Speed is the prized asset of sports performance – everything else being equal, the faster boxer, tennis player, and basketball player, for example, will be the better player. Although you might not realise nor believe it, everyone can speed up – you just have to do the ‘right’ training.

Like many debates relating to physical development, living (or not living) in sport’s fast lane rests heavily on ‘nature versus nurture’. However, if ultra-FIT had to come down firmly on one side of the fence, we’d say – that for the majority of us – it’s nurture that’s key in terms of developing speed (or endurance, for that matter).

It’s very much down to doing the ‘right’ training. There will be readers who will argue that no matter what training they do, their top speed will be more glacier pace than greased lightning. Although sprinters, such as Usain Bolt – will be born with a greater preponderance of fast twitch muscle fibres (see below) most of us will be born with a fairly even split between these and their slow twitch cousins. We’ll have around 45-55% of either one. In reality this means that we are set up to develop either speed or endurance. So as we said it becomes a matter of how we train our muscles fibres.

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Fast twitch muscle fibre

There are over 250 million muscle fibres in our bodies and more than 430 muscles that we can voluntarily control. Muscle fibres are bundles of cells, which are held together by collagen (connective tissue). Each fibre consists of a membrane, numerous nuclei and thousands of myofibrils (inner strands) that run the length of the fibre. In order to perform sports’ skills numerous muscles and muscle fibres have to interact.

These are ‘controlled’ via messages sent from the brain through the spinal cord and out to the muscles. When these (electrical) signals reach the muscles via their muscle motor units a chemical reaction occurs and muscles fire (contract). What’s key to speed and power production is the type of muscle fibres that fire and the rate at which they fire.

We mentioned fast twitch muscle fibres – these are the turbo chargers in your muscular system – they have a fast ‘contraction rate’, that is two to three times quicker than their slow twitch endurance producing muscle fibre counterparts. There there are two main types of fast twitch muscle fibre – type IIa and type IIb. Table 1 identifies the key characteristics of these (and slow twitch muscle fibre types), identifies the other names by which they are known and provides some suggestions as to how to optimally train them.

Making the most of our muscle fibres

Muscle fibre adapts to a constant training stimulus. The more ‘debatable debate’ is whether these changes are permanent. It appears that you are more likely to permanently alter the contractile properties of your fast twitch muscle fibres to those of the slow twitch type, rather than turning slow twitch fibres into fast twitch ones. Thus the distance runner who runs high mileage will gradually get slower in terms of sprint speed capability, as the years of running high mileage pass. Repeated endurance training improves the aerobic energy metabolism potential of your muscles – this is achieved by increasing the number of capillaries (oxygen carrying highways) and mitochondria (cellular power plants) within them.

This is why lots of steady running is not of real benefit to the footballer, rugby player, racket sports player, martial artist or boxer. If you’re involved in one of these explosive, stop- start, intermittent sports, you’re much better off training that way. Sports science indicates that muscle fibre tends to have a fast twitch default setting. Research on limbs, for example, that have been immobilised for a period, of time due to an injury of accident, indicates that their number of fast twitch muscle fibre actually increased. The same findings have been discovered when performing muscle biopsies on cadavers.

speed_2

Now we are not saying that you need to break a leg to get faster (or worse still), but this provides us with some vital clues as to how to train to get faster. For the majority of our days on this planet we will move around relatively slowly. It therefore stands to reason that our muscles will develop their slow twitch capabilities naturally. After all we don’t sprint to the supermarket and bound over the trolleys nor lift entire crates of fruit onto our backs as we progress around the aisles (well most of us don’t). You only have to take a cue from the speediest land animal of all, the cheetah to see how it has evolved for sprinting. It lies around most of the day and night, waiting for its prey and then releases all its fast twitch muscle might at speeds of around 70mph.

So by being ‘lazy’ for the majority of the day it is preserving its fast twitch fibre power capability, ‘developing’ them for explosive bursts of energy – human cheetahs aka anyone wanting more speed take note. Incidentally the animal’s calf muscles have over 80% of its muscle fibres composed from those of the fast twitch variety. The percentage of fast twitch and slow twitch muscle fibres varies between muscles in all animals, including humans. Take for example the muscles of the calf – the gastrocnemius (the largest calf muscle) has a greater percentage of fast twitch fibres in comparison to the smaller soleus.

Balance and stability work tends to be the preserve of muscles with the greater proportion of slow twitch muscles fibres, whilst those with more fast twitch fibres are more power and larger movement orientated. Thus the gastrocnemius would be the power producer and the soleus thestabiliser.

Get faster workouts you can do anywhere

Warm up specifically

Don’t spend all your workout warming up at a speed that would make watching paint dry highly entertaining. Instead get fired up and ready to move fast with some gradually progressive speed, agility and dynamic stretching exercises and drills. Jog for 5 minutes and then do variously:

High knee drills, leg and arm swings, trunk rotations, walking lunges, backwards and sideways walking and skipping. Then perform a few light static stretches for key muscle groups, such as the hamstrings, quads and calf muscles. Next, introduce some sports specific movements, such as simulated and actual kicking or hitting of a ball or punch bag or racket swings dependent on your sport. Build up the speed of these over a number of repetitions. Then do some ‘strides’ – progressive speed runs over 30-40m, where you concentrate on smooth, but powerful running. Then do 5 x 10m sprints from standing. These will really fire up your neuromuscular system and get you in the zone to workout at light speed.

How to condition greater speed

Weight training is key to developing speed – it’ll put more horse-power into your muscular engine

Sample sessions:

Session a: squats, bench press, leg curls, calf raises 4 x 10 medium weight (70% 1 rep max); 2 x 4 85% IRM; 2 x 2 x 90% 1RM

Session b: single leg press, dead-lift, leg curl, seated calf raise, seated row 1 x 12 x 60% 1RM; 1 x 2 x 90% 1RM; 4 x 1 x 95% 1RM Take a full recovery between exercises and try to lift the weights as dynamically, but as safely as possibly

Bound for success – do plyometric (jumping training)

Plyometric training, such as hopping and bounding (exaggerated, powerful running, akin to the triple jumper’s step phase) develop what’s known as the stretch/reflex capacity of muscles. This reflex is key to generating power and is crucial to speedy running, jumping and throwing. Basically muscles have a capacity to store and then release energy in great amounts in a split second – this occurs when a muscle lengthens under load (performs an eccentric muscular contraction) and then rapidly contracts via a shortening under load muscular contraction (a concentric muscle contraction). It’s a bit like stretching out a spring to its fullest length and letting it go, immense amounts of energy will be released in the split second that the spring recoils.

To develop your explosive, stretch/reflex capacity, do the following:

Session a: jump up and down on the spot from virtually straight legs i.e. using your calf muscles and ankles to generate most of the power; jump from side to side, using a low trajectory over a line, landing around 75cm on each side – do 3 x 10 repetitions for both these exercises; do 3 x 4 bunny jumps – making the transition from each jump as fast as possible; plyo press-ups – assume a standard press-up position, then drive your arms up as dynamically as possible to jump your body into the air. Land and rebound into another jump – do 3 x 5 reps*.

Session b: 4 x 10m hops (L&R); 4 x 6 split squat jumps (jump from a lunge position, switch legs in the air, land and jump up again); 4 x 6, low drop jumps – step off of a bench or box 30-40cm high land on two feet and jump as high as you can. Medicine ball chest pass against a wall – 4 x 12, stand relatively close to the wall and throw and catch the medicine ball as fast as possible against the wall (use a 3-5kg ball). For both session examples take 2 minutes’ recovery between sets. *do not perform plyo press-ups if you have weak wrists or shoulders

SPEEDY ENDURANCE

Treadmill sessions

These workouts will develop the explosive stop start power needed to stay the pace in numerous sports.

Session a: set the treadmill at a 4-5% incline, run at slow paces (4-5 mph for 1 minute, then crank the machine up so that you are running nearly flat out for 30 seconds, slow the machine and return to slow jogging for a further minute. Repeat 4-6 times depending on your level of fitness.

Track/park session

8 x 10m sprints from various positions – prone, standing, facing backwards or sideways to the direction of run, from all fours and seated for example. 3 x 20m with a 10m run on (build up) – concentrate on smooth, relaxed running when you are flat out

Agility

Being agile is a key component of numerous sports – the more agile you are the better you will be at twisting and turning and moving quickly in multiple directions. There are numerous drills that you can do that mirror the movements in most sports, use your imagination and your sport’s specific requirements to come up with some – here’s an example.

Round the clock

Mark out a moderately sized circle with cones or marker spots and stand in the centre. Get your coach to call out ‘an hour’ and run to it always facing the coach. Then run back to the centre of the circle, this will require you to test your agility in all directions

Zone into speed out “Your brain needs to be fully engaged when you speed train. Going through the motions won’t increase your ability to move dynamically. This is mainly because your fast twitch motor units are lazy. To get them to unleash their unbridled power requires a significant jolt of mental (neural) energy. You’ll probably have experienced this when trying to lift a very heavy weight (which requires the maximal use of your fast twitch fibres) – if you are not focused and in the zone then the weight will remain on the floor. You literally need to be ‘charged to charge’ your muscles.”

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