• Introduction
  • What is speed in sports?
  • Speed in sports can be divided into reaction time, acceleration, maximum speed and speed endurance
  • Why are some athletes built faster than others?
  • Genetic factors of speed in sports
  • Age differences in speed performance
  • Sex differences in speed capability
  • Training background and speed performance
  • Technique, movement efficiency and speed performance
  • Here's how you train for speed
  • Benefits of speed in sports
  • Final thoughts
  • Sources

Introduction

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand the importance of speed in any sport. With skill differences being as small as they are at the very top, your best bet is to outperform your competition by being faster than everyone else. It is the one athletic component that will consistently give you a benefit in every single sport that you set out to conquer. Simply put, the faster you are, the bigger your competitive edge is. 

This article will tell you why speed is so crucial for athletic performance and development. However, if you are already itching to train and can’t be bothered by reading this theory section, go ahead and check out our speed training article.

What is speed in sports exactly?

Speed in sports is described as the ability to perform any sort of movement (such as a throw, a sprint, or a jump) in as short amount of time as possible. Therefore, speed is also heavily related to your power, or your ability to produce as much force as quickly as possible. 

However, speed is used to illustrate the combination of your technical skill and power to accelerate to as high of a speed as possible and maintain it for an extended amount of time. In a way, you can think of it as a combination of reaction time, acceleration, maximum speed, and speed endurance. In fact, speed may even be one of the more underestimated fitness components in an athlete’s arsenal. 

”Speed is a combination of reaction speed, acceleration, maximum speed and speed endurance”

Some sports scientists even consider speed as an important part of balance skills since quicker force production can help you regain your balance quicker. And since this occurs in nearly all sports that have quick changes in direction or physical contact, it is easy to see why you should put some time and effort to train it. In fact, speed training has also proven to prevent injuries because your body adjusts to maximal effort and learns to maintain proper muscle activation and joint alignment even during unexpected situations.

The simple fact is that speed is needed in every competitive sport out there. Whether it is quick side-to-side movements or just pure maximum speed, an improvement in your speed abilities will surely result in better success on the field.

Speed combines power with sports-specific skill.

Speed in sports can be divided into reaction time, acceleration, maximum speed and speed endurance

Speed can be divided into four different categories; reaction time, acceleration, maximum speed, and speed endurance. While all of these speed components have some similarities, such as working at a high intensity, they all rely on somewhat different physiological mechanisms. That’s why no single athlete is going to be the best at all of them.

Reaction time means how fast your sensory system (part of the nervous system that processes sensory information) can perceive, process, and respond to an external stimulus. These stimuli can be either visual (seeing), auditory (hearing), or kinaesthetic (touch). One of the most common examples of reaction time is the time it takes to start accelerating after a starting pistol.

Acceleration describes an increase in an object’s speed. In a sports context, this could mean how quickly an athlete can increase their velocity towards maximal speed or while throwing a javelin, etc. Acceleration also always has a magnitude and a direction which means you can produce force horizontally or vertically. For example, a basketball player can run up and down the court while also jumping upwards to get a better shot.

Maximum speed, or top speed, demonstrates the highest velocity you can ultimately produce during a certain activity such as sprinting, cycling, rowing, or even cross-country skiing. Since reaching your top velocity requires 100% effort, it relies on your neuromuscular system’s (muscles and their connecting nerves) ability to recruit as many fast-twitch muscle fibers as quickly and efficiently as possible. However, bear in mind that it takes up to 5-6s to attain your highest muscle contraction, which means that most sports don’t have enough time to take full advantage of it.

Speed endurance, also known as anaerobic endurance, refers to your body’s ability to sustain a higher intensity exercise for an extended amount of time. It relies strongly on your anaerobic (without oxygen) efficiency, which describes your ability to resist lactate build-up and fight against fatigue during high-intensity performance. 200m or 400m sprints are prime examples of sports that require a significant amount of speed endurance.

"Most speed skills need to be trained separately."

While speed is considered to be very dependent on genetics, the good news is that each of these speed skills can still be improved with a well-balanced routine. As far as training goes, they all require accelerating and explosive exercises that are performed at the right intensity. However, the real difference between training methods depends on which one you are trying to improve.

Here’s a little comparison chart between the four components of speed in sports.

Reactiontime

Reaction time


Describes how fast you can react to an external stimulus

Acceleration speed


Describes how fast you can reach your maximum speed

Maximumspeed


Describes the maximum velocity you can reach

Speed endurance


Describes your ability to maintain near-maximum speed for an extended amount of time

If you want more information on a specific speed skill, we’ve written specific articles about each of them. Feel free to click the buttons below. If you want to completely skip that and go straight to how to train them, you can find more information here.

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Why are some athletes built faster than others?

Speed is primarily an inherited skill based on genetics. However, your age, sex, training background, and technique can also have an enormous effect on your speed development. In fact, sports scientists often describe speed as power that is controlled by skill.

Even though speed is a highly genetic trait, it can still be improved with a well-designed training program.

Genetic factors of speed in sports

Although speed can be trained with a well-designed training program, your genetics is the biggest factor when it comes to your speed. These include factors such as height, weight, muscle excitability muscle mass and even muscle stiffness. However, one of the most important factors is muscle fiber type, which is often referred to as slow-twitch muscle fibers (type I) and fast-twitch muscle fibers (type IIa & type IIb/type IIx).

Slow-twitch muscle fibers rely more on aerobic (with oxygen) energy production. They are also slow to fire and produce less power than fast-twitch muscle fibers. However, what they lack in force production, they make up with energy efficiency and endurance.

Fast-twitch muscle fibers can be divided into two categories; moderate fast-twitch muscle fibers (type IIa) and fast-twitch muscle fibers (type IIb/type IIx). Moderate fast-twitch fibers are thicker, contract faster and fatigue quicker than slow-twitch muscle fibers. Fast-twitch muscle fibers (type IIa), on the other hand, fire the fastest and produce the most amount of force. However, they are also the most inefficient when it comes to endurance activities.

It is also important to note that on average people tend to have the same amount of both slow and fast-twitch muscle fibers. But, there are also some individual differences to this rule. In fact, some people are just born with the ability to excel at longer distances while others can be built for strength, power or speed. Therefore, the proportions of each muscle fiber type can have an enormous effect on your physical performance. This is also important to take into consideration in your training routine – some athletes respond better to strength and power training whereas others are able to improve their endurance much faster. 

However, these are not the only genetic factors that can have an impact on your performance. Even muscle stiffness can have a significant effect on your speed due to its ability to utilize elastic energy during intense exercises. Furthermore, you even need to sustain nearly three times your weight during maximal sprints.

But that’s not all. There are also some neural factors that can have an effect on your speed skills. These are genetic traits that determine how fast you are able to perceive and respond to a stimulus. After all, your eyes, ears or skin receptors send a signal to your brain through the nervous system where the information is processed. From there, your brain decides what the best response is for that certain stimulus. While this only takes milliseconds in real life, it can significantly affect your performance in activities that require fast processing speed.

Age differences in speed performance

There are multiple examples of athletes that have been able to compete at a professional level all the way until their 40s. However, they are more an exception to the rule than a common occurrence. Furthermore, most athletes reach their peak around 25 to 30 years of age regardless of their sport. This is also the time when their physical, tactical and technical skills are at their highest level. Unfortunately, these skills will start slowly getting worse due to a few physiological changes that happen in your body as you age. These include lowered muscular strength and muscle mass, slower reaction time and power production as well as smaller maximal oxygen uptake (VO₂max). All of which have a tremendous impact on your speed performance. 

Age-related loss of strength is a combination of a few different factors. For example, your muscle mass starts naturally declining as you age. This phenomenon is also known as sarcopenia. And, since bigger muscles also offer a stronger contraction, it is easy to see why this leads to lower power output. Not only does this have a severe effect on your strength, speed and power performance, it can also have a negative impact on your endurance. Furthermore, studies have also shown that your muscular strength starts declining at an average rate of 5% a year after the age of 45. However, these changes seem to have a bigger impact on fast-twitch muscle fibers (type IIa & type IIb) whereas endurance-oriented slow-twitch muscle fibers (type I) maintain a relatively similar performance as you age. This may also be one of the reasons why sex differences in strength and speed seem to diminish as age increases.

Studies have also shown that your maximal oxygen uptake (VO₂max) starts declining at a rate of 5-10% per year after the age of 30. Additionally, your heart will not be able to pump as much blood during each heartbeat (cardiac output) which reduces oxygen delivery in the body. And, since exercising relies heavily on your cardiovascular system’s ability to provide enough oxygen for working muscles, it is easy to see why this affects your performance – especially endurance and speed endurance. Of course, these changes also depend on how physically active you are.  

As the old saying goes, aging is an inevitable process. And while it has some obvious effects on your physical performance, the good this is that you can still maintain even your speed performance with a well-designed training program as you grow older. However, this also means that you have to adjust your training to the ever occurring changes that happen in your body. This way you can make sure you stay healthy and maintain your performance. 

Speed training improves both your performance and injury prevention.

Sex differences in speed capability

While gender-specific differences in sports have been discussed a lot lately, there is no denying that there are some biological differences between women and men when it comes to speed performance. For example, there is a 10-12% gender difference between the world records times in nearly all track sports. 

There are a few physical differences that make this possible. Most importantly, men tend to have 7 to 8 times more testosterone, which is an anabolic hormone (boosts growth) produced in the testicles. As a result, men have 36% more muscle mass on average, which significantly increases strength and power capability. Due to these hormonal differences men are naturally bigger, have larger hearts, more hemoglobin, and less body fat than women. Having more muscle mass to lug around also means that men have a higher maximum oxygen uptake (VO₂max) which is one of the most important factors in endurance capability. After all, your cardiovascular system (heart, lungs, and veins) needs to provide your muscle tissue with enough oxygen to maintain physical performance. 

"Higher muscle mass - higher need for oxygen."

Women also tend to have a lower aerobic capacity and lactate threshold. This means that on average females start producing lactate at a lower heart rate during intense exercises, leading to an increased feeling of fatigue. Interestingly, some studies have shown that women also have a greater proportion of slow-twitch muscle fibers, which suggests that women may often excel in endurance activities. In fact, females may even be able to use fat for fuel more effectively than men due to having more estrogen (female sex hormone).

It is also important to remember that the female competitive field is at a very interesting point right now because traditionally women haven’t been able to participate in the same sports as men have. As the female competitive field grows, we will have a better grasp of what the true differences between sexes are.

Training background and speed performance

While reaction time can be very hard to improve, our training background can have a tremendous impact on your acceleration, maximum speed and speed endurance. This is due to the fact that athletes tend to adapt to the way they use their bodies. Hence, high-intensity athletes can produce an immense amount of power in a short time whereas endurance athletes are specialized in energy-efficient movement. Of course, this means that your training history has a big impact on your aerobic and anaerobic capacity, lactate threshold, body composition as well as strength and power production.

Aerobic capacity, or maximum oxygen uptake (VO₂max),  describes the highest amount of oxygen that an athlete can use during exercise. Because your endurance relies on your cardiovascular system’s (heart, lungs and veins) ability to simultaneously provide muscle tissue with oxygen and remove carbon dioxide, it can have a huge impact on speed endurance as well.

However, most speed-related activities require faster energy production than aerobic energy production can provide. This means that high-intensity activities require anaerobic energy production (without oxygen) in order to provide the necessary energy for shorter events. Therefore, your anaerobic capacity (the total amount of energy you can produce without oxygen) becomes a more important factor for better performance. And, since working out above your anaerobic threshold produces lactate in the body, your ability to produce less of it and buffer it better will have a huge impact on your performance as the distance increases.

Due to the fact that your body adapts to best suit the activity that you do, your training background can also have a huge impact on your body composition. That is why some sprinters are more muscular than endurance athletes but not as massive as bodybuilders. In fact, speed relies more on muscular strength, technique, and faster power production than sheer muscular hypertrophy. After all, too much muscle mass will only weigh you down in high-speed situations.

Technique, movement efficiency and speed

If you want to be as fast as possible, you have to be both powerful and technically advanced. From an athletic standpoint, this means you have to be able to utilize the right muscles and with split-second accuracy. In more scientific terms, you need a balance between agonist and antagonist muscles which the whole body consists of. Therefore the working muscle, or agonist muscle, shouldn’t be inhibited by the antagonist muscle. Having better coordination will not only improve maximum speed performance but also enhances movement efficiency during submaximal (below your maximum) exercises. Therefore, better technique can significantly improve your running economy etc.

In a sprinting context, there are two ways of becoming faster;

  • Increasing stride length
  • Improving running cadence (stride rate)

It is crucial to point out is that stride length is related to your power component whereas running cadence is more related to your speed attributes.

  • Stride length = the power that drives you forward
  • Running cadence = how fast you can move your feet

In a nutshell, your speed is created by using the optimal force to the ground to minimize the amount of time you spend on the ground and reduce traction. This is also known as ground force efficiency. In this case, it means that your steps have to be either longer or faster while still maintaining efficient movement. Thus, being able to utilize your strength effectively on every step will surely have an impact on your speed performance. 

If you want to focus on these skills early on, your stride rate is the most responsive for this sort of training between 7-13 years of age. However, training for more power during each stride is best improved at 13-15 years of age. This is due to hormonal changes caused by puberty as well as the development of your neuromuscular system (muscles and their connecting nerves).

Different sprints, jumps, leaps and throws are great speed training options for any age group.

Here’s how you train for speed

Training for speed is usually somewhat close to power training where you lift relatively heavy weights as fast and as explosive as possible. Speed training, however, does not require the same amount of weight because it focuses on utilizing your power and in a way that is specific to your sport. For example, swimmers can do heavy power training at the gym but they still need to translate that power into their swimming technique. Thus, speed is a combination of power and technique.

Since your goal is to be faster, more agile, and explosive, you’ll have to train that way too. That’s why every movement you do has to reflect that if you want to take it to the competitive field. After all, your body adjusts to working the same way you use it! That’s why it is smart to train the same muscle groups that are needed in your sport as well.

On the other hand, you also need to use them with the same intensity, speed, and muscle groups that you need during competition. This means that some exercises need to be short and explosive whereas speed endurance-related activities require longer exercises with higher intensity. Therefore, you simply can’t tackle every speed component in a single exercise.

”Speed combines an athletes power attributes with technique creating a basis for ultimate performance.”

One example of this is that a sprinter should use explosive hip thrust exercises instead of squats to provide better power production horizontally, or in this case, running forward. High jumpers, on the other hand, would benefit from explosive squats more because their goal is to jump vertically with as much power as possible. But, remember that these are very generalized examples and you should have a variety of different training methods for the best performance and lower risk of injury. However, you can always put more focus on certain aspects of training.

Training for speed requires individually made exercise programs that focus on specific movements that are needed in your sport. Fast-paced sprints, ladder runs, ladder runs, plyometric exercises (explosive jumps and leaps) ballistic training (explosive throws) are great for increasing your agility and explosiveness. Longer intense exercises (over 10-40s), on the other hand, are wonderful training methods if you want to enhance your speed endurance. Most importantly, you need to keep your own goals and personal development in mind and concentrate on what exercises are best suited for you.

Speed is power that is controlled by skill.

Benefits of speed in sports

Speed is crucial in all sports that require skill, speed, acceleration, agility and quick movements in all directions. That is why speed translates well to sports where you need to be as fast as possible. These include a wide variety of court-based sports, field sports and water sports. In fact, basically whatever sport you participate in, speed is the one factor that can set you apart from your competition.

Since speed requires both skill and power, it can also make every movement both faster and more efficient. Therefore, speed training can also enhance your endurance as well, because it can shorten the normal contact time (0,15s-0,25s) of each step while you run. This will give you a more powerful and efficient stride overall. But these are not the only benefits of speed in sports. Regular training also strengthens your muscles, joints and ligaments, improves injury prevention and enhances balance and proprioception (awareness of your body’s position).

Here’s a quick recap of the benefits of speed training;

Improves acceleration, maximum speed & speed endurance

Maintains reaction time

Boosts strength & power

Improves anaerobic capacity

Increases lactate threshold

Enhances lactate buffering

Improves balance & coordination

Reduces delayed onset muscle soreness

Improves movement efficiency

Reduces risk of injury

Literally every sports needs speed one way or the other.

Final thoughts

No matter what level you compete in, speed is still considered one of the most crucial factors in successful physical performance. While speed is mostly a genetic trait, it can still be improved through smart and consistent training. Not only does this provide a significant competitive edge on the field, but it can also have a tremendous effect on keeping your body healthy and free of injuries. So why not focus on being faster than your competition?

However, being fast is not the only thing you need to consider if you want to become the best athlete you can be. If you are serious in being the best in your field you must remember the three most important factors for athletic progression; nutrition, training and rest.

Finding a perfect balance between these factors may be difficult but it is also vital for both your performance and staying healthy. So, train smarter and remember to maintain a balance with other aspects in life as well.

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

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