Improving Sprint Speed in High School Athletes, By Kyle Davey

My job is to make athletes fast. And for good reason: faster athletes are better athletes.

Some of my favorite to work with are high school kids. The ones who come to me are typically self-driven, want to play at the collegiate level (or have already signed a letter of intent), and understand that speed—or quickness and explosiveness, as they typically communicate it—is a critical factor in sports performance. Training duration is anywhere from one month to most of the year, and one to three sessions per week. 

Improving sprint performance is a unique challenge where I work, because we don’t have a weight room. But what we do have has afforded our athletes significant speed gains: 63m of indoor to outdoor track and a 1080 Sprint (not to mention force plates, an isokinetic dynamometer, EMG, two underwater treadmills, and a few other fun tools). 

My philosophy for improving speed is, in a nutshell: optimize mechanics to maximize performance and minimize injury risk, and then add power to said mechanics. I bring this to life via sprint technique work and resisted sprints, which are the two biggest components of my speed training program. I also include a fair amount of eccentric training using the 1080 Sprint and some plyometric work, but these are secondary to the aforementioned training methods.

Recent research has advanced our knowledge of resisted sprint best practices, 1-9 allowing for improved training protocols and transference to unresisted sprint performance.

Sprinting at maximum power (Pmax) is one such methodological improvement.2-8

Power production is a key contributor to sprint performance, and training at Pmax improves Pmax. Thus, sprints against a resistance that induces maximum power generation (optimal load) is a fantastic training avenue to make athletes faster.

The 1080 Sprint makes this task—both determining the individual optimal loads as well as the actual training against said loads—incredibly fast and easy.

Determining Optimal Load

Optimal load is the resistance that reduces max velocity by 50%.2,3 A load-velocity profile quickly and reliably identifies this resistance for each individual athlete.

Below is the typical protocol I use to generate a load-velocity profile with high school athletes:

  • 30m sprint against 3kg resistance
  • 20m sprint against 10kg resistance
  • 15m sprint against 17kg resistance
  • 10m sprint against 24kg resistance (this sprint can be omitted if the previous results in a max velocity under three meters per second)

The 1080 Sprint app has a load-velocity profile function built in, which makes this process fast and easy. In a matter of moments, after the athlete completes the final sprint a graph is generated that outlines the relationship between resistance and sprint velocity. This graph reveals the appropriate resistance to induce a 50% velocity decrement, and thus the optimal load for each individual athlete.

Training

The first session typically includes the load-velocity profile and two to three 10-15m sprints at Pmax. For good measure, the same protocol can be repeated on the next session, as heavy resisted sprints sometimes require a bit of accommodation.

From there, 1-2 sprints per session are added, with the ultimate goal of sessions including 6-12 sprints over 15 or 20m depending on athlete training age, fitness levels, and time constraints. Three to five minutes rest between sprints is appropriate.

If an athlete demonstrates two consecutive runs below 90% of their highest power value for that day, I end the session (at least the resisted sprint portion of it), assuming fatigue has set in—the ROI on the work has diminished, and injury risk may be elevated.

Training twice per week, separated by at least two days recovery (Monday-Thursday or Tuesday-Friday training days, for example) is ideal, but speed improvements can be seen with once per week training as well.

A load-velocity profile is completed every 6-8 weeks to gather progress data and re-assess optimal load.

Case Studies

Let’s examine the results of one youth athlete.

Youth athlete results from resisted sprint training.
Figure 1. 17 y/o female athlete, initial testing
Resisted sprint training results
Figure 2. Testing after 7 resisted sprint sessions at maximum power

This athlete decreased her 25m sprint time by 0.09s in a little over a month and only 7 resisted sprint sessions. This is a significant improvement. Accordingly, her average velocity and power over each 5m split is improved as well.

Anecdotally, she says she feels faster and more explosive on the soccer pitch and that she’s caught up to her teammates that used to be faster than her. 

We also see power increase during the resisted sprints themselves. Take a look at my personal power numbers, below:

Kyle Davey resisted sprint results.
Figure 3. November 7th, 2019 resisted sprint performance results. The values are displayed as peak / average. For example, the peak power in sprint one was 2163W, and the average power for the entire sprint was 1187W.
Kyle Davey results from resisted sprint training sessions
Figure 4. February 25th, 2020 resisted sprint performance results

I averaged just one resisted sprint session per week and only 3-6 sprints per session, yet that was enough to bump my session’s average power from 1192W to 1335W (calculated by averaging all sprints), a 12% improvement. You’ll also notice my times dropped noticeably as well, despite me sprinting against slightly more resistance on the later date as my optimal load had increased.

With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

Beware—there seems to be a delayed effect in realizing maximum benefit in unresisted sprint performance after cessation of resisted sprint training.

Unresisted sprint performance continues to improve for up to four weeks after the training cycle has ended.7

The reasons for this are unclear. My take is that athletes either need time to incorporate their new physiological capabilities (increased power production) into their sprint technique, that the training itself comes with high neurologic fatigue that takes several weeks to fully recover from, or both.

Nonetheless, we have a responsibility as coaches to prepare our athletes for competition. It is wise to end the resisted sprint training cycle at least four weeks prior to the desired peak to allow athletes to fully accommodate to the training and be at their best in the competition that matters most. 

Resisted Sprints: A Great Tool in the Toolbox

There are many ways to improve speed, and resisted sprints certainly is among them. If you have the means and the know-how, incorporating these into your programming will give your athletes great results.

The above article was written by Kyle Davey, Coordinator of Athletic Performance at RE_Building by NWRA in Salem, OR, where he provides personal training, performance testing, and injury prevention services.

References

1. Alcaraz, P. E., Carlos-Vivas, J., Oponjuru, B. O., & Martinez-Rodriguez, A. (2018). The          effectiveness of resisted sled training (RST) for sprint performance: a systematic review      and meta-analysis. Sports Medicine48(9), 2143-2165.

2. Cross, M. R., Brughelli, M., Samozino, P., Brown, S. R., & Morin, J. B. (2017). Optimal         loading for maximizing power during sled-resisted sprinting. International journal of       sports physiology and performance, 12(8), 1069-1077.

3. Cross, M. R., Lahti, J., Brown, S. R., Chedati, M., Jimenez-Reyes, P., Samozino, P., … &        Morin, J. B. (2018). Training at maximal power in resisted sprinting: Optimal load           determination methodology and pilot results in team sport athletes. PloS one, 13(4).

4. Cross, M. R., Tinwala, F., Lenetsky, S., Brown, S. R., Brughelli, M., Morin, J. B., &    Samozino, P. (2019). Assessing Horizontal Force Production in Resisted Sprinting:      Computation and Practical Interpretation. International journal of sports physiology and   performance14(5), 689-693.

5. Lahti, J., Huuhka, T., Romero, V., Bezodis, I. N., Morin, J., & Hakkinen, K. (2019). Changes   in sprint performance and sagittal plane kinematics after heavy resisted sprint training in         professional soccer players.

6. Morin, J. B., & Samozino, P. (2016). Interpreting power-force-velocity profiles for       individualized and specific training. International journal of sports physiology and           performance, 11(2), 267-272.

7. Morin, J. B., Capelo-Ramirez, F., Rodriguez-Pérez, M. A., Cross, M. R., & Jimenez-Reyes, P.            (2020). Individual Adaptation Kinetics Following Heavy Resisted Sprint Training. The             Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research.

8. Morin, J. B., Petrakos, G., Jiménez-Reyes, P., Brown, S. R., Samozino, P., & Cross, M. R.      (2017). Very-heavy sled training for improving horizontal-force output in soccer       players. International journal of sports physiology and performance12(6), 840-844.

9. Samozino, P., Rabita, G., Dorel, S., Slawinski, J., Peyrot, N., Saez de Villarreal, E., & Morin,    J. B. (2016). A simple method for measuring power, force, velocity properties, and            mechanical effectiveness in sprint running. Scandinavian journal of medicine & science       in sports, 26(6), 648-658.