How to Train for Speed

What’s one thing that’s different as you move up to the next level of sport? I’m talking about a quality that changes and gets higher or better regardless of the sport in mind.

It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about hockey, soccer, swimming or football, improving in this one area makes you more competitive in your sport. It gives you a better chance of winning or getting on the podium.

What do you think that one thing is?

Some people might guess size. And if your background is in collision sports, such as football or rugby, additional size or mass may be helpful.

But that’s not what the answer.

Others might guess technique or tactics. For example, if you’re a baseball player maybe learning how to throw a particular pitch really well allows you to advance and succeed in higher levels of baseball.

But that’s not it either.

The one thing that will always help you in higher levels of sport is speed.

Think about that for a second. Are there any sports where additional speed is a detriment? Or are there any sports where speed isn’t important? I can’t think of any examples so let me know if you can.

Another thing that proves this point is after working with thousands of athletes over the past twenty years I have seen many advance through amateur to semi and finally to full professional and elite. And when you ask them about the difference of finally making it pro they all say it’s the speed of the game.

They didn’t learn any new moves or plays. College football players aren’t undersized compared to NFL players. It’s that all of the players can move at a minimum threshold of speed and the game itself is played at a faster pace.

So when an athlete is serious about getting better speed is one quality that always helps. This is assuming we aren’t dealing with a younger athlete, i.e. LTAD, or an injured athlete.

The question then becomes, how do we become faster?

It would help to have an appreciation of the force-velocity curve to better understand.

The Force-Velocity curve. Force is represented on the y-axis and speed is represented on the x-axis.

The Force-Velocity curve. Force is represented on the y-axis and speed is represented on the x-axis.

The force-velocity curve is the relationship between the force that can be applied to a mass and the speed at which that mass can be moved. On the vertical axis are various levels of force from low at the bottom to high at the top. This can be thought of as the dependent variable. And on the horizontal axis speed is low at the left and increases as you move to right. This can be thought of as the independent variable.

Consider two dumbbells of different mass such as a 5 lbs and 100 lbs dumbbell. If you try and press the 5 lbs dumbbell overhead you won’t produce high levels of force but you can move the weight quickly. Next, if you grab the 100 lbs dumbbell, you may or may not be able to press it overhead. Assuming you can press the 100 lbs overhead it will move much more slowly than the 5 lbs dumbbell.

Now you can start to appreciate the importance of selecting the appropriate loads for training when the goal is to improve speed. If you select loads that are too heavy you won’t get the requisite speed stimulus. If you go too light you won’t the requisite force stimulus.

Now for all the smarty-pants out there that really enjoy math they are probably thinking ahead to what will generate optimal (known as peak) power. Power is simply the product of force multiplied by velocity.

The power equation. To increase power you can can a) increase force b) increase distance covered or c) decrease time.

The power equation. To increase power you can can a) increase force b) increase distance covered or c) decrease time.

 

Visually you can think about this as the area under the curve. And the point where you can generate peak power is that which produces the largest area under the curve.

And I wish I could tell you the exact training load to use to elicit peak power but this is a range. It’s quite a big range from 30-80%. At the lower ends of the force axis we are training more for pure speed, next is something called speed-strength, in the middle is peak power, followed by strength-speed and lastly maximal strength. (see graph above)

It’s important to understand there is no right or wrong when selecting training loads. It’s simply a matter of understanding the relationship these loads have on the training effect.

In a future article we could look at some of the variables that influence the ability to produce force and velocity. This is where the work of Cal Dietz (who we brought to Kelowna last summer) and the concept of tri-phasic training will help us to understand. Imagine throwing two round red shapes at the floor. The red shapes are the exact same mass and we will throw them at the floor with the exact same force. In the first scenario the red shape is a tomato and in the second scenario it is a rubber ball.

On the downward flight to the ground there is no difference between the red shapes. Upon contacting the ground though everything changes. A future article on this will help you to understand the difference and become more like a red rubber ball and less like a tomato.

***Quick aside…have you ever heard that most sports-related injuries occur during the eccentric (or lengthening phase)? This is when the red shape is being thrown towards and then contacts the ground. Visually the tomato contacting the ground should give you an idea as to why eccentric strength is so important for injury prevention. ***

As well, there is also some value in looking at how stability and mobility play into this role. Someone with high levels of mobility may not generate enough force to become powerful. And someone lacking mobility may not be able to move well enough to build up any type of speed to become powerful. A future article will look at the interplay between these two and how to determine which one you should address in your own training.

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