Note from MR:
Travis Hansen is a guy who knows a thing or two about speed training.
I always enjoy reading his materials, and I often pick-up a thing or two that I can immediately add to make my own speed sessions better.
In this article, Travis covers four tips you can use to improve your top-end speed development. Enjoy!
With so much emphasis and talk on the start/first step and acceleration skill and how to develop these two traits when it comes to speed training this day and age, I thought it would be a great opportunity to change the discussion course for a moment and address another important element to collective speed that is arguably underrated:
I’m sure any athlete would love to have some “breakaway” game speed to help set themselves apart from the competition, to help raise their perceived stock from coaches, and to increase the chances of becoming more successful on the field and court.
And although it’s presence is not as common as pure acceleration in team sport settings, it does occur and there is an approach you could use to develop this exact skill.
For example, in 2012 there was a study published in The Strength and Conditioning Journal from Triplett et al. which supported a link between top speed and athletic performance, and that maximum speed does indeed occur in sport. (1)
The prevalence of top speed output would appear to be on the lower end of the spectrum. However, enhancing top speed function could arguably provide some key transfer into other training efforts, and make your athletes better overall in the process.
As long as the task is approached correctly.
I have come to learn (mainly through trial and error) that there is quite a bit more to the top speed development equation then I think most athletes or coaches realize, and I want to get down to brass tacks and dive into this puzzle right now.
This information is predicated on years of research and being in the trenches working with athletes, while attempting to discover what helps regulate top speed.
#1 – Arm Drive
I first considered the idea of preaching more arm drive with the athletes I was training when I stumbled across an awesome video from Joe DeFranco and the speed demon, Keith Williams, whom he was training at that time.
In the video below you will notice that Joe is yelling “arms, arms, arms” near the second half of Keith’s 40 attempt.
In his book Key Concepts Elite, world class track coach and legend Charlie Francis cites and highlights a researcher by the name of Heinrichs who identified the need to initiate explosive and proper arm action during sprinting, since the Central Nervous System transmits motor signals here first and then the legs.
The faster you can drive your arms, the quicker the message to move your legs arrives and the more speed potential you may have in this instance. We have tried this with our athletes and there has been solid feedback, plus slight drops in their Flying 20 (20-40 yard time split) which is a good measure of top speed ability.
#2 – 45-Yard Dash
This may sound a bit ridiculous and oversimplified, but after watching thousands of sprints, early deceleration across the finish line is a common theme which obviously lends to slower times in athletes who run the 40.
The easy fix is to simply station an agility cone or other object approximately 5 yards past the finish, out of the athletes running path. This helps visually cue the athlete to run the full distance, which usually removes the error.
#3 – Anterior Hip Mobility and Flexibility
In the context of pure speed development, research and real world evidence doesn’t support the need to perform inordinate amounts of boring and slow static stretching.
However, “Antagonistic” stretching across the front of the hip is one place that athletes and coaches may want to examine and consider when they want to increase running speed. This concept also ties in with hamstring injury reduction as well.
Here is a photo of what proper systemic technique at top speed or top speed maintenance should ideally look like. You will notice how the stance leg moves beyond the hip and center of mass, requiring that the anterior portion of the athlete’s hip be able to open up and lengthen rapidly and then close again (SSC).
Remember that there is more than just muscle and tendon restraints restricting range of motion at a joint. Neural and bony limitations also have to be considered when assessing a movement deficiency.
The latter could be another article in itself, so right now lets do a quick review of local hip flexor anatomy and how they influence sprinting mechanics at top speed specifically. The hip flexors (Iliacus, Psoas Major and Minor) originate deep within the lumbar spine, then extend and insert distally at the high femur.
Because of this arrangement, we must lift our leg higher than usual to increase the recruitment of these muscles, while simultaneously toning down the other half dozen or so hip flexors that lay below them.
Unfortunately, not many movements outside of actual high velocity sprinting entails this type of end range flexion motion.
As a result, many athletes will suffer from a weaker posterior chain, potentially immobile hips, a lack of proper sprinting technique, and lowered horizontal force production and speed performance. This needs to be supplemented with not only more sprinting, but also a class of general and specific strength exercises, along with mobilizing the front of the hips.
It is important to note, that there is one hip flexor muscle that can limit hip hyperextension (extension of 20-30 degree past neutral) – the rectus femoris.
The rectus femoris is a very unique bi-articular muscle that both flexes the hip and extends the knee. Traditional half kneeling hip flexor variations and standing quad stretches will not enable improved flexibility of the hip flexors due to passive insufficiency of the RF muscle. You have to shorten and slack one end of the RF muscle to promote more movement at the other end.
Here is a video example that closely mimics the muscle and joint action of the lower body at top speed, and also maximizes stretch to the deep hip flexor muscles that you really need to target. In order to execute the stretch properly, make sure to reach high and keep the ipsilateral glute and knee straight along with the balance foot pointing straight forward.
#4 – The Flying-20
The flying-20 is a great method for testing top speed specifically, in most cases. The fact is that most athletes top out fairly quickly when accelerating. The exceptions are your genetic freaks and elite sprinters.
According to some speed training authorities (such as Charlie Francis), good athletes will reach top speed around 30-40 meters. Probably not what you had imagined, or at least that was the case for me when I first heard this information. The fact that elite sprinters can accelerate up to 60-80 meters, is just insanely impressive!
By default, the Flying-20 then becomes a good gauge of testing the validity of the approach you are utilizing to improve top speed capacity in the majority of your athletes. This exercise involves sprinting at maximum or near maximum effort for the first 20 yards, and then driving as hard as you possibly can for the remaining 20 yards through the finish. A good standard for males is 1.8-2.00 seconds, and females will naturally scale a little higher.
Technique during this phase isn’t usually discussed in the team sport realm, because of course, top speed promotion isn’t usually a hot topic of discussion. However, I love the “Wicket Drill” for improving top speed technique for a number of reasons.
Below is a video demonstration of the exercise, and then below that are some key factors for why the drill is so valuable for the athlete. Make sure to precede entrance into the banana steps or mini-hurdles with a 4-6 step buildup run, and also make sure the hurdles are 4.5 feet apart from one another. Ironically, rhythm shouldn’t be too hard to find and the rest takes care of itself with the exercise.
#1 – Front and Backside Mechanics
What you will notice immediately with this exercise is that the hurdle prompts essential swing leg elevation which aligns posture and patterning automatically. I haven’t found a cue or drill to date that teaches top speed technique better than the Wicket.
For the frontside you get 90-degree flexion at the hip, knee, and foot, and then on the backside you will witness triple extension at all three joints with particular emphasis on the hips hyperextending another 20-30 degrees like they should be.
#2 – Lift
One of many things that sets an elite sprinter or athlete apart in terms of running speed is their ability to look like they are almost floating as they glide and “pull” their body forward across the running surface.
If you’ve sprinted, you may have felt this effect before. In order for lift to occur the chest, hips, all the way down to the feet needs to be tall and pretty rigid. Any unwanted drop in posture will result in energy leaks, increased ground contact time, and substitution pattern outcomes.
#3 – Proper Force Vectors
I have some biases and mixed feelings towards this theory, but Chris Beardsley over at The Journal of Strength Conditioning and Research just released a study which supported that the more closely the exercises you are using to improve a target exercise or test measure are to the actual test itself, the better the transfer.
So if you want to improve top speed, you need to use exercises that match that movement. Period.
I can’t think of a better one than the Flying-20 for this one. The lift and upright posture you create with the Wicket Drill unleashes higher amounts of horizontal force levels, which is the only way to get faster after initial acceleration has been achieved.
#4 – Stiffness
The ratio of stiffness (height) and compliance (drop) will ultimately determine how fast you can and will run.
In general, athletes will collapse at some point during a 40-yard dash, and then they are trying to play catchup with both their time and original body position from then till the finish. The fact is that they aren’t strong and powerful enough in some shape or form somewhere in the kinetic chain most of the time, unless they are highly fatigued or overtrained.
However, the Wicket self organizes the body’s alignment and customizes the speed at a level that is appropriate for the athlete, so that they can motor learn and then store proper muscle memory into their brain for later as they develop strength and power.
You can contrast or alternate the wicket with an actual full 40-yard dash and see immediate changes in patterning and performance.
#5 – Fore/Midfoot Dominance
You need to be able to support your entire body mass at high speeds through the small structure of your foot and ankle if you want to get faster.
This is indeed asking a lot of the foot to say the least.
Not only does this require lots of strength and power in lots of places as previously mentioned, but many athletes need kinesthetic self awareness, and the Wicket delivers just that.
For one, you can’t overstride too much or you will hit the next hurdle, and secondly the knee lift generated from detection of a hurdle you have to step over causes the support foot to extend and calf raise more and put your weight where you need it.
#6 – Speed Specific
What drives me crazy about many of the drills I see coaches and athletes use on a regular basis these days, is that they aren’t specific in terms of the actual overall technique , complexity, and velocity that arises with sprint work. Especially velocity!
Doing a 10-minute segment of A-Skips, isn’t going to make you faster or really translate into much. Sure it helps you establish good mechanical rhythm and flow and helps re-familiarize the body so that you can retrieve several aspects of the movement you want, but it’s definitely not enough in the end.
Stay tuned later this week for more great tips on top-speed training. And if you enjoyed the article, you can pick up a copy of my Speed Encyclopedia for only $37 through this weekend. It’s a solid resource and one I think you’ll learn a lot from!
#1-Triplett, T, Erickson T, and McBride JM. Power assocations with running speed. The Strength and Conditioning Journal, 34: 29-33, 2012
#2-Francis, Charlie. Key Concepts Elite. CharlieFrancis.com, 2008.