Get faster and stronger by doing strength training. If you want a quicker first step so that you can blow by opponents on the court or field, you will increase speed the most by doing lower body strength training. If you have extra time, add in free sprint and weighted sled training, but never compromise your lifting sessions.
A new study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research compared the effect of four different 6-week training programs on short sprint acceleration and speed over 10 meters. Participants were all competitive field sport athletes who require a quick first step for optimal performance and regularly perform short sprints when playing. The programs tested were as follows:
• A weight training program using squats, step-ups, hip flexions, and calf raises in a pyramid scheme that progressively increased the load and decreased reps
• A plyometric program using box jumps, bounding, forward hops, hurdle jumps, and drop jumps, with a progressive increase in foot contacts
• A resisted sprint program using a load of 12 percent of body weight at short distances up to 20 meters
• A free sprint training program using the same protocol of distances as the resisted program
Results showed that weight training was significantly more effective at increasing speed and acceleration over 5 and 10 meters than the other three training programs. All programs did produce results (9 to 10 percent increases in acceleration speed over 10 meters), but none were as effective as the weight training.
After the weight training group, the free sprint training group decreased 10-meter time the most, which was not due to an increase in speed over that distance but to better kinematics, or movement patterns, during acceleration. For example, this group improved horizontal power as measured by a 5-step bound test, and they increased step length and foot contact time, allowing for the athletes to apply more force with each step, making them faster to accelerate.
For a field sport athlete who rarely performs all-out sprints longer than 30 meters, acceleration and ability to achieve maximal speed as quickly as possible is critical. By 10 meters, athletes will typically achieve approximately 70 percent of maximal velocity, and researchers suggest that training protocols that encourage high force production are required to enhance performance in the transition from acceleration to maximum speed.
Plyometrics are one option because jumping programs do increase power output, but weight training is overwhelmingly preferred if you are short on time because it is the only program to significantly increase relative and maximal strength. If you have additional training time, add free sprinting to increase your maximal speed, especially if you run longer sprints of 30 to 60 meters. You can also pair 15 or 20-meter sled runs with regular free sprints to take advantage of the fact that the lower body muscles are already activated from the sled runs.
Sled runs are a fun way for gaining power that more exactly mimics the movement patterns of sprinting than plyometrics. Sled runs reinforce correct running mechanics—just like if you are going to train heavy partial squat in the gym, you need to perform a set of full-range squats at a lighter weight so as not to compromise range of motion.
Lockie, R., Murphy, A., et al. The Effects of Different Speed Training Protocols on Sprint Acceleration Kinematics and Muscle Strength and Power in Field Sport Athletes.Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2012. 26(6), 1539-1550.
Alcaraz, P., Elvira, J., et al. Kinematic, Strength, and Stiffness Adaptations after A Short-Term Sled Towing Training in Athletes. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sport. 2012. Published Ahead of Print.