Speed, everyone wants it, few people have it and those who need it, are willing to spend money to get it. As in any capitalistic endeavor, if a need goes unmet, someone is there to fill the void and make a profit doing so. However, no one could have predicted the level at which parents would flock to these “speed merchants.” How else could you explain the overnight financial success of the mega-warehouse speed schools that littered practically every strip mall in the US? A parent’s desire to turn their child to the next Usain Bolt, is understandable, as speed is a vital component of athletic ability. You’d be hard pressed to find a sport in which speed isn’t a determining factor separating the winner from the loser. Even marathon runners require speed, as the goal is to run the 26.2 mile race in the fastest time possible, not the slowest. Problems arose however, when the vague and non-legally binding claims of the speed merchants turned out to be hyperbole. It seems the speed merchants’ business model was one based on luck, rather than valid exercise science. Luck, not being a replicable business model, explains why the majority of these speed schools disappeared fast than a French Crueller at a Weight Watchers meeting. However, the techniques employed by these mega-warehouse speed schools still linger and are being utilized by people now branding themselves as “speed consultants.”
Walk into virtually any fitness center and you’ll find groups of all ages, performing endless sets of foot drills on speed ladders, grunting, huffing, puffing and in some cases, moving at speeds so slow that only 90-year-old blue-haired arthritic women can appreciate. The drills are endless: Hop Scotch, Double Hop Scotch, Ickey Shuffle, and my personal favorite, I Gotta Take A Leak But I Can’t Find A Toilet Drill.
Proponents of speed ladder training claim their use will increase running speed, due to the following:
1. Speed ladders teach the concept of fast feet, thereby increasing stride rate
2. Speed ladders reinforce proper sprinting mechanics
Let’s see what physics and common sense have to say about this.
Myth #1 Fast feet lead to an increased stride rate, which leads to faster run times.
This concept was first utilized by the long distance running community, when researchers determined the majority of elite distance runners had a stride rate of approximately 180 strides per minute. Once this information was published, countless weekend warriors spent their weekend with a clipboard and a stop watch, calculating their stride rate, trying to match that of elite distance runners. Numerous hamstring injuries later, the masses realized their cardiovascular system couldn’t maintain 180 strides per minute beyond their drive way, and quickly abandoned the idea. Unfortunately, the concept of increasing stride rate to increase running speed, was then endorsed by the strength and conditioning community, to be exploited for financial gain. This allowed anyone with a $40 speed ladder, a $24.95 speed ladder drills DVD, and stopwatch, to brand themselves as “speed consultants.” Thus began the practice of coaches instructing their athletes to “imagine you’re running on a giant hot pan and make quick contact with the ground.”
Here’s the science:
1. Sir Isaac Newton’s Third Law of Motion states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. So what you say? This means that the greater the FORCE you apply to the ground with your feet, the greater the force that will propel you towards the end zone, or the million dollar signing bonus. It’s the forces which you exert against the ground with each foot contact, that propels your body forward. By instructing clients to focus their efforts on a high stride rate at the cost of applying force to the ground, you’re minimizing the effect of one of the fundamental laws of physics, an equal and opposite reaction.
2. Additionally, as we don’t live in a vacuum, there are gravitational and inertial forces to overcome, which require significant concentric and eccentric strength levels to counteract these forces as you accelerate your body. Keep in mind, when sprinting, you’re experiencing up to five times body weight with each foot contact with the ground. In any running event, regardless of duration, the individual who possesses the strength levels to consistently and repeatedly overcome the downward force of gravity and inertia, is ideally suited to meet the demands of fast running and usually wins the race.
Here’s the common sense:
If “fast feet” was crucial to the development of speed, then why doesn’t Michael Flatley, of Riverdance and Lord of the Dance fame, possess multiple Olympic gold medals and world records in the 100m?
In 1998, Michael was recognized by Guinness Book of World Records for having a tap dancing speed of 35 taps per second! And while he best exemplifies the concept of fast feet, how do you think he would fare against Usain Bolt? If “fast feet” were required for speed, then tap dancers would be a dominate force in any sport requiring speed. How many tap dancers have played on Monday Night Football?
Myth #2 Speed ladders reinforce proper sprinting mechanics.
The breakdown of proper sprinting mechanics is a function of fatigue and inadequate strength levels on the part of the athlete, not due to an inadequate volume of movement mechanics practice. For example, once you reach your top running speed, your erector spinae muscles contract isometrically, keeping your upper body upright, allowing you flex your knees up towards your torso, allowing for a long stride. However, once your erector spinae muscles fatigue, you lean forward at the waist, thereby shortening the length of your strides and the ground covered. Watch any 100m race and the weakest athletes are the ones who, near the finish line, adopt a forward leaning posture, with their upper body in front of their lower body.
The Training Program
The following three-phase program is based on valid exercise science, but more importantly, encapsulates the practical experience which comes from having written hundreds of training programs for national level athletes. Change anything in the program and you not only reduce its efficacy, but you waste your time.
A1) Petersen Step-ups, Dumbbells 4 x 20, 15, 12, 10 Tempo: 1-0-1-0 90 seconds rest
A2) Lying leg curl, unilateral, foot turned inward, Poliquin style 4 x 6-8 Tempo: 4-0-X-0 90 seconds rest
B1) Split Squats Front Foot Elevated, Low Pulley 4 x 20, 15, 12, 10 Tempo: 4-0-2-0 75 seconds rest
B2) 45 degree back extension, snatch grip barbell 4 x 6-8 Tempo: 2-0-1-6 75 seconds rest
C1) Seated Calf Raises, Unilateral, Foot Turned Outward 3 x 10-12 Tempo: 2-1-1-1 60 seconds rest
C2) Hanging Garhammer Raises 3 x 10-12 Tempo: 2-0-1-0 60 seconds rest
Total workout time: 41 minutes 18 seconds – 44 minutes 52 seconds
• Petersen step ups strengthen the VMO at terminal knee extension, which reduces the stance phase, minimizing the point at which both feet touch the ground while running
• Unilateral leg curls correct strength imbalances between the two legs, significantly reducing the risk of hamstring injuries
• Poliquin style leg curls: feet are dorsiflexed on the concentric and plantar-flexed on the eccentric
• The six second isometric hold at the top of the back extension, strengthens the erector spinae muscles in a manner needed to maintain a vertical running position while at your top speed
• Garhammer raises strengthen the abdominals, reducing excessive hip rotation and helps transfer forces generated by arm drive to the lower body
A) Bent-knee Deadlifts and Shrugs, Pins set below the Knee, Snatch Grip 6 x 4,4,6,6,8,8 Tempo: 2-2-X-0 180 seconds rest
B1) Split Squats Back Foot Elevated, Dumbbell 4 x 6-8 Tempo: 5-0-X-0 100 seconds rest
B2) Kneeling Leg Curl, 3 Postions Dorsiflexed 4 x 4-6 Tempo: 5-0-X-0 100 seconds rest
C) Standing Calf Raise Machine, Feet Neutral, Mid Stance 3 x 10/10/10 Tempo: 2-0-X-0 90 seconds rest
Total workout time: 41 minutes 22 seconds – 45 minutes 22 seconds
• Partial range of motion deadlifts allow for a significantly greater loading of the posterior chain, preparing hip extension for the high eccentric loads experienced at top speed running
• Rear foot elevated split squats place greater demands on the VMO at the bottom position, while helping to improve hip flexion flexibility
• Performing leg curls with various foot positions minimize strength imbalances between the three different hamstring muscles, further reducing the risk of injury
• On the leg curls, change your foot position every set: out, neutral, in, out.
• Standing calf raises are performed as drop sets, perform 10 reps, reduce weight and rest ten seconds, perform ten more reps, reduce weight and rest ten seconds, perform last ten reps and rest 90 seconds.
A1) Squat Jump 6 x 4-6 Tempo: 1-0-X-0 10 seconds rest
A2) Snatch Pulls Above Knee, from Hang Position 6 x 4-6 Tempo: 1-0-X-0 120 seconds rest
B1) Front Squats 4 x 4-6 Tempo: 4-0-X-0 120 seconds rest
B2) Kneeling Leg Curl, Foot Neutral and Dorsiflexed 4 x 4-6 Tempo: 2-0-X-0 120 seconds rest
Total workout time: 31 minutes 32 seconds – 32 minutes 48 seconds
• This phase is designed to target the CNS, teaching your body to recruit a greater number of muscle fibers
• Squat jumps reduce the time spent between switching from an eccentric to concentric contraction, while further strengthening the VMO at terminal knee extension
• The shorter workout time, ensures only high quality, explosive repetitions are executed. Performing explosive exercises when excessively fatigued leads to the development of faulty movement patterns and injury
Everyone recognizes the significance of speed in sport, however few people realize the improvements a properly designed and executed resistance training program can have on an athlete’s speed potential. Strength training will not only improve your ability to overcome inertia, but will minimize your risk of injury. And while there might be some truth to the adage that “sprinters are born and not made,” anyone can utilize resistance training to reach their genetic potential.
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