Speed Training for Young Athletes

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Speed Training for Young Athletes

By: Brian J. Grasso www.DevelopingAthletics.com

Although running at a quickened pace appears to be an extremely simple concept, developing good speed is actually a very complex endeavor. Speed, agility and quickness are physical attributes that all athletes require regardless of the sport. In fact, speed camps and speed-based training programs are currently among the most popular and trendy activities within the youth sport industry. Are we teaching young athletes the proper application of speed?

What does speed mean? Running at a quick velocity is comprised of several bodily systems all working synergistically with each other –

  • Balance – Alternating rapid force production with one leg at a time in a linear motion can be likened to losing your balance and then regaining it in a successive fashion. Speed requires balance.
  • Core Stability – The core musculature is comprised of ALL muscles (major AND minor) from just below the pelvis to right around the scapula. All of these muscles need to be conditioned in order to maximize the potential speed of the young athlete. Speed requires core stability.
  • Eccentric Strength – Eccentric strength refers to the ability of a muscle to produce force while it is being elongated. During a running stride, every time an athletes foot comes back to the ground, the muscles in that leg are contracting eccentrically. The stronger the eccentric contraction, the quicker and more powerful the propulsion forward. Speed requires eccentric strength.
  • Fluidity of Motion – Sprinting requires the human body to move in a very relaxed and fluid motion. If fluidity of motion is not present, then the sprinting stride is labored and subsequently speed is reduced. Speed requires fluidity of motion.

One of my biggest concerns within the youth sporting world is when coaches and trainers use ‘adult style’ training strategies and equipment when working with young athletes. Understand that the above list represents some of the physical attributes necessary to produce good speed. Having said that, speed based camps could and most certainly should include training time for these aforementioned components. It is a very common misnomer that exists within the youth sporting world – to train speed, one must simply run fast; that is the exactly wrong thing to do.

When you first picked up a baseball, did you know how to throw it? If you progressed in baseball, you know that not only did you need to learn how to throw a baseball, but you likely received instruction for a long time, even into your adult years. NO athletic skill is done well without a certain degree of instruction. Think about it, Olympic sprinters have coaches don’t they? Moreover, they often hire consultants to teach them how to ‘clean-up’ their form in order to run faster. The fact is that running for speed is no different than any other athletic skill in that it is an involved endeavor with much technique which requires good coaching.

This leads us to a current problem with the very trendy “kids’ speed camps“. All to often, I watch coaches hook external apparatus up to their young athletes and proceed to ‘run’ them through a series of sprints. These external devices are either over-speed or resistance in nature and serve different purposes. Over-speed devices force the athlete to run a small percentage quicker than normal. The science behind this is that the nervous system will become accustom to that pace of firing or sequencing and will adapt (become faster). Resistance devices work to slow the athlete down. Their basic purpose is to create stronger muscular contractions through a running motion which would support those muscles becoming functionally stronger. Again, the end result is increased speed.

The problem lies in the fact that young athletes typically lack the functional strength to benefit heavily from this style of training. The core musculature in most kids, for example , will undoubtedly lack the ability to control the pelvis appropriately through either over-speed or resistance sprinting drills. Lost in the contemporary world of sport and fitness is the need to get back to basics. Simply put, if you want to get young athletes to run faster then TEACH THEM HOW. The biomechanics of most young athletes is wild at best and if coaches would concentrate on teaching kids how to move their bodies in a fluid manner then that would result in an exponential increase in speed within their athletes.

Bottom line – get back to basics. Stay away of fancy speed equipment and highly intensive strategies. Biomechanical concerns and fluidity of motion will have a much bigger and safe impact on the speed of your athletes.

Key points when developing speed in young athletes –

  • Speed is power. Optimal power requires dynamic flexibility. Teach kids how to stretch both statically AS WELL AS dynamically. Especially work on the dynamic flexibility of the shoulders and hips.
  • Do some unilateral strength training. Single leg squats (with the free leg held in different positions) is a great way to develop unilateral strength and stability. Unilateral strength and stability is a MUST for good sprinters.
  • Work on balance. Use games, un-stabilizing devices and anything you can think of to train the balance of a young athlete.
  • TONS of core strength. Train the core endlessly through both multi-joint and specific exercises.
  • In order to develop good eccentric strength, perform both in-place as well as movement based jumps. Don’t get caught up in ‘plyometrics’ – another great catch phrase. Have kids jump, gain their balance and then jump again. Be more concerned with body mechanics and execution than height, distance or speed.
  • Teach kids HOW TO RUN. Break down the mechanics and show them how to become fluid. Bad mechanics means wasted energy and reduced speed.

Don’t get caught up with coaches who have all the latest gadgets and toys. To increase your speed, all you need is a willing athlete, a park or track and a coach with some know how.
Brian Grasso President – Developing Athletics
Director of Athlete Development – Sports Academy Northwest

Brian Grasso and Developing Athletics are the world leaders at providing educational literature to coaches, parents and athletes on the concepts of functional conditioning and athletic development.

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