Home Posts tagged "Sprint Technique"

7 Thoughts on Speed, Agility, and Quickness Training

A huge majority of sporting outcomes are heavily dependent on speed, agility, and quickness. The fact that these athletic qualities are such "game changers" also makes them a fun topic to cover in lectures and writing. To that end, I thought I'd pay specific attention to speed, agility, and quickness in today's post. It's especially timely, given the great introductory sale on Complete Speed Training that's going on this week.

1. Footwear matters.

To me, all speed, agility, and quickness training discussions need to begin with footwear, as it directly impacts how you produce and reduce force with respect to the ground.

If you're in heavier sneakers, good luck trying to "feel" fast.

If you're in shoes with huge heel lifts, just try recruiting your posterior chain effectively during your movement training.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, if you're in sneakers without the right amount of lateral support, have fun trying to change directions. This has been a huge issue with some of the minimalist sneakers on the market; athletes will actually roll out of the shoes during changes of direction in spite of the fact that they have sufficient neuromuscular control to execute the exercise perfectly. It's one reason why I was so glad to contribute to the discussion when New Balance was designing the newest versions of the Minimus.

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Before you worry about cutting-edge training programs and meticulous coaching cues, make sure you've got the right stuff on your feet.

2. Don't overlook individual differences.

It's incorrect to assume that all athletes need to be coached the same with respect to movement training drills. Different athletes have different builds, and there will be subtle deviations from "the ideal" positions we envision in our minds. Obviously, limb and torso lengths play into this, but joint structure may impact things as well. As an example, someone who lacks hip internal rotation - whether it's because of a bony block, capsular changes, or hip retroversion - might need to work from a more "open" (toes slightly out) athletic stance.

Understanding what "normal" looks like is important, but don't think "abnormal" is necessarily always inappropriate.

3. It's easier to make a fast guy strong than it is to make a strong guy fast.

I heard this line so long ago that I honestly don't even remember where it originated. Still, I wish I'd really appreciated just how true it really was back then!

Many athletes are blessed with natural reactive ability. They're really proficient at using the stretch-shortening cycle to create awesome athletic movement - even in the absence of what one might consider "good strength." These athletes thrive when you simply get them stronger.

At the other end of the spectrum, you'll find athletes who are very strong but completely unable to display that force quickly. They need to spend more time training speed than they do working on continuing to build (or maintain strength).

If you compare these two scenarios, though, the former (fast guy getting stronger) takes place much quicker than the latter (strong guy getting fast). There are a lot of different reasons this is the case, but at the end of the day, I think the biggest one is that it's difficult to teach an athlete to relax.

Guys who are naturally fast seem to "accidentally" know how to turn off unwanted muscular tension. Guys who are naturally strong usually resort to brute force to try to solve every problem. If you need further proof, just watch me (or any other powerlifter) play golf!

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4. Movement quality falls off with a growth spurt - but good training can help attenuate that drop-off.

When kids hit puberty and their adolescent growth spurt, it's not uncommon to see some seriously uncoordinated athletes on the field, ice, or court. Beyond just the range of motion limitations that may have emerged overnight as bone growth has outpaced that of muscles and tendons, we also have to appreciate that the center of mass has moved further up away from the base of support - and that creates a more unstable environment.

This dramatic shift in the 12-15 age range explains why kids who dominated the youth ranks often don't pan out as high-level high school or collegiate ranks. Just being a Little League all-star doesn't really predict being a Major League Baseball all-star very well at all.

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The good news is that we can attenuate - or minimize - the drop-off in athleticism that takes place with the adolescent growth spurt by incorporating effective training principles. As always, playing multiple sports and engaging in activities that provide a wide range of movements is essential. Moreover, we can integrate mobility drills and coach athletes on proper movement quality. And, finally, not to be overlooked is the role of strength training. Put 10-15 pounds of muscle mass on a young athlete's lower body, and his center of mass will definitely be much closer to the base of support, creating a more stable environment. Of course, the strength that also emerges from that training will also go a long way in improving movement quality. This is why I think ages 11-12 are some of the best times to get involved in entry-level strength training programs, even if it's just 1-2 times per week.

5. Moving well is as much about "reads" as it is about speed.

If you talk to most up-and-coming baseball players, they're generally concerned with their "60 times." If a player runs below a 6.5, he'd be considered elite caliber speed. Running between 6.6 and 6.7 would be excellent speed, 6.8-6.9 average speed, and 7.0 and below would be sub-par. These numbers are testing pretty regularly at various events in the high school ranks, but not much thereafter.

As a result, we don't really have a true frame of reference for how "fast" guys are in the big leagues. Well, I'm here to tell you that you'd be sorely disappointed if you tested 60s of all MLB players. There would be a lot of 6.8-7.1 speed among position players, and you might only find 2-3 sub-6.7 guys on each roster. Game-changing speed really isn't as common as you might think, and for every Billy Hamilton or Jacoby Ellsbury, there are a lot of guys who have become good baserunners more because they have learned how to run the bases, get good jumps, and understand situational baseball.

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Baserunning is very much an art as much as it is an athletic endeavor, so you can do all the speed, agility, and quickness drills you want, but they won't have nearly the effect you desire if guys simply don't understand how to read and react to the game around them. This is surely the case in every other sport you'll encounter short of track and field, too.

6. Good movement training programs need a mix of coaching and competition.

If you want to get faster, I think it's crucial to have both coaching and competition elements in your training. With respect to coaching, you obviously have to cue athletes into higher quality movements; otherwise, you're just further ingraining faulty patterns. This is analogous to driving an out-of-alignment car as fast as you can.

Conversely, I think there is something to be said about shutting up and just letting athletes run fast and compete with each other. Most elite sprinters train as part of groups, not individually. The same can be said of the best NFL combine preparation set-ups; guys push each other to get better. Timing and mirror drills are great ways to cultivate this competitive spirit in the training environment.

Ideally, you get a little bit of both competition and coaching in every movement training session. As I look at our typical week with our pro guys, our heaviest speed, agility, and quickness days are Wednesday and Saturday. Wednesdays tend to be less coaching intensive and more competition as the athletes sprint together. On Saturdays, things are more coaching intensive as we work indoors with everything 30 yards or less in distance. I'll do more video work, and rarely have more than one guy sprinting at a time. As the season approaches, we'll integrate more of the coaching intensive work prior to strength training on Mondays as well.

7. Video has changed the game.

Video - and more specifically, slow-motion video - has changed how we coach movement training dramatically. We spend a lot of time coaching proper angles - whether it's torso lean or shin positioning - and being able to freeze-frame videos and show athletes where they are at various points in time can help an athlete to acquire or hone new skills much quicker than in previous years. If you're not videoing speed, agility, and quickness work, start!

One word of caution, though: don't let video interrupt the "flow" of the session. If you're not careful, you can wind up watching and discussing video for 5-10 minutes between each set. It's important to use the video as a resource, but not rely on it so heavily that it interrupts quality work. 

Wrap-up

Speed, agility, and quickness training are incredible broad topics, so I'm really just scratching the surface with these seven observations. If you're looking for a more exhaustive resource from one of the best coaches and teachers in the strength and conditioning field, I highly recommend Complete Speed Training from Lee Taft. This excellent product is on sale for $100 through this Friday at midnight.

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So You Want to Start Sprinting?

While sprinting has been around since the dawn of man, only in the past few years has it really taken off as true fitness trend. In other words, it was either what we did to kill our dinner in prehistoric times, or it was a modern athletic competition. Only recently have we realized that doing sprint work for our interval training is a tremendously effective way to get/stay lean, enhance mobility, improve athleticism, and prepare ourselves for the demands that life throws our way.

Heading out to sprint full-tilt when you haven’t been doing any running work in recent months is, however, analogous to signing up for calculus when you haven’t brushed up on basic math of late. The main difference is that you can’t rip your hamstrings off your pelvis doing calculus!

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Sprint work requires tremendous mobility, good tissue quality, and adequate strength to tolerate significant ground reaction forces and a wide variety of joint angles. You don’t prepare for this with your “typical” gym workouts, so before I have some specific modifications in place that you’ll want to follow. To that end, below, I’ve provided you with seven tips you can apply to ease into sprint work so that you can get the benefits of it with less of the risk.

1. Do these foam rolling drills and four mobility exercises every day for a month.

These drills are like summer reading before a tough English class. You have to do them so that you can hit the ground running (pun intended).

2. Sprint uphill first.

People often get hurt when they overstride; they’ll pull the hamstrings on the front leg. Sprinting uphill doesn’t really allow you to overstride, though, and it’s also good because you go up with each step, but don’t come down quite as much. Ground reaction forces are much lower, so this is a great option for easing into top-speed sprinting. (great studies here and here, for those interested).

While it’s more ideal to do uphill sprinting outside, it is okay to do this on a treadmill. After all, you’re just trying to lose your spare tire or be a little better in beer league softball, not go to the Olympics.

I like to see a month of 2x/week uphill sprint work before folks start testing the waters on flat terrain.

3. Don’t sprint at 100% intensity right away.

Contrary to what you may have heard, you don’t have to run at 100% intensity to derive benefits from sprint work. In fact, a lot of the most elite sprinters in the world spend a considerable amount of time running at submaximal intensities, and they are still lean and fast.

The bulk of your sprint work should be in the 70-90% of top speed range. You might work up to some stuff in the 90-100% zone as you’re fully warmed up, but living in this top 10% all the time is a recipe for injury, especially if you’re over the age of 35-40 and degenerative changes are starting to kick in.

When you first start out, sprinting is new and exciting, and it's very easy to get overzealous and push the volume and frequency side of the equation just as you would the intensity side.  Don't do it.  For most folks, twice a week is a sufficient complement to a comprehensive strength training program, and the session shouldn't last for more than 30-45 minutes - most of which will be you resting between bouts of sprinting.  If you find that they're 90-120 minute sessions, you're either doing too much volume or not working hard enough.  The speed and quality of your work will fall off pretty quickly as you fatigue, so be careful about forcing things too quickly.  Beyond just injury prevention benefits, taking it slower on the progressions side of things allows you to test out your footwear of a few weeks to make sure that they're the right shoes for you.

5. Don't sprint on pavement.

I can't think of a more unforgiving surface than pavement, especially since it means that you're more likely to get hit by a car. Unfortunately, it's also the more easy accessible surface for most people. In an ideal world, I like to see folks sprint on grass, artificial turf, or a track surface. Broken glass and hot coals would also be preferable to pavement (for the record, that was a joke, people; don't be that schmuck who goes out to try it).

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6. Don't sprint through fatigue early on.

This is a "go by feel" kind of recommendation. On one hand, you have to sprint through some fatigue to get in the volume it takes to derive the training effects you want: namely, fat loss. However, we also have to appreciate that states of fatigue drive injury rates sky-high in the athletic world. With that trend in mind, I encourage people to run conservatively in the first few months of their sprint training programs; in other words, don't allow a lot of fatigue to accumulate. Instead, take a little extra time between sprints. Then, as your sprinting mechanics and fitness improves (and you've gotten rid of the initial soreness), you can push through some fatigue.

7. Generally speaking, sprint before your lower body strength training work, not after.

People often ask me when the best point in one's training split is to sprint.  As a general rule of thumb, I prefer to have people sprint before they do their lower body strength training sessions.  We might have athletes that will combine the two into one session (sprinting first, of course), but most fitness oriented sprinters would sprint the day or two prior to a lower body session.  A training schedule I like to use for many athletes and non-athletes alike is:

Mo: Lower Body Strength Training (with athletes, we may do some sprint work before this as well)
Tu: Upper Body Strength Training
We: Sprint Work
Th: Lower Body Strength Training
Fr: Upper Body Strength Training
Sa: Sprint Work
Su: Off

In this case, the intensive lower body work is consolidated into three 24-36-hour blocks (Mo, We-Th, Sa).

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Conversely, I've also met lifters who like to sprint at 70-80% effort the day after a lower body strength training session, as they feel like it helps with promoting recovery.

Closing Thoughts

As you can tell, while there are definitely some tried and true strategies for avoiding injury when you undertake a sprinting program, there are also some areas that are open to a bit of interpretation.  The value of incorporating sprinting into one's program is undeniable, though, so I'd encourage you to test the waters to see how it fits in with your strength and conditioning programs.  At the very least, it'll give you some variety and help get you outdoors for some fresh air.

If you're looking for ideas on how to incorporate sprinting in a comprehensive strength and conditioning program, I'd encourage you to check out my latest resource, The High Performance Handbook

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