The Speed equation! A What, Why, and How on Developing Rocket like Speed By Ricky McFarlane

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The Speed equation! A what why and how on developing rocket like speed


If you were to ask ten guys in a locker room, what physical attribute would they enhance if they had a magic genie, nine times out of ten it would be speed. We live in an athletic world where becoming 1 /10th of a second faster could earn you millions. In contact sports if you are fast then you are harder to defend, harder to attack. This counts the same for most sports, tennis, soccer, football, rugby, basketball, baseball and softball etc… If you are faster than the majority of people on the field, you have an advantage.

The fact is that this is no secret.

The sports media bombard us with these freak athletes performing unbelievable feats of athletic ability, sometimes giving us an insight (true or not) into how they train. What you have got to understand is these freak athletes in the NFL, tennis or professional rugby are the top 2% of human specimens in the world and whatever you throw at them they will probably develop. From this footage we have accumulated a bunch of coaches, personal trainers and athletes performing super complicated speed programs, which often provide no athletic enhancement. What I am going to do is give a basic what, why and how on speed training to help you develop your athletes.

Before we discuss the keys to developing speed here’s some things to watch and be mindful of.

If you or your athlete is not completely recovered between sets of sprints or dynamic work directly effecting speed then the desired outcome will not be achieved. Due to its highly explosive output requirements sprinting requires longer periods of rest between sets than other more moderate forms of running. Think of it this way, if I loaded up 95-100% of your bench and asked you to bench it every 30 seconds for 8 minutes would you be able to? I doubt it otherwise it’s not your max.
Due to the high Central nervous system requirement from spiriting ad equated recovery between sessions should be allowed, I like to leave at least 72 hours between sessions so that my athletes are as fresh as Possible for the following session.

The volume of your training will directly affect your results, positively or negatively. We know this. We know if we increase volume too high to fast then the desired outcome and energy system stimulation will be lost. The average world-class sprinter puts 800-1000LBS of force through the ground at every step. Now baring in mind they average between 42-46 steps for 100 meters, if we half that distance and add a couple of steps accounting for longer strides in the later stages of the race and say 26 steps for 50 meters and do the math. That’s 26,000 pounds of force produced in one 50-meter sprint. And I’m guessing the average coach doesn’t make you do only one 50 meter sprint. And I hear you saying what have elite sprinters got to do with me or my young athletes, well if we guesstimate a bit and say your athlete puts half the force a world class sprinter does through the ground and probably adds 5-10 steps on that 50 meters depending on variables that’s a minimum of 15,000lbs per run, and like I said are you only having your athletes do one sprint per session? I’m going to guess your not. So 15,000 of force going through the joints and tissues of the ankles, knees and hips multiple times per session. If we were to transfer that force into 15,000lbs of squats averages out to a 400lb effort through the lower extremities for 37 total reps or 200lb x 74, can your athlete squat or deadlift those numbers? I hear your say it’s very different with a bar on your back and I agree, but the fact of the matter is, that 15,000lbs of force is going to surge through the joints and tissues of the lower extremities so make sure you are physically prepared. Too higher volume of maximal efforts will create an over training effect, taking you out of that maximal effort zone, and lead to diminished returns as being fatigued both physically and neurally is not conducive to maximal speed gains.

As a coach I like to break everything down into components, or a pyramid, it’s just the I way I work, piecing things together bit by bit so that if I haven’t had the time to try something or develop something I don’t implement it, I leave as little down to luck as possible. I like to think of speed as a pyramid, with the base being made up of different athletic abilities and the peak being speed it’s self. Like a pyramid if you was to take one of the base “blocks” away the pyramid will crumble. What I like to do is break speed down into the following pyramid, with each block flowing into the row of blocks above.


Power —- Technique

Mobility –Maximal strength — Relative Strength — body composition

I will start with the base of the pyramid, and go through why this will aid an increase in speed.

Maximal & Relative Strength
Relative strength refers to the amount of strength you have compared to your overall mass. For example if two men both weigh 200lbs, and one can do more dips, pull ups and has a higher squat than the other, that man has a greater relative strength level than the other. Increasing relative strength will affect the energy it takes to move your mass from point A to point B. The greater your relative strength the easier it is to move your mass, as it represents a smaller percentage of your max strength. As this movement reflects a smaller percentage of your strength you should be able to do it at higher velocity, thus you move from A to B faster.

Maximal strength refers to highest amount of force that your body can produce. Increasing maximal strength has great carryover to sprinting. An increase in maximum strength will lead to more force being placed through the ground with each stride, “Greater ground forces are the most important factor in improving sprinting speed. Elite sprinters produce up to five times their body weight in force during each stride”(Emily Sohn). Using compound lifts to develop maximum strength is one way in which I develop my athletes, whether your sport is soccer or boxing, developing your maximal strength will make you a better athlete!

A study on the relationship between maximal squat strength and five, ten and forty yard times conducted at Appalachian State University found the following, using a group of well trained athletes separated into two groups, “those with a squat to Bodyweight ratio of greater than 2.1 and those with a squat to Bodyweight ratio of less than 1.9, those with a higher strength to Bodyweight ratio were significantly faster than those with a squat to Bodyweight ratio of less than 1.9” (McBride 2009, Appalachian State University).

Mobility is a forgotten component of speed. The need for mobility when training for speed is vital, especially for bigger more rigid athletes. Increasing mobility will make getting in correct sprinting positions vastly easier allowing you to get that tucked high knee and full hip extension during the acceleration phase. Greater mobility will also contribute to a longer stride pattern, during the transition/top end speed phase. Increasing mobility will allow for less energy wastage whilst sprinting, which will provide a more efficient technique, and like everything in life the more efficient you get that faster you get.

Body composition


This is not going to shock you but if you are carrying a lot of fat tissue, you are going to be slower. Fat does not contract, it weighs you down! I’m not saying that everyone should be walking round the field of play in a contest prep like state, but what I am saying is that having an athletic amount of body-fat such as 8-12% for skill positions and 12-17% for larger athletes such as props in rugby and linemen in American football would greatly contribute to speed improvements. Increasing lean muscle tissue will help aid speed development as a bigger muscle has the opportunity to be a stronger muscle, and with stronger muscles comes the potential for faster running. Think about it, how many skinny sprinters do you see?



Improving Power or rate of force development has a huge carry over to speed training. The ability to move loads (including your own bodyweight) at higher speeds will aid to increase power output. Power can be developed in a variety of ways, including using weights, bodyweight through plyometrics and jump training and a variety if ballistic exercises including weighted throws and multi joint movements. Training for power can be as simple or as complex as you want to make it. Like sprint training, too much volume can bring diminished returns so aiming for an optimal session is always best. When training for power to aid sprinting we need to look at what makes up a sprint. The acceleration phase? The transition phase and top end speed.

During the acceleration phase we are looking to come Out of the blokes like a bullet train. And to do this, huge amounts of power need to be developed. I like to develop this “acceleration power” by doing a variety of jump and throw training from static starts, mimicking the initial phase of the sprint. After all, if I have you sit on a box and jump to another higher box you are not going to be able to do it moving slow are you? This is basically the same thing right? A dramatic snap of the hips, knees and ankles as they extend to propel your mass from point A to B.

Barbell exercises trained with high repetition speeds are a great way of developing power of sprinting. Compound lifts such as the squat and deadlift performed at 30-40 percent of one rep max will help to develop speed strength, which will aid in improving power. Blazevich and Jenkins (2002) “tested the effects of a high resistance low velocity training protocol and a low resistance high velocity training protocol on sprinters who were concurrently sprint and plyometric training. Although the result was not significant, the high velocity low resistance group improved more in sprint “acceleration.

When we talk about the transition phase and top end phase of a sprint, what we are looking for is as faster “full cycle” as possible so, how fast can we get through full stride pattern and how smaller time can our foot spend in contact with the ground.

For these phases of the sprint I prefer to use a variety of stretch reflex based exercises to help speed up the athlete’s full cycle. The stretch reflex refers to the muscles ability to rapidly contract after being stretched. This is what we see when you see someone sprinting. The muscles of the body rapidly stretching then contracting to produce higher force outputs, with that force being directed through the foot to the ground. Some great developers of a good stretch reflex are Bounds, multiple hurdle jumps, multiple broad jumps. All can be done unilateral or bilateral. However, although I am saying use these methods to develop the top end speed, there are guidelines we need to adhere to for them to develop what we are looking for. Foot to ground contact time is a major factor in whether you are successfully applying what you are looking for. As we are looking to develop sprint speed then I like to Try and keep foot to ground contact in stretch reflex drills as close to sprinting as possible. Keeping foot to ground times down in the low tenths of a second will help the carry over.



It’s simple; if you have poor running technique then the other components of this pyramid are not going to be as effective as they could be and you are not going to run as fast as you possible could! Poor technique results in a loss of energy through bad movement patterns, as it becomes harder to move, the time taken to get from point A to point B is increased. Improving technique comes with time, repetition and persistence but the rewards are huge. As little a thing as increasing someone’s stride length can knock huge percentages off sprint times. There are various things we can look to improve in terms of sprint technique, and there is a battery of drills to help do so. But first what are we looking for in each phase? Hopefully this checklist will help you! I have done this for the situation of a 40-yard test which most of your athletes will be tested on at one time or another

The acceleration phase
– Powerful extension of the hips, ankles and knees
– Neutral spine position with the body at a 45-degree angle to the ground
– Powerfully punch the ground with the ball of your feet (think, pistons)
– Shins at roughly 45 degrees
– Arms bent to 90 degrees providing a relaxed but powerful swooping motion
– Arms should run parallel, never across the body

Transition Phase
– Body will start to raise from 45 degrees every couple of steps
– Stride length gradually increasing
– Maintaining elbow angle and motion as chest starts to rise
– Maintain neutral spine position

Top end phase (final 5-8 steps of test)
– Chest almost up with body at around 70 degrees from the ground
– Stride length increased to optimal level not over reaching
– Shins almost vertical
– Heel high and tight to butt cheek on recovery from stride
– Arms maintain relaxed swooping motion

I understand that I have spoke a lot about a variety of aspects that will effect sprint times, however what I am going to do now is show you a simple way to implement a simple speed program. As I explained earlier I like to have at least 72 hours in between sessions. What I also like to do is split the sessions into the following

Session 1 – acceleration training

Session 2 – transition/ top end training

Either session will never run over 30-40 minutes including warm ups as I like my athletes to feel like they have something left in the tank afterwards, after all, train optimally not maximally!
Here’s how a weeks speed programming may look

Session 1 – acceleration training
Warm up – 10 minutes, general to specific
Acceleration drill 4-8 10-15m sprints – Falling starts, kneeling starts, press up starts, etc.
Ballistic drill-5-8 sets of 2-3 med ball throw variant
Power exercise 1 4-6 sets 2-3 – seated box jump, box jump from squat hold, seated broad jump
Technique work 5-10 minutes

Session 2 – top end training
Warm up general to specific
Top end drill – build up runs, form hold overload runs, technique runs (sub max)
Stretch reflex drill 1 4-6 sets of 3-5 – hurdle jumps, bounds
Stretch reflex 2 4-6 sets of 9 -12 seconds – micro hops, mini bounds
Technique work 5-10 minutes

To complement these speed sessions a balanced gym based program that covers bother maximal strength, relative strength, hypertrophy (as after all a bigger muscle has the potential to be a stronger muscle) is advisable. Incorporating Compound lifts unilateral and bilateral repetition work will have you on the right track to improving overall strength and size in your athletes.

In conclusion, speed training is a battle, but a winnable battle. Piecing together the puzzle of your athlete will be the ultimate test of you as a coach but the rewards will be great. In basic what this article says is develop a greater all round athlete and you will gain a faster athlete! Focus on recovery and technique and provide them with enough stimulus to adapt and what you will get is a greater potential for speed.

By Ricky McFarlane
Former Mash Elite intern
Current Sports performance coach/ Trainer at Spartan Strength and Conditioning, England
Sport exercises science student

(McBride 2009, Appalachian university) relationship between maximal squat strength and five, ten and forty yard times
Blazevich and Jenkins (2002) effects of a high resistance low velocity training protocol and a low resistance high velocity training protocol on sprint times

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