How many times have you, as an athlete, been in a game scenario and been just one step behind an opponent who outran you, or just one second too late for a chance, a shot, a pass?
If you’re like the athletes I work with every day, you’re first reaction was probably “sh*t!” and your second one was “I need to be faster next time”.
Cool. Now that we’ve got that covered…
Everybody needs more speed. That’s not up for debate.
There are few sports that don’t rely on power and/or speed at a key to the game.
Field sports like soccer, American football, hockey, and basketball all require it. Blatantly.
Both sports like table tennis, cheerleading, Olympic weightlifting, ballet, swimming & diving, tennis and badminton all require power and speed as well.
As these sports are more technical, speed and power may not present themselves the same way as in field sports, where opponents face off against each other and the faster one usually wins that moment-long duel, but it’s definitely there.
So, we circle back around to the ultimate underlying question… “how do we get faster?”
As a performance coach for mostly field sports, I may be biased, but many experts in our field seem to agree:
SPEED is perhaps expressed in its truest form, SPRINTING.
ICYMI, sprinting is one of the most aggressive things the body can do. It’s also a HIND BRAIN activity, meaning your thinking brain (“executive” or prefrontal cortex, literally the front part of your head) needs to be turned off and sprinting is a natural, instinctual feat.
Okay… so if you’re not supposed to be thinking… but, when you’re sprinting, you’re not already fast… HOW do you get faster?!
First, let’s break down the common ways we keep ourselves from speed.
How NOT to get faster.
“The more, the better” is not a thing here. Less is actually more. Doing a ton of conditioning will not help you get faster. Exhausting yourself with high doses of speed and power work (what we call “high CNS fatigue”) is not a plan either; it’ll just make you tired and sweaty, and not want to train tomorrow. At the same time, training at a low intensity or effort is clearly not beneficial for speed gains!
Breaking up with strength training is also not going to result in more speed; more on that later. Neglecting your recovery, diet, and sleep is also detrimental to any gains you may have.
Lastly, and my favourite, one sure-fire way to keep yourself from speed and power is to not listen to your coach. If your coach/trainer is competent and you have discussed your need for speed, then you need to buy into their knowledge and trust the plan. Adding or skipping sets and even workouts is definitely not going to bring you the quick returns you are hoping for.
How to get faster.
Sprint fast & often.
Does this seem counterintuitive? Didn’t I just say that, in fact, less is MORE?
The main message here is to, above all else, be consistent in your speed program and manage your volume according to your game and training schedule.
Sprinting more often (increasing speed sessions to twice a week from once a week, for example) can certainly help you get faster - that doesn’t mean you should lace up and sprint 15 sets of 40 yards at 100% effort every day of the week.
It does mean varying your sprint workouts across different distances, at different velocities, at different levels of effort during the week. As you can imagine, this will make those 100% sprints in game scenarios much more manageable; you do that several times a week in training.
Your nervous is a sensitive thing, but it can also adapt incredibly well with the right amount of stress and recovery. Starting to sprint more often (and, still, not too often!), instead of just in game scenarios, is a solid way to increase your body’s ability to run faster with less effort and more often.
If you are interested in CNS load and fatigue in speed and power athletes, I recommend this article.
Train at appropriate intensity.
This goes along with the last point, but it’s worth reiterating.
Again, you don’t need to sprint at 100% effort 100 times and every day.
But, when you do sprint, you need to make it count.
Does your program say 90-95% effort on these 5 sets of 20m today? Or is it 5x30m at 70% today? Either way, all 5 need to be focused and you need to hit that intensity every time.
It doesn’t take a high dose of sprinting to make you fast. It just takes a small, intense, well-timed dose.
Last week, a colleague explained that a sport coach he was working with told him “I’ve never seen an athlete get faster by lifting weights. They just get slower and heavier!”.
If that’s the case, you’re lifting weights WRONG, but that doesn’t mean you should stop lifting.
Let’s make this as simple as possible…
By the time you’re in the training phase where you need to become faster and more powerful, especially during the playing season, your “strength phase” is over. You don’t need to be lifting massively heavy weights 4x/wk and put on mass with intense soreness after every workout. No, sir!
Another complaint is that athletes are too tired to be fast after lifting.
Yeah, sure! Every stress we put on the body, including training, taxes the central nervous system (just like we discussed with sprint volume). However, some movements and types of lifts tax the CNS more than others. Olympic lifting is a high-CNS movement - that’s why you don’t need very many. Shoulder press, though, is a low-CNS movement - if you do 3x3, you’ll be a little gassed, but you won’t be wiped like if you clean-and-jerked 3x3.
But that’s not the only way to lift weights!
Lifting with with speed can help… hey, hey!
Yes, you still need to incorporate some heavy weights here and there, especially your hamstring-specific lifts to keep your legs in top condition for sprinting (all my soccer players pull heavy twice a week - generally 4x4 Deadlift or 3-4x5 RDL and then GTFO!!). Depending on your sport and its demands, you can lift heavy for your upper body - think Bench Press) because it won’t tax your nervous system heavily enough to detract from your speed gains.
However, the rest should supplement your speed. Lifting below your 1-Rep-Max and moving at a higher velocity is essentially adding weight onto your speed… what happens to your speed when you take that weight off?
(psst… you get faster.)
There are also other training methods of getting faster - plyometrics, jumping, bounding, medicine balls, kettle bells… you don’t need to stop going to the gym to get fast, but don’t spend your whole week there powerlifting either. End point!
That was a very simple breakdown. If you’re interested in the science of strength training for speed, I recommend Charlie Francis and this article.
The other stuff.
Hey, listen. This might sound basic, but you need to focus on your recovery.
Like we said, speed requires a healthy, regenerated, and adaptive CNS.
That means, in between workouts, you need quality sleep, appropriate food intake, and to keep your stress low. Just keep your recovery a high priority.
TL:DR = 7-9hr sleep, quality food through the day, low stress (if possible).
Listen to your coach.
Again, speed training has to fit into your training schedule, right?
If you’re just out there sprinting every day, you’re probably going to get slower because you’re tired, taking on too much training volume (stress) throughout your whole week with games and training sessions, and not recovering enough to get any speed games.
If your strength or speed coach is competent, it is worth listening to him/her and trusting the program. They know how to manage your body’s stress and fatigue, your load, and how it all fits together with the rest of your performance.
Speed is awesome. Everybody needs it.
It also seems like gaining speed should be easy and intuitive, but it isn’t always.
Speed and power are very fine balances that require attention to fine details (like your CNS, your recovery, and your schedule).
With that, I’d like to leave you with the following conclusions to, hopefully, make speed training more accessible to you.
Train speed more often, but less is also more!
Sprinting is a great tool for speed!
Don’t ditch the weights… you need them for your health AND your speed!
Listen to your coach!!!
And that’s that on that.
Again, this was a VERY basic overview of speed training, aimed at helping (field, court, etc.) athletes improve their mph while staying healthy and fit for their game.
Good luck, and sprint hard!