Speed Training – What You Don’t Know CAN Hurt You (Part 1)

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I have been working as a fitness coach with elite level soccer players for 15 years.  In that time, the one physical ability that seems to always have been of the highest importance to players, parents, and coaches alike, is running speed. Unfortunately, running speed – and how to train/improve it correctly – is probably also the most misunderstood physical ability in soccer.  This 3-part article will provide a detailed summary of running speed and how to train to improve it.  In Part 1, I will provide a definition of running speed, list the phases of a sprint in sports, and discuss what the scientific literature has to say about different methods of speed training.  Next week, in Part 2, I will discuss the physiology of speed training, and finally in Part 3, I will shift focus to the biomechanics and specific coordination aspects of running speed.

Soccer player running

Soccer player running

Running speed is the product of stride length and stride frequency.  Stride length can be improved by making muscles bigger/stronger (strength training) and also by making them more powerful (power training).  Strength exercises like squats and deadlifts are effective ways to make muscles bigger and stronger, and numerous studies have demonstrated that resistance training programs including these exercises can improve running speed in soccer players (Silva et. al., 2015).  Power exercise includes explosive lifting exercises (power cleans or hang cleans); plyometrics (jumping and bounding exercises); and also resisted running exercises (sled pulls, incline running).  Combining explosive lifting with plyometric training and resisted sprinting has been shown to be effective at improving both speed and jump height in soccer players (Lloyd et. al., 2015).  Sled pulls have also been shown to be effective at improving short distance sprint speed in soccer players (Martinez-Valencia et. al., 2015).  At Soccer Fitness, we use high speed/high incline treadmill running to improve stride length.  In one of our recent studies we were able to demonstrate an improvement in 10, 20, and 35 metre sprint times in soccer players following a high speed/high incline running treadmill repeated sprint training protocol (Bucciarelli et. al., 2014).

Stride frequency, as opposed to stride length, is a bit more difficult to train.  Improving stride frequency must provide some type of assistance to the runner in order to make the legs move more quickly that they can voluntarily (commonly termed “over-speed training.”).  Traditional methods of over-speed training include downhill running (which uses the force of gravity to assist the runner) or elastic loading devices attached to a training partner (which use the force generated by the partner, as well as the stretch in the elastic loading device, to assist the runner).  Assisted sprint training using an elastic loading device has been shown to improve short-distance (5-10 metres) running speed in elite level soccer players (Upton, 2011).  At Soccer Fitness, we have used a high speed running treadmill with an un-weighting harness as a means of over-speed training, and we recently finished a study that demonstrated a significant improvement in 10 metre running speed following a training protocol with this equipment (Bucciarelli et. al., 2015).

Thus, a combination of strength training and power training (to improve stride length), and over-speed training (to improve stride frequency) can be used to improve running speed in soccer players.  But what actual part of a sprint in soccer is affected by what specific types of training?  To answer this question, an understanding of the different phases sprinting is required.  There are 4 phases of a sprint in soccer, as well as in any other sport:

  1. The start phase: athlete begins sprinting
  2. The initial acceleration phase: the first 5-10 metres of the sprint
  3. The carry-over to constant-speed phase: the period from the 15 to 30 metre point of a sprint
  4. The deceleration phase: athlete starts to slow down

The application of different types of speed training with the goal of improving these different phases of sprinting in soccer is where most coaches and fitness coaches make errors, because of a failure to understand which specific phase of sprinting is affected by which specific type of training.  Strength training, and some types of power training (explosive lifting, plyometric training, and resisted sprinting with sleds) are basically only effective at improving either the start, and/or initial acceleration phases of sprinting.  In these phases, athletes are in a very low position, and the types of exercises that replicate this low position and add resistance to it (squats, power cleans, sled pulls) are the most effective at inducing improvements.  Incline running, on the other hand, can be effective at improving the carry-over to constant-speed phase of sprinting, because this phase requires athletes to be in an upright position.  When an athlete sprints on an incline, they can maintain an upright posture, with the added resistance to the running movement coming from the incline itself.  Athletes who perform incline running will develop the ability to overcome resistance while running in an upright posture, which translates a lot better into the carry-over to constant-speed phase of sprinting, and is also an improvement which is impossible to achieve when adding resistance to an athlete in a low position.  The absence of evidence linking strength training, explosive lifting, or sled pulls to improvements in longer-distance sprints (past the initial acceleration phase) supports the argument that these training methods are not likely to cause improvements in that phase of sprinting.

Coaches and fitness coaches of elite level soccer players should always try to use a science-based approach when devising speed training workouts for their athletes.  To improve soccer players’ speed through all phases of a sprint. a wide range of exercises and training methods must be selected.  Each of these exercises and training methods should be undertaken with a full understanding of which particular phase(s) of sprinting they will affect and (hopefully) improve.

Richard Bucciarelli is a soccer fitness coach and sports scientist, and the owner of Soccer Fitness Inc., a soccer-specific strength and conditioning company in Toronto. For more information about Soccer Fitness Inc., visit www.soccerfitness.ca.

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