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How To Design A Running Workout That Improves Speed & Acceleration For Sports

Written by: Nick Jack
Category: 2014
on 16 September 2021
Hits: 599

We all know that to excel at sports like Football, Basketball and Soccer you will need an incredible amount of fitness. Skills are great to have, but if you gas out quickly due to poor fitness levels you are of no use to your team. This means you need to spend time improving your running fitness, and unfortunately for many sporting athletes and coaches this is where they make the mistake of over-using endurance focused workouts. Sports like football, soccer, and basketball incorporates multiple high-intensity efforts interspersed with periods of lower-intensity exercise. The physiological demands of these sports require players to be competent in several aspects of fitness, which include aerobic and anaerobic power, muscle strength, and agility. Running in a straight line for 10-15 minutes will improve fitness, but not the specific fitness of what these sports demand. In this article, I will discuss how you can design a running workout that meets all of these demands.

Do You Understand The Different Energy Systems Used In Running?

Of all the abilities required by sporting athletes by far the easiest of them to achieve is endurance, yet it is the ability often trained the most and often abused. Very rarely do I have sporting people come to see me for help with their endurance. Nearly all the enquiries about our sports program are from people wanting to either rehabilitate injuries or improve their speed and power. When I discover how these people train, it is easy to see why they have a problem, as almost all of their running training is endurance focused.

For many years I have never understood why AFL football players regularly use a 3km time trial to measure their fitness capacity. I know it is great to be fit and it is a great way to measure VO2max if you have heart rate testing equipment and can identify the best from the average, but its relevance to the demands of the sport is very low. This is even more the case with a sport like basketball. Even the 1km time trial or beep test is not as specific to the demands of these sports. As a test I can see it could be useful but using these distances as workouts is an out-dated way of improving fitness.

I remember playing A-grade basketball with a guy who could run sub 3 hour marathons and was by far the fittest player on our team. He could last the entire game of basketball easily, but ironically he was a liability to the team. Not only because of his skills, but because he was too slow. He had no burst of speed or power to get back on defence during a fast break, or be able to explode away from an opponent in offence. At that high level of competition his lack of anaerobic speed was a huge weakness to the team and he did not get much court time as a result. The fact he thrashed all of us in the time trials at the start of the season did not count for much on the court.

The main reason for poorly designed training programs is a poor understanding of the energy systems used. I won’t go into too much detail about this as you can refer to the charts below that provide you with a good visual of what I am referring to.

The body has several energy systems it uses to provide a pathway for Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) production. The energy system you use depends on the intensity of work and its duration. There is no singular energy system that can supply all the energy demands of the body at any one time. Very intense, short duration work relies predominantly on the anaerobic a lactic energy system, while low to moderate intensity efforts are in longer in duration and these energy demands are met through the aerobic energy system.

When you understand this principle and compare it to the efforts demanded of your sport you can begin to design more effective programs that meet your needs. It can be a very difficult balancing act to get right and nutrition plays a big part in this process too. Physiologically the two processes of building strength, power, and speed versus endurance are completely opposed to each other and training both methods at the same time cancels out their effectiveness. But that does not make it impossible, and I covered how to do this in a detailed article a few years back. What I did not include in that article was specific running workouts to complete which is what I will do now.

Why You Should Aim To Sprint 40m Intervals

There is no need for a football player to sprint for much more than 40m at any one time in their sport before they stop completely or walk. For basketball it is even less. The intensity of a 40m sprint that is constantly stopping and starting versus a steady state run of 3km where you can pace yourself is completely different.

In the US over the last 10-15 years many sporting camps devote a lot of attention to the 40m distance. The focus is on the ability to accelerate quickly and hit top end speed as fast as possible multiple times, as opposed to holding a steady state run over 5 minutes to measure fitness. The belief is if your 40m is dramatically improved, then it is likely your 5m, 15m, and 25m times will too. I think there is a bit more to it than that, which we will discuss shortly, but I think you can see the point I am trying to make.

To become great at running a short distance like the 40m requires acceleration over the first 15m which requires incredible strength and power. This means you will need to spend time in the weights room to improve this. You will also need to improve your running technique, which is improved by incorporating a forward body lean with short, fast strides with minimal ground contact time. Running technique is everything and again something that is often neglected at the expense of getting fit.

Another key factor is the use of the rest time. Running a series of 40m sprints, with “walk back recovery,” which is what most people will do, may not produce the best results. Instead, carefully managed rest times that allow enough recovery depending on the objective of the training session should be used.

For example, if the objective is to improve acceleration and top end speed, a longer rest time should be provided which will not compromise the athlete’s ability to run at their top speed for each sprint in the training session.

If the objective is to subject the athlete to a lactate threshold and therefor improving strength endurance, shorter rest times should be used. A combination of these workouts should be used as opposed to doing the same session each time. Also it may be best to include some over-speed training with resistance bands and uphill sessions to improve acceleration as part of this process. Hill running can be very useful for improving the initial acceleration as it is designed to increase ground contact time and reduce stride length.

Firstly, you need to improve your strength and power.

You Must Improve Your Strength & Power

The most important thing you need to understand here is that bigger is not necessarily better. To improve power and acceleration you will need strength. The most important thing you need before you do anything, is to ensure you MOVE WELL with functional movement patterns.

 

Strength cannot overcome poor movement. If you move poorly it does not matter how strong your muscles are, your body will have to compensate and create an alternative way to move that is less efficient, weaker, and more unstable. A classic example of this is seen with ACL injuries in sports. When you consider that 70% of all ACL injuries are classified as non-contact situations where the person landed from a jump or tried to chase or evade a player only to fall to the ground in agony. If strength was all you needed to prevent this injury then you would never see incredibly strong sporting athletes who can easily squat 150kg blow their knees out. Yet, you see this all the time occur in some of the fittest and strongest athletes all over the world. The strength of their quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes were not able to prevent the dreaded ACL tear if they move with poor quality.

Download a FREE copy of the report below to help you with this. Click the image below.

Once you have developed good movement skills along with strength you need to incorporate power training. In simple terms, power is the ability to generate force quickly; it is defined mathematically as force x velocity.

Most athletic movements do not involve slow contractions at near maximum force, but require more mid-to-high velocity. For example, the contact time of the foot during sprinting is about 100msec – not long enough to produce half of maximum force. This does not mean strength training is not needed for power is derived from strength. The difference is in the length of time it takes to complete the movement.

Power initiation relies heavily on deceleration skills, both in terms of muscular strength and body mechanics. This means you must know how to move correctly in order to load up the right muscles into the perfect position to accelerate. Once again MOVEMENT IS EVERYTHING!

You will find the articles below a great resource for improving strength and power.

You Must Improve Your Agility & Braking Skills

Being strong and able to run fast in a straight line is one thing, but being fast in multiple directions and the ability to slam the brakes on suddenly and change direction is arguably more important. There is no point developing acceleration if you cannot put the brakes on!

I love to follow the BRAKES acronym I learned from Twist Conditioning when designing exercises and programs to enhance the skills of change of direction and agility.

The BRAKES acronym is as follows:

  • Balance (Performance Balance)
  • Reaction
  • Agility
  • K(q)uickness
  • Explosive Speed AND Eccentric Strength

Spending time with agility exercises will improve the athlete’s ability to develop speed, quickness and agility by first learning to decelerate movement, stop, and quickly change direction. It is in these specific movements that so many of the season ending injuries like ACL Tears occur, but also where you see the elite seem to have so much more time than their competitors. Training deceleration is essential to providing the athlete with the ability to perform instant changes of direction and explosive first step quickness without losing balance or momentum to lose an opponent.

 

There is literally hundreds of these drills I might use depending on the person and you will find these articles a great resource for developing exercises and programs to enhance your change of direction skills.

Don't Forget To Work On Your Running Technique

The impact and strain running puts on your body is substantial. With each step, up to 3 times your body weight goes through your joints. Times that by however many repetitions you do in a session (thousands), and you now begin to realise how demanding running is on the body.

Add dysfunction or poor technique to that and there is no wonder why so many people experience issues within the first 4-6 weeks once they commence or re-commence running after a lay off. Whether that be running on its own or through sport or any other activity. When looking at upright running mechanics (when into a normal running rhythm), the most common mistake people make, in my experience, is over striding which often results in a subsequent "heel strike" at ground contact. Not only is this inefficient but it can also lead to many preventable injuries.

Over-striding is when your foot contacts the ground in front of your centre of mass (in front of your hips as opposed to directly underneath) with each step. This results in a braking force which ultimately slows you down and puts more stress on joints, ligaments, and tendons.

Many runners, coaches and trainers still utilise and advocate a heel strike at ground contact. However, when you understand the function of the structures that occur at the sole of the foot and posterior (back) aspect of the lower leg (calf/ankle), it makes sense to utilise a midfoot ground contact.

Without getting overly technical, the Achilles tendon acts as a shock absorber, it recycles stored energy like a spring to protect joints up the chain and enhances running efficiency by allowing forward propulsion. In conjunction with this, the intrinsic muscles at the sole of your foot, stabilise the foot and ankle with each impact and assists in the absorption and transmission of force. I found out my foot stability was very poor and a massive contributor to many of my problems.

Optimal foot stability cannot be achieved with heel strikes, instead, large amounts of force are shocked into the foot and up the leg with minimal absorption as its pretty much results in bone hitting the ground.

In my opinion the most effective running technique is called the “pose method”. It involves landing on the mid-foot and underneath the same side hip at ground contact, and then using the hamstrings through a cyclic like action of the leg to propel the runner forward.

The pose method includes:

  • A constant, slight forward body lean
  • A mid-foot ground contact underneath the centre of mass (hip)
  • A cyclic like action of the leg coming off the ground (swing phase) – pulling the leg through quickly and maintaining a bent knee throughout.
  • Minimal ground contact time and increased cadence as opposed to longer strides. This allows for ground contact and reduces breaking forces, putting less strain on joints, ligaments and tendons.

 

Finally this brings us to some running workouts you can try. These are workouts for sports people but also distance runners looking to try some different interval workouts.

6 Running Workouts

Select the running workout specific to your needs from the list below. You can use a combination of these at different times of the season or pre-season.

1: Speed Acceleration

  • Duration of effort: 10-20 seconds
  • Rest: 30-40 seconds
  • Sets: 5-10
  • Intensity: Almost 100% MAXIMAL EFFORT
  • Energy System: Phosphate

Example would be 10 reps of 40m with 30 sec rest

The objective of this workout is to improve acceleration and some top end speed which is what we have focused on mainly in this article. This is perfect for the sporting athlete in multi-direction sports like football, soccer, basketball, hockey, and netball to name a few.

2: Building Top End Speed & Lactate Threshold

  • Duration of effort: 20-40 seconds 5 times exercise duration Almost maximal 2-10
  • Rest: 40-60 seconds
  • Sets: 5-10
  • Intensity: 90-95%
  • Energy System: Lactate

Example 10 reps of 200m with 2 min rest

The objective of this workout is to improve top end speed or lactate threshold. If my focus was more about top end speed I would increase the rest to 3 minutes.

3: Maintaining Top End Speed & Lactate Threshold

  • Duration of effort: 60-90 seconds
  • Rest: 1-3 mins
  • Sets: 4-6
  • Intensity: 90%
  • Energy System: Lactate

Example: 10 reps of 400m with only 60 seconds rest

Very similar to the last program except the main difference here is that the rest time is reduced. This type of training will bring on the lactic build up and prepare your body for trying to increase your lactic threshold. This is a gruelling workout and not for the faint hearted.

4: Aerobic High Intensity

  • Duration of effort: 2-4 mins
  • Rest: 2-4 mins
  • Sets: 4-6
  • Intensity: 85-90%
  • Energy System: Aerobic/Lactate

Example: 6 reps of 800m with 3:00 min rest

In the distance running world this is known as Yasso’s named after Bart Yasso who invented the theory if you can run a sub 3 min 800m ten times, using only a 2 minute rest, you will run a sub 3 hour marathon! I myself have used this program for years with 10km and half marathon and it is the best type of training to prepare you for the pain you are about to suffer. My favourite distance running workout!

5: Pyramid Workout

  • Duration: 30/60/90/180 secs
  • Rest: Varied
  • Sets: 6-8
  • Intensity: 70-90%
  • Energy System: Aerobic/Lactate

Very similar to the strength training method this workout uses a mixture of slow twitch and fast twitch within the same workout! This is a great way to train both speed and long slow aerobic in the one session and a lot harder than it appears as you have to get used to switching gears.

Example: 200m, 30 second rest, 400m with 60 second rest, 1000m with 2 minute rest, 1000m with 4 minute rest, 400m with 60 second rest, 200m finish.

6: Aerobic low intensity

  • Duration: 8-10 minutes
  • Rest: 5 mins+
  • Sets: 2-4
  • Intensity: 70-80%
  • Energy System: Aerobic

Example: 2 x 8mins with 5 min rest (record your distance and heart rate)

As the name suggests this is very much an aerobic program and perfect for the 2-3km time trial. If used as an interval workout it can be a great way to measure your lactate threshold.

To do this you need to run as fast as you can on the first run and then try to beat the distance on the second run after only a 5 minute breather. Using a heart rate monitor you take the maximum heart rate of both runs and calculate the average. This is now your lactic threshold that you can use within races and training. A great way to measure fitness improvements from your training. Perfect for triathlon and half marathon training.

Do You Need More Help?

I know there is a ton of stuff I have left out of this article to prevent it from being 10,000 words long. For complete programs and done for you workouts make sure you grab a copy of the two reports below. The ACL prevention guide includes everything you need to know for designing strength, power, and agility training for sports. You will also find I have several specific Free Reports for many sports you can get by clicking here.

  

Summary

As you can see there is a lot more to running fitness than doing a 3km time trial. When it comes to sports it can become a real science and be the difference in achieving your sporting potential or being the average guy or girl who lacks that special talent. There is always a fine line between being fit and being too slow. The workouts provided in this article should help you to focus on the area you need the most. Always remember technique is everything and should never be sacrificed for fitness. If you follow these simple guidelines you will achieve great results in whatever sport you compete in.

For more ideas and information on specific topics I may not have covered in detail be sure to check out our INDEX PAGE on the website that has over 300 of our best articles. These are all sorted into categories for quick reference so you can find what you are after more easily.

If you do need specific help with your exercise program please feel free to reach out to me for help and we can set you up with your individualised program.

About The Author

Nick Jack is owner of No Regrets Personal Training and has over 15 years’ experience as a qualified Personal Trainer, Level 2 Rehabilitation trainer, CHEK practitioner, and Level 2 Sports conditioning Coach. Based in Melbourne Australia he specialises in providing solutions to injury and health problems for people of all ages using the latest methods of assessing movement and corrective exercise.

References:

  • Twist Conditioning Sports Strength - By Peter Twist
  • Twist Conditioning Sports Movement - By Peter Twist
  • Functional Training For Sports - By Mike Boyle
  • Knee Injuries In Athletes - by Sports Injury Bulletin
  • The ACL Solution - by Robert G Marx
  • Understanding & Preventing Non-Contact ACL Injuries - American Orthopaedic Society For Sports Medicine
  • Functional Anatomy of the Pelvis and the Sacroiliac Joint - By John Gibbons
  • The Vital Glutes - By John Gibbons
  • Movement - By Gray Cook
  • Corrective Exercise Solutions - by Evan Osar
  • Back Pain Mechanic - by Dr Stuart McGill
  • Diagnosis & Treatment Of Movement Impairment Syndromes - By Shirley Sahrman
  • Low Back Disorders - by Dr Stuart McGill
  • Ultimate Back Fitness & Performance - by Dr Stuart McGill
  • Core Stability - by Peak Performance
  • Athletic Body in Balance - by Gray Cook
  • Anatomy Trains - by Thomas Meyers
  • Motor Learning and Performance - By Richard A Schmidt and Timothy D Lee
  • Assessment & Treatment Of Muscle Imbalance - By Vladimir Janda
  • How To Eat, Move & Be Healthy by Paul Chek
  • Scientific Core Conditioning Correspondence Course - By Paul Chek
  • Advanced Program Design - By Paul Chek