Can I Get Faster???
The short answer is a big YES!
Anybody can most definitely get faster.
The long answer is - Everyone's genetic profile will limit the ceiling they can reach, but I have yet to find an athlete who has reached that ceiling. It's not always easy and there are a ton of factors that go into enhancing speed, but every athlete I've met has the potential to improve on their linear speed.
Here are the 3 major ways we can increase speed...
Mechanics and technique most definitely matter, and anybody who says differently is dead wrong. As research on sprint mechanics continues to poor in, it's becoming evidently clear that mechanics play a huge role in developing speed.
The orientation of force application into the ground is more important to performance than the total amount (1)
Many Strength and Conditioning professionals tend to think that it's just all about strength, and while strength matters (look number 2), it's only a small part of the equation. Athletes can't just improve their squat or clean and magically get faster, or at least reach their speed potential.
Adequate technical proficiency needs to exhibited in order to sprint fast, and this means adequate times needs to be put into coaching and teaching it.
But whenever we get into full go sprints, all of the the mechanic work goes out the window!
I hear this a lot, and I feel it's a cop out.
Coaches work their butts of to perfect squat mechanics or Olympic lift mechanics, but when you throw a max load on an athlete, often times this technique goes to hell.
So why is lifting work viewed differently than speed work?
The truth is, yes some of this mechanical work might be lost when shit hits the fan, but that doesn't mean you don't do it.
Trust me, things will stick, and if you stay after it and emphasize sprinting mechanics as much as you emphasize lifting mechanics, your athletes will get better.
Improving acceleration and sprint mechanics can be as small as altering foot strike by a few inches, body posture by a few degrees, leg path by a few inches, etc.
It's often times small changes that make huge differences, but they don't come easy, just as learning the power clean doesn't come easy.
It's takes time and understanding motor learning, and being able to convey context and intent to the athlete.
Strength is a touchy matter, but the truth remains - strength matters! I just don't think it matters as much as most S&C coaches think.
Depending on the level of experience, age of the participants, and the length of the study, there have been mixed results. For example, it has been shown that it takes exceptionally large increases in 1RM back squat strength (~23-27%) to only slightly increase sprinting speed (2-3%) (5,6).
A longitudinal study followed NCAA I football players at Oklahoma State University over the course of 4-years, and the researchers concluded that while athletes gained much strength in the back squat, they did not improve their sprinting speed, showing a possible disconnect between the back squat and improving sprinting speed (6)
Also consider this...
- Ground contact times for acceleration are typically ~.20sec
- Ground contact times for max velocity are typically ~.08-.10sec
- Max force production takes ~.70sec (7)
So during speed actions, athletes are only on the ground for ~1/3 - 1/7 of the time that it actually takes to express max force production. This demonstrates the disconnect between max strength and speed, and instead demonstrates the ability and rate to apply large forces in shorter and shorter times.
Having more strength will give you a higher ceiling, but ultimately it comes down to being able to express high forces, very quickly - so yes strength does matter, but ultimately it's only a small piece of the puzzle.
In support, a recent meta-analysis by Setiz (2014) looked at 15 studies, consisting of 510 subjects showed strength in the back squat significantly correlated to sprinting speed. They concluded that lower-body strength transfers positively to sprint performance and should be noted as a relevant training regimen to coaches and athletes (4)
This meta-analysis shows the importance of strength, but here's the thing, many of these studies use novice or untrained athletes. In this case and it definitely applies to the development of athletes - strength definitely influences speed, but much of this impact is on younger, novice type of athletes. As athletes become more experienced and more developed, strength becomes less important.
Do you think Usain Bolt would get faster is he focused on improving his squat by 30lbs?
So when I hear S&C coaches say strength is the number 1 factor to increase speed, they are just plain wrong. This might work for young or inexperienced athletes, but tons of other factors come into play.
3) Elasticity + Stiffness
We are combining elasticity and stiffness because they are closely related and often we are talking about the same structures.
Elasticity is extremely important for acceleration and sprinting speed. As we touched upon earlier, ground contact times are much shorter than the amount of time it takes to express max force. Given this, elastic abilities become ultra important to transmit "free" forces from muscle and connective tissues. Stiffness is tremendously important to resist deformation and provide a stiff structure for the elastic properties of muscles and connectives tissues to be fully expressed.
Tendon stiffness and training the SSC has been shown to be related to higher vertical jump and sprinting speed (8-12). The difficult thing is adaptations in connective tissues appear to take take 6 months to 2 years, compared to 3 weeks for muscle. But things like low-end plyo's, bouncing, eccentric, and isometric training are all effective for developing greater elasticity and stiffness.
We are looking to enhance stiffness throughout the body, but especially in the lower leg - To act like a pogo stick, with slight deformation but great elastic return. We tell our athletes all the time - having strong and stiff foot/lower leg complex is like having brand new, pumped up tires. Having weak feet/lower leg complex is like trying to drive on flat tires - You are very inefficient and lose all the force transmission from the hips.
Fast athletes appear to bounce and float off ground. They are quick and snap off the ground. It's amazing to hear a fast athletes feet as they accelerate and sprint. It's quick and quiet and snappy.
The great sprint coach Charlie Francis was known to say, he knew when his athletes were fatigued by the sound of their foot strike. When it became loud and poundy, he know it was time to quit the sessions.
His athletes were losing their elasticity and stiffness, and the session could only be detrimental from there on out.
This is elasticity and stiffness at it's core
Stay tuned for Part 3 - Phases of Sprinting.
Go Get 'Em
1) Morin, J. B., Edouard, P., & Samozino, P. (2011). Technical ability of force application as a determinant factor of sprint performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 43(9), 1680-8.
2) Bojsen-Møller, J., Magnusson, S. P., Rasmussen, L. R., Kjaer, M., & Aagaard, P. (2005). Muscle performance during maximal isometric and dynamic contractions is influenced by the stiffness of the tendinous structures. Journal of Applied Physiology, 99(3), 986-994.
3) Liu, Y., Peng, C. H., Wei, S. H., Chi, J. C., Tsai, F. R., & Chen, J. Y. (2006). Active leg stiffness and energy stored in the muscles during maximal counter movement jump in the aged. Journal of Electromyography and Kinesiology, 16(4), 342-351.
4) Seitz, L. B., Reyes, A., Tran, T. T., de Villarreal, E. S., & Haff, G. G. (2014). Increases in Lower-Body Strength Transfer Positively to Sprint Performance: A Systematic Review with Meta-Analysis. Sports Medicine, 44(12), 1693-1702.
5) Cronin, J., Ogden, T., Lawton, T., & Brughelli, M. (2007). Does Increasing Maximal Strength Improve Sprint Running Performance?. Strength & Conditioning Journal, 29(3), 86-95.
6) Jacobson, B. H., Conchola, E. G., Glass, R. G., & Thompson, B. J. (2013). Longitudinal morphological and performance profiles for American, NCAA Division I football players. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 27(9), 2347-2354.
7) Baechle, T. R., & Earle, R. W. (2008). Essentials of strength training and conditioning. Human kinetics.
8) Viitasalo, J. T., Salo, A., & Lahtinen, J. (1998). Neuromuscular functioning of athletes and non-athletes in the drop jump. European journal of applied physiology and occupational physiology, 78(5), 432-440.
9) Wilson, J. M., & Flanagan, E. P. (2008). The role of elastic energy in activities with high force and power requirements: a brief review. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 22(5), 1705-1715.
10) Chelly, S. M., & Denis, C. (2001). Leg power and hopping stiffness: relationship with sprint running performance. Medicine and Science in sports and Exercise, 33(2), 326-333.
11) HENNESSY, L., & KILTY, J. (2001). Relationship of the stretch-shortening cycle to sprint performance in trained female athletes. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 15(3), 326-331.
12) Harrison, A. J., Keane, S. P., & Coglan, J. (2004). Force-velocity relationship and stretch-shortening cycle function in sprint and endurance athletes. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 18(3), 473-479.