By Carl Valle
The Value of Top Speed
After talking to coaches about GPS and other measurement options for speed testing, I realized that most of them appeared to regard maximal speed development as an unknown or unnecessary part of training. They seemed more interested in barbell speed than in body speed, so I wanted to write something about the value of maximal speed.
Acceleration is an essential part of every landbased sport, and maximal speed training and assessment has an important role if coaches want to make their athletes better. What follows are six important lessons I learned the hard way from smart coaches who corrected some of my misconceptions. The takeaway is that getting athletes to run mechanically sound and fast is a great investment in time for nearly every sport.
Maximal Velocity Can Improve Acceleration
Stretching the field and getting faster from point A to point B are obvious positives. At first I was fixated on how fast one can go from 0 to15 meters as the Holy Grail since most sports are not about running 60m in a straight line. Watching athletes with superior maximal speeds reflects their efficient acceleration qualities and demonstrates how plays longer than ten steps can become dangerous. While events with longer amounts of linear speed are less common, since they are precious shouldn’t we make them count?
What is less known are the neurological demands of a fast acceleration from efficient running. Speed in sport is about explosive training, but raw power without coordination usually is metabolically more taxing and sometimes slower and stiffer. Athletes in ball sports need to be fast while multitasking, so efficient running enables them to be smooth and adds to their skill set. Research on improving acceleration abilities past five meters by higher velocity runs is scant. It’s likely that contemporary training theory on neuromuscular adaptations from high-speed running trickles down to early speed. Faster contractions overclock the neuromuscular system, and slower velocities become more comfortable and more likely to be acquired.
Coaching Summary: Maximal speed is the destination of acceleration. While most sports events may not commonly involve top speed, acceleration becomes more efficient with global coordination development.
Repeat Sprint Ability and Total Output Capacity
There are countless articles and ideas about the best way to develop repeat sprint ability (RSA), and some tests are better than others. RSA testing requires an all-out burst of speed to see how fatigue decays one’s maximal abilities. My opinion is that with enough training and general performance testing, a specific RSA test may not be needed with all players in team sports. As many coaches state, get fast first and then worry about staying there later.
Coordinated sprinting at maximal velocities at the cellular level has yet to be researched yet. Substrate utilization may not be sensitive enough to detect small reductions in speed from neuromuscular adaptations, but that may not be needed. As technology improves, sensors will be able to track speed outputs and analysts can see the relationship between those with great acceleration and great top speed and those with great acceleration but lesser top speed.
I know it’s en vogue to talk about the latest gene activation research and link the cool physiological responses of the body from PubMed, but the clock and simple math are better. Nobody cares who has the better aerobic metabolism; those in the know care about results that are crystal-clear. Athletes who can continually repeat velocities that are better and remain injury-free win.
General endurance over a game and season is similar to RSA. RSA is a measurement or quality, but most coaches look at conditioning as a physiological quality, and speed and power as a biomechanical summary. Both options are wrong. Building an aerobic engine is a part of fitness, and running mechanics and percentage of speed reserve can extend in games that last for more than an hour. Two simple conclusions: It’s easier to hold a lower percentage of one’s maximal ability, and more efficient running is better than inefficient running. Better runners with the same fitness level aerobically are just more efficient at a skill that is highly innate but still coachable.
Coaching Summary: Submaximal velocities are improved by increasing the absolute abilities of speed. Endurance and speed should not be seen as mutually exclusive but rather a winning combination in team fitness.
Injury Prevention Benefits from Maximal Velocity Training
As “peak anti-fragile” starts to fade to new trends in training theory, the classic principle of “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” returns to popularity. Very few hamstring injuries occur at early speed, specifically initial acceleration. Most occur during upright running at very high speeds. So while maximal speed is not going to happen right away, the mechanics of upright running begin happening in the early steps and that demand must be resolved by preparation.
A higher rate of injury at higher speeds is not just an empirical observation; it’s simple physics. Coaches who avoid the problem or put their heads in the sand like ostriches are a direct reason athletes get hurt. A careful balance between exposures without overtraining isn’t easy, but not having athletes sprint at high speeds in training and expecting them to be bulletproof during games or matches is wishful thinking. Obviously doing anything maximal comes with risk, but like any quality dose it is needs to be very specific. You have to look at the frequency, volume, and intensity of any training option before categorizing it as a hazard.
Three primary variables exist with specific sprinting for reducing injuries using maximal velocity sprints.
Prerequisites and Preparation—Maximal sprinting without being in shape is a recipe for disaster. One shouldn’t jump into a sprinting program on day one, but waiting for months is equally bad as it removes a quality that eventually needs to be challenged. Solid lifting and some light plyometrics—along with a sound running program—should be enough to transition into speed training.
Technical Proficiency—Technique or running mechanics helping with reducing injuries makes sense, but many coaches complain they don’t have the time—and sometimes the knowledge—to improve their athletes’ sprinting form. Sprinting technique as a topic by itself is a separate series of articles, but we coaches need to do better here.
Readiness to Sprint—Resting from speed work and timing when to sprint is the name of the game when getting faster. Injury prevention using sprints requires fatigue-free training so that the cure doesn’t become a poison. Coaches need to have gradual warmups and know when to call it a day. Various monitoring options exist, but we still don’t know how CNS fatigue applies to sprinting. It doesn’t take too much speed work to get an injuryreduction effect neurologically, and sprinting fresh on a fast surface can create resilient athletes.
Coaching Summary: Supra-maximal velocities prepare muscle groups for overload better than any weight-room exercise and must be included in your program.
Injury Screening from Maximal Velocity Assessments
Maximal sprinting allows coaches and sports medicine staff to see beyond injuries and identify areas that may be at risk. Athletes who suffer injuries over and over are often labeled “injury prone” or “complex patients.” Speed testing can help zero in on the problem. But too many times speed training is avoided, and the final steps in rehabbing or identifying early problems do not surface because training is overly conservative.
The beauty of maximal sprinting is in revealing problems because large forces and high speeds flush or smoke out compensations that lower outputs conceal. In effect, this is similar to a car that drives nicely around town, but defects start to show up when you go on the highway, and the speed becomes higher. Even the inability to sprint is a screen since the lack of function is a cardinal sign pointing to injury patterns.
Simple analog data is a useful way to see the injury patterns of athletes. Those who are forced to juggle around simple speed training may be fooling themselves. At times shutting things down and completing rehab or waiting for something to heal is more important in the long run. It is very difficult to fix a plan in mid-air (if that is even possible).
Screening can range from a smartphone video using the Dartfish App to a full lab system with metrics like EMG, motion capture, in-shoe, and more. The goal is to get some sort of baseline and then track what is drifting to risk and what is resolving to better training.
Coaching Summary: The best movement screen is likely to be a sprint training session starting from warming up to going full speed.
Career Longevity from Maximal Velocity Benchmarks
The best way to find a “lost step” with player speed is to never lose it at all. Speed can be supported with lifting, but at the end of the day most pro athletes simply don’t have enough offseason training to keep their DNA primed. Players who lose speed are usually not getting older. Instead, they are likely falling victim to the mistakes of never finishing rehabilitation of old injuries and compromising their training with spa-like workouts. I am all for stimulating and minimum effective doses. But the body doesn’t get better or let athletes keep what got them there from “good workouts”; it comes from training.
Valuing maximal speed creates urgency and direction with rehabilitation. When one realizes that sprinting is an essential part of training, rehabilitation and offseason transition periods become focused. Most pro athletes will finish the season banged up with something nagging or needing manual therapy from a schedule that isn’t conducive to their health.
Many are burned out and want time away from their sport. The biggest and least talked-about problem is overuse injuries nursed during the competitive phase, and when the season ends the athletes disappear. Maximal effort and at times near-maximal speed or more tease out symptoms that in turn encourage the athlete to seek medical treatment. When output becomes party mode or vacation, the athlete forgets to complete the rehabilitation, and the problem doesn’t come back until efforts resemble near-maximum effort. While some offseason training programs resemble adult babysitting, it’s clear that a lot of athletes lack a clear direction without standards for annual goals. Coaches and athletes need to commit to hitting simple benchmarks year to year.
Perhaps maximal speed is not a golden ticket for all sports, but it’s the canary in the coal mine with a career. When athletes—sometimes directed by coaches—rationalize the specificity or needs analysis of sprinting and give it up, the decay in preparation accelerates. The requirement to sprint fast and stay healthy is a fantastic benchmark since it forces the athlete and the team to be accountable. Athletes can’t be as fast if they are not as lean, weaker, and medically unsound. Sprinting keeps a program honest.
Parting Thoughts on Maximal Velocity
Getting coaches and athletes to value and commit to running fast for general and specific needs shouldn’t be a “nice to have,” it should be a program staple. In upcoming articles on maximal velocity training, I will share what I know to be true from years of watching how the masters coach, what the experts share, and my own experimentation. In this series, coaches and athletes will be able to assess, learn, train, and of course measure this important athletic quality. After reading many bland and vague maximal speed articles that left me high and dry, I wanted to share what is more applied and useful. Not much is available on top speed, so this series can move the needle forward.
Please share this article so others may benefit.