• Introduction
  • What is maximum speed in sports?
  • Physiological factors of maximum speed in sports
  • Mechanical factors of maximum speed in sports
  • Benefits of maximum speed in sports
  • Here’s how you train for maximum speed
  • Final thoughts
  • Sources

Introduction

When you think about speed in sports, usually the first thing that comes to mind is maximum speed – and rightly so! What else could possibly make you stand out from your competition than pure top speed?

Well, that is actually not entirely the case. While top speed is one of the most important components in sports and physical performance, it’s only useful when you have enough time to reach it. Thus, most field sports and court-based sports actually rely more on your acceleration and agility than anything else. That’s why only a handful of sports can benefit from pure maximum speed.

This post explains the basic mechanics of maximum speed in sports and why it is so important for your physical performance. If you want, you can also head straight to our maximum speed training article to learn how to create your own specific training program. You’ll find some free samples to try out as well.

What is maximum speed in sports?

Maximum speed, or top speed, describes the highest velocity you can attain during sprinting, road biking, speed skating or swimming. In fact, almost any activity where you have more than 6-7s to sprint in one direction requires maximum speed. These sports include American football, soccer, swimming, speed-skating as well as track-and-field.

Since reaching your maximum speed requires you to produce as much force as possible, it relies heavily on your neuromuscular (muscles and their connecting nerves) efficiency. This means that the more muscle fibers your nerves can recruit for a single task, the better you will perform. However, there are also multiple physiological and mechanical factors that have an impact on how fast you can be.

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Maximum speed is useful in sports such as football, soccer, speed skating, road biking and track-and-field.

Physiological factors of maximum speed in sports

There are a few physiological factors that have an effect on your maximum speed including genetics, sexage, training background, the efficiency of the anaerobic system, muscle stiffness, and technique. While 30-80% of speed differences can be explained through genetics, it can still be improved with consistent and smart training.

Genetics refers to the biological makeup that you inherit from your parents. This includes physical characteristics such as height, weight, and muscle mass, each of which has its own effect on your top speed. However, one of the most important genetic factors is the proportions of fast-twitch muscle fibers (type IIa & type IIb) and slow-twitch muscle fibers (type I). Fast-twitch muscle fibers have more capacity for speed and power than slow-twitch fibers but they are also highly inefficient for endurance purposes. That’s why some of the world’s fastest athletes may have more fast-twitch muscle fibers while endurance athletes have more slow-twitch muscle fibers for better aerobic performance.

Sex is also a significant factor for maximum speed in sports. The reason behind this is that on average males have around 36% more muscle mass than females. This is due to increased testosterone production during puberty. And, since testosterone is an anabolic growth hormone, it increases contractable muscle mass and improves strength capabilities. This is also why men tend to have approximately 60% higher overall strength, and partly explains the physical differences in maximum speed between genders.

”Maximum speed is useful in sports where you have enough time to reach it.”

Age is another factor that has an impact on your maximum speed in sports. As you grow older, your muscular strength tends to decline, which is a result of lowered ability to recruit muscles through the nervous system. Additionally, your muscle mass (hypertrophy) also starts steadily decreasing as you age. Thus, the best way to maintain your top speed is to train it consistently.

Training background is also closely tied to your maximum speed. This is due to the fact that our bodies tend to adapt to the way we use them. Therefore, the more training you’ve had in high-intensity activities, the better you’ll be able to perform in that level of intensity. And vice versa.

Efficiency of the anaerobic system means your body’s ability to quickly produce vast amounts of energy anaerobically (without oxygen) during a sprint. This is especially apparent among sprint athletes who require a large rate of phosphate breakdown in the first few seconds of an event to produce enough energy. However, some sports like soccer also need quite a bit of aerobic (with oxygen) endurance in order to perform high-intensity sprints repeatedly when rest periods are short.

Muscle stiffness also has an interesting effect on maximum speed. Some studies have stated that your leg muscles may have to overcome almost three times your body weight during a maximal sprint. Thus, having a stiffer muscle will rebound more when running at a higher velocity, which results in more effortless force production. However, stiffness should not be confused with flexibility. In fact, you still need quite a bit of flexibility in your joints to maintain an adequate range of movement for the best technique. Here, stiffness refers to the muscle’s ability to maintain an active and stiff contraction for the best rebound.

Technique is probably the most important component for maximum speed in sports. In fact, speed is often regarded as a combination of strength, power and technique. Therefore, your ability to maintain efficiency and explosiveness at high speeds is crucial for athletic performance and injury prevention.

Maximum speed is often regarded as a combination of strength, power and technique.

Mechanical factors of maximum speed in sports

Physiology is not the only factor that has an effect on your top speed. In fact, there are a few mechanical factors that have a tremendous impact on your maximum speed performance. These include step frequency, stride length, contact time, and friction. These same principles also translate well to speed skating and swimming, where frequency, slide/glide length and efficiency are the keys to good technique.

Step frequency describes the rate by which each step can be reproduced. This means that the faster you can perform each step, the more often you are able to propel yourself forward. But keep in mind that there is a limit to how fast your legs can move. That’s why you need to make sure your stride is long and efficient.

Stride length refers to how long each step is during a sprint. While your stride starts off short and powerful when accelerating, it becomes much longer as your speed increases. This means that you can cover more distance on each step. Thus, being more efficient on each step and reducing contact times will make sure nothing slows you down on the track.

Contact time describes the time your feet spend on the ground during each step. While it is incredibly short (~0.14s) during a sprint, every step you take still adds more traction to your performance. Thus, your technique must allow you to spend as little time on the ground as possible yet still propel you forward. This is also known as ground force efficiency. And, since most of your time is spent in the air during a sprint, it is clear to see why reduced contact times can improve your performance.

Friction is another factor in maximum speed performance. In fact, every time you are in contact with a surface, you are subject to some sort of friction. So whether you are swimming, ice skating or running, you must always try to be as aerodynamic as possible to minimize friction in your performance. This is due to the fact that the higher your speed is, the higher your drag will be. Hence, athletes often wear clothing that sits close to the skin.

Benefits of maximum speed in sports

Maximum speed is a crucial skill in sports where you have enough time (5-6s) to accelerate to your top speed. This includes sports such as football, soccer, speed skating, road biking and some track-and-field events.

Having a higher maximum speed also results in a faster submaximal (below your maximum) performance. This means that increasing your top speed will eventually make anything below your maximum speed both faster and more efficient, which results in a significant improvement in speed endurance. Thus, speed and endurance aren’t mutually exclusive and both should be incorporated into a balanced workout routine.

However, the positive effects of maximum speed training don’t end there. Consistent training can also boost fat burning, strengthen your muscles and bones, enhance your anaerobic endurance, improve agility and running economics as well as reduce injuries.

While 30-80% of speed differences can be explained through genetics, it can still be improved with consistent and smart training

Here’s how you train for maximum speed

Your top speed ability is determined by how quickly and efficiently you can recruit fast-twitch muscle fibers through your neuromuscular system (muscles and their connecting nerves). However, it is not just about the amount of strength or power that you can ultimately produce. You see, speed takes those fitness components and combines them with a sports-related technique for the best performance.

Due to its intensity, maximum speed training also requires a solid strength foundation before you can expect any real results. Strength and power training, lighter plyometric (explosive jumps & sprints) and ballistic (explosive throws) exercises combined with a consistent running program are a great place to start. Once you have built a good basis for speed training, you can move on to more intense functional training and even overspeed training.

Since it takes a relatively long to reach your maximum velocity, short and intense sprints simply aren’t enough to train it properly. If you want to focus on the absolute maximum level of speed you can produce, you need slightly longer (<10s) spurts with full effort. One thing to keep in mind is that most sports often require repetitive sprints with very short breaks in between. That is why maximum speed is often trained via repeated sprint ability (RSA) exercises. They are also great methods to measure and assess competitive readiness.

”Sprint training at maximum speed requires full recovery.” 

However, it is crucial to remember that maximum speed training is very straining for the whole neuromuscular system. As you get more fatigued, your ability to recruit muscles is severely hindered resulting in lowered athletic performance. And, since your goal is to train the absolute maximum speed you can attain, you must perform each set with full recovery. While it may be difficult for high-intensity athletes to understand, you need to listen to your body and finish a training session if your body feels like it needs a break. Otherwise, you may end up doing more harm than good to your body.

If you’re interested in reading more about how to train for maximum speed, click the button below.  You’ll also find a few example exercises to try out.

Final thoughts

No matter what level you compete in, higher maximum speed can give you a significant boost in performance in certain scenarios. However, it is also only useful in activities where you have enough time to accelerate to your maximum velocity. While higher top speed is a useful fitness component, most competitive sports still rely more on acceleration rather than your maximum speed.

If you want to maintain your maximum speed and continue to be a threat on the field, you need to make sure you train appropriately. Additionally, if you are serious about staying healthy while becoming a more formidable athlete, you must balance your training with sufficient rest and the right nutrition.

But before you go and start your next workout routine, here’s a quick recap of maximum speed in sports:

  • Relies on efficient neuromuscular connection between nerves and muscles
  • Focuses on producing as much velocity as possible
  • Relies on fast-twitch muscle fibers
  • Improves reaction time
  • Requires anaerobic energy production
  • Trained via fast and explosive exercises (leaps, sprints, throws & jumps)
  • Needed in sports that have longer runs in the same direction

Did you learn anything new about maximum speed in sports? Let us know in the comments!

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