Athletics across the world stage have become more competitive each year. Athletes are throwing further, running faster and jumping higher than ever before. There are many potential factors influencing the seemingly exponential improvement of athletics, including advancements in technology, nutrition and training methodologies. Middle distance and distance running has become faster, with more athletes posting competitive times and inching closer to records each year. For example; many events such as the 800m and 1500m require high velocity running above an individual’s maximal aerobic speeds (Rogers et al, 2017). Traditionally this as been achieved by training athletes concurrently aerobically and anaerobically. In recent years there has been anecdotal evidence that specific speed training could be a significant factor in competing and racing in these middle distance events. Speed training consists of athletes running at maximal effort in various distances such as 20m, 40m, 60m and possibly even up to 120m. Speed training may also include specific running exercises such as bounds, hops and other explosive type movements. Many coaches believe that speed is an important factor for middle distance and distance running but it is often neglected in training programs.
The Science Behind Speed
Defining speed, its parameters, and the limitations of the human body.
The definition of speed, in track and field, is the maximum velocity that an athlete can achieve in meters per second. An athlete generates speed by contacting the ground with force to overcome inertia. When an athlete accelerates, the athlete is primarily concentrically contracting (shortening) their muscles to produce horizontal force (Mero et al, 1992). Once the athlete fully accelerates and achieves their top velocity, their muscles are working primarily eccentrically (lengthening) to generate vertical force (Mero et al, 1992). An athlete’s speed can be predicted by their stride frequency and stride length (Weyand et al, 2010). Essentially, how fast an athlete’s legs can move as well as how long their stride is will determine their maximal speed. Therefore, the ability to maintain fast speeds is not limited by the metabolic energy systems from an individual but rather the ability of the athlete to maintain musculoskeletal performance (Bundle et al, 2012). The athlete’s stride frequency as limited gains, as it cannot be changed substantially because the swing phase in human running is fixed at a certain rate (Weyand, 2010). Therefore, the best gains for the improvement of speed is through an athlete’s stride length. An athletes stride length can be increased by improving the force an athlete puts into the ground while running (Mero et al, 1992). An athletes stride length is not limited from the peak ground contact forces but rather by the lack of time (contact length) to allow the athlete to apply specific force to the ground (Weyand et al, 2010). The contact length is the horizontal distance covered from when the athlete’s foot initially contacts the ground to when the same foot leaves the ground at the end of the stride. The contact length is limited by an athlete’s limb length, and therefore if the athlete has a longer lower leg they will potentially have a higher maximal velocity (Weyand et al, 2010). Another key component but is untrainable is an athlete’s genetics. Specifically, one of the most significant genetic factors is an athlete’s muscle composition of fast twitch fibers and slow twitch fibers (Anderson et al, 2000). Athlete’s with a higher proportion of fast twitch fibers have the ability to contract their muscles faster and with greater force (Anderson et al, 2000). There are two types of fast twitch muscle fiber types, type IIa and type IIx, type IIx having a faster contraction out of the two (Anderson et al, 2000). A slow twitch fiber contracts approximately one tenth as fast as a type IIx fast twitch fiber (Anderson et al, 2000). To sum this all up, a human has numerous limiting factors to their ability to sprint. The biggest controllable or trainable attribute would be to learn how generate more force contacting the ground which will in turn help improve an individual's speed.
Application of Speed
Why speed is important for ALL runners.
Many traditional coaches tend to neglect speed for events that stem longer than 400m. The 100m is typically the most popular starting point for young runners. Depending on their speed they either stay at the 100m sprint, or they continue to increase their distance with the intention of getting a more competitive speed. For instance, a runner may not have enough of a competitive time to continue you on at the 100m distance, so the athlete will move to a longer distance run such as the 200m. The longer events in track and field are rarely the first choice. This is because the shorter events are more popular from big events such as the Olympic games. To put it in simple terms, everyone knows who Usain Bolt (100m Olympic champion & world record holder) is but most people don’t know who Hicham El Guerrouj (1500m Olympic champion and world record holder). This is important because many talented runners that have speed do not run the marathon in their prime. Many of them run the marathon when they are outside of the prime years of running. This is an issue because generally, the older a runner gets the less speed they will have has an individuals speed is optimal around the age twenty-six. This is problematic as there is new evidence that suggests that speed is an important factor for all running events including the marathon. The results from various studies suggest that speed is important factor for middle distance and distance running. Most runners exhibited an immense amount of speed in both male and female athletes. Numerous coaching journals and science journals have been recently researching and experimenting with the Anaerobic Speed Reserve (ASR) model. The model illustrates the difference between an individuals’ maximal speed and their maximal aerobic speed. Essentially, the faster an athletes’ maximal speed the faster an athlete’s potential could be for their maximal aerobic speed (Sanford et al, 2018). This also referred to as the speed reserve transfer effect (Christensen, 2019). This suggests that an improvement in maximum speed will also have a corresponding improvement in a similar percentage with an athletes sub maximal speed (Christensen, 2019). Speed is an important component for the marathon considering its becoming faster each year. The best marathon runners are generally athletes that once were the fastest in the world at the 5000m and 10000m track events. These runners have significant amount of speed in order to be successful in the 5000m and 10000m events. A great example of an athlete of this nature is Eliud Kipchoge as he was the 5000m world champion and owns the world record time in the marathon. All running events require an immense amount of speed. Therefore, speed development is essential for any runner during their careers, even in events such as the marathon.
How to improve speed.
There are numerous training methods for improving speed. The trademark training methodologies used for improving speed involve plyometric training/jump training, strength training and fast sprints. Many of these training methodologies are similar and try to accomplish the same outcomes. There is strong evidence supporting correlations between improvements in vertical and horizontal jumps and strength performance and increases in sprint speed, as well as increases distance and sprint performance (Bachero-Mena, 2017).
Plyometric and jump training.
Plyometric activities have become a popular training tool for explosive athletes. A plyometric exercise includes any form of activity that has a rapid eccentric component (A movement that causes the muscle to lengthen) followed by a rapid concentric component (A movement that causes the muscle to shorten). There has been evidence that plyometric and counter movement jump ability have been associated with sprint performance. Often individuals that are good at jumping and plyometric exercises generally have adequate sprint ability. Anecdotally, many younger track and field athletes that run the100m and 200m also compete in running long jump. It has been identified that individuals using plyometric exercises in training also experience improved sprint times over 10m and 40m distances (Rimmer & Sleivert, 2000). Conversely, there is no significant difference between training sprints versus plyometric exercises under 40m (Rimmer & Sleivert, 2000). Individuals do exhibit an increase in ground contact time when at max velocity (at approximately 40m or greater) after using plyometric exercises (Rimmer & Sleivert, 2000). This makes sense because when an athlete is running at maximal velocity (their top speed), they are using their muscles primarily eccentrically to produce a vertical force, which plyometric exercises train by means of their eccentric component. In addition, evidence supports that plyometric training can help improve running economy at higher speeds in elite trained middle distance runners in a short period of time (Saunders, 2006). Running economy is an athlete’s ability to have a lower consumption of oxygen when running at submaximal speeds (Rogers et al, 2017). This improvement in running economy is due to increases in lower leg stiffness trained during plyometric exercises (Spurrs et al, 2003). This increased stiffness in the lower leg transfers to improving running performance from shorter events such as the 100m up to longer events such as the marathon (Spurrs et al, 2003). Running economy improves from lower leg stiffness because when the lower leg (specifically the Achilles tendon) is loaded there is an elastic return, which comes with no additional metabolic cost (Rogers et al, 2017). The idea behind increasing the lower leg stiffness is quite simple. Compare the lower leg to a spring; a stiffer spring will deform less given a greater load, and the energy return will subsequently be greater, therefore improving ground reaction force. This recoil allows the runner to become more efficient hence the improvement in running economy. As well as lower leg stiffness, there is also total mechanical stiffness which is associated with the neuromuscular system that allows an athlete to have superior running performance (Rogers et al, 2017). Mechanical stiffness refers to the body’s ability to deal with compression, when an individual is applying ground contact forces (Rogers et al, 2017). In addition, this applies to distance athletes as well, as there as been evidence that running long jump performances have been correlated with performances in 60m all the way up to 5000m (Hudgins et al, 2013). Essentially, training using jumping and plyometric exercises improves sprinting and running by increasing overall lower leg stiffness.
The last training methodology to improve sprinting ability is by actually practicing sprinting. If an individual practices a skill with perfection and repetition they will inevitably get better at that skill. The same goes for sprinting, the more that an individual sprints, the better they will become at sprinting. It has been shown that when a fit male trains by sprinting repeatedly during training sessions for 6 weeks, they experienced an increase in proportion of fast twitch fibers (Dawson et al, 1998). These repeated sprints have also been associated with an increase in endurance performance (Dawson et al, 1998). There is no evidence regarding whether maximal velocity sprints or acceleration drills improves middle distance performance or the ability to sprint for elite athletes. Even with the lack of information of the literature, it can be theorized by the rule of specificity that practicing sprints at max velocity with appropriate amounts of rest should improve speed and therefore sprint performance.
When to train speed.
Training speed is an important factor when trying to improve times in all running events. During a runner’s career time is very limited and athletes generally only have until the age of twenty-six to maximize their maximal running speed. In events of 100m, 200m and 400m this development of speed is a constant throughout the athlete’s career. A middle-distance and distance athlete often does not have consistent speed training throughout their career. Obviously, there are numerous other components in distance events that athletes must improve upon such as their speed, aerobic and anaerobic capacities. The evidence aforementioned suggests that training speed during a young age is best for developing speed. The reasoning behind this is to max out an individuals speed so they have the potential to run at elite level paces for longer events. For example; if you have a female runner that runs only a 60 second 400m, it would be very difficult for them to run 2:00 minutes in the 800m, if that runner ran a 55 sec 400m then they have much higher potential to run 2:00 minutes or faster in the 800m.
Speed is an essential piece to the puzzle for all running events. Every athlete requires speed training to improve their performance in running events from the 100m to the marathon. The easiest and most efficient modalities to train for speed is by training plyometric/jump training, strength training and by actually practicing sprinting. If an athlete is not incorporating any of these training modalities in their weekly program, they are leaving serious running performance gains on the table. Remember, training fast always results in racing fast.
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