There is a misconception in sports. Parents, coaches and, even some young athletes, have been using the wrong definition when describing the specific attribute they most desire, explosive first step quickness. What everyone wants is ACCELERATION. What they say they need is speed. What’s the real difference and why does it really matter?
Leading up to the NFL draft there’s always a lot of talk regrading tests like the 10 and 40 yard dash times that are on display at the combine. These are actually tests of acceleration, not speed. Top end speed is not achieved until approximately 60 meters if you look at world class sprinters. In team sports, if you are sprinting more then 40 yards in a straight line, without any change of direction, you either made a great break away play, or a big mistake. Either scenario is not the norm.
As clinicians in the application of sport science our focus is to develop athletes to go from zero to 40 in the least amount of time as possible. How fast we can get an athlete to accelerate will determine their success in team sports. Not how fast they can run the 100 meter dash.
If you think about an athletic move in team sports to go forward, the primary movement should be to PUSH back against the ground. Visualize the simple analogy of pushing a car in neutral.
A primary tool for developing acceleration is the use of a weighted sled. For obvious reasons, the sled push s not designed to develop top end speed, however, for generating power (acceleration) there’s not a better tool…if used correctly. Here’s why.
As I referenced in The Speed Controversy In 2000 a study in the Journal of Applied Physiology published an article called the Mechanical Basis of Human Running Speed, by Peter Weyland. To sum it up, the article stated that “faster top end running speeds are achieved with greater ground forces, not more rapid leg movements.”
When we talk about developing acceleration and first step quickness, these same ground forces need to be applied in such a position to push the body forward and go from 0-60 (in automobile terms) as fast as possible.
So why is it that athletes who can squat a good deal of weight, are often not very fast? In order to move forward the athlete needs to apply a great deal of force into the ground just behind the center of mass of the hips. Squatting allows the body to apply force directly into the ground so it does not correlate to the act of sprinting.
The hips need to be in a state of hyperextension at the end range of motion in order to push the body forward. Squatting will train the muscles, but, it will NOT train the muscles and joints to apply force in the act of sprinting.
In order build the proper pattern of acceleration, sled marching is one of the best tools to teach athletes how to apply force back into the ground. A strong pattern of marching needs to become technically sound before any sled sprinting occurs. That doesn’t mean to load up the sled until it becomes a slow (technically crappy) looking labor-some march.
How heavy does the sled need to be when sprinting?
Motor learning research will tell us that loads above 10% of body weight or a load that will not slow the athlete down more then 10% of their top speed should be used. If we stuck to the hard number of 10% we could be limiting some of our higher level and developing athletes. If the load on the sled approaches or surpasses the athletes body weight, then the posture and motor patterns need to remain perfect. The problem arises when the attention to detail on the coaching side fails or when sled loads are left up to the athlete (when in doubt, they will increase).
In team sports, it’s ACCELERATION that wins not speed. Yes, many times it’s called speed, but in reality, the ability to be the first to accelerate, decelerate and accelerate again and again over a given period of time will yield the most success. Team sport athletes rarely ever reach top end speed (over 60 meters) as described by the track in field world, so specific strength training, such as sled pushing could be the most underrated tool to enhance the athlete’s ability to accelerate.