As a sprint coach I’m frequently being asked by endurance athletes, “how do I get faster?” The most honest answer I can give is, “you should have picked your parents better!” Speed is largely something you are genetically predisposed to, rather than trained. That being said, there are some things you can do to bring your speed to the surface.
Stride Cycle Analysis
Before we get too deep into running faster, lets examine how we run efficiently by taking a look at the motion each leg goes through on every stride. We begin with your foot directly below you in line with your hips. Driving off the ground with your foot, you are aiming for as much extension as possible in your ankle in the “toe off” position. Your momentum has carried you forward at this point and your foot should be behind your knee, and your knee behind your hip. You then pick that back foot off the ground, bringing your heel right up to your glutes with your knee pointing straight down toward the ground. You then “swing” your foot past your knee bringing your leg into a thigh forward position. When your thigh is parallel with the ground, you open up that stride and allow your leg to extend out in front of you. Then as you are driving off the ground with your opposite leg, you pull this leg back with your hamstrings impacting just slightly in front of your centre of gravity.We refer to this as your stride “cycle” time as it covers one full rotation of a leg in your running stride.
Speed is Stride Length x Stride Frequency
Now that we know what one cycle should look like, we can look at ways of reducing that cycle time. As an endurance athlete there are two common ways to improve this. The first involves you becoming as aerobically fit as possible to not allow your stride frequency to drop over the course of a race. The second element, and the one I’ll be looking at, is increasing your maximum velocity. Even though you will seldom be running at this velocity it does play an important role for any runner. Say we have two runners. Runner A has a maximum velocity of 8 meters per second and Runner B has a max velocity of 7.5 meters per second. For them to run the exact same pace, say 7 meters per second, that would mean Runner A is working at 88% of their max speed and Runner B is working at 93% of their top speed. Or, put in another way, Runner B has to work harder to keep up with Runner A. If they have identical fitness levels, Runner A should win every time.
Sprint work is probably the easiest way to start improving your speed. Drills should not exceed 6-7 seconds in duration and it should be performed at close to your top speed. Optimally, you should do this on a track in racing flats (or better yet, spikes after a period of acclimatisation to doing sprints) but doing this on a flat road or a field is a convenient substitute. A focus on form is very important as even small improvements in your stride and posture can make a vast difference in your speed. Rest plays an important role in doing proper speed work. After each repetition you should be taking between 2-4 minutes to recover, regardless of how fit you are. You need to let your muscles completely recover before firing again or else you change the whole dynamic of what you are doing. Without going too deep into a discussion on energy systems, if you return to sprinting too quickly you will start producing lactic acid, changing the nature of the workout into speed endurance rather than pure speed. Also, speed is meant to be done while your system is fresh for those same reasons. If you finish a 45-minute run and want to cap it off with some sprints, it will merely serve to work on your stamina further, not improve your foot speed.
Here is a summary and what a potential workout could look like:
Head to your neighbourhood football field
Jog for 10 minutes to warm-up
Do a series of dynamic running form drills
Do a few strides with a limited acceleration, testing your body’s willingness to go all out a little bit at a time
Do a few accelerations focusing on pushing hard on your first few steps
4 x 20M Rest: 2 minutes
2 x 30M Rest: 3 minutes
1 x 40M Rest: 4 minutes
It may look miniscule compared to your typical mileage, but you should look at speed work as an add-on to your current training program, not a replacement to anything. This is a great day to work in a stretching and active recovery tempo after the speed work. In my next article I will be taking a look at how hill training can be beneficial to improving your speed.
About the Author: Bob Westman is a former long-sprinter and fan of all things track and field. Born in Lennoxville, Quebec, he now resides in Toronto, and has been a sprint coach with the University of Toronto since 2009. Prior to coaching, Bob attended the University of Western Ontario where he was a 4-time all-Canadian. Off the track, he enjoys watching the Toronto Blue Jays and guiding his fantasy football team to victory.