Bullshit Speed Training
Guest blog by Tony Risling
It’s time to dispel some bul$h1t (yes there will be cussing & zero sugar coating) in “speed training”. This is a follow up to my instagram post last year on ”so-called speed coaches”. It seems every single strength coach or personal trainer is now a speed training expert.
Many vomit catch phrases & buzzwords that catch attention like “splayed toes” or ”traction”. They’ll also use gadgets and gimmicky training. But yet, the funny thing is, I don’t see the results to back them up. I don’t see the athletes train getting faster or more explosive. In fact, I see the complete opposite! Slower, weaker, less powerful and injured athletes!
The Problem With Speed Training
This rings even more true in contact sports. The purpose of this write up is I’m sick of seeing athletes getting screwed by coaches who have no clue what the hell they are doing out to make a buck. Yes I know you could say “but you saying this is you trying to make a buck!” That is not the intent of this, the point here is to educate athletes. I’ll start off by giving some background: I was a Canadian university national finalist in the men’s 60m. My coach was Olympic Champion, now Canadian national team head coach, Glenroy Gilbert. I’ve Strength coached Olympians, international & national champions and national team members for 4 countries in 4 different sports. I’ve learned from the brightest minds in the field and sought out their expertise. I’ve written for the likes of Charles R. Poliquin and been consulted by coaches around the world on this topic.
The job when dealing with the track athletes I’ve trained: get them f4&#$g fast to try to compete with Usain Bolt! Pretty easy eh? So yes, I am in a position to speak on this topic. None of the top coaches in track (the ultimate speed sport) use fancy gimmicks or gadgets. While there are 2 main schools of thought on maximal speed development, they both have the same principles at heart. These schools are the sub maximal sprint training and the maximal velocity training.
To put it in simple terms, one doesn’t go 100% in training while the other does. To be completely honest, both systems work! It all depends on the athlete in question. The extent of what the top coaches will use is resistance running in the form of sleds or a winch system. The catalyst for this was the recent CFL combine and the celebration of mediocre and embarrassing results across the board. I say this because you MUST compare it to the NFL combine. The reason for this is because these same men will be competing for a CFL roster spot if they don’t get picked up by an NFL squad (i.e. Johnny Manziel.)
The fastest time at this year’s CFL combine was 4.54s in the 40yd dash from the only athlete sub 4.60s. This is a respectable result but still outside the top 40 at the NFL combine which had a top result of 4.32s. So we should stop celebrating a 4.7s 40yd time for skill/athletic positions in Canada.
The broad jump was another example where only 6 athletes jumped over 10’ (~3m). I have worked with female athletes who would have been 7th in this test at the national combine. One female I trained jumped 2.88m or 9’9” at the 2016 Montreal RBC training ground combine. When I ran track, you couldn’t call yourself a man in our training group unless you jumped 3m/10’, which all 8 men did! Yes, we had a hyper competitive, non PC, alpha male environment. I won’t go into each individual combine test because I’m sticking to speed/power here.
A Broader Look At Speed Training
Just to clear it up, Speed itself is not a skill! Running fast is a skill, speed is a product of that skill (I’ve taken this from Stu McMillan, coach of Andre deGrasse). The best definition of running speed is step length multiplied by step frequency! So in truth there are only 2 things that can improve speed, either you take more steps or each step gets bigger. I’ll discuss both below.
For perspective when Bolt ran the world record of 9.58s, he took 41 steps to cover 100m. What you’ll see many coaches do is pullout an agility ladder to train speed and quick feet. This should an instant red flag of somebody not knowing the difference between their a$$hole & training.
Research has shown these ladders aren’t effective for training after the age of 13! The only use for these ladders in truth is for warmup purposes… if at all. Also no track coach uses them (hmmmm maybe there’s a reason they don’t)! Having “quick,” choppy steps won’t make you any faster because you’re taking smaller, less forceful steps. Ladders are not even shown to help for in game changes of direction! Mentally I’ll concede they could be a potential placebo. But if it makes you, the athlete, feel confident for games, use it sparingly. What they do make you good at though, is using the ladder.
The last bit here is that the maximum number of steps you can take per second is hardwired into you. You can only marginally increase step frequency through training. So the above is a waste of time and energy for speed development training. In track, the late Charlie Francis stated that, any time you run wind aided (any wind assistance above 2.0m/s), you can run legal once you are strong enough! The reason for this is wind assistance increases your step length “artificially”.
So the only ways to improve step length is to become better technically at sprints and also to become stronger relative to body weight. The ways to get stronger are either lose the fat, get way stronger or both. Both of these points are being taught piss poorly in place for shit that’s eye catching for social media likes. Proper mechanics is the skill part of speed that Stu McMillan alludes to. I will be very blunt with this next statement. If you have never worked with or coached actual sprinters nor spent any significant time AT the track or you’ve never done the sport for significant time, you have no god damn clue how to teach or do the mechanics.
This cannot be learned at a weekend course or from YouTube videos. You must feel, see and physically experience it. Coaching this or any exercise is similar to massage therapy or chiropractic. You need to be hands on with multiple exposures to understand. A good sprint coach can see when something looks off but a great one can see it and knows how to fix it. This can be anything from body position, knee drive, ankle dorsiflexion, all the way to seeing a slight hitch in the step as well as countless other variables.
Coaches That Need Coaching
Currently there’s a growing number of physiotherapists (physical therapists in the USA) who have started teaching sprint mechanics. Again this is the exact same issue as the above point when it comes to mechanics. Keep in mind I’m not talking recreation level of people running to get fit, I’m talking strictly high performance athletes. While these physios mean well, they are misguided in their approach. The best and most professional thing that they could ever do, is refer athletes to an actual track coach! Its a “Stay in your lane” moment.
Last year I was sent a video of one such “coach” showing a university football team the Mach drills of A & B skip. It was painful how it was shown with terrible mechanics. It was in a manner that puts the hamstring, knee and back in a position that increases injury risk. The terrifying thing is, this was shown as “good”. I felt like that scene from Zoolander wondering if “is everybody taking crazy pills?” This only hurts 1 person in the end, you the athlete! These aren’t drills you should just be going through the motions on.
They are motor skill activators that are instructing your body what to do as speed increases. If you do the drills wrong, YOUR risk for injury at higher speeds will dramatically go up. I speak from experience on this point having injured both hamstrings pretty bad. Damn near any other sprinter will also agree with me on this point.
The other side is increasing relative strength; how strong you are compared to your weight. In all honesty the majority of athletes will get faster just by leaning out. Some do need to lose more fat than others. However that requires some consistent hard work, but is actually quite simple. The majority of collegiate athletes would be well served to lose some fat. Some may think I’m fat shaming here when I am not. I am giving one of the easiest ways to get faster. A major here is so many collegiate and even professional athletes eat like shit and drink/party too much. They’re relying on their young metabolism and activity levels to keep them lean and healthy. This will only go so far or last so long. At a certain point the body will not cooperate. Now if your competition is taking care of business in this regard, they have an advantage over you. If you want to be fast, you can’t carry extra useless fat weight, it most literally holds you down.
What more directly follows Charlie’s statement, is getting brutally strong.This is because to run fast, you are exploding off the ground, every…..single…..step. In order to do this, you must apply greater forces to the ground. These increased forces are what will increase your stride length. What this means is that taking larger steps is all about applying force! Top level athletes can apply 8-11x their bodyweight in force with each step.
Now I’m not talking about powerlifting here. But increased 1RM on the front & back squat, power clean & snatch are all directly correlated to faster sprint times over 10, 30, 40, 60 & 100m times and jumps. The increase, especially in the Olympic lift variations relates back to “power” or the rate of force development. Simply, how fast you can produce max force. In training, this means having greater bar speeds. Or in some exercise cases, launching your own body, such as weighted jumps. Another facet to consider is the strength of the hamstrings. Paramount here is the eccentric (when your leg is straightening out) strength because that will limit your potential. A few exercises to help this are eccentric hamstring leans, glute ham raises, Nordic leg curl, prone, standing and kneeling leg curls.
The Pitfalls Of Speed Training
Instead coaches are trading the tried and true “basics” for crap that catches your eye to gets likes on social media. Stuff like running or jumping on bosu balls and unstable surfaces all the way to walking on plumbing pipes (I wish I was kidding) claiming hip stability. The issue here is that at maximal forces and velocities, this balance work goes out the window. As velocity increases, the body starts to recruit primarily Type 2b fibres (the big powerful muscles fibres). These fibres don’t even turn on at these low and slow intensities. This is especially true for the hamstrings which are predominantly fast twitch (type 2) work to help stabilize the hip and knee, particularly at high speeds/loads. The faster you run, the harder the hamstrings must work.
Somebody claimed I was in the stone ages of training for not having stuff like this in my programming.Then others are saying barbell training is “old school”. I’m not sure how something that’s proven to increase strength, reduces the risk for injury and is proven to work time after time making athletes faster, is considered old school. If you want to improve hip and knee stability, do various step up variations. Great variations are Poliquin and Peterson step ups as accessory movements. These are going to increase VMO (teardrop quad muscle inside the knee) and Glute med (side of your butt) strength.
Currently the fad is a hyper focus on mobility/movement. This is yet another catch phrase that’s been blown out of proportion and taken fanatically. Now I’m not negating that athletes need joint, muscle and connective tissue mobility because yes they do. What I am saying is, there has been a colonoscopy type focus on it. It’s gone to the point that other, more critical aspects of training, are being left out. Dr. Kelly Starett, the actual mobility godfather & author of “Becoming a Supple Leopard”, said there is an optimal amount of mobility. Once past it, not only does injury risk start to increase again, but performance will significantly fall off.
In speed work, if you become too mobile, your tendons will lose the necessary stiffness. This stiffness is responsible for maximal speed running especially in the Achilles’ tendon. Your Achilles is like an explosive elastic band, if it’s too stretchy, it takes longer to bounce back and if it’s too stiff, it can rupture. So what happens when there’s too much mobility (flexible/stretchy) in the Achilles? This causes the athlete to lose speed potential because the energy stored in the Achilles on each foot landing won’t be returned as rapidly. This means you will spend more time on the ground as opposed to covering distance. Yes there is a happy medium, but this hyper focus lately on mobility is swinging the pendulum too far to the other side. This holds true for all the joints because that stiffness is still needed for force development. This is what plyometric training and even sprinting capitalizes on, the stretch-reflex cycle. This reflex in a contact sport will also pay dividends to keeping you healthy and able to absorb contact
Take a look at New England Patriots DT, James Harrison. His training with the team or in the off season with Ian Danney in Arizona is not focused on animal flow or doing bridges, the splits or the like. It’s focus is on making him superhuman strong and explosive. In his 40s, he’s still one of the scariest dudes on the field, manhandling men younger than himself routinely.
Top sprinters like Andre de Grasse aren’t going to spend an hour of their training session or before a race on dedicated mobility work. Mobility work belongs in a warmup and/or cool down to compliment a training session, not to be the focal point. If more work is needed, then you need soft tissue work. Treatments like ART, FAT-Tool, Graston, massage from a qualified practitioner as you will get to the root of the issue and get a result much faster without downside in performance .
Now if you’re a coach reading this, and it offends you, because it sounds like I’m talking directly about you, GOOD! You need to step up your fucking game or get out because you don’t belong. If you’re an athlete and it sounds like what you’ve been going thru and not seeing tangible results, find a new coach. Your career is short and window of opportunity to get a shot is even shorter. I know a few athletes who’s combine results will cost them draft position, contracts and in the end, MONEY! There’s a saying, “speed kills” which is why it’s such a coveted athletic trait. So seek out smart training for the desired outcome. Don’t be fooled by silver tongued salesmen who use catch phrases, jargon, and gimmicks in training.
About the Author
Tony Risling is the owner of Risling Podium Performance (www.rislingperformance.com) in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada specializing in athletic development, body composition and holistic health. He has worked with the Canadian national track relay program including 2 World championship bronze medals and 2016 Olympic Bronze including personal athletes of his. His athletes have been on multiple national & international podiums at various levels and competitions including Les Jeux De La Francophonie & World Student Games (FISU).
He can be reached at tonyrisling[at]gmail.com or through is website RislingPerformance.com