Updated: January 6th, 2022

The development of speed is a common goal for most runners, (I mean, who doesn’t want to run faster, really?). Biomechanically, speed is the result of a muscle contraction with maximum intensity.
Speed development, therefore is crucial for running as quick as cat to place in your age group at races.

In this article, you will understand basics of your speed development (so you can get right to work). We will start with introduction to basic areas of speed along with important terms like speed endurance, reaction speed and agility, and go from there.

So, shall we…?

The basics

The speed is divided into two basic areas:

  • reaction speed
  • realization speed

The reaction speed of an athlete measures your ability to react to a stimulus. For instance, your reaction to start up shot during a 100m sprint. On the other hand, realization speed measures the actual speed of motor activity that starts after reaction to the stimulus.

Baffled? Keep reading…
track sprint

Athletes with good reaction speed will respond faster to the stimulus and start his/her motor activity early. Therefore, you need to train on both the areas to get full advantage. In addition to this, you also need to understand some important terms that are related to development of speed ability.

These are:

  • Cyclic speed (locomotion speed) is understood as an ability to reach high frequency of cyclic movements through muscle contractions without any significant resistance.
  • Single speed (acyclic speed) represents an ability to reach maximum speed of the movement without resistance or against slight resistance through muscle contraction. It is useful in throw games like javelin throw.
  • Agility is an ability to change direction of movement quickly; it is accompanied by sudden decrease and subsequent increase in acceleration and speed of the movement.
  • Speed endurance is understood as an ability to maintain high speed of movement for a time period longer than 15 seconds or an ability to repeatedly produce high speed with minimum resting period between individual repetitions.

Keeping in mind the points above, we will unpack and understand further how to develop speed in a more efficient way for the rest of the article.

Speed development is the most difficult task in training, as speed is said to be 80% weighted from innate dispositions of an athlete. Whereas training only contributes approximately 20 %.
Your neurology (nervous system) although anatomically similar, its functions and pathways differ in each individual and is initially decided by your genetic makeup. For instance, Men posses a natural quicker neuropathway to women, which result in faster neural responses that provide ability for rapid reactions and thus muscle contraction.

Although, a well-trained nervous system (proprioception training) improves and creates distinct pathways (particularly after injury) that allow for more efficient coordination in muscles – essential for speed gain.
Training, paired with recruitment of fast twitch muscle fibres is paramount for high speed runners. A pairing that is statistically, genetically present amongst the African-American male population.

Key biomechanics for speed development

Athletes need important biomechanical qualities that help them to develop and handle speed. These important biomechanical qualities are power and stretch shortening cycle (SSC), and such athletes with innate dispositions get more advantage from the training on top, for sure.
woman training

Power in speed development

Power is a result of strength times speed – the ability to apply force as large as possible in restricted time (specific for your sport). In running, this time is restricted to just 0.1 to 0.2 seconds, when you are in the support phase (stance phase). So, you must have ability to produce large amount of force in such a short time span, in order to achieve good, take off for the swing phase.

This force is exerted on body (legs, arms and core) and on the ground in such a short span of time. During high-speed running, you should be able to produce high and rapid force and should be able to handle those forces for safe running.

On the other hand, lack of power makes you prone to injuries because without it, you won’t be able to handle large forces. There will be high chances of joints over loading and tissue tears with lack of power.

Development of Power

We’ve established that power is crucial for development of speed. So lets get into power training implications. Training this way not only helps you to achieve your force production goal but also work on other areas of body that are crucial for speed gain. Interestingly, power training involved proprioceptive training – improving neural pathways, muscle coordination, together stimulating smooth movement.

The training

Keep in mind during power training that great care should be taken for avoiding muscle imbalance. For instance, when training the glutes, you must also work on core muscles for stabilization of your pelvis. You’re body is smart, it will start compensatory mechanisms pelvic stability if you don’t also include the core (such as overworking hamstrings) leading to inefficiency and injuries – and no-one wants a niggly hamstring!

Focus on compound movements

Work on functional exercises like squats, dead lifts instead of isolation workouts for individual muscles. Compound exercises like a squat engage all lower body muscles, the core (and depending where you hold your arms), some upper body too! Vs a leg extension machine recruiting only the quadricep muscle group and when do you EVER just work your quadriceps in isolation whilst running or day to day life? Exactly!

man squat with weights

Strength workouts first

Remember, power = strength x speed. so weaker athletes are not able to break speed records as they cant generate sufficient strength. Instead there will be an overloading of tissues leading to tearing. Therefore, train athletes for strength first and then speed.

Training parameters for you as a runner:

  • Strength 3 sets of 1-5 repetitions *This is where we’re focusing today*
  • Hypertrophy 3 sets of 6-10 repetitions
  • Muscular endurance 3 sets of 10+ reps

Work on your core

Core muscles are the foundation of your body. Strong, robust core muscles equate to solid stability. Stability is must for executing any sport movement. No matter how strong your lower body is, weakness in core leads to injury (remember the affect of overworking hamstrings?) Therefore, central stability is must for speed development.

Stretch shortening Cycle

The Stretch shorting cycle (SSC) is a spring-like ability of the body (using elastic energy) to gain propulsion during running.
It is a series of muscle contraction:

  • eccentric
  • isometric(amortization)
  • concentric

The proper use of plyometric workouts help you to optimize your bodies ability to use SSC. This helps you to store good amount of elastic energy in tendons for enhancing propulsion during concentric phase.
The running movement needs to be economical in nature for speed gain.

So there we have it, we’ve unpacked running speed and the elements that influence your sprint performances. What has been your takeaway message from today?

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