What Speed Training Really Means

There isn’t any shortage of information when it comes to speed development for both the track and non-track athlete. The quest to make an athlete faster has been covered by many books, articles, speed clinics, and symposiums. It’s relatively easy to find charts filled with data and stats telling what distances to run and how fast to run them. There are an abundance of websites that sell programs and videos. Some of these sites have forums where people profess that the true way to get faster is to follow the word of this “one genius coach.” According to some of those sites and those coaches and forum dwellers that frequent them, the path to speed is on one road—their road. Other programs, videos, and information (unless the information comes from said genius) are wrong, idiotic, moronic, and/or stupid. Here’s a bit of truth—no one coach knows all when it comes to speed development.

Now, I’m guilty of spending countless hours reading articles, websites, and forums. I’ve exhausted much time talking to and debating with old coaches and former training partners about how to help athletes get faster. I too have called those who don’t quite understand what speed training really entails dim. I have also been called dense more than once. However, I have become less judgmental of those so-called dim wits in recent years. Within these websites, forums, articles, and arguments, there seem to be one aspect that they tend to have in common—during speed training sessions, athletes must be allowed to run fast. Yet disagreements tend to center around sprint quality versus quantity, what the interval distances should be, and how long to rest between sprints reps and sets.

Much of what I have learned comes from the experience of being a sprinter, observing and being coached by some great and not so great coaches, reading, and most importantly, asking questions. In fact, it is surprising how open many of the accomplished coaches are. Be aware, my goal isn’t to invent some new fangled program that guarantees world-class speed. I’m not creative enough for that. However, I would like to try to give some simple tips and pointers on developing speed for non-track athletes. How I approach speed development is one method of numerous methods. There are many roads to Rome. Mine is simply a way and not the way. So read on and keep the mind open to some not so new ideas.

Speed training simply entails running fast consistently within a speed session. It has been my observation of many different sport programs that coaches don’t train their athletes to run fast. They train them to run moderate speeds for long periods of time. If the goal is to make a faster athlete, the coach must allow the athlete to run fast during speed sessions. The longer runs done at moderate speeds can come after the true speed work within the same training session. Here is an example of what I’ve seen during basketball speed sessions—run fast up and down the length of a basketball court. Rest a minute. Run up and down the basketball court again. Rest a minute. Repeat this over and over again. To raise intensity, every athlete must make the interval in some time set by the coach. If one doesn’t make the time, they must all run another as punishment. It is inevitable in this type of situation that the quality of the sprints being done will diminish. Even if the athlete is trying as hard as he can and giving 100 percent effort, he isn’t getting any faster if he isn’t operating at 95 percent or more of his absolute maximum speed. So while this type of work the basketball team is doing is certainly challenging, it isn’t true speed work! In simple terms, it is running for fitness. In order for an athlete to become fast, coaches must allow for every sprint in the session to be fast. Within that parameter, the distances that the athletes sprint should be short, probably a good deal shorter than what many coaches would prescribe in a speed session.

Sprint training must consist of shot explosive bursts with complete recovery. Once you are running in a fatigued state, you will no longer development maximum speed.

Distance for speed training should be relative to the distance that an athlete can sprint without slowing down. For example, it may be useless, in regards to speed training, for a lineman to do repeat 40–50 meter runs. I use ‘run’ because it is doubtful that a lineman can truly sprint 40–50 meter intervals repeatedly. He may be better served running repeat 15–20 meter sprints with about two minutes recovery between each. If a 200-lb lineman runs farther than 15–20 meters, he may slow down within that longer interval. Why?  He can’t maintain speed past that 15–20 meters. Yes, 20 meters is a short distance, but if the goal is to make him faster, the distance of the interval should be short enough, or long enough, for him to sprint fast repeatedly.

Another aspect to consider is speed training shouldn’t hurt. The athlete shouldn’t feel the burn of lactic acid in his muscles when doing true speed training. A tired muscle becomes a slow muscle. During speed work sessions, slow runs should be avoided.

When adding speed training into a program, here are a few simple guidelines that may be helpful:

1) For every 10 meters of sprinting, give about 0.5–1 minutes of rest. It isn’t only the cardiovascular system that needs the recovery. The nervous system must recover also. In order to facilitate fast runs, the neuromuscular system must be recovered to allow for another fast sprint. So give ample recovery between sprints. The higher the output the athlete is capable of, the longer rest he will require because his central nervous system is more efficient and will require greater recovery. Conversely, an athlete with lower general fitness will also require longer rests to recover fully in a cardiovascular sense.

2) Keep the interval distances short. I recommend starting with sprints up to 20 meters and slowly increasing the distance over several weeks as the athlete shows fitness and the capability to maintain proper mechanics relative to speed. For a 100-meter sprinter, maximum velocity work is done at distances up to 60 meters. Anything over that is speed endurance (the ability to hold on to top speed for longer distances). In most sports, athletes rarely sprint over 30 meters or more, so it may not be necessary to train a non-track athlete like a sprinter.

3) Don’t make the athletes sprint copious amounts of intervals. Unless the athlete is a world-class sprinter with several years of proper speed training, there is little need to have the athlete run a large number of sprints. The number of sprints and the total distance of speed covered in a speed workout should be relatively low. For the non-track athlete, high quality speed work can be achieved with less than 200 meters total. For example, 2 X 5 X 20 meters. This translates to two sets of five 20-meter sprints. Give a one- to two-minute recovery between sprints. Allow a five-minute recovery between the first and second set. As the athlete becomes better at handling speed, increase the distance of the intervals by 5–10 meters but keep the total meters of speed work around 200–250 meters. Understand that it isn’t the quantity of work that is important. It is the quality.

4) Keep a stopwatch on the athletes. Timing the sprints allows the coach to monitor how fast their athletes are running (duh). It also lets the coach determine if another interval should be done or if they should stop the speed work and move to another training element. Here is another example of what a workout may look like for a non-track athlete looking to increase overall speed:

2 X 4 X 20 meters (meaning two sets of four 20-meter sprints). Take a one- to two-minute recovery between each sprint. Take a three- to five-minute recovery between sets. These are timed runs.

Timing is also important in making sure that the athlete is sprinting fast during the training session. Understand that fast is relative to the speed of the individual athlete. Judge and supervise that athlete’s speed accordingly. If the speed session prescribed is 2 X 5 X 30 meters, the sprints should be timed to establish a base time for the day. The goal is to have each sprint be relatively consistent. If the first few sprints are done in 3.6 seconds (this time is arbitrary and used only to make a point), the goal for the session is to keep the sprints around the same time, give or take a tenth or so. If the athlete goes faster than 3.6 seconds, great! However, if the athlete slows to 3.9, 4.0,  and 4.1, a couple of things need to be asked. Was there enough rest given between sprints? Sometimes an extra minute or two will allow for the speed session to continue. Is the athlete tired? If so, then move to a different training protocol for the day. As I said before, tired muscles do not sprint well and injury can occur. Remember, the athlete is to run fast, not moderately fast due to fatigue.

Speed training doesn’t have to be difficult. In fact, it is quite simple—run fast during a speed session. If coaches allow their athletes to do this, they may be surprised at how much speed can be gained. I understand that true speed work isn’t the ridiculously strenuous work that both athletes and coaches may be used to. Some may not feel as if real work is being accomplished because speed training isn’t painful. For those gluttons for punishment, I suggest doing short interval speed work sessions at the beginning of the workouts. After sprinting, go and run all those moderate runs up and down the field. Go ahead and make the butt burn. Understand though that this type of work won’t increase your speed, except in the lowest qualified athletes. However, the fast sprints done before the moderate runs will most likely be of great benefit in the long and short run. Good luck!

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About the Author

Jon Gilmer is the director of speed/power/agility development at the Academy of Speed in Rancho Cucamonga, California. Gilmer was a USATF National qualifier in the 100 meter with a PR of 10.28 seconds after running for LSU and Cal State Riverside. Gilmer has worked with athletes from a variety of sports during his time working at Juggernaut Training Systems with Chad Wesley Smith and “The Thinker” and is USATF Level 1 sprints coach. Learn more about Jon at AcademyofSpeed.org and JTSstrength.com.