Speed – the Ultimate Frontier of Pure Athleticism. In the last few weeks, some College Football Players made themselves a lot of money based simply on how fast they ran the 40 yard dash at the NFL Combine. Some others got themselves back into draft consideration or the Free Agent Game by running a fast time at “Pro Days” at their Alma Mater. The proven value of running speed and it’s improvement have made some Coaches a very nice living, but also has caused lots of recreational and amateur athletes to be confused about whether and what kind of speed work themselves might need.
The debates that rage amongst folks who deny or have abandoned Westside Barbell Style “Dynamic Effort” work and those who swear by it only confuses and clouds the “speed” issue that much more. Hopefully this article will clarify some “Science” via definitions and methods, and also provide some “Art” via how to apply speed work to even non traditional speed drills.
The basics of running speed is that Velocity equals stride length(L) times strike rate(R). V=LxR. Shockingly, power cleans do not play in this basic equation! Lots of athletes who have never lifted a weight, stretched , practiced mobility drills, or had one bit of Coaching but can flat out fly. That equation is Dad/Mom equals great genetics. So you are naturally fast from birth or not. If you want to dive into this subject of what makes us fast from birth I suggest this article. http://www.t-nation.com/readArticle.do?id=459790, This article covers percent of fast twitch fibers, phosphagenic and glycolytic metabolic pathways, and some other surprising factors that impact running speed. Still, returning to V=LxR, the two ways we can improve on Mom and Dad’s efforts are to increase stride length and increase strike rate. Stride length can be improved by improving flexibility and by strengthening the muscles that provide the hip retraction, leg pull, and leg drive, (Oly Coaches are waiting to scream out “Power Cleans!!!!” just about now I am sure) and Stride Rate can be improved by Optimizing Running Technique via sKILLz improvement, or in other words stop looking like a Wheat Combine if you want to run fast at the NFL Combine.
So other than the small amount that improving your strength endurance (ability to maintain repeated muscle contractions at required levels of force) also plays in running fast especially as distances increase, maximal strength increase is really the basis of unloaded speed increase, as long as you have your running technique cleaned up. Deadlifts, squats, and even Olympic Lifts strengthen the Glutes, Hamstrings, Calves and Quadriceps that provide the pulling and pushing actions required in the running stride.
For newbies and beginners, basic strength training approaches all work well, for example 5 sets of 5 weight static or climbing, 54321, or even Basic PTP. There is even some evidence that Deadlifts work better than squats for speed improvement. Advanced athletes, trying to compete at the highest levels and so obviously against other folks with gifted parents, use other more extreme methods to increase starting strength, acceleration strength, and stride length like plyometrics, resisted running, and my favorite, running behind a vehicle that you are attached to by rope, or the more boring running downhill. The focus in these techniques is to practice the skill of going faster than you are used to going.
It is important to point out that running, like punching, is a non weight resisted activity, so practicing the skill perfectly and training the prime mover muscles for Maximal strength is the main path to speed improvement in non weight resisted activities.