Developing Speed, Part 1 – Guidelines for Acceleration.

Maximum speed is reached when we can no longer accelerate. That seems fairly obvious but for many sports maximum speed is rarely reached. Despite maximum speed rarely been reached, it is commonplace to find athletes training for maximum speed. Training for maximum speed may have benefits for acceleration but a more specific programme and deeper understanding on acceleration will inherently bring greater results. This article intends to highlight guidelines which, if incorporated into a training programme, would potentially increase an athletes ability to accelerate.

For example, in elite level football, the average sprint duration is between 2-4seconds in duration and generally between 10-15m (Bangsbo, Norregard & Thorso, 1991; Spencer et al. 2005). tThese bursts of maximal effort tend to be concentrated around crucial match actions such as making a break away from the opposition or a during tackle making the bouts of sprinting crucial for performance. (Reilly, 1996; Rienzi et al., 2000; Meir et al., 2001). During the Beijing Olympics a velocity analysis was carried out on Usain Bolt’s 9.58sec world record 100m sprint. It was found that after10m, Bolt was already at 73% of maximum velocity. That figure rose to 85% after 20m. This highlights the importance of acceleration and understanding the principles of training for acceleration.

It is important to understand that acceleration in team sports differs sightly from sprinting. This is due to the nature of the sport. Sprinters start from the blocks whereas team players are often already moving. However, the basic coaching points and key considerations are the same regardless of the starting position.

  • 45° Drive out on the first step
  • Fast heel recovery
  • Ankle stiffness at ground contact
  • Foot contact behind the centre of mass

In a investigation carried out by  Murphy et al. (2003), twenty field sport athletes were tested for sprint ability over the first three steps of a 15m sprint subjects were then divided into relatively fast (n = 10) and slow (n = 10) groups based on their horizontal velocity. Several lower body kinematics were measured during the test and it was found that the group with the higher horizontal velocity (the fast group) had, significantly lower (~11-13%) foot contact times, increased (~9%) stride frequency. There was also a significant difference in knee extension. No significant difference was found in stride length. The start for this test was a standing start, which, is predominantly the main stance from where sprints are initiated in team sports.

The Murphy study indicates that acceleration training must contain a technical aspect to ensure that stride frequency, knee extension and foot contact time time are trained. Therefore it is important to look into the technical aspect of acceleration.

As well as technique, it is evident  that sprint acceleration time has a strong linear relationship with muscular strength and power (Peterson et al. 2006). Peterson et al. showed that athletes who performed best in a series of tests including a sprint acceleration test had higher levels of strength. The study, more importantly demonstrated that body mass-adjusted muscular strength (power) is more highly related to performance measures than is absolute muscular strength.

So as well as looking at correct technique, training time must be allocated to increasing power. Power is, in essence, explosive strength. Explosive strength like many different types of strength can only be successfully trained once a good strength base has been developed. Without a good strength base the amount of explosive strength would be severely limited thus effecting performance. Assuming a solid strength base has been developed it is important for a coach or athlete to understand how to train to produce the greatest results to promote power development.

There are several considerations to maximise explosive strength (also refered to as speed strength or power). The first is the amount of resistance to use to best develop power. Broken down, speed strength is ability to move a load in the shortest space of time, Mass x Speed. Having a low mass to move would result in a quick movement but very little power would be generated, the opposite is also true. using a load that so heavy that the movement is considerably slower would again result in a poor power output. The key to developing explosive strength is to find the perfect load which does not have a significantly negative impact on movement speed. In a study carried out in The Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport by Cronin et al. (2001), it was found that using loads of 50%–70% 1RM were found to maximise mean and peak power. This was also backed up by similar results in a study looking at maximal power output on benchpress throws undertaken by Baker et al. (2001). The Baker et al study found that maximal power was greatest at loads representing 55 ±5.3% 1RM.

These studies indicate that peak power is training at intensities 50-70% 1RM. To be able to practically apply these results into a training session it is important to know which muscle are activated during acceleration.

Analysis of biomechanical and electromyographical activity was investigated by Young et al. (2001) and Wiemann and Tidow (1995). These studies showed that as the sprint progressed, starting from still, into accelerationa and finally moving toward maximum speed, the muscles which were dominant changed. During the acceleration phase the quadriceps and gluteus maximus tend to provide most of the work. However, as the athlete’s sped increases and the body becomes more upright, hip extensors, most notably, the hamstrings, become more dominant.

In conclusion, the guidelines for developing acceleration is important for athletes in various sports. It appears that the main factors which should be incorperated into a training plan by a coach can be split into technical and also strength training.

Aron J. Murphy , Robert G. Lockie and Aaron J. Coutts. Kinematic determinants of early acceleration in field sport athletes. Journal of Sports Science and Medicine (2003) 2, 144-150

Baker, D., S. Nance, and M. Moore. Theload that maximizes the average mechanical poweroutput during explosive bench press throws in highlytrained athletes. J. Strength Cond. Res. 15(1):20–24. 2001.

Cronin J, McNair PJ, Marshall RN. Developing explosive power: a comparison of technique and training. J Sci Med Sport. 4(1):59-70. 2001.

Peterson, M.D., Alvar. B.A., Rhea, M.R. The Contribution of Maximal Force Production To Explosive Movement Among Young Collegiate Athletes. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research: (20)4. 2006

Spencer M., Bishop D., Dawson B., and Goodman, C. Physiological and metabolic responses of repeated sprint activities: Specific to field-based team sports. Sports Med., (35):1025-1044, 2005.

Wiemann. K.,Tidow. G.Relative activity of hip and knee extensors in sprinting – implications for training. New Studies in Athletics 1, (10), 29-49. 1995

Young. W.B., McDowell. M.H., Scarlett. B.J.. (2001). Specificity of Sprint and Agility Training Methods. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 15 (3).