Speed at All Positions Becoming a Premium
Now, more than ever, there is a premium placed on speed in football and for all sports, games are won and lost by fractions of seconds and centimeters. My hope is that this article will help athletes learn how to run faster and give coaches a more focused approach when approaching speed development.
During my years as a coach I have found that an athlete’s lack of speed generally stems from a deficit in one of three keys areas, or a combination of the bunch.
- An overall lack of strength
- A weak rate-of-force production
- General technique
Simply put, generally the stronger you are the easier it is to move a non-maximal amount of weight quickly and for a longer duration. An athlete is generally regarded as having a solid “base” of lower-body strength when they are able to squat 1.5-2 times their own bodyweight. From what I have seen this is the primary area of improvement with underclassmen level and female athletes. While squat and deadlift variations are considered the kings of exercises for increasing lower body strength I cannot stress enough the importance of isolateral-strength as well, exercises such as step-ups, lunge variations, Bulgarian squats, prowler pushes and heavy sled drags (forward and backward) will help to improve the strength in the individual limbs and correct strength imbalances. Another area that often seems to be neglected is the posterior chain (basically the muscles of the back, glutes and hamstrings). Athletes often like to focus on the muscles they can easily see when looking in the mirror (the “show” muscles) while not realizing the importance of the musculature on the backside (the “go” muscles) and how a strong posterior chain helps them to run faster. Exercises such as glute-ham raises, RDL’s, leg curl variations and hypers/reverse-hypers are effective for strengthening that region.
If an athlete has an adequate level of strength, I next look for a weak rate of force development (RFD). Is the athlete able to harness that strength and move weight (even their own) at a high rate of speed? The thing to remember is that being strong does not always equal being powerful, high strength levels simply mean a greater potential for power output. Athletes with a poor rate of force development can improve this area by training with Olympic lifts such as cleans, snatches, push press, etc. along with plyometric training (I’m not going to get into the Olympic lifts versus plyometrics debate in this article. They are each another tool in the proverbial toolbox and I’ll leave it at that).
Another area that can drastically influence RFD and relative strength is body composition. Improving your strength and power while maintaining or improving body-fat levels can have a profound effect on explosiveness and speed. The late Derrick Thomas used to say “fat is the enemy of speed”, Thomas an NFL Hall of Fame inductee (2009) known primarily as a speed rusher off the edge could not have been more right. Excess body fat is nothing more than extra weight an athlete has to get moving. I spoke with former Indianapolis Colts Strength Coach Jon Torine recently at a local sports performance conference and he echoed these sentiments as well while stressing the importance of proper nutrition with athletes.
The last area is covered under the umbrella term of “general technique” because it encompasses an individual’s specific movement patterns, range of motion, joint mobility, etc. These all vary from athlete to athlete and can be addressed by a knowledgeable track or sports performance coach on an individual basis. Proper start position, arm & leg action, trunk-flexion, dorsiflexion of the foot and adequate hip flexion influence both stride-length and stride-frequency which are the main components of an athletes speed. Learning the most efficient movement patterns for ones’ own body help maximize performance in those key areas.
One thing that I do recommend an athlete begin working to improve immediately is their flexibility. A poor range-of-motion can be major reason behind bad technique, especially limitations in stride-length. Most athletes and coaches now recognize the importance of a good post-workout stretch (the mantra “warmup before, stretch after” is quite popular these days) but taking an additional 10-15 minutes to stretch before heading to bed can help an athlete more than they often realize as the majority of muscle repair takes place while asleep and having the muscles in a lengthened capacity will allow them to heal in that elongated state.
I’d also like to take a second and emphasize the importance of flexibility in the hip musculature. If you consider the average daily schedule for most students these days, it probably looks like this; sit on the bus to school, sit at your desk and learn, sit on the bus for the ride home, sit at the table to do your homework, sit down for dinner and so on. For the older generation (weekend warrior athletes) a normal day might include sitting down for breakfast, sitting in the car for the drive to/from work, sitting at a desk for an 8-9 hour workday and then sitting down to eat and relax after a workout. That was probably overkill but as you can see, it’s an awful lot of sitting throughout the day which keeps the hip flexors in a near constant state of contraction. Tight hip flexors reduce the legs ability to extend or push off the ground. Joe DeFranco often mentions his athletes jump highest right after statically stretching the hip flexor group, it would make sense that this is due to their increased ability to fully extend.
Lastly, an athlete has to have the proper motivation to maximize their speed output. For example, I have one professional football player I train who cannot seem to achieve new PR’s without being motivated by the reminder of the teams that had passed him over and the potential money to be made if he were to earn a bigger contract. I call it the “want-to” factor, an athlete has to want-to move at maximal speed. We’ve all coached or known an athlete that “half-assed” things for the lack of a better term. So if you are a coach or an athlete, find that driving force that motivates YOU or your athletes to go beyond their comfort zone and push themselves to the limit. It could be fame or money, it might be school pride, it might be simply proving to yourself or someone that doubted you that you could achieve a goal, whatever it is find it and use it.
I hope this article has provided you with some food for thought…
Thank you for taking the time to read this article on maximizing speed development, if you’d like to view videos and posts on this subject you can reach me on social media such as Twitter @TopSpeedLLC and/or Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/TopSpeedSportsPerformance