Speed is a Skill

Updated: May 16, 2021

Image of a man in a sprint with wavy lines
Speed can be taught as a skill

Speed is one of the most desirable attributes for all athletes. Walk in to any sports performance facility and you’re guaranteed to see marketing materials on speed and agility classes/training. Search “speed and agility” on any social media platform and you’ll find thousands of coaches and speed "specialists" showing the latest drill for developing speed. Here’s the the thing about speed that most gurus won’t tell you; you have to practice running fast to get better at running fast. It’s amazing how often coaches, trainers, and athletes forget this. In this post, I’m going to cover some of the more popular exercises and drills that are often used to “replace” sprinting.

First, let me start off by stating the obvious. Running fast is a skill; a difficult skill to master at that. Some athletes are naturally gifted with this skill and others have to work at developing it. Nonetheless, it’s still a skill. There are specific techniques, frequency, and force application strategies that are unique to the skill of sprinting. These things have to be practiced together, on a consistent basis, to improve. Second, the focus of this particular post are methods of increasing ground force application, in the appropriate direction (horizontally). Lastly, while keeping the first two points in mind (speed is a skill and the focusing on methods of improving ground force application) I think it’s of the utmost importance that our programming incorporates some form of maximal effort sprinting at least 1-2x per week.

The Role of Technique Drills in Speed Development

In today’s performance training world, a lot of coaches turn to social media platforms to pick up new drills, exercises and coaching cues. Despite the overwhelming abundance of cues and drills that exist on the internet, the reality is that there are no magic technique drills with sprinting. Granted, there is an optimal technique for both acceleration and for running at maximum velocity, but drills certainly don’t teach that. At best, a drill can teach part of the movement, usually in isolation and at submaximum speeds. More times than not, these drills fail to achieve the primary training effect that we seek to obtain from speed training.

Many of the technique drills that mast coaches are familiar with (A, B, C skips) were designed to keep the muscles in sprinting shape using movements that had some similarities to sprinting. They were never meant to be a replacement for actually sprinting.

Here are some problems with these drills. First, they are at submaximum speeds, meaning we’re not training to run fast. Second, we’re not training ourselves to exert the same amount of force against the ground nor are we training ourselves to apply the force in the proper direction. Third, the movements in the drills are different than the movements in sprinting, thus limiting transferability. Simply stated, improving in the drill(s) does not equal improving the athletes speed. While these drills are great as a part of your sprinting warm-up, they should never be used as a replacement for actually sprinting.

Essential Tools in Speed Development

Plyometric Exercises:

Plyometrics are a great supplemental exercise that should be a part of every well rounded strength program. They are great tool for teaching us how to quickly exert force in a desired direction. Sprinting is a skill that relies heavily on the athletes ability to exert force horizontally, so long jumps, triple jumps, hurdle hops/jumps, and bounds are great tools to help train this. With that being said, keep in mind that plyometrics don’t simulate the sprinting motion so while they are a great supplemental exercise aiding in force production and application capabilities, they are by no means a replacement for actually sprinting in your training program.

Resisted Sprinting:

Resisted sprinting is probably the most utilized tool when it comes to the developing speed. The concept here is quite logical; make the sprinting motion more difficult by adding some sort of resistance. By doing so, the result is the recruitment of more motor units, and if the athletes technique is solid, it would transfer to un-resisted sprinting, ultimately resulting in a faster athlete. Sounds simple enough, right? The problem is we don’t know if it’s true. Research shows that resisted sprinting is as effective as un-resisted sprinting. Studies have also shown that resisted sprinting alters running technique and it’s unclear if that has a long-term negative impact on speed.

What resisted sprinting does really well is to teach the athlete how to efficiently apply force horizontally, in a sprint-specific manner, making it an invaluable supplemental exercise. However, just like any other drill or exercise, it never replaces actually running fast in training.

Strength Training:

Strength training is another invaluable supplemental exercise for sprinting, but it is not a replacement for the practice of running fast. Strength training does not make you fast, it just increases your potential to be fast. Keeping that in mind, there are a number of reasons why strength training is important. First, it helps reduce the likelihood of injury. Second, it enhances our ability to exert force against the ground. Third, it significantly improves our ability to maintain our technique. These are just 3 great examples of how strength training helps improve sprinting capabilities, but as great as they are, none of them train the sprinting motion or sprinting velocities!

As you have read, developing the skill of speed takes a well rounded approach. Programming must include optimal doses of technique drills, strength and conditioning, plyometrics, and of course, maximal speed sprinting.

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