How many times have you, as an athlete, been just one step behind an opponent who outran you, or just one second too late for a chance, a shot, a pass?
Seemingly everyone’s first reaction to such a situation is a socially less-acceptable variation of “oh no!” and the second one is “wow, need to be faster next time.”
Everybody needs more speed.
That is not up for debate, as there are few sports that do not rely on power and speed!
Field sports like soccer, lacrosse, football, hockey and basketball obviously require speed and power as an entry point for the game.
Less commonly considered sports like tennis, dancing, swimming and diving all demand power and speed as well. As these sports are more technical, however, speed and power may not present themselves the same way as in field sports, where opponents face off against each other and the faster one usually wins that moment-long duel. But these skills are most certainly needed!
So how DO we get faster?
As a performance coach for mostly field sports, I may be biased, but many experts in our field seem to agree: Speed is perhaps most purely expressed in its truest form—sprinting.
Sprinting is one of the most aggressive things the body can do. It’s also a “hindbrain” activity, meaning your thinking brain—the “executive” or prefrontal cortex, literally the front part of your head—needs to be turned off to do it well. Sprinting is a natural, instinctual act. This seems perhaps like a contradictory dilemma: If you should not think while sprinting, but you are not already fast, how can one get faster?
Before we address how to increase speed, let us break down the common ways we keep ourselves from it.
How Not to Get Faster
“The more, the better” is not true when sprinting. Because expressions of speed and power—sprinting being the purest expression of this—is exhausting to the central nervous system (CNS), less is actually more.
Overdoing conditioning work will not help you get faster. Wearing yourself down with high doses of speed and power work, called “high CNS fatigue,” is not a good plan either; it just make you tired and sweaty, and not want to train tomorrow. At the same time, training at a low intensity or effort is clearly not beneficial for speed gains!
Contrary to some “sport experts,” permanently breaking up with strength training also does not result in more speed. Neglecting your recovery, diet and sleep is also detrimental to improvement, as the nervous system must recover for the body to heal and repeat speed and power skills.
Lastly, one surefire way to keep yourself from increasing speed and power is to not listen to your coach. If your coach is competent and you have discussed your need for speed, then athletes need to buy into their knowledge and trust the plan. Adding or skipping sets and even workouts is definitely not going to bring quick returns!
How to Get Faster
Sprint fast and often
Does this seem counterintuitive? Did I not just say that, in fact, less is more? The primary message here is to, above all else, be consistent in a speed program and manage your volume according to your training and competition schedule.
Sprinting more often—increasing speed sessions to twice a week from once a week, for example—can certainly help you get faster. However, that does not mean you should lace up and sprint 15 sets of 40 yards at 100% effort every day of the week. That is too much!
It does mean that you should purposefully vary your sprint workouts across different distances, at different velocities, at different levels of effort, with a phase focused on Acceleration in the first 10 steps and a phase of Maximum Velocity. This calculated, purposeful training will make maximum-effort sprints in games much more manageable when the body is used to completing them several times a week.
The central nervous system is sensitive but it can also adapt incredibly well with the right amount of stress and recovery. Starting to sprint more often and in a controlled environment that allows rest, instead of just in competition, is a great way to improve the body’s ability to run faster with less effort and more often.
Train at Appropriate Intensity
Although similar to the last point, it is worth reiterating: To get fast, you do not need to sprint at maximum effort for 100 reps per day. But when you do sprint, you need to make it count.
Again, listening to a competent coach and program is important. Does your workout say 90-95% effort on 5 sets of 20m today? Or is it 5x30m at 70%? Either way, all reps need to be focused and executed with proper technique, with appropriate rest between, and hitting that prescribed intensity every time.
It does not take a high dose or a million reps of sprinting to make an athlete fast. It just takes many small, intense, well-timed and recoverable doses.
Do not stop lifting weights.
In working with teams as a performance coach, I have heard every variation of “I’ve never seen an athlete get faster by lifting weights” and “weights make you slow and heavy!”
Although the equation Speed + Weights = Heavier Player = Less Speed may appear to pass the logic test, it skips over some key factors.
If lifting weights makes you slow, you are lifting wrong. Strength training for performance sport is not bodybuilding or powerlifting; those kinds of lifting do indeed add mass and restrict mobility, which can make an athlete slow.
By the time you are in the preparation and competition phases, when you need speed and power, your “strength phase” is over. You do not need to be lifting maximally four times per week or put on mass with intense soreness after every workout.
Mass makes athletes slow. But lifting weights does not necessarily equate to adding mass!
Another complaint I hear regarding strength training and speed is that athletes are too tired to be fast after lifting.
This equation does make sense.
Every stress we put on the body, including training, taxes the CNS. Some movements and types of lifts tax the CNS more than others, such as Olympic lifting—that’s why you do not need very many repetitions in a session. The Shoulder Press, though, is a low-CNS movement—if you complete 3 sets of 6 reps, you might be a little gassed, but you will not be wiped out on the floor as if you Clean-and-Jerked 3×6.
But that is not the only way to lift weights!
Lifting with speed can help.
Heavy lifting to maintain maximal strength is important, as are hamstring-specific accessory lifts to keep your legs in top condition for sprinting. Depending on your sport and its demands, you can also work on upper-body lifts because this will not tax your nervous system heavily enough to detract from your speed gains.
However, lifting below your 1-Rep Max, around 60-70%, and moving at a higher velocity is essentially “weighting” your speed in the gym, with the goal of moving faster when the weights come off.
There are also other training methods of getting faster, such as ballistic training and the ever-famed plyometrics. A competent coach knows how to program these into a speed and strength program so that all exercises contribute to your power, velocity and resilience.
Power training—sprinting, throwing, jumping—and speed lifts should come before the lifts in a workout. You do not need to stop going to the gym to get fast, but do not spend your whole week there powerlifting either.
The Other Stuff
This might sound basic, but you need to focus on your recovery. Again, speed requires a healthy, regenerated, and adaptive CNS. That means between workouts you need quality sleep, appropriate food intake and to keep your stress low. Just keep your recovery a high priority.
Listen to Your Coach
Speed training has to fit into your training schedule, right?
If you are just out there sprinting every day with no guidance or idea of how to progress, the truth is that you will get slower because you are tired, taking on too much training volume. This translates to the CNS as stress—throughout your whole week with games and training sessions—and not recovering enough to improve speed in games.
If your strength or speed coach is competent, it is worth listening to him or her and trusting the program. They know how to manage your body’s stress and fatigue, your load, and how it all fits together with the rest of your performance.
Speed is awesome, and everybody needs it. It is a requirement for most sports!
It also seems like gaining speed should be easy and intuitive, but it actually is not!
Speed and power are very fine balances that require attention to fine details—your CNS, your recovery and your schedule.
Always keep in mind the following tips, which I hope make speed training more accessible to you:
- Sprint, jump and throw more often, but know that less is also more!
- Sprinting is perhaps the best tool for training speed and power.
- Take your recovery seriously. Speed and power training is hard on the CNS, and regeneration time is when you heal and adapt.
- Continue lifting. Weights do not make you slow; they make you strong and resilient.
- Listen to your coach! They wrote your program that way for a reason.
Good luck, and sprint hard!
Part 1: Actual Drills to improve speed ASAP.
by Kevin Haag, CSCS. Speed and Agility Coach
We are starting with the actually drill so that our young athletes can practice them and improve on-field speed immediately. Be sure to check with your coach to make sure they are being done perfectly!!
I Believe, (Speed = Biomechanics + Force + Power)
- Step 1) Learn Proper Sprinting Mechanics and Fundamentals
- Step 2) Increase Power – You need muscles to move fast
- Step 3) Generate force into the ground
Speed is a skill….Skills are learned……so, therefore speed can be learned:
Below are 3 drills to improve each of these areas. For you to elicit change in your body, you must perform these drills at 100% and with consistency. Not in any area of life, will 1 hour a week change or improve anything. Perform these drills 3 times a week for immediate results.
Fundamental Mechanics of Sprinting
Although not an individual segment of mechanics in sprinting, posture is the foundation that allows the other techniques to be performed properly. Listed below are components of posture:
- Erect body with hips under the center of mass
- The head is looking straight with the chin slightly in.
- The pelvis should be neutral or slightly posterior to allow for complete cycling of the legs.
- The chest should be up and the shoulders back (neutral) to allow for proper swing action of the arms from the shoulder joint.
Once proper posture is established, the actions of the legs and the phases in which they should go through will be more efficient.
Step 1: Mechanics Drills
- Seated Arm Action. “Arm Speed Controls Leg Speed) 1) Rotation at shoulder 2) Elbow at 90 degrees 3) Thumb moves from cheek-to-cheek
- Wall Drill – 1 – 3 – 5 Counts. Set-up: Straight Line from head-shoulders-hips-knees-ankle. Wall: wrists at shoulder height
- Acceleration A-Run. Faster Movement with High Knees
Step 3 Power Drills: Get Stronger and more powerful
Step 2 Force Drills: Put Force into the ground
Fast Foods – 5 Eating Rules for ELITE Sports Performance
- START YOUR DAY AT THE FUEL PUMP
When you wake up in the morning, your body hasn’t received any nutrients for roughly eight hours. Trying to perform without eating breakfast is like a NASCAR driver trying to win the Daytona 500 on an empty tank—it simply isn’t possible.
An ideal breakfast for an athlete delivers a balance of carbs (your muscles’ preferred fuel source), protein and healthy fats. If you don’t have an early workout, you can go big at breakfast. Opting for something like a veggie omelet accompanied with peanut butter on whole wheat toast, a piece of fruit, yogurt, and oatmeal with berries and nuts, can kick-start your day. But even if you do have a morning training session, you should still eat something. A banana with peanut butter or an apple and string cheese are light snacks that can help your body wake up and give you a boost heading into the gym.
2. TOP OFF THE TANK BEFORE YOUR WORKOUT or GAME
What you eat in the two-hour window before your training can have a huge impact on your performance. Not eating at all is one of the biggest mistakes you can make, because training on a completely empty stomach often results in the wheels coming off in the middle of a workout. But if you chow down on the wrong things, your body will be stuck in park when you need to be in drive.
Fuel up with a snack or small meal one to two hours prior to your workout so your body is primed to perform. Your focus should be on taking in simple, easily digested carbs—which your body uses for fuel. (For examples of simple and complex carbs, see the sidebar “Fueling Field Guide: Simple Vs. Complex Carbohydrates” on page 15.
3. REFILL THE TANK AFTER YOU TRAIN
Your workout isn’t finished when you walk out of the gym or off the track. Training, especially strength training, breaks down the muscles in your body so they can grow stronger and more powerful later. Following an intense workout, the goal is to switch your body into muscle-building mode (called the anabolic state) by consuming nutrients that will help repair muscle fibers, making them thicker and stronger. The ideal way to do this is to eat within a half-hour of the end of your workout. (You definitely don’t want to wait longer than an hour.)
A good post-workout snack provides you with 4 grams of carbohydrates for every gram of protein it delivers. Many post-workout shakes deliver this ratio, making them a convenient way to get the nutrients you need to stimulate muscle growth. Aim to consume 20 grams of protein and 80 grams of carbohydrates following activity.
4. CRUISE WITH CARBS
Carbs are your main source of fuel during exercise. Having too few carbs in your system will leave you feeling like you’re moving under water—slow and plodding instead of fast and explosive. Broadly speaking, carbs come in two forms: simple and complex. Complex carbs, which break down slowly and provide a long-lasting energy supply, typically come from whole plant foods. These carbs are high in vitamins, minerals and fiber, and confer a huge number of long-term health benefits, including a lowered risk of obesity and disease. Simple carbs tend to be high in sugar but low in nutrients and fiber. Your body digests them faster, so they deliver energy very quickly.
FUELING FIELD GUIDE: SIMPLE VS. COMPLEX CARBOHYDRATES Complex carbs take your body longer to break down than simple carbs, which makes them a good choice for long-lasting, sustainable energy with no crashes throughout the day. Simple carbs are a better choice shortly before a workout, when they can give your body a blast of easy energy to help power you through your training session, or immediately after training when they can help quickly refuel your muscles. Eating simple carbs at other times throughout the day isn’t a great idea, however, because they induce fat storage. Opt for simple carbs if you’re within 30 to 60 minutes of a workout and complex carbs throughout the rest of the day.
Complex Carbs include: Whole grains like brown rice, oatmeal, quinoa and oats Foods like pasta, breads and cereals in whole grain form. Look for the words “whole wheat flour” to be high on the ingredient list to ensure you’re getting a food high in whole grains. Starchy vegetables such as sweet potatoes, potatoes, corn and pumpkin Beans and lentils Green vegetables
Simple Carbs Include: Fruits like bananas, oranges, apples and grapes White bread Fruit jellies or jams Honey Dried fruit Pretzels Crackers
5. POWER UP WITH PROTEIN
Unless you eat enough protein, you won’t build muscle. Without muscle, you’re like a car with no horsepower—you simply won’t have the raw power needed to go fast.
Aim to eat roughly one gram of protein for every pound of body weight per day. For example, if you are a 175-pound athlete, take in about 175 grams of protein throughout the day. How do you know how much protein is in the foods you’re eating? A good guideline is that a palm-sized portion of lean meat contains approximately 30 grams of protein.
When picking your protein, remember that grilled beats fried. Fried foods are laden with more calories and fat, which will slow you down over the long haul. Try to keep your protein clean and simple—for example, opt for a grilled chicken breast over one that’s battered and deep fried.
Todd Durkin -May 4, 2015
Improving speed should be a goal for every athlete. No matter what sport you play, being faster than your opponent can be the difference between winning and losing a championship. With that in mind, I’ve assembled a list of the 10 best speed exercises that will leave your rivals in the dust.
Although these are the best exercises for improving speed, they should not be the only exercises that you do. Be sure to have a total-body strength and conditioning program in place, as well as proper nutrition and recovery protocols, to maximize your results.
1. Power Clean or Clean Pull
To be fast, you need to be powerful. A good way to build power is by training the Power Clean (or any Olympic lift variation).
- Starting with your feet hip-width apart, grab the bar with an overhand grip.
- Keep your back flat and chest tall as you pull the bar off the floor.
- After the bar passes your knees, sweep the bar into your hips (making contact at mid-thigh/the hip crease).
- Aggressively extend your hips, knees and ankles to catapult the bar up to your shoulders.
The Squat is one of the best exercises no matter what your goal is in the gym, so it’s an obvious pick for being one of the best for improving speed. There are many squat variations that are excellent choices. We will focus on the Barbell Back Squat.
- Grab the bar with a grip that’s comfortable for your shoulders.
- Unrack the weight, brace your abs and push your hips back to descend into the squat position.
- Squat until your thighs are parallel (or slightly below parallel) to the ground or slightly below parallel.
- Keep your knees in line with your toes, chest up and back flat as you push through your heels to stand up.
Like the Squat, the Deadlift is a clear choice for this list because it increases the amount of force you can put into the ground.
- With your feet about hip-width apart, grasp the barbell with an overhand or over/under grip outside your knees.
- Keep your chest up and back straight as you pull the bar off the floor by fully extending your hips.
- Keep the bar close to your body throughout the lift.
4. Sled Push/Sprint
Incorporating sled work into your program is a great way to build strength and speed for sprinting. It’s especially valuable for accelerations because of the forward body angle. I recommend doing both heavy Sled Pushes and lighter Sled Sprints.
- For a heavy push, load a sled with a weight that’s challenging to push for 10 to 20 yards.
- Push the sled forward, keeping your elbows straight and your back flat.
- For sled sprints, lighten the load to a weight that will allow you to sprint with the sled for 10-20 yards.
- You can even pair both exercises in a contrast set.
5. Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat
Many athletic movements take place on one leg, including sprinting, so it’s a good idea to utilize single-leg exercises in your training. There are a ton of single-leg exercises to choose from, but my particular favorite is the Rear-Foot-Elevated Split Squat.
- With dumbbells at your sides and your back foot elevated on a bench, squat while keeping a straight back and tall chest.
- Push through your heel to extend your front knee and hip back to the starting position.
6. Single Leg Romanian Deadlift
The Single-Leg RDL is another great single-leg movement, but it focuses on your hamstrings and glutes, or your “go” muscles.
- Hold two dumbbells in front of you, and balance on one leg.
- Slightly bend the knee of the balancing leg and begin to push your hips back toward the wall behind you.
- Be sure to maintain a flat back position as the dumbbells reach knee/shin level.
- Extend your hips to go back to the starting position.
7. Broad Jump
No list of the best exercises for improving speed would be complete without some plyometrics. This move teaches your muscles to contract explosively, an essential trait of speed.
- Set yourself up with feet hip-width apart.
- Perform a quick counter movement by pushing your hips back to the wall.
- Quickly extend your hips, knees and ankles to jump forward for distance.
- Land softly in a squat position.
8. Single Leg Hurdle Jumps
Single-Leg Hurdle Jumps train quick single-leg movements and deceleration, important for multi-directional speed and quickness.
- Standing on one leg, perform a quick counter squat and immediately extend your knee and hip to jump over the hurdle.
- Land as softly as possible on the same leg.
Both the Broad Jump and Single-Leg Hurdle Jumps can be done by going into the next jump immediately after you land or by pausing yourself in between.
9. Depth Jumps
This is one of the best exercises to increase explosive power needed to sprint.
- Stand on top of a bench or plyo box.
- Step off the edge and immediately jump as you touch the ground.
- The jump performed as you land can be a vertical jump or a broad jump.
- Use a small to medium size box/bench to minimize the force that is absorbed when landing.
Sprinting takes a tremendous amount of core stability, so it makes sense to involve core stability exercises in your training.
- Set up the cable handle at chest level.
- Take a few steps away from the machine to unrack the weight.
- Press the handle away from your chest and hold it at arm’s length.
- Pause for 3-5 seconds as you squeeze your abs to stabilize your torso.
- Return the handle to your chest and repeat.
- Complete the exercise on both sides.