By Colby Schreckengost
Owner/Director of Training
Next Level Fitness & Performance
Not too long ago, I had the opportunity to spend some time with an accomplished Division 1A Football strength and conditioning coach, Coach Ben Hilgart of Virginia Tech. We chatted for hours and it quickly became very obvious that our philosophies meshed on nearly every topic. When the topic of increasing an athlete’s speed came up, the conversation got real. He told me, “It’s our job as Strength and Conditioning coaches to maximize the genetic potential of each and every athlete that walks through our doors.” It wasn’t a mind-blowing statement, but I completely agree. Because we train athletes and not weightlifters, speed improvement is often the top priority of training. But what is the best way to go about it?
- Add Horsepower: If you have a small muscular engine (core, quads, hamstrings, glutes, calves, arms, back and shoulders) that means that you probably need more power. You MUST increase muscle strength and muscle hypertrophy (size) to get faster. Weighted Sleds, single-leg squats, double-leg squats, trap-bar deadlifts, contrast training, power movements like cleans and snatches, plyometrics-especially the ones that get you on and off the ground quickly, core training and upper body lifts can improve your machine. Improve your strength and power and you will get faster!
- Improve Body Composition: One of the misconceptions of strength training is that the more muscle that you pack on the slower you will be. Nothing could be further from the truth. While increasing size and strength, you have to pay special attention not to put on body fat at the same time. The more useless body fat that you carry, the heavier you become. Adding “muscle weight” makes the engine more powerful. Adding body fat slows the machine down and makes it less efficient.
- Improve Running Mechanics: Running is a skill just like kicking, throwing, or hitting a ball. The mechanics of running require hours of training time to improve. Especially in acceleration- the most important part of speed training. Things like arm swing, knee drive, power line, ankle stiffness, and acceleration posture are all learned skills that for most athletes need to be taught and for natural athletes, refined. Not only do you need more ground force production; it needs to be applied horizontally not vertically.
- Learn to Compete: Most athletes are competitors, but I’ve seen plenty of them that don’t have the fire to get better every day. Athletes that want to get faster must have a focus and a sense of urgency. A level of competitiveness that shines when he or she plays in a game, practices, trains in the weight room or runs a race. Deficiencies can often be overcome with a determined competitor. They trust the day-to-day process of getting better, put their nose down, and try to outwork you to the finish line.
- Year-round Training: A more mature athlete (over 15-years of age) requires strength training year round with a few weeks off periodically. Why? In order to increase and maintain horsepower. Pure and simple. Athletes that do not train in-season lose strength and power as the season progresses. When the horsepower drops off, so does the speed and quickness. Athletes and coaches tend to think that they’ll make up for it with on field strategic intelligence or better conditioning. But without those bursts of power and quickness being able to repeat over and over again in a 3-hour contest, the athlete’s game becomes slower and slower and leads to a higher risk of injury.
- Understand your why: What are the demands of your sport? Is it flat out speed in a linear sport such as track and field that you need? Does your sport demand multi-directional speed, acceleration, deceleration, and reacceleration? This type of movement is required in most field and court sports like soccer, football, basketball, lacrosse, baseball, softball or tennis). Is the court or playing area more confined and required smaller and quicker movements like volleyball? Does it require jumping quickness off the ground with lateral movement? If your sport is played on ice, what type of skating or stopping speed is required? Don’t just say “I need to get faster,” without understanding why and what type of speed or quickness is needed.
- Find a Great Coach: An experienced strength & performance coach should be able to evaluate an athlete in a 60-90 minute session and be able to write a training program for most athletes. Of course, programs will need progressing or regressing along the way, that’s where the experience comes in. This coach should understand what you’re needs are. Every individual that I’ve trained over the years has had different assets and deficiencies. I always think “how do I improve THIS machine?” Does this machine need, power, strength, mobility, sprinting mechanics, athleticism and change of direction? What about deceleration work, body composition change, or maybe they’re coming off a bad season and need confidence and mindset improvement. Does their chosen sport match their athletic movement and skill capabilities?
- Pay Special Attention to the Details: Consistency, discipline, work ethic, recovery strategies like nutrition, supplementation, and sleep should be factored into your training and they must be coached as well. Programming for a group of athletes training together can be a little more complex, especially if the group varies in age, maturity, and experience with training, but we do it all the time. The competitiveness of the group can be a major factor in getting the best out of your training sessions.
- Work your tail off: “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard!” Once you’ve evaluated the coach, selected a facility, and signed up for a program, the athlete needs to do their part. Every training session is an opportunity to get better. They need to take advantage of the coaching and go all out every rep and every set. and, in between training sessions, stay disciplined to recovery strategies to maximize the benefit of each session.
Final Thought: As strength and conditioning coach and author, Daniel John, always says “Keep the goal….the goal!” If being a faster athlete is the main goal of your training program, you must keep that at the forefront of your daily habits. Eat whole foods! Never miss a training session. Get your 8 hours of sleep. Train with a professional not a parent or sports coach with a speed ladder in his trunk. Test your training with quantifiable drills like the 10-yard dash, 20-yard dash, 5-10-5, and broad jump or vertical jump. Ask your sports coach: “Do I seem faster? Am I getting to the ball quicker? Am I beating my competitors in speed situations?” Constant reevaluation is a must in today’s competitive sports world. Recently my staff and I trained a team of female lacrosse players utilizing all of the above techniques and teaching them all aspects of speed development. The team’s improvement was an astounding 10% in all of the measurables. Ten percent improvement is huge when it comes to mature athletes, but it must translate into better performances and team wins. I sleep better knowing that we are maximizing the genetic potential of all of the athlete’s that walk through our doors.