Yesterday I wrote about how fast humans may eventually finish the 100m sprint in my article ‘The Speed Limit of Sprinting’. So today I thought it was only fair that I offer up some tips on how to improve your own speed. Sprinting at top-speed is vital in so many sports. It can mean the difference between being tackled or hurtling towards the goal unmarked in football, it can mean the 0.01 second difference of becoming a world record holder and it can even save your life should you ever need to utilise that ‘fight or flight’ response!
If you want to improve your sprint time, you need to be totally committed to your training and diet. I know that Usain Bolt is famous for eating chicken nuggets before a race, but why risk it when it could make all the difference to your maximal sprinting speed? By developing proper technique, increasing the explosive power of muscles and working on coordination skills, you will shape your body to become a machine built for speed!
Speed is a function of stride length and stride frequency, so let’s begin with how to improve the first of these.
Increase Stride Length
It was Aristotle who first observed that animals move by pushing the ground beneath them (not that I’m a geek or anything). Therefore, in order to create a long stride we need powerful muscles to propel ourselves forward quickly and with minimal loss of energy. Training for explosive strength should be the focus if you want to increase your stride length and what better way to do this, than with lower body specific plyometric drills.
Plyometric exercises work by utilising the natural elasticity of our muscles and tendons. The exercises below are a few examples of useful drills to promote increased stride length.
In basic terms, you want to push off with your lead foot with as much force as possible when contact with the running surface is made. For example, if you begin bounding by leading with your right foot, when that foot touches the ground you want to push as hard as possible and propel yourself as far forward onto your next foot. It won’t be performed at the speed of sprinting, but a fast pace is optimal. Use your arms and rear leg to help maximise the forward momentum.
Standing Long Jump
Begin by standing upright with both feet together. From this position lower into a demi-squat and swing your arms backwards (leaning shoulders slightly forward). You will begin to feel your body falling forward off balance, at which point you should swing your arms forward and push off the ground as hard and fast as possible. In order to track progress, it is optimal to use markings on the surface from which you are jumping and landing.
The concept is similar to bounding. You want to cover as much lateral distance as possible, by increasing power to propel yourself vertically. Choose which leg you want to start with. If you are a beginner sprinter, hopping on the spot is a good place to start. If you are a sprinter looking to improve stride length, aim to cover as much distance as possible in 20 hops. Measure this during each training session and watch your progress.
For more exercises, refer to Bodyweight Training.
Increase Muscle Strength
Training at a high intensity is optimal if you want to increase muscle power. Training should be focused on performing explosive activities.
Power sets should be performed quickly (as opposed to laboured lifting) and in the 3-5 rep range. The weight you begin with should be what you can just manage 3 reps of. Once you can perform 5 reps of your power set, increase the load of resistance. You should do 2-4 sets for major muscle groups and 2 for minor muscle groups. Resistance band bench press, resistance sprints (using a weighted belt/ parachute/ sled) and cable pulls are particularly great for enhancing muscle power. Surprisingly, heavy compound lifts can also be useful in moderation. Squats are great for improving power jumps and deadlifts will strongly activate the glutes and hamstrings.
The best supplement for explosive muscle power is creatine. It should be taken in phases: loading and maintaining (4-week cycle) followed by at least 3-week break from it. If you want to maximise your strength gains, you should also be ensuring that you have enough protein in the diet to avoid muscle breakdown. Whey protein shakes pre and post-workout and Optimum Nutrition Casein protein for a slow release overnight are ideal.
Focus on Hip Flexors: You use these when you move your thigh towards your stomach and strengthening these muscles helps improve your sprinting power and technique. Weight training exercises that involve hip flexion can help you reach that goal. Leg raises with weights and gym ball knee tucks are ways to focus in on this muscle.
Decrease Body Fat
Sprinting is a great way to boost fat loss, become superhumanly impressive and engage muscles which may not get much activation elsewhere in a training regime.
Success in sprinting is not only determined by how much power we can generate, but also by how much extra weight we are carrying. You want to be the athlete who can generate the most power for their body size.
Eating a lean diet to promote optimum body composition will increase muscle mass alongside a training regime. As you increase your muscle mass, you will increase the rate of your metabolism because muscle requires more energy to maintain than fat. This will help you lose the extra kilos you are carrying.
Meals should be small and regular (5-6 per day). A diet to promote muscle power should be high in protein and relatively low in carbohydrates, but do not get rid of them all together! Avoid simple carbs and junk food and opt for complex carbs instead.
Ideal foods for maximising muscle power are fish, turkey, sweet potato, quinoa, eggs, spinach (if it’s good enough for popeye ;)) and don’t forget water! It is essential for optimum absorption, optimum training and optimum body composition adaptations!
Speed work is taxing on the body, so make sure that you increase fluid intake accordingly. It is difficult to assign a specific amount as individual requirements differ, but you can safely rehydrate by drinking 1L of water per kg of body weight lost during speed training. To effectively replenish lost electrolytes, sports fuel is a good option.
Reduce time on Stance
Races are one and lost based on how well a sprinter comes out of the blocks! In a recent study, the slowest sprinters spent 0.135seconds on stance while the fastest only spent about 0.09 seconds. When you think that every millisecond counts in sprinting, this is a vast difference.
Athletes develop their stance through years of repetition and what works for one athlete may not work for another. To find what works best for you, experiment with different techniques and time your sprint over a 10m dash. Compare the times and work on the stance which gives you the best start.
Great sprinters possess good degrees of flexibility, particularly in the hips and ankles. Increasing flexibility allows for decreased muscle resistance and more fluid movements through the range of motion during a sprint. There is a high risk of injury if the range of movement exceeds the muscles capability. Due to the explosive nature of sprinting, the injuries will occur so fast that pain receptors will not detect this early enough to prevent damage.
Combing static and dynamic stretching is optimal for sprinting.
Static stretches to relieve sore muscles post training are ideal. For movement specific stretching, leg swings, hip raises, lunge rebounds and even cartwheels are all great for sprinters!
Cronin J, Ogden T, Lawton T, Brughelli M, Does Increasing Maximal Strength Improve Sprint Running Performance? Strength and Conditioning Journal, 2007, 29(3).
Myer GD, Ford KR, Brent JL, Divine JG, Hewett TE, Predictors of Sprint Start Speed: The Effects of Resistive Ground-Based vs Inclined Treadmill Training, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2007, 21(3): 831-6.
Young W, Pryor J, Resistance Training for Short Sprints and Maximal-Speed Sprints, National Strength and Conditioning Association, 2001, 23(2):7-13.