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What Speed Training REALLY Means


What Speed Training REALLY Means

Jon Gilmer, Academy Of Speed

Director of Speed, Power and Agility

USATF Level 1 Certified

There is no shortage of information when it comes to speed development for both the track and non-track athlete. The quest to make an athlete faster has been covered by many books, articles, speed clinics, symposiums etc. It is relatively easy to find charts filled with data and stats telling what distances to run and how fast to run them.  There are an abundance of websites that sell programs and videos. Some of these sites have forums where people profess that the true way to get faster is to follow the word of this “One Genius Coach”. According to some of those sites, and those coaches and forum dwellers that frequent them, the path to speed is on one road: their road. Other programs, videos, and information (unless the information comes from said genius) are wrong, idiotic, moronic and/or stupid. Here is a bit of truth: no one coach knows all when it comes to speed development.

Experience, The Best Judge

Now, I am guilty of spending countless hours reading articles, websites, and forums. I have exhausted much time talking to and debating with old coaches and former training partners about how to help athletes get faster. I, too, have called those who do not quite understand what speed training really entails, dim. I have also been called dense more than once. However, I have become less judgmental of those so-called ‘dim wits’ in recent years. Within these websites, forums, articles and arguments, there seem to be one aspect that they tend to have in common: during speed training sessions athletes must be allowed to run fast. Yet, disagreements tend to center around sprint quality versus quantity, what the interval distances should be, and how long to rest between sprints reps and sets.

Much of what I have learned comes from the experience of being a sprinter, observing and being coached by some great and not so great coaches, reading, and most importantly, asking questions. In fact, it is surprising how open many of the accomplished coaches are. Be aware, my goal is not to invent some new fangled program that guarantees world-class speed. I am not creative enough for that. However, I would like to try to give some simple tips and pointers on developing speed for non-track athletes. How I approach speed development is one method of numerous methods. There are many roads to Rome. Mine is simply a way and not the way. So read on and keep your mind open to some not-so-new ideas.

Working Hard to Get Slower?

Speed training simply entails running fast consistently within a speed session. It has been my observation of many different sport programs that coaches do not train their athletes to run fast. They train them to run moderate speeds for long periods of time. If a goal is to make a faster athlete, then the coach must allow the athlete to run fast during speed sessions. The longer runs done at moderate speeds can come after the true speed work within the same training session, however. Here is an example of what I have seen during basketball speed sessions: run fast up and down the length of a basketball court. Rest a minute. Run up and down the basketball court again. Rest a minute. Repeat this over and over again. To raise intensity, every athlete must make the interval in some time set by the coach. If they do not make the time, they must run another as punishment. It is inevitable in this type of situation that the quality of the sprints being done will diminish, even if the athlete is trying and hard as they can and giving 100% effort.  If they are not operating at 95%+ of their absolute maximum speed, they are not getting faster. So while this type of work the basketball team is doing is certainly challenging, it is not true speed work! In simple terms, it is running for fitness. In order for an athlete to become fast, coaches must allow for every sprint in the session to be fast. Within that parameter, the distances that the athletes sprint should be short. Probably a good deal shorter than what many coaches would prescribe in a speed session.

Sprint training should be short intense bursts rather than running when exhausted with terrible technique. ‘Sprinting’ for punishment will only make you better at being average.

Distance for speed training should be relative to the distance that an athlete can sprint without slowing down. For example, it may be useless, in regards to speed training, for a lineman to do repeat 40-50m runs. I use ‘run’ because it is doubtful that a lineman can truly sprint 40-50m intervals repeatedly.  He may be better served running repeat 15-20m sprints with about two minutes recovery between each. If a 200+ pound lineman runs farther than 15-20m, he may slow down within that longer interval. Why?  He cannot maintain speed past that 15- 20m. Yes, 20m is a short distance. But if the goal is to make him faster, then the distance of the interval should be short, or long enough, for him to sprint fast repeatedly.

No Pain, No Gain is a Lie

Another aspect to consider is speed training should not hurt. The athlete should not feel the burn of lactic acid in their muscles when doing true speed training. A tired muscle becomes a slow muscle. During speed work sessions, slow runs should be avoided. When adding speed training into a program here are a few simple guidelines that may be helpful:

1)    For every 10m of sprinting give about .5-1 minutes of rest. It is not only the cardio vascular system that needs the recovery. The nervous system must recover also. In order to facilitate fast runs, the neuromuscular system must be recovered to allow for another fast sprint. So, give ample recovery between sprints. The higher the output the athlete is capable of, the longer rest they will require because their CNS is more efficient and will require greater recovery. Conversely, an athlete with lower general fitness will also require longer rests to recover fully in a cardiovascular sense.

2)    Keep the interval distances short. I would recommend starting with sprints up to 20m and slowly increase the distance over several weeks as the athlete(s) show fitness and capability to maintain proper mechanics relative to speed. For a 100m sprinter, maximum velocity work is done at distances up to 60m. Anything over that is speed endurance (the ability to hold on to top speed for longer distances). In most sports, athletes rarely sprint over 30m or more. So it may not be necessary to train a non-track athlete like a sprinter.

3)    Do not make the athletes sprint copious amounts of intervals. Unless the athlete is a world-class sprinter with several years of proper speed training, there is little need to have the athlete run a large number of sprints. The number of sprints and the total distance of speed covered in a speed workout should be relatively low. For the non-track athlete, high quality speed work can be achieved with less than 200m total. For example, 2x5x20m. This translates to 2 sets of 5 20m sprints. Give a 1-2 min recovery between sprints. Allow a 5 min recovery between the first and second set. As the athlete(s) become better at handling speed, increase the distance of the intervals by 5-10m but keep the total meters of speed work around 200-250m. Understand it is not the quantity of work that is important. It is the quality.

4)    Keep a stopwatch on the athlete(s). Timing the sprints allows the coach to monitor how fast their athlete is running (duh). It also lets the coach determine if another interval should be done or if they should stop the speed work and move to another training element. Here is another example of what a workout may look like for a non-track athlete looking to increase overall speed:

2x4x20m-(meaning 2 sets of 4 20m sprints). Take a 1-2 min recovery between each sprint. Take a 3-5 min recovery between sets. These are timed runs.

Timing is also important in making sure that the athlete is sprinting fast during the  training session. Understand, fast is relative to the speed of the individual athlete. Judge and supervise that athletes’ speed accordingly. If the speed session prescribed is 2x5x30m, the sprints should be timed to establish a base time for the day. The goal is to have each sprint be relatively consistent. If the first few sprints are done in 3.6 seconds (this time is arbitrary and used only to make a point) then the goal for the session is to keep the sprints around the same time, give or take a tenth or so. If the athlete goes faster than 3.6 seconds, great! However, if the athlete slows to 3.9, 4.0, 4.1, then a couple of things need to be asked. Was there enough rest given between sprints? Sometimes an extra minute or two will allow for the speed session to continue. Is the athlete tired? If so, then move to a different training protocol for the day.  As I said before, tired muscles do not sprint well and injury can occur. Remember, the athlete is to run fast, not moderately fast due to fatigue.

Speed training does not have to be difficult. In fact, it is quite simple: run fast during a speed session. If coaches allow their athletes to do this, they may be surprised at how much speed can be gained. I understand that true speed work is not the ridiculously strenuous work that both athletes and coaches may be used to. Some may not feel as if real work is being accomplished because speed training is not painful. For those gluttons for punishment, I suggest doing short interval speed work sessions at the beginning of the workouts. After sprinting, then go and run all those moderate runs up and down the field. Go ahead and make the butt burn, understand though that type of work won’t increase your speed, except in the lowest qualified athletes. However, the fast sprints done before the moderate runs will most likely be of great benefit in the long and short run. Good luck!

Jon Gilmer

Director of Speed, Power and Agility

USATF Level 1 Certified

Academy Of Speed

10339 Dorset Street

Rancho Cucamonga, Ca 91730


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2 Responses to “What Speed Training REALLY Means”

September 19, 2011 at 8:32 pm, Sam said:

Awesome article.
Now if only you could convince these “Experts” to implement this into there training of athletes.


May 27, 2016 at 5:53 am, Stephen Caserta said:

How much of speed work, if at all, translates into the moderate distance/moderate pace runs?


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