By Carl Valle
For some reason, we tend to read more about loading speed work with weights or resistance, but overspeed is seen as limited or a fantasy option. When it comes down to it, most coaches want faster athletes, and maximal speed is very difficult to change, unlike acceleration, which is more trainable. Maximum speed is very stubborn to change and requires much more precision to do correctly, due to the risks and limited times one can be prepared to push one’s body. For years, I felt that doing overspeed was just being lucky to have wind behind myself and that it was dangerous to play with it. The truth is that overspeed training does have risks, but the benefits are worth it, provided you are cautious and responsible. In this article, we will look at maximal speed from a logical perspective and use science to help connect the dots rather than be the sole compass in application. I think a seat at the table exists for overspeed, and I also feel I have some practical ideas in making it more athlete-friendly.
Many coaches have tried doing overspeed training and failed, mainly because the actual options were dangerous and were not sensitive enough to be the perfect dose for athletes. I believe that most athletes don’t need to do overspeed, and only elite sprinters or emerging elites should consider maximal speed training with assistance rather than resistance. Team sports can benefit from upright fast running for injury reduction and performance enhancement, but trying to get that last few hundredths is not worth the effort when much of the improvement comes from polishing the basics. When conventional training ceases to reap performance and all other options are exhausted, coaches and athletes may want to invest in overspeed.
Most readers will think that defining speed is unnecessary, but after spending time reading the research and reviewing high-speed video, overspeed can’t be labeled or placed into a simple definition or technique. A sensible definition can be as follows:
Overspeed: Any training modality that provides a way for the body to actively displace at speeds higher than volitionally possible. The goal of overspeed training is to override current abilities to create an adaptation that will enable faster unassisted speed later.
A definition is needed because the use of high-speed treadmills is synonymous with overspeed. With so many suburban kids running Usain Bolt speeds on a treadmill, why are we not seeing them break 11 seconds in the 100m dash, never mind breaking 10 seconds? The reason is that most overspeed options focus upon forcing the body to allow itself to run at speeds not suitable or appropriate to the athlete’s ability. Like a beginner athlete piling weights onto a sled and running slower than a sloth, using overspeed tends to look like water skiing on the grass or track where towing is used. Application, not the use of overspeed is the problem.
The Four Overspeed Options
Not too many options exist for overspeed, but the best one, I believe, is finding the perfect meet with a history of athletes running fast. This may sound like a disappointment, as most want a device or technique, but the most effective way to run faster is to choose the right meet and be prepared for it. The right venue, with a fast surface, great competition, and favorable conditions like a tailwind can make all the difference. Four primary options exist with overspeed, each having a unique benefit and each having pros and cons.
Wind Assistance — Anyone involved with sprinting in track and field understands wind helps athletes run faster. In fact, any wind higher than 2 meters per second is considered illegal. The problem with wind is that you can’t really count on it. Sometimes the wind is not there, and sometimes it may not be going the direction you want. One of my favorite meets in Europe is the Sundsvall Windsprint, a meeting in Sweden that changes the direction of the 100m based on the direction of the wind! Wind assistance is a natural option, but during indoor training obviously it is unavailable, and it can’t be relied on.
Small-Grade Decline Sprinting — Some very high-level facilities provide a slightly downhill track that is barely perceivable, and the grade downhill is slight. Just a little decline can help athletes achieve a fraction of a percentage higher in speed, but anything not on a track is risky. Some fields may have a slight decline, but outdoor hills are likely to be beyond a few degrees. The goal of decline sprinting is to have sprints that are faster than one can do on their own, but not too fast or artificial.
Towing Devices — Most athletes and coaches are familiar with the elastic bands that are used for both assistance and resistance options (and that are known for breaking). Some overspeed bands are encased with a sleeve to protect against accidents, but most of them rely on variable elastic tension that is not easy to manage. Towing is not limited to elastic bands; some athletes have used very expensive motor-driven options that are popular with Europeans, and some of them are actually beneficial.
Potentiation Modalities — The final option is less researched but could be a good fit. It is the use of exercises designed to create a “neurological overflow,” thus providing extra power for the following exercise or training modality. Known as contrast and complex training options, some of these techniques are extremely popular, but the research is limited and mixed. The idea is that an intense exercise or overload option will create a temporary window of excitement to the nervous system, allowing for greater-than-normal output. While the research is supportive, how they work for maximal speed is still up in the air at the moment.
The natural question that follows is what to use, given the options, and this is tricky. Potentiation options are available all the time for nearly no cost, but their influence to top speed is limited and relatively unknown. Wind is great for top speed, but it’s very difficult to plan and rely on. Sprinting on a declining slope is great, but having access to a facility that provides that resource is nearly impossible. Finally, towing properly is a little more available since a device is a few thousand dollars and is portable, but, like the decline sprinting, it’s still rare to have access to such a piece of equipment. Finally, is it worth it? So many elite sprinters are not using the above methods to get faster, so why bother at all?
Risk-to-Return Ratios and Optimal Dosing
For ten years, I avoided overspeed training, namely because I didn’t have access to sloped sprints that had safe declines, and machines seemed to be out of my budget. My experience with overspeed cords were that the constant tension was simply not something I could control, and I never timed the segments to manage the assistance. After getting years of data with flying sprints and acceleration practices, in addition to meet analysis, I found that one should only consider overspeed training when improvement without it halts. Don’t start something unless what you do stops working. I find that overspeed is something that should be considered by athletes with 3-4 years of advanced training or should be done in your early 20s. This means no high school kids or neophytes using overspeed when “regular speed” has not been maximized.
Risk of overspeed is based on many factors, such as equipment and how much added velocity is needed to create positive changes. Some athletes have been warned not to do overspeed by certain schools of thought, and many of the reasons have very little merit because they are so vague and are just blanket suggestions. For example, some education resources fear doing overspeed because it causes excessive braking forces as foot strike is too far ahead, but the same proponents are the first to suggest finding good meets that are known to have great tailwinds like UTEP. After Obadele Thompson ran a 9.69 with a massive wind, where are all the overspeed dangers? Should we pull sprinters out when the wind is too high? Of course not. The reason that overspeed and wind are never considered dangerous is because wind is natural, but machines tend to spook coaches. A machine replicating a gentle 2.0 wind is never a risk if the equipment is sound, so it’s better to consider overspeed as a small assistance rather than thinking of it as something out of control like some elastic cords. Some downhill runs and cords are at extreme levels, so those are more like overdosing than anything else.
Overstriding is always brought up with coaches who hate overspeed, and my thoughts have always been: how much was happening and how dangerous was it? Towing research suggests that overstriding is only a problem when the speed is not appropriate, and empirical evidence of sprinters running faster later in the season after running fast, wind-assisted times is too convincing to avoid training with overspeed. The question is how much is needed and how frequent is necessary to make enough changes?
Beyond Minimum Effective Dose and Maximum Safe Dose
After solid training is developed with sprinters, the option of overspeed is appropriate. What is a prerequisite for overspeed is, again, years of solid sprinting without any device or modality. If the conventional training is maxed out and the athlete hits a true speed barrier, overspeed is then an appropriate option but doesn’t guarantee new personal records that season. If one is not getting training data with electronic timing, start adding that modality first before one dives into overspeed. Nobody sees signs on the highway with adjectives instead of numbers, so coaches need to see splits in training before adding specific assistance. Assistance is based on precise velocities in training, not just throwing a dash of salt when one doesn’t know the recipe and volume of the soup being made. Also, arousal is similar to potentiation and perhaps they are not too different from each other and should be considered. Just having timing or other measurement tools will increase output, regardless, so combining timing and overspeed for too many new athletes will likely overdose the result. A better option is to first get years of data of speeds, and then try to add 2-3 meters per second changes, or near 1 percent for advanced athletes. Nobody has a magic formula for how much one needs to improve in practice to see it in meets, but not improving in practice is not a likely formula either. Here is a logical progression with overspeed, and notice how slow and gradual it is with athletes.
Year One – Introduction to max speed and sprint-float-sprint drills. All one needs here is exposure and experiencing deliberate efforts to improving the technical elements of maximal velocity development or top speed.
Year Two – Basic analysis of top speed and focus on changing areas that are probable impairments of performance.
Year Three – Advanced analysis of development of top speed by looking at the last two years of data and the early results of year three for trends.
Year Four – Create a particular dose of overspeed by using it during speed sessions. The optimal balance or ratio between assisted and non-assisted runs is unknown at this point, since many programs have very little historical data.
Not to create fear, but even regular maximal speed poses risk to athletes and is very taxing. Adding overspeed without careful placement can cause problems if not done selectively. If one is actually to look at the last four years, only a very small fraction of the training includes overspeed, demonstrating that it’s not wise to use indiscriminately.
Simple Tips on Application
When the rubber hits the road, or when overspeed is trying to be applied, it eventually comes down to knowing when an athlete is fresh and ready to sprint fast. I don’t think more than four to six overspeed sessions are needed to make a positive change, but again without larger data sets it’s hard to tell what is the required number of sprints with overspeed. Practice times, especially maximal speed, are always slower than meet performances, so more repetitions are likely necessary. Also, with added speed comes the need for added recovery, so frequency of absolute work will always decrease during the special preparation phase. Additional considerations are how the athlete reacts physically to each session because each athlete has different mechanics. Those that “sit” or have poor pelvic positions when at top velocity should fix what they can before getting towed or other options. It may actually help athletes to be towed so they can focus on stepping over and letting themselves experience rebound instead of trying too hard. Timing and video are the judges here, so great technique and great speeds using objective indicators can tell the whole story.
Tips with Sprints and Wind – I actually have my own wind gauge but also like to know if the wind gusts are long and constant. With new Bluetooth technologies, temperature and wind can be easily viewed so one can see if the day’s weather will create a dense or dispersed wind during practice. I am no longer a “storm chaser” and just include wind as a blessing in disguise. A better idea is to choose meets where wind is likely to be positive, and viewing meet results is a good idea.
Tips for Proper Towing – Good equipment is a rarity, so towing options need to ensure the added speed is adjustable and appropriate and that the device includes a clutch for safety. The best option is not as expensive as the ones in the U.K., as they are overpriced. Just 1,500 Euros can make a better machine than those overpriced options that are more than 10,000, and they include features that are simply not available because they just collect dust at high-performance centers. Make your own or travel to Windsprint in Sweden and negotiate for a used model.
Tips for Decline Sprints – Access to small decline options are less common than incline options, as coaches tend to focus on adding load rather than adding speed. If you know of a facility that offers such a slope, try them on a speed day, provided the travel doesn’t outweigh the actual proposed benefits. If you have access to it, use it when an athlete is ready because they earned it, not because you have easy access.
Tips for Potentiation Methods – Not much is known, but complex and contrasting options are popular for advanced athletes, and unfortunately are introduced too early for beginner athletes. With speed training being so demanding and fatiguing, I would just include jump training before the speed session with a minimal dose and not try to alternate between reps without building into it. Some trial and error and experimentation with exercises is needed to see how unassisted methods are working, compared to potentiation methods. The goal is to get a better workout as a whole, not just having the first rep be on fire and the rest turn into a slug fest. Perform a smart analysis of looking at the times to see if they are truly doing more with the exercises before the sprints than one can get by just turning up the volume or having a large Dunkin Donuts coffee.
Again, the eye test counts here and, if looks awkward and your gut is alerting to something just not jiving, I suggest looking at the video and auditing the times. My favorite joke from the Level 3 course in Las Vegas was when Dan Pfaff used the phrase 98 percent overspeed, meaning the towing he witnessed was actually creating a 2 percent reduction in sprinter performance with another coach’s workout. Numbers and video don’t lie with overspeed, and getting splits can really show how athletes are doing compared to their own individual norms.
Overspeed training should be thought of as something less than the frosting on the cake – perhaps the cursive writing or similar. Only when meet selection is no longer assisting development should one start thinking of overspeed. When all options create a diminishing return, a coach and athlete should discuss overspeed. Skipping steps in development and thinking that advanced training options will make one advanced in ability is like assuming that taking a black-belt class in martial arts will help one win a tournament when you are a white belt. In my opinion, most coaches have shied away from overspeed because of the risks associated with outdated equipment and foolish application, rather than looking at what can mimic the universally accepted benefits of wind. While non-wind overspeed options may not perfectly replicate wind assistance, they shouldn’t cause risks if done very subtly and may be the only way left to get faster.
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