Written by Joel Smith
With the click of a mouse, athletes have an arsenal of speed training videos drills and techniques to improve their athleticism at their fingertips. As great as this is for the modern athlete, it is also loaded with potential tripwires that can plateau an athlete’s speed development as fast as they can build it.
In all my years of coaching and training, I’ve seen a number of mistakes that athletes make when they get tunnel vision and think a specific drill or exercise will make them faster on the field and catch them up to their peers. Becoming the fastest athlete that one can be is a holistic venture, which revolves around a speed training program that emphasizes the right mechanics, the special strength work to bolster those mechanics, and the strength work that improves the size and coordination of the specific muscle involved. Choosing the correct training regimen is important, but how you perform that training regimen is also a critical issue in getting faster.
Over time, I’ve found seven glaring mistakes that aspiring athletes tend to make when pursuing the task of increasing their speed.
Not doing enough actual sprint or specific speed practice
Athletes often forget that to get faster, the most important thing that you can do is to practice the sprinting you’ll be performing in competition. Slow athletes will become the kings and queens of drill work, but when it comes time to drop the hammer in an actual footrace, they are left behind.
Drills don’t make you fast; specific speed work does. Sprint drills as we know them were largely invented to help with the special strength conditioning of the muscles of athletes who trained in cold weather regions and didn’t have good indoor facilities. To get fast, you must practice the specific type of speed you wish to improve with strong focus and intention.
If you are a basketball or football player, this means that there is a priority on things like 20m dash time, or specific, timed change of direction work. You get faster at running 20s by actually sprinting 20s all out with good recovery in between each sprint. If you are a track and field athlete, you get faster primarily by practicing maximal efforts at your specific race distance. I’ve seen plenty of athletes who can rock sprint drills with great rhythm and coordination, and then get blown away when it comes to actually sprinting. Looking cool because you can do the fancy C-skip doesn’t look as cool anymore when you are the last one to cross the finish line in the actual race.
Not sprinting fast enough when you practice
Many athletes forget that speed training is not a casual venture. Simply performing a sprint, plyometric, or drill will not in and of itself make one faster. Sprinting fast makes one faster. By timing a sprint, three great things happen:
- The athlete gets immediate feedback as to the quality of their attempt, which helps them to both consciously and subconsciously formulate a method of improving their performance.
- Having an outcome goal preset will improve the level of performance. External goals give the subconscious mind a clearer view of what is trying to be accomplished.
- Giving immediate feedback on a specific sprint attempt is a very important method of teaching athletes to deal with the results of their performance, whether good or bad. Some athletes struggle with fear of their results, which leads them down the drill route, but they must learn to always come back to the most important thing, which is solid, timed, specific efforts.
Some coaches will even tell you that unless you are timing your sprints, then you aren’t really training speed. Put a stopwatch or timing system on your next speed training session, and you will feel the difference in both the mental approach and your body’s response. Compare this to strength training: Speed training with no timed goal would be similar to lifting weights without ever noting how much weight was on the bar.
Not competing enough during speed practice
Along with timing speed training efforts, athletes need to compete in the pursuit of maximal velocity. Many athletes who are less fleet of foot than their peers will generate a fear of competition, and gravitate toward drills and exercises that they can perform on their own to make themselves faster. This mentality will cripple the speed development of any athlete. Not only does competition offer an athlete an adrenaline boost, increasing their speed output, but it also helps athletes to overcome fear of outcomes, which improves not only speed, but is a valuable mental athletic skill.
Compete with others to build your sprint engine or you’ll get left behind.
Doing too much extra work on top of sport practice
An athlete’s ability to recover from training is finite. We cannot train 10 hours a day and expect to recover, and this is a pretty obvious statement. What about five hours a day? Two?
Speed training – real maximal speed training – is a taxing venture. Elite track coaches will generally recommend at least 48 hours of recovery after a maximal speed training session, sometimes more. If you are competing in a sport and playing several times each week, then sport play itself is already providing you a potent speed stimulus. Doing lots of extra plyometrics and drills on top of lots of sports play is often counterproductive.
So how do you know if you are in a good state to train speed? By timing your efforts and not performing low-quality work.
If an athlete had five sport practices in a week and wanted to get extra speed work in on the weekend, but then noticed his performance was much worse than in the past, is the extra work helping him? The short answer is no.
The long answer is that athletes need to be aware of the volume present in replicating the same repetitive movements they see in sport in their practices, or they will overload those pathways, and performance will subsequently decrease. We’ll tackle what to do about building speed in the midst of heavy sport practice in the next point.
Not doing strength training
Many beginner and intermediate athletes are not slow because they don’t sprint enough. They are slow because they are unable to produce large amounts of force! Since young athletes are constantly running, jumping, and playing, there is a good chance that they don’t have too many issues with expressing the force their muscles are able to produce. What is more pressing for these athletes may simply be the ability of their muscles to produce large amounts of force in a coordinated manner. A well-designed barbell program helps athletes to coordinate the firing of their large muscle groups together more efficiently, as well as allowing each muscle to learn more efficient and effective force patterns. Over time, it helps the athlete add muscle mass to the prime movers of speed, but this must be done in a carefully planned pattern to help eliminate the compensation patterns that are so often present in advanced athletes who began heavy barbell training too early and in excess volume.
Strength programs often have immediate, significant effects on the speed of developing athletes due to the “nitrous boost” of muscular coordination they offer on multiple levels. This is why the effect is often much more dramatic on a younger athlete compared to a developed athlete who already has good levels of coordination and skill in his or her body.
Doing too much strength training
Although strength training can create a breakthrough for many athletes in speed development, doing too much of it forms an early plateau for those on the road to maximal velocity. The reason why is that excessive volumes of strength training do a few things that are detrimental to speed:
- Take adaptation reserves away from building speed and shift them to strength and stability in common strength training positions (such as the bottom of a squat, or the start of a deadlift). This is a more common problem for athletes who specialize in speed (such as track athletes) than it is for team sport athletes, who need to be more well-rounded and have joint stability in a variety of positions that they might see in the course of their competition.
- Prolonged strength training done in large volumes will gradually build muscles that are responsible for compensation patterns in sprinting. For example, the spinal erectors and hamstrings are synergists to the glute in sprinting. They help with the movement of hip extension in a sprint, but shouldn’t be the main contributors. Doing lots of squats, cleans, and deadlifts will gradually start to shift muscular development toward that of the spinal erectors and hamstrings over the glutes. Give a CrossFit athlete a glute driven hip extension test, and you’ll usually find that their hamstrings and spinal erectors pop up to drive the movement well before the glute. These high-volume lifting situations lend athletes toward relying on their glutes less (glutes as a driver of hip extension are key to speed) and on accessory muscles (spinal erectors pairing with hamstrings) more.
- Excessive bilateral strength work can shift athletes into a level of anterior pelvic tilt that can hurt things like top-end velocity and sprint posture.
Most athletes are certainly not in danger of too much strength work in their speed development, but the gym rat who thinks that achieving a particular squat weight will be the key to running faster is heading down the wrong path. Always put speed work above strength to become the fastest you can ultimately be. This isn’t to say that pockets of heavy strength training aren’t useful for many athletes, because they are, but the ultimate road of training must be a specific one.
Doing too much of the wrong strength training
Strength training is important, but doing the right strength training might even be more important for speed development. A good speed program is going to help an athlete combat weaknesses, while nurturing strengths. Athletes who have poor starting speed off of the line of play will tend to achieve great gains through pistol squats and front squat variations. Athletes who have trouble hitting that second gear immediately after the start (10-20m speed) will do well to work on their explosive strength, which can be developed through force oriented plyometric work, such as depth jumps and standing jumps for distance. Explosive barbell lifts such as cleans and snatches are also helpful for developing the explosive aspect of this second gear speed. Athletes who struggle with top-end speed will do well to maximize the strength and power of their posterior chain, so hip thrusts, single leg 45-degree back extensions, split squats (particularly oscillating and reactive versions), and single leg deadlifts are a nice remedy in this situation. Specific isometrics and activation protocols are also solid gold for athletes who can accelerate well, but struggle past 20-30m to keep up with their peers.
Common mistakes include overuse of bilateral deep squats and full-catch Olympic lifts for an athlete lacking top end speed, or the overuse of plyometrics or posterior chain work for an athlete that can’t get off the line of scrimmage or the starting blocks well in those first few steps. Much of the exact route of developing speed is going to depend on exactly what the athlete’s particular goal is. Team sport athletes should seek to be more well-rounded than their track and field counterparts when it comes to various aspects of the speed equation, as they must be masters of the 0-20m speed realm, compared to a track athlete who must not specialize in those arenas of training that cater more toward acceleration than top end speed. Not all training methods are created equally.
Generally speaking, once an athlete has been strength training for a few years, less is generally more in the weightroom when it comes to speed-seeking programs.