Speed training: testing to find out if your speed is increasing

If you need to know if you’re getting faster over time, these are the tests for you

In many sports it is important for athletes to be able to move horizontally across a pitch, court or other competitive surface as quickly as possible. And many such athletes use training techniques specifically designed to improve their speed.

But how can they be sure such techniques really work? What they need are specific valid testing techniques which will allow them to ascertain whether their speed really is improving as a result of the training. And, happily for them, coaches and exercise physiologists have developed a number of different tests which measure leg-muscle power in a meaningful way.

One valid test is simply the 40m dash, in which athletes attempt to sprint 40m as fast as possible, from either a standing or running start (depending on the sport). However, improvements in 40m sprint time can be small and difficult to distinguish from natural variation, even when athletes carry out very good power training. And some physiologists have questioned whether it is really a relevant test for athletes in sports where fast movements are generally completed over much shorter distances (such as handball, racquetball, squash and tennis).

As a result of such misgivings, the physiologist FR Noyes developed four single-leg hop tests, which attempt to assess strength, power and coordination over short time periods and distances:

  • the single hop for distance;
  • the triple hop for distance;
  • the crossover hop for distance, and
  • the 6m hop for time.

These simple tests have become increasingly popular, with athletes and coaches using them to estimate improvement in strength, power, and kinesthesia, or body awareness, and sports medicine professionals using them to assess functional recovery after injury or surgery.

There is one small problem, however: there is little hard evidence that the tests are absolutely reliable indicators of improvement. The difficulty is that the natural variation in performance for each of the four tests may be so great, that it would be difficult to tell whether an apparent improvement is real. For example, if an athlete covers 208 centimetres on a first single hop for distance test and 215cm four weeks later, does the second hop really represent an improvement or just a degree of natural variation which has nothing to do with fitness?

Some scientific research in this area has been done, and the good thing is that the natural variability in performance in the four tests appears to be small. However, these studies have generally employed a very short interval between tests and retests – usually just two days or less. Most athletes do not expect training-related performance improvements to appear in such a short time and so tend to carry out their evaluative tests every 4-6 weeks. Unfortunately, the variability associated with such realistic test-retest periods has not been known.

To remedy that deficiency, US researchers recently asked 18 healthy young cadets enrolled at the US Air Force Academy in Colorado to complete the four tests on two different occasions, separated by 31 days. All of the subjects routinely trained at least five times a week and were physically fit.

To facilitate the testing, an 8m strip of athletic tape was fixed to the laboratory floor. The starting line for the tests was marked with a 0.3m strip of tape placed at right angles to the 8m length near one end, and the finish line for the 6m hop was marked with another 0.3m strip, also at right angles to the main strip. To perform the single hop for distance, the athletes stood on the designated testing leg (selected at random), with their toes on the edge of the starting line; they then simply hopped forward as far as possible, landing on the same leg. Distance hopped was considered to be the measurement from the starting line to the point at which the hopping heel hit the floor.

Hopping tests prove to be highly predictive of performance capacity

For the triple hop for distance, the athletes once again stood on the designated testing leg, with their toes on the edge of the starting line; they then took three maximal hops forward with the designated leg, and the distance covered was simply the measurement from the starting line to the point at which the heel hit the floor after the third hop.

For the crossover hop for distance, the athletes began by standing on the testing leg with their toes at the edge of the starting line. If hopping with their right leg, they stood on the right side of the 8m strip of tape, and vice versa. They then took three consecutive maximal hops forward with the designated leg, each time crossing over the strip of tape. Total distance hopped was considered to be the distance from the starting line to the point at which the heel hit the floor after the third hop.

Finally, for the 6m hop the subjects began with their toes on the starting line and then hopped the 6m distance on the designated leg as fast as possible. An investigator used a rhythmic command of ‘1, 2, 3, go’ to initiate action, starting a stopwatch accurate to 0.01 seconds on ‘go’ and stopping it as the cadet crossed over the 6m line.

All of these tests were repeated just over four weeks after initial testing, with athletes wearing the same athletic shoes for both sets of tests. In the interim, they continued with their regular activities, with no special or unusual training, so it could be assumed that their fitness, strength, power and coordination were unchanged. All of the tests were preceded by a warm-up consisting of five minutes of stationary cycling at an easy intensity, stretching activities for the quads, hamstrings and calf muscles, and practice trials of the four key exercises.

Average distance covered in the single hop for distance was 208cm on the first test – and exactly the same on repeat testing. Distance for the triple-hop for distance was 670cm on the first test and 673cm on the second. The crossover hop for distance improved from 637 to 649cm and the time for the 6m hop test reduced slightly from 1.86 to 1.82 seconds. None of these ‘differences’ were statistically significant, and the tests were considered to be extremely reliable indicators of fitness, with small natural variation.

The researchers responsible for this study also provided some quite specific information about the practical use of the tests. For example, the standard error of measurement (SEM) for the single hop for distance test was 4.61cm. This basically means that if an individual hops 200cm on this test, he/she can be 95% confident that the true score for his/her test lies within two SEMs of the test score – ie between 190.78 and 209.22cm. To put it another way, a change of more than 2 x 4.61 (9.22)cm in an athlete’s score would probably represent a real change in performance capacity. The SEMs for the other tests were as follows:

  • triple hop for distance – 11.17cm
  • crossover hop for distance – 17.74cm
  • 6m hop for time – 0.06 seconds

Thus, one might assume that an improvement in triple-hopping for distance would have to be more than 22.34cm to be considered significant. Bear in mind, though, that these SEMs may be strictly valid only for this particular experimental group (the Air-Force cadets); other collections of athletes might have different standard errors of measurement. However, it is not particularly likely that the SEMs will be wildly larger for other groups; and thus, if you choose to use the four tests described above, you could be fairly confident that real improvement had occurred whenever your re-test reading increased beyond two SEMs of your initial test value.

Naturally, this works the other way, too; for example, if your initial triple hop for distance covered 670cm and your second test – four weeks later – produced a distance of only 640cm, you could be pretty sure that this represented a true decrease in performance capacity.

Please note that when you are taking a test at a specific point in time, it makes sense to take three recordings for each test and use the average, then do the same on retesting.

Now try the hill-hop test

These tests should be used to assess your changes in leg strength and power, and you should always carry them out with both legs, not just one. By doing so, you will be able to determine whether there are differences in strength, power and/or coordination between legs. The six metre hop for time is a power test, the single hop for distance is a strength test, and the triple hop for distance and crossover hop for distance assess strength and coordination, with coordination at a special premium in the latter. If you notice differences between your legs (and you probably will), you will need to carry out additional strength, power or coordination training with the deficient leg to bring it up to par with the other. You will also want to keep careful records of the performance of each leg over time.

If your chosen sport requires bursts of speed lasting more than a few seconds at a time (football, rugby, hockey or running, for example), you may also want to use a longer-lasting test, such as the 50m hill-hop test. To do this, find a steep hill (8-10% inclination) about 50m from bottom to top (or including a segment of this length); then, simply hop up the hill as fast as possible on one foot, timing yourself with an accurate stopwatch as you do so. Jog back to the bottom, rest until you feel recovered, and repeat the test on your other foot. You may take one more climb on each leg; then average the two results for each leg to get your ‘official’ times. Repeat the test 3-4 weeks later; if your strength-and-power training is going well, you should notice a reasonable improvement in time.

Unfortunately, we can’t report the SEM for this test, but anecdotal evidence suggests that it is fairly small. As your strength and power improve, you will also feel quite different as you perform the test; your initial, unsteady hops in the face of mounting fatigue will gradually be replaced by bold spring-like bounds up the hill – with only a trace of the crippling tiredness which plagued your first efforts.

Owen Anderson

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