• Introduction
  • The basic components of speed
  • Reaction time
  • Acceleration
  • Maximum speed
  • Speed endurance
  • Sex, aging and speed performance
  • Is speed genetic?
  • How to train each speed component?
  • Benefits of speed in sports
  • Final thoughts
  • Sources
  • Acceleration: the rate of change of velocity per unit of time.
  • Aerobic respiration: producing energy (ATP) with the presence of oxygen.
  • Anaerobic respiration: producing energy (ATP) without the presence of oxygen.
  • Lactate: a byproduct of anaerobic respiration. Known to cause fatigue and nausea.
  • Lactic acidosis: lactic acid production exceeds lactic acid clearance.
  • Maximum oxygen uptake: The maximum amount of oxygen a person can use during intense exercise.
  • Maximal speed: the highest velocity you can attain.
  • Reaction time: The time between stimulus and response.
  • Speed endurance: the ability to sustain near maximum speed and the effects of fatigue.

Introduction

“Speed kills” is often considered a universal truth when it comes to athletic training – and for good reason! After all, most sports benefit from factors such as agility and explosiveness instead of sheer brute force. Whether it is quick side-to-side movements or pure maximum speed, an improvement in your speed abilities can significantly improve your athletic performance.

This post explains the mechanisms of speed, and why it is such an important building block of physical performance. 

The basic components of speed

Speed is often considered a combination of four different components:

  • Reaction time: how fast your sensory system (part of the nervous system that processes sensory information) can perceive, process, and respond to an external stimulus.
  • Acceleration: the rate of which you can increase your velocity.
  • Maximum speed: the highest velocity you can attain in a specific activity.
  • Speed endurance: the body’s ability to sustain near maximal velocity for an extended amount of time.

Together, these components create the foundation for speed performance, which can offer significant advantages for your athletic performance. However, these components also rely on somewhat different mechanisms, which makes them nearly impossible to train simultaneously. For example, most sports rely on short repetitive sprints instead of pure maximum speed, which takes ~5-6s to reach. Thus, you might be better off focusing on shorter acceleration/deceleration exercises if that is what your sport requires.

In the following sections you can find a detailed description of each of these components. You will also learn what factors contribute to better performance in each of these speed components. Finally, we have also written a short section of how to train them, with links to more in-depth articles. 

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Reactiontime

Reaction time


The time it takes to react to an external stimulus

Accelerationspeed


Fighting against inertia to increase velocity

Maximumspeed


The maximum velocity attainable

Speedendurance


The ability to maintain near-maximum speed for a long time

Reaction time

Reaction time refers to the time between a stimulus and a response. Unlike reflexes, in which information travels directly to a muscle from the spinal cord and does not involve the brain, reactions must to be processed first. Therefore, the brain must first decide what kind of response the stimulus needs. In short, reaction time is dependent on three factors; perception, processing, and response.

Depending on the activity, a stimulus can be either visual (seeing), auditory (hearing), or kinesthetic (touch). Once the sensory system (part of the nervous system responsible for processing sensory information) has received a stimulus, the brain quickly processes the information and responds to it. This is done by sending a message down the spinal cord to the correct muscles, creating a specific movement.

Reaction time can also be divided into simple reaction time and complex reaction time. Simple reaction time refers to reacting to a single stimulus, which also makes the reaction almost immediate (~0.13-0.18s). Complex reaction time (choice reaction time or compound reaction time) describes the time it takes to respond to a single correct stimulus out of many stimuli as well as responding to it in the best way possible. The abundance of information also makes the processing slightly longer (Hick’s law).

Acceleration

Acceleration is a vector quantity that describes the rate at which an object changes its velocity. Thus, an object is accelerating if it is changing its velocity. The rate of acceleration can be calculated using an equation: Acceleration + Velocity / Time.

During acceleration, an athlete must overcome inertia (an object’s tendency to resist change in velocity or direction). To do this, an athlete must apply significant amounts of force to the ground and in order to accelerate towards towards a higher velocity. Thus, how much and how quickly you can produce force will ultimately determine how well you accelerate.

Acceleration can be divided into two phases; initiation phase, (pure acceleration/drive phase) and transition acceleration phase.

  • Initiation acceleration phase describes the first few seconds of acceleration where you must propel yourself forward and gain speed as quickly as possible. Because the starting velocity is low, there is opportunity for significant increase in speed.
  • Transition acceleration phase refers to the plateau where the you come closer to maximum speed and are therefore unable to accelerate much further. Thus, transitioning from acceleration to top speed.

Maximum speed

Maximum speed is believed to be heavily dependent on genetic traits. However, which genetic profiles (body type, muscle fiber distribution, muscle cross-sectional area, capacity to adapt to training, etc.) contribute the most to sprint performance is still under debate. On the other hand, it is widely agreed that maximum speed is highly related to the amount and rate of which force is produced. Therefore, strength (both absolute and relative strength) and power capacity are both crucial for speed development.

Technique and movement efficiency are just as important for sprint performance. In a running context, there are two main factors that determine your maximum speed; stride cadence and stride length. Stride cadence refers to the number of strides taken per second, whereas stride length describes the distance traveled on each stride.

The main focus is speed training is either increasing cadence, stride length, or both. However, artificially increasing stride length can cause overstriding (landing the foot ahead of your center of mass), which can slow you down and decrease running economy. Instead, the focus should be in finding the optimal stride length, where the stride is as long as possible but the feet lands under the athlete’s center of gravity. Producing more force on each stride is essential for efficient running and maximum speed. 

Stride cadence is reliant on two factors; contact time (time spent on the ground on each stride) and flight time (time spent in the air between strides). To improve stride cadence, the focus should be in reducing ground contact time and friction – not increasing the cadence itself. 

Speed endurance

Speed endurance (anaerobic endurance) refers to the ability to maintain sprinting at near maximal velocity for an extended amount of time. It can also be seen as the ability to minimize deceleration after reaching top speed. Speed endurance consists of two main components: 

  • The physiological factors such as anaerobic capacity, lactate threshold and lactate clearance.
  • The technical ability to maintain proper running mechanics under increasing levels of fatigue.

Speed endurance is highly related to the body’s ability to delay lactate formation as well as how fast it can be cleared at high intensities. The accumulation of lactate (a byproduct of anaerobic respiration) increases the level of hydrogen ions in the blood, making it more acidic. This results in increasing levels of fatigue and nausea.

Speed endurance also requires similar technical skills as maximal speed (e.g. cadence, stride length). However, during prolonged intense exercises, the accumulation of blood lactate hinders cross-bridge formation the excitation-contraction coupling. This disturbs the muscle’s mechanical properties, resulting in decreased overall performance (lower force production, peak force and velocity). 

Speed is often considered a combination of power and sports-specific skill.

Sex, aging and speed performance

Sex is a major contributor to several physiological and morphological factors that affect physical performance. For example, males are naturally bigger and tend to have more muscle mass than females. This increased muscle mass results in higher force production, which contributes to faster acceleration and higher maximum speed. Males also have larger hearts, more hemoglobin, a higher maximal oxygen uptake (VO₂max), and a higher lactate threshold. These are crucial factors in endurance and speed endurance capability. 

Aging has several effects on your body. The most crucial for speed performance is the age-related loss of muscle mass (sarcopenia) which leads to lower force production. Studies have shown that this starts around the age of 30 and declines at a rate of 3-5% every every decade. Interestingly, sarcopenia mostly affects type II fibers, whereas type I fibers maintain their functionality as you age. Aside from sheer force production, aging also slows down reaction time.

Is speed genetic?

Although training and environmental factors are key components of speed performance, there remains a belief of a genetic component to sprinting success. In addition to muscle fiber distribution (e.g. fast or slow twitch), genetics have a large influence on muscle size and cross-sectional area, and muscle strength. In addition to these factors, several “performance genes” have also been investigated. Two of the most common ones are the ACE and ACTN3 genes. Although studies show a connection between these genes and sprinting performance, there is still relatively little evidence about their full effect on athletic performance. 

The ACE gene (the angiotensin I-converting enzyme) is the first gene thought to influence physical performance. It has two variants, The ACE insertion (ACE I) and ACE deletion (ACE D). The I allele has an insertion of 287 base pairs. This longer allele increases enzyme activity, which has been linked to increased endurance capacity and movement efficiency. The shorter ACE gene variant (D allele) is associated with higher ACE activity and increased angiotensin II levels. In theory, this should improve performance in sports requiring short bursts of power.

The ACTN3 gene encodes the sarcomeric protein α-actinin-3 in skeletal muscle fibres. This is found exclusively in fast glycolytic (type IIb/IIx) muscle fibers, which are able to produce explosive powerful contractions. In particular, the RR genotype of this gene is associated with improvements in strength, as well as protection from eccentric training-induced muscle damage, and injury. Hence why this gene is often referred to as “the gene for speed”.

Plyometric exercises are great for improving explosiveness and speed.

How to train each speed component?

To have the training adaptations you are looking for, you must follow the same training principles as any other form of training; specificity, individualization, variation, reversibility, and progressive overload. Because different speed components rely on somewhat separate mechanisms, they must be trained separately. Here is a quick list for effective training strategies for each speed component.

  • Reaction time training: cognitive exercises (chess, sudoku, crossword puzzles, etc.) meditation, yoga, video games, specialized reaction time exercises (catching balls in an order, etc.).
  • Acceleration training: strength training, plyometrics, resisted sprinting, short standing start sprints.
  • Maximum speed training: strength training, power training, plyometrics, assisted sprinting, supramaximal sprints (overspeed training), medium-distance rolling start sprints.
  • Speed endurance training: long sprints at high intensity, sprint interval training, high-intensity interval training, fartlek training.

Speed training should be performed in combination with a well-balanced training program. This will ensure safe progression and optimal performance as you get closer to the competitive season.

Benefits of speed in sports

Speed is crucial in all sports that require skill, speed, acceleration, agility and quick movements in all directions. It also transfers really well from one sport to another. Here is a full list of benefits of speed training;

Benefit

Description


Reaction time

Improves the ability to react to an external stimulus. Shortens the time between stimulus and reaction. Improves balance in sudden situations. Faster process during in-game situations.


Acceleration

Quicker force production, faster acceleration and deceleration, improved agility. Especially useful in sports that rely on repetitive accelerations and decelerations.


Maximum speed

Increased strength and power capacity, better running mechanics and movement efficiency (optimal stride length & cadence). Overall faster top speed. 


Speed endurance

Improved lactate clearance and higher lactate threshold. Significantly improves performance in prolonged high-intensity exercises.


Balance skills

Improved proprioception (awareness of your body’s position) and dynamic balance. Helps you maintain and regain balance in sudden situations.


Injury prevention

Regular training strengthens the muscles, joints and ligaments. Thus, improving injury prevention.


Although the average person does not require a great deal of speed in everyday life, it can provide significant benefits for athletic performance. Therefore, it is highly recommended that you incorporate various speed-related exercises into your training program regardless of your sport.

Most speed components need to be trained separately.

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 often considered as 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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