Speed demands of team athletes (acceleration, agility)
A sprint performance is made up of several components, of which the first component, the acceleration phase is the topic of this paper. Athletes require 30-40m to reach maximal running velocity therefore the majority of sprint performances in team sports are acceleration runs. It is very rare that a team sport athlete would be required to sprint for longer than 30-40m (even though an athlete in a football code may run up to 90m if they make a break). Time motion analysis of Rugby Union players by Docherty et al. (1988) highlighted that center's sprinted at maximal effort for an average of 2.3 seconds (15-20m) for each sprint. It is therefore important that coaches of team sports place their sprint training emphasis upon rapid acceleration rates and maximizing the athletes' agility at speed.
Physiology behind increase in acceleration and agility (Increase in speed strength)
Mero (1988) highlighted the high correlation (0.66 p<0.05) between force production in the propulsion phase and running velocity, emphasizing the importance of maximum strength during the acceleration phase of sprinting. Another important physical ability applicable to acceleration running is the rate of force development (RFD) in the musculature or the development of speed strength in the athlete.
Speed strength characteristics can be developed in the weight room, but it is the opinion of this author that in the weight room situation maximal strength training should be emphasized (some application of this strength and best development of increased RFD should occur in a sport specific on field situation). The training methods to maximize RFD include sprinting with a weighted jacket, uphill sprints, towing (resisted), and speed-strength jump training (plyometrics).
Technique requirements to maximize acceleration
Development of the above strength characteristics will not ensure increased sprint performances in team sport athletes if these physical abilities are not channeled into efficient and functional sprinting technique. From the author’s experience working with team sport athletes during the past 10 years, it is his opinion that lack of development of fast team sport athletes is largely due to poor sprinting technique not allowing utilization of the strengths these athletes possess.
To maximize horizontal velocity, the athlete must be able to apply forces in a linear direction, minimize ground contact time while maximizing force output, maintain a correct torso position, minimize rotation in the upper body during sprinting, and maximize the hip extension forces created by the hamstring and gluteal muscle groups. A common problem with athletes attempting to sprint is the inefficient lateral movement of the lower limb through the phases of the stride, especially just after toe off (push off) and during early recovery of the foot to just beneath the gluteal. This lateral movement must be accommodated for and usually leads to excessive hip rotation to offset the forces from the lower limbs, leading to very inefficient technique and consequently slow acceleration rates. Another technical limitation to efficient sprinting is that of lack of drive through the hip extensors (gluteals and hamstrings) the athlete accentuating knee lift (hip flexion) in the belief that high knee lift is important to good sprint performance. A study by Ae et al. (1992) on Male 100m sprinters highlighted that the major difference between elite and non-elite sprint athletes was the rate of the hip extension velocity.
The dropping of the center of gravity (C of G) with a concurrent leaning backwards of the upper torso can accentuate the high knee movement. This position makes it impossible to apply hip extension force through a full range of motion, leading to shortening of the stride and slower rates of acceleration.
Posture, and in particular the ability to hold a solid upper torso (pillar) position while sprinting is one of the most important technical points in the development of sprinting speed. A large amount of training time when developing speed in athletes should be placed upon drills that emphasis a solid "Pillar". The more solid this "pillar", the better the upper and lower limbs are able to perform their functions without upsetting the direction of force production and the ultimate goal of improving the rate at which the ground can be covered. When observing elite sprint performers, many of these athletes sprint with elbow angle much greater than the suggested 90o, and can only effectively use this technique by developing great strength throughout their "pillar'. (A long lever will develop more force than a short lever if the associating structures are strong enough to withstand the increase in force development). All the above technical faults have the effect of increasing breaking forces as the foot contacts the ground in front of the C of G. This in turn increases ground contact time and decreases flight time resulting in decreased horizontal velocity.
Sprint specific drills
Sprint drills are designed to improve body posture, hip position, leg and arm action, improve rate of hip extension and speed of limb recovery after toe off. These drills were classified by Gerard Mach from Canada in 1974 and are classified as A, B, and Heel flick drills, with several modifications of each drill.
The A and B drill can be performed while walking, jogging or running. These drills can be done with alternate legs, or with the same leg. These A, B and Heel Flick drills can also be performed in combination. The aim of these drills is to allow the athlete to concentrate on a solid "pillar" (strong mid torso through contraction of abdominals and obliques) while performing fast leg and arm actions that are similar to the movement required while sprinting. The ankle of the lead leg must be in a flexed position and all strides must land actively on the balls of the feet, aiming to minimize any collapse through the ankle, knee, and hip or mid torso regions. The speed of movement initially will be slow to allow controlled actions but must be increased to simulate the speed of movement that will occur in a sprinting situation.
A second type of sprint specific drill that has been designed to improve the reaction time and speed with which the athletes can move their limbs is known as "patters" and requires the athletes to take very short quick shuffling steps over a short distance (3-5m). This drill is designed to improve an athlete's neuromuscular co-ordination allowing faster steps to be taken while sprinting, which is very important in the acceleration phase of any sprint performance.
Team sport specific drills
To make the above patter drill specific to team sport movement, lateral movements and a reaction time component can be added to this drill. During or immediately following the patter drill, the athletes perform a jump, sprint (forwards, backwards or sideways) or step (forwards, backwards or sideways) rapidly on a signal that can be auditory (clap), or visual (flag, throwing of ball, waving of hands, etc.). The drill could include the athlete having to dive to the ground and back up quickly (as required in Volleyball), or to take a couple of steps forwards and then backward to a jump (as in Netball).
Another drill of benefit to team sports is requiring athletes to quickly get off the ground and sprint to a particular point either forwards or backwards. The position on the ground should be varied and include laying face down, push-up position, laying on back, sitting, and having arms and legs in varied positions. This type of work increases the athlete's proprioception and ability to quickly move into a sprint position and cover ground rapidly.
The combinations of starting and reaction drills are limited only by the coach's imagination. However, of utmost importance is that the speed and reaction drills are performed at maximal intensity, while the athlete is fresh (beginning of any session), and that long recoveries are given between drills (60 seconds between a set of reaction drills, 2-4 minutes between 40m sprints) to ensure the athlete maintains quality speed of movement. As most sprint training is aimed at developing the neuromuscular system, the nervous system of the athlete must be in a non-fatigued state to allow improvement to occur. As soon as the athlete's nervous system becomes fatigued no further learning takes place, you are just teaching an athlete to perform at their current speed levels repeatedly (required in the latter stages of any game).
Development of specific speed endurance
In the development of speed specific endurance, as in the development of increased acceleration speed, the distance to be covered in performance is important to the structure of the training session. Any team sport athlete will rarely have to sprint more than 40m in any single effort, therefore training at distances greater than 40m has little relevance concerning speed or speed endurance development in learn sport athletes. There are football codes that require their athletes to "sprint" up to 400m and run fast up to 800m. There is no basis behind this type of h-dining in developing specific speed endurance (except to cause great pain in the athletes involved). At speed, once the athlete goes beyond 40-50m they are at top speed and are therefore developing sprint characteristics irrelevant to a game situation. To be asked to run 300-800m fast leads to athletes' performing these distances at much less than the 90 -100% intensity that is demanded in a game situation.
Speed endurance training should be performed over distances from 5 to 50m (depending upon the sport). It would be more appropriate if the athlete performed a series of repeat sprints over short distances. For example: 5 x 30m back to back, at 100% intensity is specific for all football codes and hockey, while for netball, a session such as 3m-3m-6m-6m-9m-9m continuous sprinting (forwards and backwards) with a jump at the end of each sprint is more specific than doing 20m shuttle runs or long endurance runs (long endurance runs have a place in general endurance development).
Planning into yearly program
The development of speed like strength should be structured throughout the total training year. It is unrealistic to have athletes perform high volumes of endurance and strength work in the preparation phase (off season), then begin speed work in the competition phase and expect to achieve great gains in sprinting speed.
Endurance has an adverse effect upon strength and speed of movement (Jackson et al., 1983 & 1990), so athletes who perform large volumes of endurance training in the preparation phase to develop basic endurance capabilities (with little to no speed development will decrease their speed potential making speed gains difficult to achieve).
To ensure maximum conversion of strength to sprinting speed, it is recommended that the athletes perform sprint training all year round. In the preparation phase, this can take the form of technique runs, and to improve the basic speed endurance capabilities of athletes by performing repeat 30m intervals with short recoveries (90-120 seconds). The negative effect on speed by endurance training can be minimized if the athlete is performing sprinting during an endurance phase of training. This will ensure the correct neural pathways are being stimulated, and the fast twitch muscle fibers are being challenged. To maximize all these above characteristics required by the team sport athlete, it is important to periodize the training year so that there will be blocks of training (2-6 weeks) that will emphasize the speed, strength, endurance or power capacities of the athletes.
Skill work could be specific during all blocks of training. During the endurance blocks, strength, power and speed are maintained, during the strength block, endurance, power and speed are maintained, etc. This type of training structure leads to maximum gains in all required physical abilities and minimizes cross training conflict and regression in certain components.
In summary, to ensure the team sport athlete develops the maximal speed required for their sport, year round sprint training performed at near to maximal intensities and while the athletes are fresh will maximize the athletes' development of this difficult physical capacity.
- Ae, M. Ito, A. and Suzuki M. 1992. The men's 100 metres. NSA. 7:47.52.
- Docherty, D., Wenger, H.A. and Neary, P. 1988. Time motion analysis related to physiological demands or rugby. J. Hum. Mov. Studies. 14: 269-277.
- Faccioni, A. 1992 Resisted and assisted methods for speed development - Part 2. Strength and Conditioning Coach. 1: 7.10.
- Jackson, C.G.R., Dickson, AX. FACSM and Ringel, S.P. 1983. Cellular muscle area alterations following two modes of resistance exercise training In the same Individual. Med & Sci Spt. & Exerc 15:136. Supplement.
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- Mero, A. 1988. Force-time characteristics and running velocity of male sprinters during the acceleration phase of sprinting. Res. Quart. for Ex. & Spt. 59: 94-98.