Skip to main content

You Can't Outjump Speed


Looking at world record and Olympic medalists, a clear pattern exists with velocities and jumping performances. And the pattern clearly indicates that speed matters.

The IAAF report on the 2011 World Championships in Daegu, South Korea, highlights what elite athletes are doing biomechanically. The report is the basis for some thoughts on horizontal velocity in the horizontal and vertical jumps.

Two options exist to improve performance in the jumping events: develop more speed or convert current speed more efficiently with better jumping technique. What is concerning about most approaches to the horizontal and vertical jumps is the failure to see the big picture—to understand that running velocities matter. Some people simply ignore the need to hit the minimum speeds required to achieve reasonable distances in the horizontal and vertical jumps. Clearly, event specialization and technique matters. But to get the most out of the athlete’s potential and achieve big air, you have first to develop great speed.

Breaking down world-class performances in the jumps is a lesson in differences and commonalities. It is interesting to see from the analysis of elite performances just how fast some events, such as the high jump and pole vault, are. It is equally interesting to see, conversely, how much the horizontal jumps have slowed over the past 10 years compared with the early and mid-1990s. Outliers always exist, of course, so the key is to see trends in performances in general to determine how the jumps are evolving or regressing.

Several factors exist on the elite level with regard to the development of the jumping events. The greater monetary draw of the short sprints has undoubtedly robbed the talent pool of some potential long jumpers. Some experts, though, say that overall the trend to focus solely on jumps training has, paradoxically, hindered improvement in the jumping events. Regardless of fiscal or social or training influences, we need to do a better job of developing the jumps talent that we have.

The following three tables have been created to summarize the parameters of elite jumping. It is important to understand what is realistically measurable in applied, or real-world, coaching environments rather than to waste time on impractical breakdowns using force plates and formulas that are not helpful for youth athletes.

At the higher levels, more data may be necessary. But without basics and a good framework, more data isn’t going to solve obvious deficiencies. Many working models in elite performances are simply estimations of what it takes biomechanically to reach certain distances. An easier starting place is just to look at simple, individual metrics. And though it is important to note that the basis for this article is a small sample of data from only one major championship and that many other performances feature higher velocities, this is a good start.

Table 1. Elite Horizontal Jump Velocities

Elite Horizontal Jump Velocities

The most striking but expected differences are those between event speeds and gender. The top speeds are presented and are averages of elite athletes in each event from the 2011 World Championships. This sample is not far off from the all-time great performances from earlier and later championships, but the goal was to give a rough estimation of what people are doing to get on the podium. What would be more interesting is to see test data from the coaches included in the IAAF study to see what speeds athletes are capable of and what speeds athletes are using.

Horizontal speed is less important for the high jump than the long jump, but eventually momentum needs to be transferred from somewhere to generate the vertical forces for high jumping. Similarly, although the constraints of carrying a pole in the pole vault hampers top-end horizontal velocities the technical demands of the event and the fulfillment of the gross abilities of vaulters require the development of speed. Athlete selection for the jumps events should not be based on who doesn’t make the sprint relay team.

Jump Acceleration Demands

Table 2. Jump Acceleration Demands

It may seem out of place to discuss acceleration after showing the top velocities in the events, but several reasons exist for placing acceleration second. Chiefly, the ability to accelerate is not as important in the jumps as it is in the sprints. Jumps athletes are chasing either height or distance, not fighting time. In the jumps, it’s about how effectively the speed generated is converted into a jump. Sprinting, on the other hand, is all about generating speed through acceleration to reduce time from point A to point B. And whereas sprinters need to be fast everywhere in their events, jumpers need to be fast at the right time.

Acceleration is a change of velocity over time, and specific distances are required to achieve absolute speed after a stationary or walking start. The distances listed in table 2 are estimates of the common approaches used by high-performing jumpers. The ranges reflect the different running styles of and number of steps taken by individual athletes to hit optimum runway speeds for the approach in their event.

The approach for the pole vault, for example, has similarities to that for the horizontal jumps. But pole carriage necessitates a slight variance in the acceleratory lean from what we usually see in the long and triple jump. The high jump, meanwhile, offers less distance to work with but also has a lower velocity demand than the other jumps events. Its approach, however, is far more complicated, with curvilinear requirements. So coach and athlete must work to maximize and master speed through acceleration strategies that are consistent with event demands and that generate consistent approach speeds that transfer to great jumping mechanics.

Jump Event Technical Demands

Table 3. Jump Event Technical Demands

The event technical demands table builds from the earlier two tables to show important parameters beyond horizontal velocities. When allocating training resources, it is necessary to ask what is a good investment—what is the return on putting time into and taking on the risk of developing a given performance quality.

Other factors that must be considered include the event rules, which impose restrictions that make absolute performances less likely. In, for example, the long jump, it is about how far away from the board the athlete can jump, not about how far the athlete can jump from a takeoff point. The reality of fouling in the horizontal jumps constrains how far the athlete can jump legally.

The demands of the jumps, moreover, specifically the vertical influence, is illustrated in how athletes transfer speed up over a crossbar or through a pit. Speed without the final explosive action is fruitless. This article discusses more the prerequisites for the last foot contact rather than how to train for the jump.

Applied Speed Training Testing and Practice Monitoring

Several options exist for testing and monitoring horizontal velocities in the jumps to suit coaching preferences. Some coaches only test for general speed attributes a few times a year. Others time everything and let the data fall into place with trends and training cycles. No right option exists, but more information helps, provided it is purposeful. Commonly, the approach is to test general qualities and to monitor specific practices to measure development. Here are two common methods of timing used to determine how jumps athletes are developing.

Testing Speed and Power Abilities

Many great coaches use general testing as a means to explore athletes’ biomotor abilities. Acceleration, maximal speed, and speed endurance all influence event performance. Clearly, jumping ability and even the ability to project light implements are valuable to jumpers, and scores for such abilities can be factored into a profile of the athlete.

An often-asked question, though, is if there is some coefficient, or exchange, between flat-out speeds and actual runway speeds of lesser velocity. Different athletes have different abilities to gather velocity on a runway and project forces through their jumps. But the goal for all athletes is to increase or decrease speed for best application in their given jumps event.

Carl Lewis was faster than Mike Powell on the runway, but several additional differences exist. Carl was moving at over 11 meters a second before the board, and the key to his jumping was speed through the board and the vertical force he placed down. Mike Powell, too, had great speed, at nearly 11 meters per second. His strength was having the jumping ability to convert his horizontal velocity. The fastest runway speeds don’t guarantee a ticket to the podium, but the slowest speeds, conversely, never result in a champion.

Monitoring Speed and Step-Count Distances

Most coaches will do some form of whole-event practice with full or more likely reduced approach lengths. A precise way to look at speed is to electronically time splits of about 10 meters, or of 0.80 seconds, to get horizontal velocity. Some coaches time the athlete’s every approach. Yet others time approaches only at key periods during the season. A lot of lessons can be learned from seeing how sprinters and hurdlers utilize timing.

Using steps as a distance measurement is a widely accepted way to rehearse the jumps event. In meets, coaches are aware that diverse elements will force athletes to move at different speeds than usual and to therefore tweak their marks. Variations in steering ability, jump modality, speed development, and approach step count in practice at different times of the year make the combination of speed and distance useful. Athletes using the same step count may not be moving at the same speed, limiting the interpretation of the distance jumped.

When coaches add timing, they can better review the mechanics while chronometers record velocities. The last few steps before a jump will vary and likely decrease in speed because of the need to lower the center of mass for especially the penultimate and takeoff steps, but a general recording of the point A to point B time segment is productive for determining velocity.

Further Directions

Coaches will have to explore what options for testing horizontal velocity fit their model of training. In so doing, they must consider what methods are practical and effective in revealing actionable information. Only when what is done in practice compares favorably with meet performance can we say that we know what is going on with jumping development. Timing is an excellent way to see why and how technique, power, and speed interact.

Note: Thank you to Randy Huntington for countless hours of guidance on this subject; he is one of the world’s top experts. Randy is known for working with Mike Powell and Willie Blanks. His work in professional sports and with high-profile Olympic athletes is a constant reminder of results.

Please share this article so others may benefit.


Leave a Reply