What is Speed?

Speed, one of the 5 Key Areas of Athletic Performance, is the quickness of movement of a limb, whether this is the legs of a runner or the arm of the shot putter. Speed is an integral part of every sport and can be expressed as any one of, or combination of, the following: maximum speed, elastic strength (power) and speed endurance (covered in Endurance part 3).

How is speed influenced?

Speed is influenced by the athlete’s mobility, special strength, strength endurance (see also Endurance part 3) and technique.

Energy System for Speed

Energy for absolute speed is supplied by the anaerobic alactic pathway. The anaerobic (without oxygen) alactic (without lactate) energy system is best challenged as an athlete approaches top speed between 30 and 60 meters while running at 95% to 100% of maximum. This speed component of anaerobic metabolism lasts for approximately eight seconds and should be trained when no muscle fatigue is present.

How Do We Develop Speed?

The technique of sprinting must be rehearsed at slow speeds and then transferred to runs at maximum speed. The stimulation, excitation and correct firing order of the motor units, composed of a motor nerve (Neuron) and the group of muscles that it supplies, makes it possible for high frequency movements to occur. The whole process is not very clear but the complex coordination and timing of the motor units and muscles most certainly must be rehearsed at high speeds to implant the correct patterns.

Flexibility and a correct warm up will affect stride length and frequency (strike rate). Stride length can be improved by developing muscular strength, power, strength endurance and running technique. The development of speed is highly specific and to achieve it we should ensure that:

  • Flexibility is developed and maintained all year round
  • Strength and speed are developed in parallel
  • Skill development (technique) is pre-learned, rehearsed and perfected before it is done at high speed levels
  • Speed training is performed by using high velocity for brief intervals. This will ultimately bring into play the correct neuromuscular pathways and energy sources used

When should speed work be conducted?

It is important to remember that the improvement of running speed is a complex process that is controlled by the brain and nervous system. In order for a runner to move more quickly, the leg muscles of course have to contract more quickly, but the brain and nervous systems have to learn to control these faster movements efficiently. If you maintain some form of speed training throughout the year, your muscles and nervous system do not lose the feel of moving fast and the brain will not have to re-learn the proper control patterns at a later date.

In the training week, speed work should be carried out after a period of rest or light training. In a training session, speed work should be conducted after the warm up and any other training should be of a low intensity.  Sample workouts:

Event Speed Session
100 meters a) 10 × 30 meters at race pace from blocks with full recovery
b) 3 to 4 × 80 meters at race pace with full recovery
800 meters a) 5 × 200 meters at goal race pace with 10 seconds recovery
b) 4 × 400 meters at 2 to 3 seconds faster than current race pace with 2 minutes recovery
1.5 km a) 4 × 400 meters at goal race pace with 15 to 10 sec recovery
b) 4 to 5 × 800 meters at 5 to 6 seconds per 800 meters faster than goal race pace with 6 minutes recovery
5 km a) 4 to 5 × 800 meters at 4 seconds per 800 meters faster than goal race pace with 60 seconds recovery
b) 3 × 1 mile at 6 seconds per mile faster than goal race pace with 2 minutes recovery
10 km a) 3 × 2000 meters at 3 seconds per 200 meters faster than goal race pace with 2 minutes recovery
b) 5 x 5 min intervals at current 5km race pace with 3 minutes recovery
Marathon a) 6 x 1 mile repeats at 15 seconds per mile faster than goal race pace with 1 minute recovery
b) 3 × 3000 meters at 10km race pace with 6 minutes recovery

All speed workouts should include an appropriate warm up and cool down.