Q&A: Speed Work

sprint-speedQ: I was wondering if you could help me when it comes to programming for speed sets.  Do you have an optimal percent range that you use when working on bar speed? 

I am working with a sprinter right now and wanted to start adding some speed sets in, but I am not sure how to base that on her one rep max.

A: First off, thanks for an awesome question!

As with most good questions, it forces us to ask more questions – to dig even deeper.

Here are a few follow-up questions that immediately came to mind, that you should ask yourself:

  • What is the training age of the athlete? A young athlete may not even need this type of work, if they don’t have an appropriate strength base to build from.
  • How long do you have to train them? If you have six months before they have to be competitive, that’s totally different than if you only have two or three months.
  • What events do they run? A 100-meter runner has a different performance/physiological profile than a 400- or 800- meter runner, so this needs to be accounted for..
  • Are you training for pure power expression, or power endurance? This goes hand-in-hand with the above point. A 100-meter runner would use speed work almost exclusively for pure power expression, while a 400- or 800-meter runner could use it to help build power endurance/capacity.
  • Where do they need to improve performance? If they need to improve acceleration or power out of the blocks,  how you administer the speed work will be different than if they need to improve top-end speed.

While all these are follow-up questions that could be asked (and should be answered for maximal performance), let’s regroup and come back to your first question.

force-velocityWhen it comes to speed work, I think it’s important to examine the Force-Velocity curve, and see where your athlete’s specific sport is.

For instance, an NFL offensive or defensive lineman should spend a great deal of his time on the left-hand side of the curve. Maximal strength, and then strength-speed will be most specific to his sport.

To get the most out of this athlete, a focus on Olympic lifts (which are powerful, but use heavier loads/resistance) and then speed work at a higher percentage (65-75%) of their 1-RM would work well.

In the case of your sprinter, they are going to end up much closer to the right-hand side of the curve. The ultimate goal is pure speed, so while strength is your base, at some point in time you need to put a ton of emphasis on speed-strength and pure speed.

(Side note: The more elite the athlete, the more time they will need to focus on their target quality. Basically, don’t forget about the importance of specificity to your training).

The pure speed work is built on the track, so don’t try and mimic that in the weight room. It just doesn’t happen.

Instead, much lighter weights for speed work (30-50%) could be used for your athlete. Something like a speed squat with a pause in the bottom could be beneficial for someone who wants to build starting or explosive strength out of the blocks.

On the other hand, if they need top-end speed, I’d be focusing more on elasticity. This would be very light weights and I wouldn’t even consider it “speed” work, it would be more reactive work.

In the gym, it could be in the form of a light jump squat (20-30% of 1-RM), or at the track/field depth jumps or bounds would probably get you a better carryover to performance.

Admittedly, this has been one of my biggest issues as a “strength coach.” I grew up in the weight room, so it’s hard to leave that thought process behind.

As I’ve evolved, I’m more realistic about what the weight room is good for (maximal strength, certain types of power expression, stability/control, etc.). And on the flip side, I’m better about using outside resources to build a more well-rounded athlete.

I’m not sure if that totally answers your question, but I hope it helps. Good luck with your training!

All the best


P.S. – If you want to learn more about speed and power training, make sure to check out our upcoming 2014 Midwest Performance Enhancement seminar. Wil Fleming and Lee Taft have great presentations lined up that will help you make quicker and more explosive athletes!


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