sets into individuals. And in one false step, that quarterback, linebacker, or wide out who you have been pouring your heart and soul into for months is on a surgeon’s table.

I know, the idea makes me sick to my stomach too.

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When you invest large amounts of time on multidirectional speed drills, something beautiful happens. Like training a heavy back squat to develop powerful legs and hips, high intensity change of direction work strengthens the tendons, ligaments, and connective tissue that we all think about when we talk about season-ending injuries.

ACLs, high ankles, and foot issues of all kinds can be dramatically reduced when the athletes spend the off-season working in a controlled, safe, appropriate change of direction speed environment.

From 2001-2005, my Mustangs suffered zero ACL tears. And, folks, this is all of them, not just football. 21 sports, male and female. I will never forget when the streak ended… Since then, I have been able to navigate stretches of next to no knee injuries. If you were to take out brand new freshmen during training camp having a season ender, I’d have several other long duration times of no ACLs.

This is entirely due to the fact that their hips and legs are strong along with the strengthening of all that precious connective tissue from the continual exposure to multiplane forces.

A football game (or soccer, softball, basketball, etc.) becomes less of a danger on the body because the body is conditioned for what is going to be presented. If performing hours and hours of curls are going to make my biceps bigger and stronger, that same time invested in creating safe forces for all those structures will pay off the same dividends.

Putting It All Together

I know this is the cheap way out, but I could never get all the information needed to successfully recreate what I’ve created at Cal Poly in one quick article. I could coach a 7-day workshop on this one topic and not repeat myself once.

But here are some big tips on ways to get your own change of direction drills paying off:

  • Avoid slower paced running, aerobic work, or low intensity training at all costs
  • Start your running cycles (3-4 month stretches) with several training sessions on how to accelerate forward (perhaps two weeks’ worth)
  • As you begin to build in turning, coach like you would any skill: full of detail, purpose and expectations
  • Keep the turns “easy” in the beginning (basic, like the NFL pro-shuttle) and work to more complicated sequences
  • Stay on top of intensity - anything short of 100% effort in any drill you conceive is not going to be acceptable
  • The forefoot is for accelerating, and the heel is for stopping - don’t allow your athletes to flip this
  • Run with your head and eyes - your eyes and face should snap to your destination
  • A slow head and eyes = a slow athlete
  • Remember that your legs and arms cannot get out of rhythm with one another, so if you want fast feet, have fast hands
  • Keep the rest in line with what they will see on Friday or Saturday nights

ARE YOU A BETTER COACH AFTER READING THIS?
If so, we have a small favor to ask: more coaches and athletes than ever are reading the TrainHeroic blog, and it's our mission to support them with useful training & coaching content like this. If you found this article useful, please take a moment to share it on social media, engage with the author in the comments below, and link to this article on your blog or any forums you post in. Be your best! - TH Editorial Team

About The Author

Chris Holder comes to the TrainHeroic Blog with over thirty years as an athlete and coach. Chris is the Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in California. A football player first and then spending his entire professional coaching career at the college level, Holder has been in love with everything weight lifting since he was a little boy.

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