“Speed kills!” is a popular buzzword in sports. Athletes know speed is important, fans know speed is important, and even a few sports journalists have figured out that all things being equal, faster athletes tend to win a lot. Somewhere along the way, however, coaches got distracted from having their athletes do the things they need to do to get fast.
Take a look at tennis. Two of the greatest tennis players in the history of the sport are Björn Borg and Steffi Graf. Borg won five Wimbledon titles (’76-’80) and Graf won seven (’88-’96), and both were fast. It’s reported that Borg ran the 100 yards in 9.8 and Graff had a world-class 800-meter time. However, today the emphasis in tennis is often on power rather than speed; for instance, today’s tennis rackets are designed to transfer more energy to the ball, such that the power can diffuse the speed. In other sports the same thing is happening: In baseball, modern bats enable kids to hit harder; and although Lance Armstrong’s book is entitled It’s Not About the Bike
, bike technology does make a considerable difference in performance – which is why cyclists who compete in the Tour de France are willing to pay $10,000 or more for their bikes.
In many sports, power is king, and the advantage regularly goes to the taller and bigger athletes who can play the power game. Unfortunately, speed has become somewhat neglected, and it’s not just due to advances in equipment technology. Here are 13 reasons that athletes today are not fulfilling their speed potential:
1. Ignoring body fat.
One of the simplest ways to make an athlete faster is to get them leaner. To demonstrate the importance of being lean, simply time an athlete in any short distance running test: perhaps a 10-yard shuttle or a 40-yard dash. After the athlete has sufficiently recovered, have him or her wear a five-pound weight vest (not ankle or wrist weights, as these can significantly affect movement mechanics) and perform the same test. You’ll be surprised at how much only five pounds can slow them down – and how many athletes are carrying an extra five pounds of fat?
2. Not knowing how to lose body fat.
It’s one thing to recognize that an athlete needs to lose body fat; it’s another to know how to do it. One way is with aerobics, and another is by eating less – both have the effect of reducing muscle mass. Further, aerobic training compromises the nervous system, making fast twitch muscle fibers behave like slow-twitch fibers.
3. Structural imbalance.
Too often, coaches and parents of young athletes believe that year-round specialization will lead to higher levels of performance. Instead, the result is often muscle imbalances that increase the risk of injuries and can lead to an early exit from athletic competition. For example, inadequate strength in the VMO can cause inefficient running mechanics.
4. Not understanding relative strength.
Generally speaking, any increase in muscle mass will make an athlete faster, but the approach should be to increase hypertrophy in the high-threshold fibers because they contribute to speed. One way is to use heavy weights with low reps – a type of program that a weightlifter would use. Lance Armstrong’s weight training program emphasized lifts such as power cleans and step-ups, which have a minimal eccentric component. Because the eccentric component in cycling is minimal, this type of workout improves sport performance without a significant gain in bodyweight.
5. Poor long-term program design.
Gaining a large amount of bodyweight quickly, even if it’s muscle mass, can adversely affect sports performance. Let’s say a high school football player decides in the summer before his senior year to embark on a bodybuilding program to gain as much bodyweight as possible so he can physically dominate his competition. He gains 20 pounds, mostly muscle, so he thinks his training was a success. The problem is that he has not become accustomed to moving at this heavier weight and his timing is off. A better approach is to focus on hypertrophy programs in his freshman and sophomore years, and focus more on relative strength programs in his junior and senior years. That way, he has two full years to get used to moving at the higher bodyweight.
6. Ignoring the upper body.
Athletes seeking to increase speed in running or skating often focus only on exercises for the legs. This is a mistake, as acceleration begins from the upper body. Upper body strength is also necessary to counteract the torque developed from the lower body during movement.
7. Poor exercise selection.
The restricted movement pattern of the box squat changes soft-tissue integrity. I’ve found that athletes who do a lot of box squats are often abnormally tight in the piriformis muscle, and tightness in this muscle will impair the ability to change direction in sports. Athletes need to focus on full-range, free-weight training because it has a better transfer to sports movements; as a general rule, exercises using machines should make up no more than 20 percent of an athlete’s training. As for so-called functional training that focuses on instability training, EMG research shows that although stability exercises activate the same muscles as conventional forms of the same exercise, they have an inferior training effect because less weight is used. As for speed ladders, focusing on such predetermined movement patterns is a waste of time, as they create improper movement patterns.
8. Improper use of plyometrics.
Few coaches know how to design plyometric programs; usually they underestimate their intensity level. The result is the athlete doesn’t achieve the optimal training effect and can develop overuse injuries. Rather than just using plyometrics, a better approach is to use complex training that combines traditional exercises with plyometric exercises. Such training is superior for improving neuromuscular efficiency due to a training effect called post-activation potentiation.
9. Lack of knowledge of Olympic lifts.
Weightlifting exercises can be valuable for increasing speed, especially starting speed, but not if the technique used to perform them resembles cheat reverse curls.
10. Not emphasizing speed during the early years.
The body is most responsive to speed development when the brain is maturing, and generally 90 percent of coordination is established by the age of 12.
11. Not keeping records.
Many strength coaches have done away with posting record boards so they don’t hurt the feelings of weaker or slower athletes. Athletes who are responsible for their own training often don’t keep detailed training records. Athletes must have a goal in mind for every workout, strive to make continual improvements, and keep accurate, detailed records to see what is working and what is not.
12. Falling for speed gimmicks.
Acceleration treadmills have been promoted as a way to increase running and skating speed, but the truth is they make athletes slower by creating faulty motor patterns. For example, when you’re running in sports, you have to actively use your hamstrings to extend your hip; when you’re running on a treadmill, the moving surface pulls your hip into extension for you. This difference causes you to fire the muscles used in running in improper sequence, not just in sprinting but also in hockey skating and speed skating. Basically you teach your nervous system how to skate two different ways; then, when you step on the ice, your brain doesn’t know if the ice is going to move underneath you or if you are going to propel yourself over the ice. This confusion between your brain and your muscles will decrease speed and power and will increase your risk of injury.
13. Poor gym design.
A gym designed to cater to athletes needs to have enough equipment so the athletes can perform a sufficient number of sets on important exercises to achieve an optimal training effect. If you’re training a football team and your weightroom has only two squat racks, you’ll be forced to make compromises.
There are many other factors that can influence speed development, but correcting the errors described here will result in dramatic increases in how well and how quickly athletes move. It’s been said that “the race does not always go to the swift,” but all things being equal, it’s tough to beat speed!