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Speed Development - more than just running fast

Mike Leonard explores the crucial elements of speed development and how they can be applied to meet the demands of your sport.

Speed is the capacity to perform successive movements at a fast rate. As well as thinking about speed as "running speed" it is the development of the ability to move the limbs quickly which is needed in a variety of sports and events, e.g. javelin, discus, tennis, squash etc. Therefore, there is more to think about than just running fast.

Energy system for speed

The anaerobic alactic pathway supplies energy for absolute speed. The anaerobic (without oxygen) alactic (without lactate) energy system is best challenged as an athlete approaches top speed between 30 and 60 metres while running at 95% to 100% of maximum.

Developing Speed

They say that sprinters are "born and not made" due to the necessity of having a preponderance of fast-twitch muscle fibres. The development of pure speed involves stimulating the central nervous system to send messages through to the muscles to tell them to contract. The speed of this contraction has a significant bearing on the power of the movement.

When applied in the field of sport, however, this "element of speed" is not enough on its own. Genetically our muscles comprise a certain level of fast/slow-twitch fibres, which does not significantly change (although training effects can modify them to a limited extent).

In racquet sports like tennis and field events like the javelin, limb speed is essential, but strength, suppleness, stamina and skill all play a part in the application of speed to the field of performance. Speed is, therefore, an element of the conditioning of the body to meet the specific needs of the sport, but how do we develop it? As a track coach, my sprinters use a variety of exercises and drills to stimulate the responses needed within the body to run fast.

Examples of speed development methods

SAQ® - speed, agility and quickness of movement. Warm-up is conducted with a wide array of drills and with the use of equipment (speed ladders, hurdles, cones etc.), agility and speed are developed. Further details on this method of speed development can be found on the SAQ International web site at

Specific Sprint Drills - Drills can be used to develop the correct movement patterns of the limbs and to ingrain these movement patterns into our memory. Technique drills for runners are usually performed using three activities, marching (walking), skipping and running. Each activity helps to develop essential components of proper and economical running technique. An example of some sprint specific technical drills can be found on the following website:

Speed Sessions - On the running, we can use several different sessions to work purely on speed. An example is 2 x 4 x 30 (90%) [3, 10] which means; 2 sets of 4 repetitions of 30 metres at 90% effort with 3 minutes recovery between each repetition and 10 minutes recovery between each set. Other sessions can use various distances to add variety, but when working on pure speed, I work on distances only up to 60m.

Further variations can be brought in with broken runs where the session requires the athlete to sprint at 100% for a given distance, e.g. 30m, ease to 80% effort for 30m and then go back to 100% effort for another 30m before slowing down and stopping. Progression of this training unit can be with variation in the distances run for each phase.

Speed workouts for a selection of running events

Event Speed Session
100 metres 10 × 30 metres at race pace from blocks with full recovery
3 to 4 × 80 metres at race pace with full recovery
800 metres 5 × 200 metres at goal race pace with 10 seconds recovery
4 × 400 metres at 2 to 3 seconds faster than current race pace with 2 minutes recovery
1500 metres 4 × 400 metres at goal race pace with 15 to 10-sec recovery
4 to 5 × 800 metres at 5 to 6 seconds per 800 metres faster than goal race pace with 6 minutes recovery
5,000 metres 4 to 5 × 800 metres at 4 seconds per 800 metres faster than goal race pace with 60 seconds recovery
3 × 1 mile at 6 seconds per mile faster than goal race pace with 2 minutes recovery
10,000 metres 3 × 2000 metres at 3 seconds per 200 metres faster than goal race pace with 2 minutes recovery
Five 5 min intervals at current 5km race pace with 3 minutes recovery
Marathon Six 1-mile repeats at 15 seconds per mile faster than goal race pace with 1-minute recovery
3 × 3000 metres at 10km race pace with 6 minutes recovery

Reaction speed

Reaction runs are useful to develop and improve the ability to react quickly and move from any position to a sprint in the least possible time. Everyone will be able to think of starting positions that correlate to a position that their performers would get into. Progression of this training can be made with weighted jackets or other forms of resistance (weighted sledge, tyre). The following are examples of reaction speed drills to an external stimulus.

Applicable to any event or sport where pure speed over the ground is important
Starting position Lying on the ground on their back or front
Command Voice or sound
Action To get up and sprint 20 to 30 metres to a designated point
Notes The designated point could be the coach who moves from point to point so that the athletes only have the sound of the command to initially determine where the coach is positioned

For sports where a ball is to be controlled by the athlete
Starting position Easy running controlling the ball
Command Voice command of left, right, back or forward
Action To sprint in the direction of the command for a designated distance, whilst controlling the ball, and then return to easy running
Notes The drill can be repeated 3 or 4 times, bringing the athlete back to the starting point to pass the ball to the next athlete.

Over-speed training

Downhill sprinting is an ideal way of developing sprinting speed. A hill with a maximum of a 15° decline is most suitable. Use 40 metres to 60 metres to build up to full speed and then maintain the speed for a further 30 metres. A session could comprise of 2 to 3 sets of 3 to 6 repetitions. The difficulty with this method is to find a suitable hill with a safe surface. Over-speed work could be carried out on the track when there are prevailing strong winds - run with the wind behind you.

When should speed work be conducted? It is important to remember that the improvement of running speed is a complex process, which is controlled by the brain and nervous system. For a runner to move more quickly, the leg muscles have to contract more quickly, but the brain and nervous systems have to learn to control these faster movements efficiently.

If you maintain some form of speed training throughout the year, your muscles and nervous system do not lose the feel of moving fast, and the brain will not have to re-learn the proper control patterns at a later date.

In the training week, speed work should be carried out after a period of rest or light training. In a training session, speed work should be conducted after the warm-up, and any other training should be of a low-intensity.

Sprinting technique

Most sports will involve the need to generate speed at some point. On the track, sprinters hone their sprint technical skills in concert with speed, as good technique (i.e. a biomechanically efficient running model) will enhance the speed that is generated. The technique used in running fast may need to be adapted, e.g. in rugby, a winger may wish not to run quite as relaxed as he might on a track to brace himself for a tackle. A lower centre of gravity may also be needed in this case. However, there is a technical model of efficient sprinting which can be developed and where necessary, adapted to the benefit of the sport.


Speed can be thought of in the pure context of the speed of limb movement or in the context of the 100-metre runner exploding down the track. The need for speed is important in many sports, and this may be of a maximum or optimum nature. To improve speed will require work on the other fitness components. Strength is necessary to move the body and flexibility (especially in shoulders and hips) to allow sufficient range of movement to apply this strength. A poor running technique will place a limiting factor on the potential to create speed. The methods used to develop speed needs to be appropriate to the age and ability of the athlete and the demands of the sport or event.

Article Reference

This article first appeared in:

  • LEONARD, M. (2006) Speed Development - more than just running fast. Brian Mackenzie's Successful Coaching, (ISSN 1745-7513/ 38/ December), p. 7-8

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • LEONARD, M. (2006) Speed Development - more than just running fast [WWW] Available from: [Accessed

About the Author

Mike Leonard has coached sprints for over 17 years. He coached Craig Pickering to the European Junior 100m title in 2005 and the World Youth Bronze Medal in 2003. He has tutored for both British Athletics and its predecessor the British Athletics Federation. He holds various positions within the regional structures of England Athletics, organises and coaches at many squad sessions within the South East and East of England. His training group is based in Milton Keynes, which includes junior international and national standard athletes.