SPEED TRAINING – Some truths about getting faster

As most sports people including G.A.A. players are getting ready for training and competition to recommence, coaches will be putting plans in place in order to have their players in the best possible condition for the upcoming season. Just one of their many goals will be to improve and maximise players power and explosiveness so that they can be quicker on the pitch and ultimately give their team another advantage.

When it comes to improving players speed there are a couple of factors to consider, principles to understand and common mistakes to avoid. I hope to help you with some of these with this piece. Successful Speed training sessions have different traits than that of fitness or endurance training sessions. It is important to note that both of these types of training are working on 2 very different energy systems and as a result need to be trained differently and it cannot be presumed that approaching speed sessions like endurance sessions will yield the same results.

The following are just some of the tips included in my overall speed development programme:

  1. Perform Speed training early in your session.

In our body we have access to 3 different energy systems which are best suited to different types of activity depending on how quickly the production of energy is required. To run at maximal pace requires the use of your bodies Phosphocreatine system which releases rapid energy as opposed to the more common glycolysis (anaerobic) system which uses glycogen (carbohydrates) for its energy production. this form of energy release is not rapid enough to aid in maximum explosive and powerful efforts. To become faster and more explosive we must improve our bodies use of this Phospho-creatine system. This system can generate the most power but it fatigues earlier than the other systems. Although it can replenish quickly with adequate rest this is dependent on how often the system is trained correctly. For these reasons, early in the session is the only time when you will be able to run at your maximal pace. Also sometimes up to 3 minutes can be needed in order to replenish these energy stores and maintain the high power outputs of the efforts. So as the session goes on and as rest is reduced to below 30 seconds this energy system can no longer function to the same degree and the session is then targeting endurance rather than speed. When this system can no longer replenish stores enough for powerful exercise the body then switches to the next fastest source of energy.

In relation to this one, of the common mistakes which is made and that i have experienced as a player, is doing sprints and short bursts at the end of training and thinking that this is your speed work. Looking back on the reasons listed above such as fatigue and depletion of PC system this is a long way from Speed work and is only working on endurance at best.

2. Speed Work is more than just short sprints.

If your hopes of producing faster players is based on adding in shorts sprints to training only, then i’m afraid your results are going to be quite limited. Don’t get me wrong, short sprints will play a part of your speed work but if you are not utilising other forms of training to change the characteristics of the muscles that cause our movements during our sprinting action we will see very little difference in our sprint times. Training methods such as appropriate resistance training and plyometric type exercises can enhance your speed over these short distances.

This point brings me nicely to this myth which is common among people who have never read a research paper or article about exercise science or training yet still claim to be experts.

Myth – “Leg weights slow you down”

This is something i have heard too often but thankfully i hear it less and less as knowledge in this field is becoming more common among more players and managers nowadays. Briefly looking at some of the principles of physics helps to dispel this myth.

  1. Muscles produce force to act on our bones and cause movement.
  2. The greater the force applied by the muscle the greater work it can perform against a resistance (such as gravity or the ground)
  3. The stronger the muscle the greater the force that can be applied against the ground and with a quicker rate of force development which allows for less contact time.

When we run our foot strikes the ground generating force in the upwards and horizontal direction. “running speed is directly related to the magnitude of this force” (1)

The formula for power is Power = Force x Velocity

Power = Strength x Speed

From this we can say that without increasing our strength or our speed of movement we will have no improvement in increasing our sprinting speed which is represented by power.

It makes sense then that if we can activate more muscle fibres and also strengthen these fibres not to mention the benefits of improving their interaction with the nerves which stimulate them, we can generate more force. This increase in force is a big part of the formula for increasing your speed. Having this increase in force and as a result the increase in your rate of power development you can now achieve greater performance and get more benefit from your short reactive sprints at the start of your training sessions!

3. Do the work to change the characteristics of your muscle fibres. 

Introducing training techniques such as plyometrics and explosive exercises into your training plan can greatly increase your speed and power improvements. However it is critical to understand that these techniques have limited effect if you have not got the basics done such as muscle activation and strengthening. In fact plyometrics is not advised if you do not have an adequate level of strength as you could greatly increase your risk of injury. It is recommended that athletes are able to squat 1.5 times their own body weight before recommending that they perform plyometric style exercises because of the forces acting on the tendons and muscles. Strength training increases the amount of fast twitch muscle fibres while plyometrics and olympic lift style exercises help us to utilise these fibres more effectively. These powerful exercises are meant to amplify the benefits gained from your strength training.They will help to ensure your muscles become more reactive or ‘springy’ on ground contact which means you can achieve greater stride length with each step. these powerful exercises have only a limited effect on their own. This is why you should have somebody overseeing your training plan who understands the principles of speed development and not the guy who has looked at too many you tube videos to find powerful exercises which may only look good. i have seen too much of this done without an understanding of the science behind how to get faster.

Olympic lifts can be a great tool on top of the other techniques mentioned but should only be introduced safely and when the athlete is ready( after a few phases of a strength & conditioning programme). Olympic lifts should never be performed while fatigued and should be early on in the session. Because of the  impacts and forces on our joints and muscles we are always looking for QUALITY OVER QUANTITY when it comes to any type of training that is aimed at becoming faster.

All of these methods have a part to play in the development of speed. they just work a lot better when they are placed in the correct order and performed the appropriate sets, reps and rest periods. Otherwise you may be doing more harm than good and not making the best use of your already limited time with your players.

In closing the Main point is Quality over Quantity.