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Zero to 22mph (36km/hr) in 3 seconds

Brian Mackenzie provides an overview of speed development.

Speed is the quickness of movement of a limb, whether this is the legs of a runner or the arm of the shot putter. Speed is an integral part of every sport and can be expressed as any one of, or combination of, the following:

  • maximum speed
  • elastic strength (power)
  • speed endurance

What is speed influenced by?

Speed is influenced by the athlete's mobility, special strength, strength endurance, and technique.

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 60m while running at 95% to 100% of maximum. This speed component of anaerobic metabolism lasts for approximately six seconds and should be trained when no muscle fatigue is present (usually after 24 to 36 hours of rest)

How do we develop Speed?

The technique of sprinting must be rehearsed at slow speeds and then transferred to runs at maximum speed. The stimulation, excitation, and correct firing order of the motor units, composed of a motor nerve (Neuron) and the group of muscles that it supplies, makes it possible for high-frequency movements to occur. The whole process is not clear, but the complex coordination and timing of the motor units and muscles most certainly must be rehearsed at high speeds to implant the correct patterns.

Flexibility and a correct warm-up will affect stride length and frequency (strike rate). Stride length can be improved by developing muscular strength, power, strength endurance, and running technique. The development of speed is highly specific, and to achieve it, we should ensure that:

  • Flexibility is developed and maintained all year round
  • Strength and speed are developed in parallel
  • Skill development (technique) is pre-learned, rehearsed, and perfected before it is done at high-speed levels
  • Speed training is performed by using high velocity for brief intervals. This will ultimately bring into play the correct neuromuscular pathways and energy sources used

When should speed work be conducted?

It is important to remember that the improvement of running speed is a complex process that is controlled by the brain and nervous system. For a runner to move more quickly, the leg muscles, of course, have to contract more quickly, but the brain and nervous systems also 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.

Speed Workouts

Event Speed Session
100 m 10 x 30m at race pace from blocks with full recovery
3-4 x 80m at race pace with full recovery
800 m 5 x 200m at goal race pace with 10 secs recovery
4 x 400m at 2-3 sec faster than current race pace with 2 min recovery
1500 m 4 x 400m at goal race pace with 15-10 secs recovery
4-5 x 800m at 5-6 secs per 800m faster than goal race pace with 6 min recovery
5,000 m 4-5 x 800m at 4 sec per 800m faster than goal race pace with 60 secs recovery
3 x 1 mile at 6 sec per mile faster than goal race pace with 2 mins recovery
10,000 m 3 x 2000m at 3 secs per 200m faster than goal race pace with 2 min recovery
Five 5 min intervals at current 5k race pace with 3 min recovery
Marathon Six 1-mile repeats at 15 sec per mile faster than goal race pace with 1 min recovery
3 x 3000m at 10k race pace with 6 min recovery

Sprinting speed

Sprinting speed can be developed in many ways:

  • Towing - the athlete is towed behind a motorcycle at a speed of 0.1 to 0.3 secs faster than the athlete's best for a rolling 30m. This pace is held for 20m to 30m following a gradual build-up to max speed over 60m to 70m
  • Elastic Pull - two tubular elastic ropes are attached to the athlete - two coaches, positioned forward and to each side of the athlete, extend the elastic to full stretch, and the athlete is virtually catapulted over the first 10m from a standing of crouched start

I am sure you can appreciate the potential dangers of these two methods.

Downhill sprinting is a safer alternative to developing sprinting speed. A hill with a maximum of a 15° decline is most suitable. Use 40m to 60m to build up to full speed and then maintain the speed for a further 30m. 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.

Reaction Speed Drill

The athletes start in a variety of different positions - lying face down, lying on their backs, in a push-up or sit-up position, kneeling or seated. The coach stands some 30m from the group then gives a signal for everyone to jump up and run towards him/her at slightly faster than race pace. Repeat using various starting positions and with the coach standing in different places so that the athletes have to change directions quickly once they begin to run. Speed reaction drills can also be conducted whilst controlling an item (e.g. football, basketball, hockey ball) with an implement (e.g. feet, hands, hockey stick).

Speed Principles

The general principles for improved speed are as follows:

  • Choose a reasonable goal for your event, and then work on running at velocities that are faster than your goal over short work intervals
  • Train at goal pace to enhance your neuromuscular coordination, self-confidence, and stamina at your desired speed
  • At first, utilise long recoveries, but as you get fitter and faster shorten the recovery periods between work intervals to make your training more specific and realistic to racing. Also move on to longer work intervals, as you are able
  • Work on your aerobic capacity and lactate threshold, conduct some easy pace runs to burn calories, and permit recovery from the speed sessions
  • Work on your mobility to develop a range of movement (range of motion at your hips will affect speed) and assist in the prevention of injury

Seven Step Model

The following is a seven-step model for developing playing speed.

  1. Basic training to develop all qualities of movement to a level that will provide a solid base on which to build each successive step. This includes programs to increase body control, strength, muscle endurance, and sustained effort (muscular and cardiovascular, anaerobic and aerobic)
  2. Functional strength and explosive movements against medium to heavy resistance. Maximum power is trained by working in an intensity range of 55 to 85% of your maximum intensity (1 RM)
  3. Ballistics to develop high-speed sending and receiving movements
  4. Plyometrics to develop explosive hopping, jumping, bounding, hitting, and kicking
  5. Sprinting form and speed endurance to develop sprinting technique and improving the length of time you can maintain your speed
  6. Sport loading to develop specific speed. The intensity is 85 to 100% of maximum speed
  7. Over-speed training. This involves the systematic application of sporting speed that exceeds maximum speed by 5 to 10% through the use of various over-speed training techniques

Article Reference

This article first appeared in:

  • MACKENZIE, B. (2003) Zero to 22mph (36km/hr) in 3 seconds. Brian Mackenzie's Successful Coaching, (ISSN 1745-7513/ 3 / July), p. 8-9

Page Reference

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

  • MACKENZIE, B. (2003) Zero to 22mph (36km/hr) in 3 seconds [WWW] Available from: [Accessed

About the Author

Brian Mackenzie is a British Athletics level 4 performance coach and a coach tutor/assessor. He has been coaching sprint, middle distance, and combined event athletes for the past 30+ years and has 45+ years of experience as an endurance athlete.