Speed training workout: how to improve your sprinting

Maximum speed sprint workouts


Objective: to improve maximum speed

Suitable for: sprinters and all sportsmen and sportswomen whose sports require top sustained speed, for example hockey, football and rugby. Other field, court and racquet sports players (whose sports rarely afford the opportunity to sprint flat out in a straight line, over a relatively long distance) may also benefit due to the power that these workouts will be develop. Note: multi-directional speed needs to be specifically trained and should be viewed as a skill. The quickest players in a straight line will not necessarily be the quickest in multiple directions.

The workouts that follow emphasise the development of flat out speed, rather than speed endurance

Warm up:

Muscles, ligaments and tendons must be prepared specifically for sprinting. The key areas are the shoulders, hips, hamstrings, calf muscles and Achilles tendons. As such, a dynamic warm up must be followed. This warm up must include exercises that specifically work muscles over ranges of movement required for sprinting and at speeds that replicate those that the athlete will be subject to.

Training tip:

The importance of eccentric muscular contractions for sprinting

An eccentric contraction occurs when a muscle lengthens as it contracts (a concentric muscle contraction occurs when a muscle shortens as it contracts – this is the most common of sporting muscular contractions). In sprinting the hamstrings are subject to great eccentric force. This occurs when the legs are extended forward of the body in the transition from one stride to the next. The hamstrings are stretching as they contract to arrest the forward travel of the lower leg, as they pull it back to the ground ready for foot-strike. It is during this eccentric contraction when the majority of sprint induced hamstring strains occur. Those who have not sprinted regularly (or who have sustained a previous hamstring injury which can weaken the muscle unless it is ‘rehabbed’ fully and relevantly), need to ensure that the risk of hamstring strain is minimised. They should progress carefully and build up relevant strength gradually. The number of sprints in a session should be low in number and over relatively short distances of 20-30m. Sprinting over longer distances will introduce a greater endurance requirement and muscles will get fatigued – this fatigue could lead to injury. Learning and adhering to optimum sprint technique is also crucial.

How to develop the eccentric hamstring strength needed for sprinting

Leg cycling

Leg cycling is a great eccentric hamstring muscle conditioner. Stand next to a wall and lift your outside leg to a thighs parallel to the ground position. Use the wall for balance. Sweep your foot down toward the ground and then back up behind your body, pulling your heel up toward your butt, before pulling it through to the front to complete one cycle. Keep your toes up as you perform the drill.

Include this drill in your warm ups.

Those new to sprinting and the exercise should start with 75% efforts and 2 x 10 repetitions on both legs and progress to 4 x 10 at maximum speed, gradually over a number of workouts. Take a good recovery of 30 seconds to a minute between reps, to avoid the inhibiting effects of fatigue.

Maximum speed sprint workouts and the central nervous system

Although performing flat out sprints will improve sprint speed when coupled to a relevant sprint training plan, there are various combinations of distances that can take this to a higher level.

Sprinting is extremely taxing on the neuromuscular system. This system consists of the brain and the spinal cord and it processes signals that the body receives. Traditional notions of the CNS identify this interpretation as being automatic, however there is an increasingly popular and highly plausible school of thought that believes the CNS also functions at a conscious level. High intensity work, such as sprinting taxes the CNS, as moving the body at maximum velocity requires huge amounts of mental and physical energy. The CNS cannot supply this infinitely.  Coach and athlete must be mindful of this limit and sprint workouts must therefore include long recovery periods between runs (3-15 minutes depending on the length of the sprints).

If the CNS becomes fatigued and sprints are continued then the athlete will be patterning in movement and response patterns at a sub-maximal level – this will occur at both the conscious and unconscious level of CNS functioning.

Additionally, sprint sessions and competitions, where relevant, should be carefully selected and implemented into the training plan. Failure to do so could result in the athlete becoming drained and performance suffering. Worse still injury could result. It is therefore recommended that – where practical – 24 to 48 hours’ recovery be left between high intensity workouts and competitions.

Maximum speed workouts

Performed on a running track, preferably in spikes

Workout 1 – ‘Rolling’ 30s

Using a 20m run on the athlete builds up speed so that they are at or near to flat out at the start of the 30m phase.  They then sprint over the 30m distance.

Coaching points

To get up to speed before the 30m stretch, the athlete, although driving hard, should be relaxed and this should then transfer into the flat out phase. Relaxation at speed may be the single most important factor in maximising sprint speed. Tension impairs fluidity and can literally put a brake on velocity.

Suggested number of repetitions: 2 x 4 – with three minutes’ recovery between runs and 10 minutes between sets.

Workout 2 – ‘bursts’ over 50m

The sprinter accelerates into the 50m stretch and sporadically (but rhythmically) includes bursts of 3-5 strides of flat out running. Between these they ‘take their foot off of the gas’, to slow slightly before bursting again.

Coaching points

Once into the 50m zone , the sprinter should be upright in sprint posture. They should not lean forward to accelerate into each burst. Rather they should be on top of their running and should ‘turn their legs over faster’ to move into top gear briefly.

Suggested number of repetitions: five, with five minutes’ recovery between sprints.

Workout 3 – ‘40 into 20’

The sprinter uses the long acceleration period to build up to maximum speed. When they hit the 20m to go mark, they should be at 98% effort, at this point they turn their legs over at maximum speed, pumping their arms accordingly to sprint fluidly.

Coaching points

Ensure that the sprinter runs with their hips high and does not ‘sit’ when sprinting. Don’t instruct the athlete to run on their toes as this will invariably result in breaking forces at the ankles as the athlete’s ankle flexes to absorb the forces they will be subject to. Rather toes should be dorsi-flexed – held up. A good coaching phrase is to tell the athlete to imagine that there is a hand in the small of their back, gently lifting them when they are flat out.

Suggested number of repetitions: 2 x 3, four minutes’ recovery between runs and 10 minutes between sets.

Workout 4 – 30/30/30 round and off of bend

For the 200m sprinter, bend running is a specific skill. Speeds are generally slightly slower when running a bend when compared to straights, mainly due to the need to lean into the bend to keep tight and the fact that the athlete is unable to drive in such a way that all the force they generate goes in a straight line. Note: the second 100m in the half-lap is performed with no acceleration phase and it becomes a matter of endurance and of combating deceleration on the part of the sprinter.

The sprinter starts 60m back from the exit of the bend. Cones are placed at three 30m intervals. The athlete sprints to the first cone and then relaxes to the second (running at 90% effort) they then kick as they reach the second cone to sprint past the third as they enter the home straight.

Coaching points

Relaxation, again, is key. On the bend the athlete should lean into it, to enable them to run tight to the line. This lean will be across the whole of the body – the left leg and side of the torso will develop the bracing strength over time with repetition. When the athlete exits the bend they should run tall. Running out of the bend provides a great way for the athlete to feel and master the skill and sensation of running with high hips, fluently and relaxed while at speed.

Suggested number of repetitions:

3 x 3 runs – with four minutes’ recovery between runs and eight minutes between sets.

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