Speed Training for Athletes | How To Get Faster In The Gym

This article will focus on sprinting relative to the 100 meter and 200 meter track and field events; however, the concepts discussed can and will transfer very well to field based and court based sports. How will strength training for sprinting transfer to field sports? Simple: running is involved. 

One of the easiest things that can be done with sprinting, especially in the world of track and field, is to break down the event and actions into phases. We here at Garage Strength like to break it down into the following phases:

  1. The Start Phase
  2. The Drive Phase (acceleration)
  3. Maximal Mechanics
  4. Slowdown The Slowest (the person who can hold the top end speed for the longest)

By breaking down sprinting into phases, it allows coaches to assess athletes’ strengths and weaknesses at different moments in sprinting. For instance, does the athlete accelerate rapidly to top speed but lack the endurance to maintain? Does the athlete’s top end speed mechanically fall apart or does the athlete lack top end speed? Does the athlete have superior top end speed but takes too long to reach that level of output? All of these questions are valuable and need to be considered, discussed and applied to see where the problems are.

Once the phases are understood (start, drive, maximal mechanics, slowdown the slowest), now we can take a step back and dive even deeper by breaking down the phases. Once the phases are broken down, we have to start to think about a whole bunch of different factors of what goes into running fast. Essentially answering: What makes a person fast? Looking at Usain Bolt we can see that not only is it physical ability, but technique as well.


Now as strength coaches, with our understanding of each of the phases, we can jump in and identify the key factors.


Let’s start by taking it back to elementary school physics and speaking to Newton’s Laws of Motion.

Every Action Has An Equal And Opposite Reaction (Newton’s 3rd Law)

What does that mean for sprinting?


It means that however much force a sprinter or runner can apply into the blocks or into the earth, the earth/blocks will give that much energy back to the individual. The more force the individual can generate off the start, the more force that will be returned to the individual as long as the technique and body angles hold true to what is needed.

Where else does Newton’s 3rd Law factor into the phases of running?


Let’s consider a runner whose arms are all over the place, swinging haphazardly across their body looking, jousting their shoulders this way and that while disrupting their trunk stability. How does technique impact running? More specifically, how does the technique of the upper body and arms impact running? To start, the arms swinging wildly disrupts the ability to maintain dynamic trunk control. If an athlete can hold dynamic trunk control at top end speed based on training in the weightroom and the athlete has proper mechanics, Newton’s 3rd Law will hold true during the phases of maximal mechanics and slowing down the slowest to benefit the sprinter running fast and not slowing down. Conversely, if the runner is unable to hold dynamic trunk control and fails to transfer the coordination from the weight room, Newton’s 3rd Law will hold true during the same phases to hinder the sprinter from running their fastest.


We need to make sure there is a minimal amount of external action that is going to impede on the success of the athlete’s speed.

The More Force...The More Acceleration, Or Force/Mass (Newton’s 2nd Law)

What does that mean for sprinting?


What does more acceleration mean for sprinting?


Acceleration is essentially the force generated divided by the mass. That is going to play a key role in the start and drive phases. The ability to accelerate is all about how much force the athlete can put out divided by how much relative mass the athlete has as an individual. Someone that has a little less body weight or body fat and can put out a ton of force is going to be able to accelerate a lot faster. This is key.

How can we get somebody to maintain a lean body weight? But also, and more importantly, how can we get somebody to maintain a lean body weight and put out a tremendous amount of force so that they can accelerate at a higher rate? Factoring in these components will allow getting out of the blocks quicker, get through the drive phase faster and how to hold maximal mechanics.

Every Object In Motion Stays In Motion Unless Acted Upon By Uneven Forces (Newton’s 1st Law)

Again, what does this mean for sprinting? Or better yet. Why is top end speed unable to be maintained when running and sprinting?


Let’s think about a person running at full speed and understand that there is always going to be a breaking mechanism at play; it’s physics. For instance, every time a sprinter/runner grounds, they’re is going to be a period of breaking. Not only is it physics, it’s the biomechanics of the human body. It will not be avoided.

The way to overcome Newton’s 1st Law is to combat it with Newton’s 3rd law.


Which brings us to the period of impulse.

The Period Of Impulse

Impulse is when the foot grounds, the period that it is grounded for and how much force can be applied into the ground during that short, or longer (depending on the phase), time of ground contact.


At Garage Strength, with strength training for sprinting, we believe that once we understand Newton’s three laws and how they impact the four phases, and that technique and physical ability are the key factors behind fueling the sprinter's success, the key behind all of it comes back to period of impulse and angles.


For technique and force development that is.


At this point, we need to be asking what is the shin angle out of the blocks? What is the body angle coming out of the blocks? Ideally, the angle held coming out of the blocks is 45 degrees. Women it will be a little bit higher because of force output. But angles still need to be hit in the other phases of sprinting as well. What are the angles that need to be held when running during maximal mechanics? To start, we want to be upright with nice hip extension and strong mobility through a dorsiflexion angle while also understanding, as strength coaches, what exercises can contribute to dynamic trunk control so while at maximal mechanics the arms are not disrupting the body.

Still, everything comes back to the period of impulse. The longer the period of impulse is, the more force the athlete can apply to the ground, which it then gets a positive response back, a reaction back from the ground. An increase in impulse means an increase in momentum.


Now as we think of things through the phases and through that period of impulse, we can now start to analyze. Beginning with the start phase, what are some exercises to use to improve the start? Because the period of impulse is much longer in the start phase, we can think of using exercises like back squats, front squats, pause squats or static starting cleans to contribute. It will help the athlete, sprinter, runner coordinate a large amount of force, which will then help accelerate into the drive phase.


How long is the period of impulse in the drive phase? Relative to the start phase, the period of impulse is going to shorten but will still be longer than the last two phases. Now we need to think about the shin angle, knowing the head needs to be neutral and not tucked too much (don’t want that leading to hamstring issues) and a lot of strong muscles with the glutes, quads and hamstrings. What exercises to improve sprinting during the drive phase? As it all comes back to the period of impulse, we want to use single leg squats, more olympic lifts, more unilateral work and anything along those lines because when sprinting everything is going to be done unilaterally.


Leaving the drive phase and heading into the phases of maximal mechanics--top speed--and slowing down the slowest, the period of impulse is going to be much shorter. We have to think about what movements are going to help improve impulse to have a higher rate of momentum. Exercises like single leg bounds, double leg bounds, skips for height and skips for distance. We also have to think about technique.


Anytime the focus is on weightroom strength, programming needs to factor in how it is going to improve technique. From a strength perspective? A mobility perspective? A mindset perspective? All of this needs to be considered.

Recap

As we figure out all of these different things from the 100 meter race, a strength coach’s relationship with the coaches on the track and on the field, it has to be simple. It needs to be broken down into phases, identifying where the athletes are the slowest and pinpointing where they have the worst technical perspective in every single phase.


But we have to understand impulse. Remember, impulse is when the foot grounds, the period that it is grounded for and how much force can be implied into the ground during the time of ground contact.


So, understanding the four phases (start, drive, maximal mechanics, slowing down the slowest), period of impulse and the athlete’s weakness inside of the race, will be the absolute key factor behind strength training. Understanding how physical training in the weightroom can improve all of these points of performance, exercises can be applied to directly impact speed, ultimately making our athletes faster.


DANE MILLER

Dane Miller is the owner and founder of Garage Strength Sports Performance. He works with a select handful of clients on building comprehensive programs for fitness and nutrition. Several times a year he leads a workshop for coaches, trainers, and fitness enthusiasts.

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