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Techniques for developing speed in all athletes

This is an excerpt from Coaching Excellence by Frank Pyke.


To learn more about speed and quickness, as well as other important coaching topics, read
Coaching Excellence.

Speed Training

Speed and power are critical for success in racing sports (swimming, cycling and running); all field and court sports; acrobatic, racquet, combative and bat and ball sports; and power sports such as track and field. Speed is the distance covered divided by the time it takes to cover that distance. In sports such as swimming and running, the speed occurs in a straight line. However, speed for a touch, netball or water polo player may also mean changing direction while moving.

The following types of speed need to be defined and trained differently. Table 10.4 suggests which of the types of speed are important for which sports.

  • Maximal speed is the highest speed an athlete can reach. This normally occurs three to five seconds after a start from a stationary position.
  • Acceleration speed in sports such as touch, netball, basketball, football and tennis is crucial. These are sports in which short sprints are done and maximal speed may not be reached. The ability to get into space, get off the mark or take a gap is more important than maximal speed in these sports.
  • Speed endurance is the ability to sustain maximal speed or near-maximal speed and to withstand the effects of fatigue. Events longer than five seconds (e.g., 100- to 400-metre runs, 50- to 100-metre swims) and team sports (e.g., touch, netball, basketball, water polo) and individual sports (e.g., tennis, squash, badminton), in which the time between sprints isn’t long enough to recover, require high levels of speed endurance.
  • Change-of-direction speed is crucial in most team and racquet sports. The ability to evade or chase an opponent in team sports and change direction quickly in racquet sports requires agility as well as acceleration speed.

Developing Speed

It is beyond the scope of this chapter to give a specific formula for developing speed in every athlete of every age and gender for every sport. However, the following guidelines can help develop speed in any athlete of any age or ability:

  • Be fresh. All speed training should be performed when the body is fully recovered from a previous event or training session. Tired, sore or overtrained athletes cannot improve their speed.
  • Master correct technique. Correct sprinting technique is developed through many repetitions to reinforce skill development. Initially, this should be done at slower speeds, but then the speed should be gradually increased while maintaining correct form. Sport-specific drills are an excellent means of developing correct sprint technique. (See the References and Resources section at the end of the chapter.)
  • Warm up with intensity. A warm-up should include low-intensity work that develops a light sweat, followed by static (holding) then dynamic (swinging, bouncing) stretching of the specific joints and muscles used in the sport or event. This should be followed by specific drills and then gradually increasing intensity to the speed required in training.
  • Recover between efforts. All sets and repetitions of a speed training session must be followed by adequate recovery so the next effort is high quality. The shorter the effort is, the shorter the rest should be. As a general rule, a 1:4 to 1:6 work-to-recovery ratio is recommended.
  • Vary the training. Speed training sessions should vary among light, medium and heavy days.
  • Monitor training volume. Coaches should track the total distance covered during each maximal speed training session to ensure a gradual progression in distance or number of repeats.
  • Develop speed endurance with longer intervals or shorter rests. Doing longer intervals (e.g., 150- to 400-metre runs, 50- to 100-metre swims or 30- to 60-second bike efforts) or decreasing the rest between shorter intervals (10- to 20-metre runs, 12.5- to 25-metre swims or 5- to 10-second bike efforts) develops speed endurance. The aim should be sport specificity. Obviously, a touch football player needs to do short sprints up and back with short recoveries, but after, say, six 10-metre efforts, a long rest of two to three minutes might be taken so the quality of the next set of six 10-metre efforts is high.
  • Develop strength and power. The sprint athlete needs to focus on developing muscle mass, strength and power in the gym or using resistance and exercises that are sport specific (see the section Strength and Power Training).
  • Include flexibility training. Decreased flexibility results in decreased speed due to the stride or stroke length decreasing.

With these principles in mind, let us now examine a six-step progressive model for developing speed in competitive athletes.

  1. Basic training. Developing a training base early in a season, during the transition phase between seasons or in the off-season gives an athlete a foundation on which to develop speed and power without getting injured. Stretching, strengthening, skill drills and the development of some endurance should be keys.
  2. Functional strength and power. Developing muscle mass, strength and power in the gym under the guidance of a strength and conditioning specialist should be a priority. The Strength and Power Training section later in this chapter outlines the guidelines for developing these attributes.
  3. Plyometric training. This step focuses on hopping, jumping, bounding, hitting and kicking exercises that must be explosive and sport specific. Donald Chu’s Jumping into Plyometrics (1998) and Explosive Power and Strength (1996), and Training for Speed, Agility, and Quickness by Lee E. Brown and Vance A. Ferrigno (2005) are excellent resources for sport-specific exercises with great diagrams and descriptions of exercises and drills. Plyometric training should be undertaken only by athletes with a high training age or a well-developed base of strength and power training in the gym.
  4. Sport loading. This step focuses on sport- or event-specific speed and loading the athlete with relatively light resistance that develops speed and power without changing sprinting form. Speeds should be 85 to 100 per cent of maximum. The ways to increase resistance include weighted vests, harnesses, parachutes, uphill sprinting, stairs, sand, weighted sleds and drag suits for running athletes; leg ties, buckets or tethers for swimmers; large gears, slow cadences, headwinds and hills for cyclists; and tyre tubes for rowers.
  5. Sprinting form and speed endurance. This phase develops sprinting technique and the ability to maintain speed by using longer sprint repeats.
  6. Overspeed training. This phase involves applying 5 to 10 per cent extra speed through the use of overspeed training techniques such as downhill sprints, harnesses, elastic bands, fins in swimming or low gears in cycling. The aim is to train the nervous system to increase stride rate in runners, stroke rate in swimmers and rowers and cadence in cyclists.

Read more from Coaching Excellence by Frank Pyke.



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