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Track & Field: How to Improve your Speed

The goal of every track athlete is always the same: get faster. And whether you run the 60m or the 10,000m there is always, always room for more speed. Some people think speed is something you are born with—you either have it or you don’t. This is not entirely true, and while some runners are genetically talented, you can train your body to go faster. Why else would track practice exist?

Sprinting is a combination of acceleration, power, speed and technique. When you sprint, the fast twitch fibers in your muscles fire quickly and powerfully to drive explosive movement. While you can’t build more fast-twitch fibers, you can make them stronger and more efficient. A good speed-training program will develop and combine all these aspects of the sport to make you a better sprinter.Here are some of things you can do to improve on your speed.

Hit the Weights

If you are not new to track and field, start including a weight routine in your regular training program. Lifting weights and incorporating plyometrics will increase your explosive power and quickness while simultaneously reducing muscle fatigue.

Power—the ability to exert the greatest amount of force on the track in the least amount of time—is one of the most important qualities of a sprinter. The less time you spend on the ground, the greater your stride frequency which in turn allows you to cover more ground in less time. Sounds like a winning formula, right?

Some runners worry that weight workouts will inhibit their technique or make them too bulky. But if the right exercises are practiced properly, lifting should develop strength and speed through increased lean muscle mass, fat reduction, and development of explosive soft tissue fibers without adding a significant amount of size.

Your gym routine will also vary depending on the time of year and where you are in your season. You can use the iSport Gym Directory to find a gym in your area.

Pre-Season

The purpose of pre-season weight training is to develop general strength. It is also a good time to develop power and speed—especially for throwers, sprinters, jumpers and some mid-distance runners who may transition between the 400 and 800.  Here are some pointers for your pre-season training:

  • Plan to be in the weight room: You should be there two to four times a week, depending on your event. Include four to six exercises each training session, with 3 to12 repetitions for three to six sets each.
  • Give yourself a significant amount of rest: For example, resting four minutes between each set so you don't burn out too quickly.
  • Weight workouts should not be more than 45 minutes. Anything longer could be counter-productive to the development of power and speed.

Mid-Season

Your weight workouts should now focus on maintaining power, speed and strength instead of building it.  Time in the weight room may be reduced to two to three times a week. Again, weight workouts should be no more than 45 minutes long.  Also:

Give yourself a significant amount of rest between reps and sets.  This means less sets and reps with higher weight. For example, if you were doing 8 x 6 reps of squats at 135 pounds during the pre-season, this may change to a workout like this:

  • 3x1 set at 80% of your squat max followed by,
  • 2x1 set of 85% of your squat max and
  • 1x1 set of 95% of your squat max.

Peak Season / Championship Season

Once the track season picks up and the championship or final meets draw closer, you will be able to use the strength you developed and convert it into power while spending less time in the weight room.

The number of reps and sets should decrease so that the muscles stay engaged but are less fatigued for more important competitions. (For example: You may only do four reps with three sets for each exercise.)

Power in Plyometrics

Hot Tip: Put Them Together

You can also incorporate plyometrics into your weight workouts. A workout that combines weight training followed closely by an exercise that uses a full range of movement can increase explosive power. Keep in mind, this combination should not be done all the time because it can dull the nervous system and the desired effects.

Plyometric exercises are a great way to use the power you developed in the weight room and apply it onto the track with full (sometimes exaggerated) range of motion.They can be part of any workout day and done two to three times a week. The distance covered in each drill varies between 10-30 meters, depending on the exercise. Always consult a coach prior to starting a plyometric routine, since you need to have a strong general fitness base before attempting any intermediate or advance exercises.

Here are some exercise examples for each athlete’s level:

For beginners: Start with simple exercises, like bounding, single and double leg hops, and skipping for height. All of these will get you acclimated to plyometric-type workouts.

For intermediate runners: Progress from the simple beginner-level exercises to slightly more complex exercises.  Also, you should start to incorporate a speed ladder into your training.  Some exercises that should be done with a speed ladder are:

  • High knees
  • Fast feet to a 15m sprint-Alternate one foot in each box as fast as you can. At the end of the ladder accelerate to a 15m sprint.
  • Single Leg Hops to a 15m sprint

You can also do a series of short sprints to bounds.  An example of this type of workout would look like this: 15m sprint, 15m bound, 15m sprint, 15m bound.

For advanced runners: Time to up the intensity even more.  These are the types of exercises you should be doing at the advanced level:

  • Depth Jump: Use a platform between .5m to 1-meter high.  Step off the platform with both feet and quickly spring off the ground immediately.  Swing your arms vigorously upward as your feet hit the ground.  Keep your back neutral with your gaze straight ahead.
  • Depth Jumps to a 15m sprint: After the jump up, take off in a 15m sprint as your feet hit the ground the second time.
  • Med-Ball Throws to a 15m sprint: The med ball throw can vary from throwing it up in the air or throwing it forward. The point is to build your power for the sprint.

Develop Your Speed

There are two elements that go into developing you speed: speed training and speed endurance.

Speed training focuses on sprinting, technique, relaxation and power; speed endurance centers on maintaining that speed and fighting through lactic acid buildup which is crucial during the latter stages of the race in longer sprints like the 400.

Speed Training

The focus of these workouts is strictly on speed and technique. Since the repeats are short and fast with longer rest to allow complete recovery, you should be able to remain relax and loose with minimal fatigue.

Here's an example of a workout that focuses on speed training:

  1. 3x100m, 3x60m and 2 sets of 3x30m from a crouch start
    • You would rest 3 to 4 minutes between the reps and 5-8 minutes between the sets.
  2. 4 x 3 sets x 25m
    • 1st set: Start at a push down position
    • 2nd set: Start at a push up position
    • 3rd set: Start at a face forward position
    • 4th set: Start at a facing backwards position
 

Speed Endurance

Speed endurance workouts (often called “interval workouts”) vary in length and specifics, but always focus on building a base of aerobic capacity. The bulk of endurance work is often done in the off-season so that sprinters can fine tune speed and power in the midst of a competitive meet schedule.

“Life is often compared to a marathon, but I think it is more like being a sprinter; long stretches of hard work punctuated by brief moments in which we are given the opportunity to perform at our best.”

Michael Johnson (USA)
Olympian and 400m world record holder

You don’t need to—and shouldn’t—go on long runs like a distance runner to increase your speed endurance as a sprinter. Instead, do workouts that include longer sprints with shorter rest, at a somewhat slower pace than the sets above.

Here are some examples of endurance-oriented workouts:

  • 8x400m (the 400 is broken up to be a 100 walk, 100 jog, 100 stride @ 70% and a 100 sprint)
  • 3x150m, 3x100 and 3x50 with 1 minute rest in between reps and 3 minutes between sets
  • 15-30 minutes of fartleks (1 minute hard with 1.5 minutes walk or 2 minutes hard with 1 minute walk)

As the track season approaches, speed endurance workouts can be run near event race pace with less repeats and longer recoveries.

Wrap-Up

Always enlist the help of a coach before starting any type of training program. You do not want to over train or do anything that could lead to an injury. A coach understands how to structure a speed training program to be the most beneficial for you. You can use the iSport Coach Directory to find a coach in your area.

Remember, these are just some of the hundreds of training strategies you can use to become a better sprinter. But use these concepts to get a better idea on how to get quicker, more powerful and more explosive.

Every track and field athlete can benefit from gains in speed. This guide identifies some ways to improve your running speed.
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