The top 10-speed training myths
Patrick Beth explains some of the myths that surround speed development.
Static stretching prepares you to compete/practice
Static stretching reduces power output. Athletes should prepare for practice by undertaking a dynamic warm-up that moves from basic, low-intensity movements to faster, more explosive movements as the muscles loosen up. You want to simulate movements that athletes will go through in practice or a game.
Strength training makes females too bulky
This is a popular attitude with many female athletes that we have worked with. Look at some elite female athletes like Mia Hamm, Lisa Leslie, etc. These athletes certainly train with weights, and no one would accuse them of having manly physiques. Strength training will improve performance and reduce injury if performed correctly.
You cannot train speed
For some reason, it is a popular belief that you are born with a certain amount of 'speed', and you cannot improve it. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Most young athletes are so physically weak and mechanically out of tune that significant speed improvements can be made often just by working on technique and form. Athletes can improve speed when implementing a complete speed training program designed to enhance and develop the entire athlete at any age and any level.
Training slowly makes you fast
I do not think athletes and coaches directly think this way, but their training implies otherwise. This is especially true in sports that involve a higher aerobic element, such as soccer, field hockey, lacrosse, etc. I see kids out running mileage and doing long slow intervals of several minutes of continuous running. But in games I see kids jogging, jogging and then sprinting at full speed for 20-30 yards, run, jog, and sprint for 20-30 yards. If you want kids to improve their acceleration and top speed to get to the ball faster or get back on defence, you have to train by running at full speed in practice.
You can train hard every day
The workout itself is only one piece of the training puzzle. It is the time between intense workouts, the recovery, where athletes make their improvements. And it takes 36-48 hours to recover from high-intensity training. If athletes are doing too much, too often, they become overtrained. Coaches can expect to see an increase in injuries, kids complaining that they are sore more often, decreased performance, and higher fatigue levels earlier in games. It is always better to undertrain an athlete than overtrain. Err on the side of caution to get maximal results.
Strength training will stunt a young athlete's growth
This is another myth held over from a different time. Daily, kids as young as seven years old are playing organized sports year-round, tackling, getting tackled, sliding, falling etc. These loads on the body can have a much greater physical impact than a well-designed strength training program. Though we do not usually begin training with weights with pre-pubescent athletes, they can benefit from bodyweight exercises such as push-ups, lunges, sit-ups, etc. This will increase muscular efficiency, speed up recovery, improve coordination and overall speed
The harder the workout, the better the result
Some athletes (and coaches) believe that if a workout does not reduce them to complete exhaustion and make them vomit, it was not an effective workout. I can tell you that those who have this mentality see a lot of injuries and frustrating performances. The purpose of a workout is to stimulate an adaptation by the body. If the body is forced to do too much work in a given time, it will break down. The skill in coaching is to stimulate the adaptation in the body, without reaching a point of diminishing returns.
Interval training is the same as speed training
Running repeat 100s, 200s, etc. will not improve top speeds. Even running repeat 40s with short recovery will not improve acceleration and top speeds. Speedwork is defined at 2-8 seconds of maximal intensity running with full recovery. That means at least 3 minutes of light dynamic movement between each effort. This goes against the experience of some coaches, but it is the only way to improve speed. An athlete must be able to focus on proper form and maintain intensity to get faster. If they do not recover properly from each interval, they will not replicate appropriate mechanics with consistency and cannot improve.
Flexibility will not help you get faster
Both coaches and athletes spend so much time on the skills of their sport, speed training and conditioning that they often forget a fundamental component of success: flexibility. After practice or a game, the muscles are warm and loose. Now is the time to work on increasing flexibility. Many athletes suffer injuries or compete below their capacity because low flexibility inhibits their motion and speed range. We see this often in the hips and hip flexors where athletes' stride length appears conspicuously short. We often see this in male athletes who will lift weights, train hard and then skip out on their cooldown and flexibility work.
Lift your knees
I hear so many parents and coaches yelling to their kids when they want them to run faster or when they are beginning to fatigue, 'Lift your knees - Get your knees up'. This is one of the most backwards cues we can give to athletes. The way to run faster is to apply more force to the ground. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction, so the more force you apply to the ground, the more the ground will return. So, when we cue athletes to lift their knees we are doing two things incorrectly. We are telling them to use their hip flexors to lift instead of their glutes and hamstrings to drive down. Think about the size of your hip flexor versus the size of the glutes and hamstrings. Now, which muscles do you think can create more force and therefore, more speed?
Second, we are teaching a movement that is in opposition to what generates speed. If an athlete learns at age 7, to lift their knees when they need a burst of speed, that improper cue will be hardwired into their brain. To unlearn that as a teenager and try to do the opposite and drive down, that athlete will have a difficult time coordinating an entirely new way of running and will potentially have to take a step or two backwards. That is why it is critical to learn the correct technique early and get an advantage over those who still are not getting the best instruction. So, cue athletes to step over the opposite knee and drive the foot down into the ground, landing underneath the hip.
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About the Author
Patrick Beth is a co-owner of Athletes' Acceleration, Inc, a company devoted to performance enhancement whose mission is to improve motivated coaches and athletes' knowledge base to enhance athletic performance. He is a Performance Consultant certified by the National Strength and Conditioning Association (CSCS), the American Council of Sports Medicine (HFI), the National Academy of Sports Medicine (PES). He is a USA Track and Field Level II Coach in the Sprints, Hurdles and Jumps.