The Speed Controversy. What Do You Really Need in Sports? Part 1

Back in 2003, while was living in Greensboro, NC  I worked under the Direction of Lauren Segrave for Velocity Sports Performance.  At the time Lauren was a sprint and hurdle coach for the U.S. Olympic team.  This is where I began understand the principles and mechanics of how to get athletes faster.

Lauren introduced me to the work of  Dr. Peter Weyand who is an Associate Professor of Applied Physiology & Biomechanics and Director of the Locomotor Performance Laboratory at Southern University in Dallas, Texas. Dr. Weyand is widely recognized as one of the world’s leading scholars on the scientific basis of human performance. His research on the mechanical and physiological basis of sprint exercise performance continues to advance scientific understanding and shape contemporary training practices.

Here are a few answers to some common questions to give you a better understanding of the components that make up SPEED.

By the way – you can check out Dr. Weyland’s YouTube channel at – it’s some pretty cool footage of very fast athletes

Q1.  Are fast athletes born, or can they be made?  Is sprinting an acquired skill that can be developed?

A1:  The ability to run fast is comprised of a complex skill set.  How this skill set is executed is directly related to the biology of the athlete.  Great skill and a high-level of musculoskeletal function is needed when sprinting.  The application of ground reaction forces of 4-5 times a person’s body weight, in less than one-tenth of a second, is needed for top end speed.   

A critical question for coaches, parents and athletes is to what extent both the skill and biology of speed are trainable.  Through research and practical applications we know that proper training and gains in the following areas can improve speed:

regular high-speed running (sprinting)

strength training

improved motor control (technical running and drills) 

Q2. What mechanics are necessary for achieving fast running speeds?

A2:  The key to running faster is simple: The ability to apply a large mass-specific force into the ground as  quickly as possible will produce the greatest speed.  Yes – speed is all about hitting the ground hard and fast.  Once an athlete hits top end speed and is able to maintain forward momentum so effectively, they do not need to either push or pull horizontally while on the ground. They simply need to hit the ground hard enough in relation to their body weight during brief foot-ground contact periods to get back up into the air.  The key point is getting to top end speed which we will address in detail. 

Q3. Do you need more stride frequency or stride length for top speed running?

A3.  The common thought is that speed is often considered as the product of stride length and stride frequency, which is technically correct from a mathematics perspective.

When you think about physics and the musculoskeletal biology, you can create a better understanding in terms of how forces that are applied to the ground `have a direct impact on an athlete’s stride length and frequency.  Here’s how this happens. 

First, applying large, mass-specific forces to the ground quickly is the athletic attribute that determines how fast athletes can run. Nearly all of the difference in speed between different individuals is attributable to what occurs during the contact or ground force application phase.

Second, ground force application can be directly related to muscle, tendons and bone function whereas stride lengths and stride frequencies cannot be.

Third, as detailed in Weyand’s 2000 paper on sprint mechanics5, existing data indicate that both the greater stride lengths and frequencies of faster runners result from the application of greater mass-specific ground forces in shorter periods of time. What does that mean?  You have to first hit the ground as hard as you can which will dictate stride length and frequency. 

Fourth, stride lengths and frequencies are not fixed fitness or performance characteristics per se, but rather are co-selected in accordance with the duration of the aerial and contact phases of the stride for different runners and in different gaits.

Q4. How Importance is the arm action in sprinting. 

Answer:  The arms provide a coordinated balance while  conserving the body’s forward momentum.  Arm movements are coordinated with torso and leg movements to achieve the energy transfers, they do not control leg movements.  Arm action has little effect on the critical ground reaction forces.

Arms  action does play a more important role during the brief acceleration phase than during top end speed running. 

Coming up next in Part II, we will cover the most important and overlooked component of sport. ACCELERATION.

In the mean time, if you are looking to gain a speed advantage this summer check out our special strength programs beginning in June >>> 2017 Summer Strength & Speed 

2 replies
  1. Martin Schulz
    Martin Schulz says:

    Hi, great article. I’ve done a lot of speed training with my soccer players over the years, focusing mainly on sprinting. I usually mix the training up a bit for the strikers and wingers who usually run in bursts as opposed to the midfielders who need more stamina based training.

    In your article you mention that you work on strength training to improve speed as well. Do you have any particular sets or workout that you would recommend as I’d be interested to try new things with my teams.



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  1. […] I referenced in The Speed Controversy  In 2000 a study in the Journal of Applied Physiology published an article called the Mechanical […]

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