Straight ahead (linear) speed is an important factor in athletic success regardless of the sport.  Faster athletes usually win the race, are able  to jump the farthest, throw the furthest,  are first to the ball, break a defenders ankles, and so on.  In this article, the first of a series, we will discuss the factors affecting speed, describe sprinting techniques, distinguish the difference between acceleration and maximum speed, and cover a few  techniques to help you improve your speed.

First, there are a number of factors that affect speed.  These include:

  • Structure and make up of an athlete’s muscles.
  • Flexibility
  • Fatigue
  • Technique
  • Stride length and stride frequency

Muscle Makeup and Structure – Several aspects of an athletes muscle structure could potentially effect their ability to run fast.  An athlete that has a higher percentage of fast-twitch muscle fibers has the potential to produce greater amounts of force more quickly than an athlete with a higher percentage of slow-twitch muscle fibers.  In fact, studies have demonstrated that sprinters have a considerably higher percentage of fast-twitch muscle fibers than distance runners.  Similar studies have suggested that the actual structure of the muscle may even influence an athletes speed.  One study compared sprinters who ran the 100m in under 11 seconds with sprinters who ran between 11.0 and 11.7 seconds.  They found that the sub 11 second sprinters had greater fascicle lengths (the length of bundles of muscle fibers running from proximal to distal tendons) accounting for an almost 22% faster shortening velocity. Similar studies comparing sprinters with 10-km runners and marathoners had similar results.  In fact, not only did sprinters have greater fascicle lengths, they also had smaller pennation angles (i.e. degree of alignment with the long axis of the muscle).  What we have not been able to determine is whether or not muscle structure and makeup can be improved with training.

Flexibility – Flexibility allows the athlete to move their limbs through a full range of motion without impediment.   A more fluid and efficient running motion can also increase the athletes stride length and stride frequency.  Although static stretching can be used to improve flexibility, dynamic stretching exercises are  more effective for improving an athletes speed.

Fatigue – Athletes should not attempt any speed training when they are tired.  Fatigue actually  interferes with the muscle’s ability to shorten quickly.  Meaning, as the athlete becomes more tired, they slow down and continued training may inadvertently teach them to run at slower speeds.   Fatigue also effects coordination, which in turn adversely effects the athlete’s ability to run with proper form.  This is a deadly combination when speed training and could wind up reinforcing bad habits and even cause injury.

Technique – Technique is a major factor in an athletes ability to run fast.   An athlete can only run as fast as his or her technique allows.   Proper technique makes for more fluid, efficient faster running motion.  Conversely, improper technique not only makes an athlete slower but can also result in injuries as the result of excessive tissue loading from bad form.

Stride Length and Frequency – Speed is a result of stride length and stride frequency.   We have discussed stride length and and frequency in other articles  (Understanding Stride Length and Stride Frequency) so we won’t spend a lot of time discussing here.  Suffice it to say, there is a relationship between stride length and frequency and both have to be trained in order to improve speed.

In the next installment of  Taking Flight – Speed Training 101, we will talking about sprinting technique,  the importance of speed training and the difference between acceleration and maximum velocity running.  We’ll also make some suggestions on various exercises you can do to to help improve your sprinting technique.

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