• Introduction
  • Basics of speed training
  • Speed training can be divided into four categories
  • Best methods for training speed
  • Strength & power training
  • Sprints & technique training
  • Train at the right intensity
  • Rest, recovery & injury prevention
  • Physiological effects of speed training
  • Suitability for developing athletes and physical education
  • Final thoughts
  • Sources

Introduction

Alright, so you’ve already learned from our speed performance theory post that speed is not just about strength, but more about power and technique, right? Good stuff!

Well, now it’s time to put that knowledge into practice and see how you can start training for speed in the safest and most efficient way. Not only will you learn the basics of speed as a valuable factor in athletic performance, but you’ll also gain insight on how to specifically practice each speed-related skill. Whether it is reaction time, acceleration, maximum speed or speed endurance, you’ll find all the necessary information you need to become a better athlete. 

And, as a nice cherry on top, we’ve even created a huge amount of training routines of each of them – so that you can spend less time reading and more time training. Read on and enjoy!

Basics of speed training

Training for speed, or any other fitness component for that matter, requires a certain stimulus that the athlete has to adapt to. This stimulus also has to be progressively more challenging than before to have any sort of improvement in performance. On the other hand, if you go too far and try to build up too fast, you are putting your body at a heightened risk of injury. So, before you start training for speed, you need to make sure you have a good level of strength as well as good technique. The reason for this is that your body needs to be able to support itself against the forces it encounters during exercise. This is especially apparent in speed training due to its relatively aggressive and intense nature. 

One thing to consider is that your ability to train for speed is strongly connected to your genetics. Additionally, your training background, age and sex also determine how well you are going to perform. But, no matter what physical condition you are in, there’s always room for improvement. And if you want to be faster, you also need to train faster. This means that you need to perform exercises that specifically focus on improving your speed.

Speed training utilises a variety of different sports-specific exercises such as sprints as well as heavy weight training that improves both your strength and explosiveness. The biggest benefit of these exercises is that you’ll be quicker, faster and stronger without the added bulk of extra muscle mass. What’s better than that?

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To be faster, you also need to train faster.

Speed training can be divided into four categories

While speed is often used to describe the maximum velocity you can produce, it can still be divided into four individual categories; reaction time, acceleration, maximum speed, and speed endurance.

Reaction time refers to the time it takes for your body to react to a certain stimulus, such as a starting pistol or a whistle. It can be trained via specifically designed reaction time training that utilizes visual (eyesight), auditory (hearing), and kinesthetic (touch) cues.

Acceleration means how fast you can reach your maximum speed. It can be trained through short sprints as well as different power training exercises.

Maximum speed describes the possible highest velocity you can ultimately reach. It can be trained through longer bursts of energy where you try to reach your top speed and even go beyond it. These exercises are often longer than in acceleration training but still shorter than in speed endurance training.

Speed endurance refers to your ability to maintain a submaximal (below your maximum speed) level of performance for an extended amount of time. It can also be trained at various different speeds and distances, which means that you have to specifically design your speed endurance routine around your own sport.

Here’s a little comparison chart between the training methods of reaction time, acceleration, maximum speed, and speed endurance. 

Reactiontime

Reaction time


Quick actions to external stimuli

Accelerationspeed


Very short (<5s) maximum spurts or jumps

Maximumspeed


Sprinting close to maximum speedMaximum strength & power training

Speed endurance


Fast & long sprints at various speeds

We’ve written more in-depth posts on all of these different speed attributes and how to train them. Simply click the one you want to learn more of. You can even find some great training programs to try out. Hope you like ’em!

Best methods for training speed

Because speed relies on your ability to recruit muscles quickly and with as much force as possible, it requires fast and explosive training methods. However, since speed is a combination of the four factors mentioned above, there is no single training style that can improve all of them simultaneously. In fact, it is smart to pinpoint which of these factors you want to improve and customize your training program accordingly. 

The biggest difference between these training methods is often how long you perform them during a single set. For example, reaction time only needs your response to a sound or a touch whereas acceleration requires <5-second maximal muscle work to reach your top speed. Of course, maximum speed and speed endurance rely on how much force you can ultimately produce and how long you can maintain performance at that intensity. 

Some of the best speed training methods include sprints that utilize sports-specific techniques as well as power and strength training. Plyometric training and ballistic exercises can be especially useful for increasing explosiveness, movement efficiency, and acceleration.

Strength & power training

To produce as much force as possible, you also have to be as strong as possible. This is especially evident in speed-related activities because as your velocity grows higher, your muscles have to be able to sustain nearly three times your own weight while maintaining an efficient sprinting technique. Therefore, your muscles have to be strong enough if you want to be able to perform at your best and not get injured in the process. Of course, this means that you have to incorporate strength and power training into your workout program. In fact, both of them have a direct correlation to your speed development. 

Maximum strength training, also known as muscular strength training, is a crucial component in speed training. Not only does it increase your maximum strength, but also your relative strength, which describes how strong you are for your size. To be able to improve your strength you must challenge the body through submaximal effort (below your maximum). This builds up and maintains your strength foundation to prepare your body for even more challenging exercises. Muscular strength also focuses on neural adaptations instead of increasing muscle mass (hypertrophy), which can be beneficial for sprinters. However, if you are a football player who also needs to tackle and wrestle yourself through the defense, you may benefit from added muscle mass as well. Whichever type of strength your sport requires, we highly suggest compound exercises that utilize multiple joints simultaneously. Deadlifts, front squats, and back squats are a great example of this. A tried-and-true method is to keep the eccentric phase (lowering phase) slow and controlled while performing the concentric phase (lifting phase) faster. This method is also very close to explosive strength or power training. 

While maximum strength has its advantages in multiple sports, it is useless unless you can reach it relatively quickly. And that is exactly what power training aims to do. It focuses on producing as much force in as little time as possible through improved muscle recruitment. And, since explosive power training focuses on improved neuromuscular connection instead of increasing muscle mass, you will be faster and more explosive without added bulkiness. In a way, power training combines your maximum strength with your speed capability in one explosive and high resistance movement which results in improved maximum speed and acceleration. Much like strength training, power training also requires explosive compound exercises such as snatches and cleans that utilize the whole body. However, because power training requires heavy loads and very fast repetitions, you must have the proper technique and strength foundation before attempting them. So, make sure you consult your coach or trainer to see if you are ready to move on to these kinds of exercises and don’t increase resistance too rapidly.

One of the most effective power training methods for speed is plyometric training, which consists of different explosive jumps, leaps, and hops performed at high intensity. This teaches your body to be explosive and produce as much force in as little time as possible. The best part about this is that it can easily be customized to fit the needs of your sport. While plyometric exercises are often done without additional weight, their suitability still depends on your training background and fitness level. For example, continuous explosive jumps on a hard surface can significantly strain your limbs and joints, so make sure your body is up for it. You may even want to perform plyometric exercises on a soft surface to prevent overuse injuries or inflammation such as shin splints etc. 

Naturally, high resistance training helps you become stronger and more powerful during short and intense exercises, but it can also have some interesting effects on your endurance as well. In fact, having a higher maximum strength also means that any exercise below it will be easier to do. In a running context, this eventually provides a stronger and more efficient stride, which means you will be able to propel yourself forward with more power and less effort. In short, your running economy will increase significantly, which also benefits your endurance capability.

Sprints and technique training

Aside from your strength and power attributes, your technique can also be a limiting factor in your speed capability. This means that you have to include exercises that help your movements are both powerful and efficient while maintaining an optimal stride length and step frequency. With these in mind, sprint training can be divided into six different categories;

  • Technique training
  • Stride length training
  • Stride rate training
  • Sprints at varying intensity
  • Resisted sprints
  • Assisted sprints

Technique training consists of different drills that focus on refining your every move to make them more powerful with less effort. Different heel kicks, ankling, high-knee and arm-swing drills are not only great for reducing contact times and friction while you sprint but also improve force production on each step. These exercises are also very versatile and can be done at different speeds or with additional equipment such as ladders. You can even perform them backwards to challenge your technique and balance more. If you want to read more about sprinting technique specifically, we’ve written a whole article about it here. 

Stride length training is designed to improve the rhythm of your stride. And, to create a proper stride length training routine, you must first determine the perfect stride length for yourself. After all, shorter athletes have a naturally shorter stride than their taller competitors. This is important for sprinting because the optimal stride requires your foot to land perfectly under your hips. Overstriding, or stepping too far will increase contact times and create more friction whereas understriding means that your steps are too short to properly increase momentum. Stride length drills are generally done at 60-105% of your optimal stride length and performed at various intensities. A great way to do this is to use visual marks like tennis balls, sticks or cones to tell you where to place your feet during a sprint. 

Stride frequency training, also known as step frequency training, aims to increase how fast you can move your feet during a sprint. The most common methods of increasing step frequency are fast leg drills as well as resisted and assisted sprinting. Fast leg drills help you move your feet at a faster rate which should translate into sprinting as well. Intense ladder runs are a great example of stride frequency training and can be done forwards, sideways, backwards or even with one leg. There are tons of variations of different ladder runs. 

Sprints at varying intensities and distances are at the heart of speed training. If you want to be fast – you have to train fast. While technique drills are great methods to train for speed, they are still somewhat artificial movements and don’t represent real-life conditions. Therefore, they can’t be considered substitutes for sprinting. The biggest benefit of a well-structured sprint workout is that it is very sports-specific and has a direct effect on athletic performance. However, to improve your speed you must train at maximum intensity. Failing to do so will only focus on submaximal (below your maximum) speed which alters your stride and step mechanics and trains you to move slowly. Additionally, the running distances vary according to the speed attribute you want to train. For example, improving your acceleration requires only 5-50m sprints whereas maximum speed needs longer distances of 50-80m. This means that you have one or two seconds to run at your top speed. You may even want to try varied-pace sprints such as flying sprints, ins-and-outs or delayed sprints to resemble situations in various ball sports. 

Resisted sprints refer to sprint training with external resistance such as a weighted vest, sled or a parachute. You can even run uphill to have the same effect on your performance. The theory behind resisted sprinting training is that it needs more activation from your nervous system and recruits more muscle fibers than regular sprints. However, you have to be careful when incorporating resisted sprints into your training because too much resistance can be detrimental to your running mechanics. A good starting place is that resistance shouldn’t slow you down more than 10% and only cover 10-20 meters. You should also always maintain the same technique as you would with regular sprints. Otherwise, you may end up training for slower speed and worse technique. 

Assisted sprints, also know as overspeed training, refers to sprints where you run above the maximum speed that you can normally attain. This method forces you to adjust your stride frequency to match your velocity, which eventually translates into better performance during regular sprinting. The most common assisted sprint methods are running downhill, being towed and high-speed treadmill runs. However, it is important to remember that overspeed training is not suitable for beginners and you should slowly build up to them. A good rule of thumb is to only run 30-40m at a time and only with a 2-3° angle to prevent changing the right running mechanics. Additionally, you should not run more than 106-110% of your regular top speed to avoid injuries. 

Maximum speed requires a combination of strength & power training as well as sports-specific sprint technique drills.

Train at the right intensity

As with any other form of training, speed training also relies on progressively overloading the same muscle groups at the same intensity that you encounter in your own sport. Since speed requires very intense bursts of physical exertion in all its forms, you need to make sure you train at your full capacity. 

While acceleration and maximum speed rely on your ability to increase velocity as quickly and as high as possible, speed endurance training requires exercising at the correct heart rate. While traditional endurance exercises are performed at a moderate 50-70% of your maximum heart rate, vigorous exercises, such as speed endurance training, requires a heart rate of 70-85% of your maximum to have the correct effect on your performance. After all, your aim is to run both fast and for a longer period of time. However, it is also important to note that speed endurance exercises are also heavily related to the distance you are training for. For example, a 200m sprinter should train at a higher intensity than a 2,000m runner due to a shorter distance. 

"The simplest way to calculate your maximum heart rate is 220bpm minus your age."

The simplest way to calculate your maximum heart rate is 220bpm minus your age. While this gives you a general ballpark on what intensity to train in, there are also significant individual differences that need to be taken into account. Therefore, you should also keep an eye on your own perceived level of fatigue and monitor your breathing. This not only helps you train at a correct heart rate but also periodize your whole training program correctly.

If you want to improve your speed in a way that is both effective and safe, we suggest you divide your training programs into four phases;

  • Early off-season training
  • Late off-season training
  • Preseason training
  • In-season training

Each phase gradually builds up in intensity and training volume from the last one and makes sure you progress in a safe and consistent manner.

For example, early offseason workouts often incorporate dynamic flexibility and conditioning exercises whereas preseason and in-season training focus on more technical drills at higher speeds. If you want to dig deeper into how you can periodize your training for the best results, we’ve written an in-depth article here.

Because training for speed is one of the most physically demanding workout methods out there, it is important to remember to do conditioning at lower intensities as well. In fact, versatile training can help prevent overuse injuries while maximizing athletic development. So, be sure to keep an eye on the needs of your sport, playing position as well as individual needs and plan your routines accordingly.

Acceleration and maximum speed training require your full effort whereas speed endurance relies on your ability to maintain it for a longer time.

Rest, recovery & Injury prevention

Because speed relies on your neuromuscular system’s (all muscles and the nerves connected to them) ability to recruit muscles as quickly and efficiently as possible, it is usually done in short to medium length spurts of high intensity. Thus, to make sure you are targeting your nervous system and not the muscles themselves, training for speed needs very long rest periods of 3-15 minutes depending on which effect you are going for. This is due to the fact that while most of your energy stores are replenished after a two-minute rest, you’ll want to give your body a few extra minutes to be fully recovered before tackling the next exercise.

The length of a single set, such as a sprint, also varies depending on whether you are focusing on reaction time, acceleration, maximum speed, or speed endurance. For example, acceleration focuses on fighting against inertia and accelerating towards your top speed and only lasts around 5-7s.

On the other hand, speed endurance is done at a high intensity for a long time, which also teaches your body to buffer lactate and maintain better performance for a longer time. Therefore, it also needs longer sets that can last up to several minutes at a time. This is also the reason why the number of sets in speed training can vary greatly. A good general rule is that as long as you can work out at your target intensity, you’re all set.

Often times the number of sets vary between 1-5 for technical drills and up to 10 for running drills.

"Some say that training for speed is more straining mentally than physically."

Balancing your speed training routine needs to be taken into consideration even outside of your daily workouts. This is due to the fact that speed training can be extremely straining on your body, and should be treated as such. In fact, it may take up to 24-48h to fully recover from an intense speed training exercise, which means that you may have to concentrate more on managing your exercise load to ensure you stay fit and healthy. For example, that is why sprint training should be incorporated into your training routine only 2-3 times a week and focus on lighter exercises or full-on rest on other days. Not only do longer recovery periods give your body some much-needed rest, but it also helps you mentally prepare for the next training session. In fact, some even say that training for speed is more straining mentally than physically.

The easiest way to make sure you are mentally and physically prepared for the next speed training session is to make sure you get at least 8 hours of sleep and don’t perform very intense or fine motor skill dependant exercises first thing in the morning. The real key when training for speed is the quality of each exercise – not the quantity. This will make sure that you maintain athletic progress and stay healthy in the process.

Speed training is physically very taxing - make sure you rest 24-48h between intense exercises.

Physiological effects of speed training

Consistent speed training has a long list of benefits on your performance. Not only does it increase your strength and power capabilities, but it also boosts muscle growth, improves your anaerobic capacity, lowers your lactate threshold, enhances coordination, agility and movement efficiency as well as reduces risks of injury. It even reduces delayed onset muscle soreness (doms) after a workout, which means you can train harder and more often. 

Increased strength and power capability are a result of improved neuromuscular connection (muscles and their connecting nerves) and increased muscle mass (hypertrophy). And, since speed relies on your ability to produce a lot of force as quickly as possible, you also need to incorporate heavy weight training into your program. Not only does this make you more explosive, but it can also boost muscle growth for a stronger contraction. However, be careful not to fully concentrate your training on increasing muscle mass because extra weight can also slow you down. 

Anaerobic capacity refers to how much energy you are able to produce anaerobically (without oxygen). And, since anaerobic energy production only occurs at high intensities where aerobic energy production (with oxygen) is not enough, it also produces lactate in the process. As a result of consistent speed training, your lactate threshold increases, and your ability to buffer lactate improves. This means that you are able to maintain performance at a high intensity without getting fatigued. Additionally, training for speed also increases the resting levels of creatine phosphate (CP), free creatine, adenosine triphosphate (ATP) and glycogen in the muscles, which means that you’ll have more energy to burn during short anaerobic exercises.

Enhanced coordination, agility and movement efficiency are a result of your nervous system’s ability to recruit muscles and contract them as efficiently and with as little effort as possible. This means that as your technique improves, you’ll be able to take full advantage of your muscle’s ”bungee cord” effect (stretch-shortening cycle) for the ultimate performance. As a result, each step, stride or a stroke you take will have reduced ground reaction times and less friction while also propelling you forward more powerfully than before.

Reduced risk of injury is also a great benefit of consistent speed training. This is due to two factors; improved muscle, joint and ligament strength as well as improved coordination. You see, stronger muscles are able to withstand the forces that you face in sports whereas improved coordination maintains proper muscle activation and joint alignments even during sudden movements. Speed training in all its forms can even reduce soreness after intense training sessions.

Training for speed requires sports-specific movements performed in a fast and explosive way.

Suitability for developing athletes and physical education

Versatile exercise is vital for the healthy development of any growing child. As time goes by, your body grows taller and heavier which means that you need a good basis for strength and control in order to continue developing as an athlete.

As far as speed-related exercises go, different sprints, jumps, leaps and throws are great options for any age group. You may even use small weights or medicine balls and perform every exercise as fast as possible to focus on those speed attributes. However, it is not recommended to do full-on power training because they are done with heavy resistance and thus have a higher injury risk. On the other hand, if you do functional training for the needs of your sport, you can still enjoy the benefits of speed training. As you mature physically and get stronger, you can slowly move on to heavier weight training.

If you are serious about training for specific fitness components at their optimal time, here’s what you need to know:

  • Different coordination exercises for step rate & agility should be trained at the age of 7-13. Ladder exercises are a great example of this
  • Power and speed attributes should be trained at the age of 13-15 when you start to have more strength. Do not use too much resistance before you’re fully developed!

However, it is important to remember that intense speed training can be very straining for the muscles and limbs of a developing athlete. That’s why these exercises should be done with professional guidance and proper technique. Too intense or one-dimensional training can lead to overuse injuries which can hinder your development. So, maintain your versatility and try out different physical activities that require agility, acceleration, reaction skills and speed. It will also help you perform better in your main sport.

Final Thoughts

Speed is without a doubt one of the most important fitness components that athletes have in their arsenal. And, while it is strongly connected with genetics, speed can still be trained very effectively through smart and consistent training. In fact, focusing on sports-specific technique and training your power simultaneously can give your performance just the boost it needs to stand out from the competition.

If you are serious about having an impact on your performance, you must remember the three most important factors in athletic training – nutrition, exercise and rest. If you’re able to maintain a balance between them, you can be certain that you keep developing quickly and stay healthy in the process. So, get out there, enjoy your training and most importantly, listen to your body.

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

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