Speed is crucial for sports performance. Showing your opposition a clean pair of heels, throwing a quicker punch or retrieving a lob that others would have given up will usually make you a winner. There are numerous ways to enhance your speed.
You can catapult yourself from a bungee or using specially constructed sports equipment, use high-tech treadmills, whose belt speed would leave Usain Bolt trailing in their wake, or – much more simply – run down a hill. All these ‘over-speed’ methods sound like they would work i.e. improve your on-flat speed, but do they?
Is over speed work over hyped?
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The general consensus among sportsmen and sportswomen and coaches is that the regular and systematic use of over-speed training methods increases unassisted speed through improvements in stride length and stride frequency. It’s also possible that your central nervous system (CNS) learns to cope with an enhanced demand and becomes able to ‘fire’ your muscles (particularly limbs) with greater velocity.
Let’s start with the basic premise that running downhill improves speed. Researchers from the US looked into this and attempted to discover what the optimum down grade was (2). Thirteen athletes from different sports, including football, US football and track and field, participated in the study. Sprints were performed over 40yds (36.6m) and the gradients used were: 2.1, 3.3, 4.7, 5.8 and 6.9 degrees.
It was discovered that the 5.8 degree gradient produced the fastest times. 40yd performance was increased by 0.35sec compared to the athlete’s best 40yard flat times. The researchers concluded that the previous recommendation for sprinting downhill on 3-degree slopes was now potentially questionable. A similar study from Japan used 100m downgrades of 1.59, 3.57, 5.01 and 6.50 degrees retrospectively (3).
Not surprisingly velocity increased with the steeper grades this became significantly noteworthy beyond 1.59 degrees. From 3.57 degrees onwards speed increased significantly. The Japanese team discovered that the key determinant of increased speed was increased stride length and not leg speed. In fact no significant difference in stride rate was discovered between horizontal and downhill running whatever the grade.
A further study considered the relationships between ground reaction forces, electromyographic activity (EMG), muscle elasticity and running velocity at various running speeds, including over-speed running (4). These researchers discovered that ground reaction forces, maximal force, average force, and power were all significantly greater in a horizontal direction and that maximal and average forces were also greater in a vertical direction when over-speed running.
In the male subjects the relative change in stride rate correlated with increased EMG activity – this would indicate more muscle fibre was being recruited, which is good. This led the researchers to believe that over-speed methods could improve unassisted sprinting, by recruiting more muscle fibre and increasing specific sprinting strength. However… despite the evidence that suggests that over-speed training will enhance speed, it’s – as often – not as simple as that.
Other research has concluded that there were no benefits to be gained from elasticised tube (towed) acceleration sprints (5). Nine US college sprinters ran two 20m sprints and towed sprints . When compared, the maximum sprint performances and the towed performances displayed significant differences between horizontal velocity of the centre of mass (CoM) of the sprinter’s body, stride length (SL) and horizontal distance from the CoM of the foot, to the CoM of the body.
Basically the sprinters’ stride lengths increased (as has been noted previously). Again it was also identified that there was no significant difference in stride rate between the two sprint methods. This led the researchers to conclude that, ‘Elastic-cord tow training resulted in significant acute changes in sprint kinematics in the acceleration phase of maximal sprint that do not appear to be sprint specific (and that) more research is needed on the specificity of towing training and its long-term effects on sprinting performance’.
Why do the white coated sports boffins use such complex language (perhaps they don’t get out much!)? I’ll translate: the towing condition negatively affected sprint technique, in a way that would not actually benefit on-flat sprinting. Further research focussed on analysed the relevance of both downhill and uphill sprinting to on the flat speed (6). Eight male physical education students were filmed sprinting on an uphill-downhill platform under three conditions:
*Uphill at 3-degrees
*Downhill at 3-degrees (the over-speed condition)
Running speed, stride rate, stride length, stride time, contact time, flight time and aspects of sprint technique were analysed.
Unsurprisingly, it was discovered that running speeds were 9.2% faster downhill and 3.0% slower uphill, compared to on the flat sprinting. During downhill and uphill sprint running, again stride length was the main contributor to changes in running speed.
This increased by 7.1% for downhill sprinting and was associated with significant changes in posture at touchdown and take-off. These results led the researchers to conclude (again as per some of the other research quoted) that sprinting on a sloping surface may detract from actual on flat sprinting dynamics.
Is ‘potentiation‘ the real benefit?
So on analysis of the research presented it seems that the benefits of over-speed methods are perhaps over-hyped. I believe that they may not actually rest in the activity itself. Rather perhaps their greatest positive in terms of achieving greater sprint speed, may be what happens in the period immediately after over-speed training. I would suggest that potentiation of the athlete’s speed and power producing fast twitch muscle fibres and of their nervous system specifically results in a window of opportunity to run faster.
This potentiation response can also be created by performing a series of near maximal weight lifts prior to a plyometric (jumping) exercise or a sprint. Basically, the prior exercise method – in the case of the subject matter of this article, over-speed training can boost your muscle power output. Put simply, it’s as if a key is produced by the potentiating activity, which switches on greater athletic horsepower in your muscles.
To provide a potentiation example, the 30m sprint performance of athletes from various sports, including football, handball and basketball, was improved by performing 10 single repetitions at 90% of their 1 rep maximum 5 minutes before the completion of the sprints (7). Over-speed methods offer anyone who wants more speed an opportunity to get faster. However, despite the logic of their application, there is quite some debate as to their effectiveness.
It seems that the resultant increased stride length is at odds with the actual technical requirements of sprinting on the flat. If over-speed methods are used they must be carefully implemented into the training programmes in order to maximise returns (and reduce potential injury and muscle soreness).
Their take home value is probably the immediate transference of the heightened neuromuscular response (potentiation) from the over-speed method into on the flat sprinting. I’d therefore recommend that the optimum training methodology should involve the performance of on-flat sprints after the completion of over-speed methods.
Over-speed training methods and suggested workouts
Here’s an overview of the main over-speed training. Much of the information has been drawn from the thoughts of George Dinitmen – one of the world’s foremost sprint training experts (1).
1) Outdoor downhill over-speed method
Use a dry, non-bumpy grass area that allows you to sprint 20m on the flat (to accelerate to near maximum speed), sprint 15m down a 1-degree slope and sprint 15m on the flat (to allow for the continuation of increased speed, without the assistance of gravity). Progress gradually – for example, by running at 75% effort in preliminary workouts and by not wearing spiked shoes until you’ve adapted to the demands of over-speed running.
2) Towing methods, including bungees
Use a bungee 20-25m long and secure it tightly around your waist and to an immovable object (such as a football goal post). Walk back to tension the bungee. The further you walk back, the greater the tension – 25m is a good starting point allowing runs at 75% effort to be performed. Progress until sufficient confidence and condition is developed to sprint flat out and eventually over-speed. As with downhill running, wear sprint spikes only once suitable confidence and condition has been developed.
To produce the over-speed condition you’ll need to back up 3035m to produce the necessary tension in the bungee. Towing behind motor vehicles, either by rope or by hanging onto a suitable platform is to be avoided because of potential dangers.
The decline of the treadmill should be 2% or less. You’ll need plenty of time to adapt to the different demands of treadmill sprinting before over-speed returns can be maximised. It is necessary (as with the other methods) to continue with normal on-flat sprinting to optimise the transference of the treadmill over-speed work into sprinting.
The potential advantages of treadmill running include:
1 Speed can be systematically and progressively controlled across a workout and across the developmental training programme
2 A coach can stand alongside the athlete, whilst they are in full flow and provide immediate verbal feedback
3 Some treadmills enable the coach to physically correct the athlete from the side, for example, by the use of a carefully placed hand to the small of the athlete’s back whilst they are in motion – this cue can help keep the athlete’s hips ‘high’ (a key aspect of sprint technique) and also assist them with keeping up with the required belt speed.
“You’ll need plenty of time to adapt to the different demands of treadmill sprinting before over-speed returns can be maximized”
Over-Speed Training and Eccentric Muscular Damage
Over-speed methods are likely to create eccentric muscular damage. This results in painful, tender to the touch soreness, particularly in the quadriceps muscles of the thigh. To minimise this effect over-speed training should be introduced progressively and combined with a good level of pre-conditioning, such as sport specific drills, weight and plyometric training.
However, despite these precautions it is still likely that eccentric muscle damage will occur, especially for those who have no prior over-speed training familiarity.But the good news is that one bout of the exercise that caused the soreness in the first place, can ‘inoculate’ against further muscle damage for a period of up to about six weeks afterward, even if that method of exercise is not practised regularly. An eccentric muscle action occurs when a muscle lengthens under load, as occurs in the quadriceps when downhill running.