If you’re a fan of sports than that usually means you’re a fan of speed. Speed is usually what’s featured on the ‘play of the day’ for the sports broadcast. And the higher the level of sport you achieve the faster the game becomes.
Now of course there are exceptions to this rule. Gretzky would be one for sure. He definitely wasn’t the fastest guy in the league. Or his team. Heck, he probably wasn’t even the fastest on his line. But for what he lacked in speed he made up with great vision, a competitive spirit and a sense of where to be on the ice.
But back to the discussion of speed usually new coaches learn there are a couple of ways to make an athlete faster. You can:
A. increase stride rate or how quickly you can turn the limbs over
B. increase stride length or how much horizontal distance can be covered with each stride
When a coach considers these two options for increasing speed they will sometimes seek out drills and exercises to improve in these two areas. To improve stride rate there is an emphasis on being able to produce force at a higher rate. Think of things like jumps, hops, bounds, med ball throws and Olympic lifts and you’ll get the idea. These exercises usually involve extension at the ankle-knee-hip with an explosive effort.
To improve stride length sometimes this is approached as either a strength or mobility issue. Or both. If an athlete lacks strength they wouldn’t be able to propel themselves effectively from one position on the ground to another. Or maybe they have adequate strength but lack mobility at the hip preventing optimal range of motion through the gait cycle.
Attacking speed improvement from either of these perspectives would be logical and traditional.
However limiting ourselves to these two aspects of speed ignores efficiency. Perhaps we have an athlete that can develop high levels of force quickly through a full range of motion. Yet, for some reason they don’t put up top numbers when testing speed. And in their sport they aren’t seen as fast. They don’t win a lot of battles that require speed.
Perhaps they aren’t transferring all of their efforts as effectively as possible. In other words maybe they aren’t as efficient as possible.
Let’s look at it this way.
If I’m testing a vertical jump we want to see how effectively an athlete can put force into the ground to then propel themselves as high as possible in the opposite direction. The athlete that can put the most force directly into the ground the most quickly will tend to have a better power output. I didn’t say vertical jump as this is dependent on the mass of the athlete.
Now let’s say we had two similar athletes. Both can produce force to the same degree and the same velocity. However one of them might do a better job at reducing force before it is expressed as a jump. Maybe there is a difference in core stability? Or a difference in tendon stiffness? In other words, one hits the ground like a tomato and the other hits the ground like a rubber ball. Obviously a rubber ball will bounce higher than a tomato.
Now when we sprint we aren’t looking to bounce up and down. We want our motion to be primarily sagittal (think forward or back). Another way of looking at this is that when we sprint we want to minimize ground contact time. This is true not only of sprinters but of every type of runner.
When looked at what accounted for the fact that Kenyans tend to dominate the longer distance running events a study examined a number of factors including cadence, ground contact time, swing time, ground reaction force and braking force. What they noted was that the top Kenyan runners have 10% shorter ground contact times.
This means they are better able to use the energy in their springy tendons to get off the ground more quickly than non-Kenyan runners. It’s not clear whether this was due to leg structure, what type of footwear they wore growing up or the adaptation to the volume of training they do.
What they do know is that the Kenyans were more rubberball-like and less tomato-like when their feet touch the ground.
Keep this in mind a you proceed with the goal of getting faster. Part of it involves a quicker stride. And part of it involves a greater stride length. But don’t overlook the benefits of tendon stiffness and unilateral core stability.