Note from MR: This is part two of a series on top-speed training by Travis Hansen. Enjoy!
In the previous article, I reviewed or introduced to you the value of 4 specific speed tactics, which will help you or your athletes develop greater horsepower at the top end of a sprint.
You also saw how top speed plays a significant yet modest role in sport and competition, even if the majority of movements or the percentage of motion that occurs in athletics is primarily during acceleration and shorter sprint ranges.
In this article, I will share with you 4 more insights into how to improve top-end speed.
#1 – Eccentric Lower Body Strength
You will notice how I generalized this strength type and there is good reason for it.
More often than not, the hamstring muscle group will be the common point of reference in regards to eccentric development since these muscles are so active during this phase of muscle contraction in a sprint, especially as running speeds increase more and more.
However, further down the lower extremities there are several muscle groups that still need to be able to respond with a high level eccentrically (calves, quads, etc.) to support more speed potential. If they don’t, there will be too much compliance and our legs and body will experience an unwanted drop in height and overall posture, leading to longer ground contact times and a loss in energy or running economy.
I witness this a lot with my beginner level athletes, and they also demonstrate a lack of eccentric strength and control in the weight room and with various plyometric drills.
I will be addressing eccentric hamstring strength in the context of optimal top speed development shortly. But for now, how do you cure athletes who lack stiffness and “collapse” with higher running speeds and technical running demands?
The obvious yet effective answer is to dose them with higher volumes of supplemental strength and speed-strength work like I just mentioned.
To add to that, the nature of these selected exercises should definitely involve a strong vertical force component. Depth jumps, tuck jumps, high hurdle humps, and heavy lunges will do the trick and transfer over to remediating the collapse mistake nicely in my experience.
The fact is that athletes are dropping down vertically, so we have to find a way to lift them back up again so that they can run faster.
#2 – Horizontal Strength and Power
A few years ago Bret Contreras shared some emerging evidence which showed that shortly after we begin to accelerate during a sprint attempt, there is an acute plateau that occurs in vertical force production levels, and then horizontal force output takes over from there on out. Here is a chart to illustrate the actual increase in horizontal force that occurs as we increase our running speed:
As you can clearly see, your ability (or inability) to further increase your running speed will be primarily dictated by how much horizontal strength and power you have coming from your glutes, hamstrings, and other muscle groups.
Vertical forces are the necessary precursor to opening the door to more horizontal output, and that may also be why quad strength and vertical stiffness has been shown to correlate with 100 meter dash performance to a limited degree as well.
Biomechanically, the chart makes great sense when you witness an athlete running at top speed. As the foot touches down on the surface underneath or ever so slightly in front of the hip, the only way the athlete can propel forward again is to drive the stance leg down and directly backwards.
3 – Reactive Strength
This brand of strength involves being able to generate extremely high levels of force very rapidly in the appropriate direction while the body is in motion. So any continuous or “high frequency” classified plyometric will get the job done here in many cases.
In the context of sprinting at or near top speeds there are some exercises I like more than others.
Traditionally, multi-directional bounds for both height and distance work great on eliciting greater reactivity and elasticity from the ground to improve the speed curve. These exercises also comply with the Force Vector Theory which has been proven in recent research, and delivers strength in both essential directions.
I’ve been experimenting these drills with contrast cause I think it works well, and there is some science to support this type of specialized approach to speed training to boot.
For example, pairing up an initial strength exercise that nearly replicates the pattern of the body at top speed (i.e. sled bounding), and then after a brief rest period, performing a speed dominant movement to utilize the temporary increase in strength fulfilled from the previous exercise to create greater potential speed in both the interim and perhaps long term.
The slower tempo with the strength exercise is also a good time to really hammer the message that you are trying to send to the athlete. It also provides a window of focus for motor learning so the body has a better chance of correcting itself when you train speed in the ensuing exercise.
It’s obvious that the technique with the sled is more relevant to an acceleration pattern of sprinting, however, I’m just attempting to target the lower half from a mechanical standpoint since that is usually what is lacking at top speed. Sometimes you have to break down the whole and focus on a specific segment or part of the gross movement to help make it more effective.
If you look at the split times for an extremely fast athlete, you will notice that there generally tends to be a “Top-Down” Relationship between later and earlier distances and times. Rarely do you see an athlete who can run a sub 11 100-meter dash operate slowly off the start, and several authorities have discussed this training concept in the past.
With that being said, this relationship shows that even though strength and pure explosiveness are going to be your primary limiting factors for exploding out of the gate and through the first few yards, the athlete definitely still needs to be able to contribute high reaction skill and speed with their sprint efforts to be more successful collectively.
Once again, this notion illustrates the synergy and value of a holistic approach when it comes to athletic and speed development. It’s easy to look at the direct training methods and the impact they will make, but sometimes the difference between another tenth or two can be found with the relatively subtle and quiet techniques that gets no love and support.
Reactive Strength is a huge make or break skill after about 20 yards since there is faster motion occurring. The number of adaptations and changes that occur with this type of training is substantial to say the least.
When you train reactive strength through the regular use of proper plyometric exercises you will improve not only the function of your body’s Central Nervous System to effectively communicate to associated muscles, but other characteristics as well. This means an improved SSC (Stretch-Shortening Cycle), elasticity, neural rate coding, joint reflexes, reaction time and more!
#4 – The Speed Reserve
We have all probably watched the big lineman or strongmen at an NFL Combine bust out 40-50+ reps on the 225 lbs. Bench Press Test before.
One of the main reasons why these guys can demonstrate such a stellar feat of human strength is due to the fact that they possess a large strength reserve which will inevitably allow them to generate higher levels of force for a longer duration than someone that can perform fewer reps.
Eventually metabolic fatigue will rear its ugly head and shut down these beasts, but not before they show us just how strong they really are.
There is a solid 30-60 second window where the body will let these individuals go all out while every system is still fresh and capable to perform at an ultra-high level. So the more strength (1-5RM) and specific muscle mass you have the better.
This same notion holds true for speed athletes. The more speed you have the longer you will be able to train at a higher level, granted your conditioning work is in order.
Top speed training develops your Alactic power so that you can eventually repeat peak performances play after play on the field or court. It also teaches the athlete how to handle and manage some more fatigue so the body can familiarize itself with that type of training environment and still find a way to express more power and speed.