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How we train speed, and why it has nothing to do with how quick your feet move

Friday, June 19, 2015, 3:29AM by Elliott

Speed is the most sought after quality in athletics. Every Coach is looking for that player who can get to a loose puck/ball, gain that step on a defender or close the gap on defense. Even though speed can be the difference maker there’s a lot of confusion around how to train it or even what it looks like. In this short article I’ll take you through some misconceptions around sport speed as well as how we train it at Acadia Performance Training.

 

Quick feet = slow athlete

Fast feet = good for dancing https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F8ksMrFlSng 

The toughest thing to hear as a strength and conditioning professional is the obsession with ‘quick feet’. Too many players are being told that they need to increase their ‘foot speed’. However nearly all of them can picture an athlete they’ve seen play that looks like they’re moving slowly but actually have great speed. When we look at any research of athletes on land or ice it all says that the players that cover ground the fastest are the ones who take least amount of steps (not most) and actually have longer ground contact times (not picking their feet up quickly) and strides. The reason this works is because spending more time on the ground allows an athlete to put more power into the surface. Basic physics tell us that the harder you push into a surface, the harder it pushes you back. If you have the horsepower (strength) to push into the ground you won’t need to chop your feet. Think of quick feet as tires spinning but can’t grip the ground.

 

Acceleration is more important than full speed

 

The fastest athletes in the world (100m sprinters) don’t reach maximum speed until 50-60m. In sport we’ll rarely have that much time to move in a straight line without having to make some sort of a move or cut. Therefore, most sports are stop/go, change of direction and accelerating from a coasting position. To get to that loose object, catch up to or get past an opponent we need that sudden burst. That sudden burst is our ability to accelerate, not full speed. Acceleration is a product of our strength combined with the ability to produce it quickly. Think a big horsepower engine that is finely tuned. If your engine (strength) isn’t big enough to handle your body (size) you will struggle to have that burst.

 

How we train it

 

Strength – improving lower body strength is one of the best returns on investments an athlete can make to improve their ability to accelerate. Adding strength is like adding horsepower to an engine. We use predominantly single leg exercises to gain this strength because they’re easier to learn, safer and more specific to athletes who move one leg at a time.

 

Power – while we’re improving strength we also want to make sure we can put that power into the ground as quickly as possible. The faster we can produce that strength the faster we’ll push our bodies towards our target. We’ll use a combination of explosive exercises in the weight room and plyometrics to teach the body to produce power quickly.

 

Short sprint work – slower athletes will often dislike short sprint work because they don’t feel they can get going fast enough. They’ll prefer to do longer sprints where they can work to get to top speed. Here in lies the problem where they never get a chance to improve the most important quality – acceleration. For the majority of the summer we’ll use numerous short sprints to force the athlete to learn how to get going as quickly as possible. A combination of basic techniques, reaction sprints and competitive sprints will help them progress towards more game like situations.

 

Sled work – pushing a (relatively) heavy sled is probably one of the best, but least used exercises for developing acceleration ability. It forces an athlete to learn how to move a weight heavier than their body forward. By doing this we’re combining the ability to overcome our own body (and gravity) on an angle that is specific to accelerating. We’re teaching the body how to put the greatest amount of power into the ground. This will be used until the end of the summer when we replace it with light sleds that are towed at high speeds

 

Conditioning – even our conditioning helps us focus on speed development. Gone are the days of long runs to get fit to play sports. Nearly every sport involves bursts of high intensity activity combined with some sort of rest. By using high intensity conditioning we can train the body to work hard and recover hard. We also avoid the pitfalls of doing long, slow conditioning which teaches our body to primarily recruit slow twitch fibers. We always want to recruit fast twitch fibers because the evidence is clear that we can actually change some fibers from slow to fast twitch based on training.

 

The system – all together our whole system is geared to improve leg power, acceleration and speed. From the warmup exercises we do to get the joints moving, the core exercises that allow our body to function properly, and the strength and power exercises that drive the engine our primary goal is to make a better athlete.