The Development of SPEED in Athletics
Donald A. Chu, Ph.D., PT, ATC, CSCS

The term "speed" can have several meanings that depend on the sport and framework in which the term is used. This is the first in a series of articles that will deal with sprint speed development. Future articles will deal with speed development in directions other than forward, namely lateral and change-of-direction skills.

The major purpose of these articles is to "bridge the gap" between science and coaching. They are intended to present the coach with a set of tools based on scientific fact, that he/she will be able to implement immediately with the athletes they are training.

"Sprinting" is the ability to run at maximal or near maximal efforts for relatively short periods of time. Success in sprinting is the product of three factors: 1) stride frequency, 2) stride length; and 3) anaerobic endurance. With proper training and coaching an athlete can enhance their performance level by improving any or all of these three areas. The influence of coaching is most clearly seen in the following areas: 1) technique or mechanics of running, 2) proper training or metabolic development, 3) flexibility, 4) strength development, 5) practice sessions including drills, and 6) race techniques and strategies including breathing techniques. The coach can greatly influence a sprinter's development by having an understanding of methods to improve any or all of these areas.

Two factors to take into account that comprise the elite sprinter are stride frequency and stride length. Stride frequency (the ability of the athlete to cycle the legs quickly) is thought to be largely fiber dependent. Muscle biopsy studies have shown world class sprinters to universally possess a ratio of up to 90% fast/slow twitch fiber make-up within the gastrocnemius and quadricep muscle groups. Regardless of fiber make-up, however, each individual has a potential that can be improved or hampered depending on the nature of the training imposed on the athlete. Stride length has been thought to be an offsetting factor to stride frequency. Some believe that if you can take a longer stride you might not have to cycle the legs as quickly in order to win the race. Optimal stride length, then, is also an important factor in developing the sprinter.

Sprinting speed can be, and is, a "learned skill". Despite the genetic advantages that one individual might have, physical ability quickly plateaus out at the top of competitive ladder. The athlete who has been taught proper motor skills and learned their lessons well, will be the first to cross the finish line. Although the skills and techniques of sprinting may be rehearsed and perfected at slower speeds, the sprinter must be trained at maximum efforts to insure the learning process is complete. There is no room for error in the sprinters world.

Speed in sprinting is defined as runs at 95 to 100% of maximal effort up to 60 meters. This requires the anaerobic (without oxygen), alactic (without lactate) energy system that can only be challenged by high intensity work which is performed without the presence of muscle fatigue. Therefore, these types of training sessions should occur only when preceded by very low intensity workouts or 24-36 hours of recovery.

Longer sprinting speed has been defined as running at maximum speed for 60 seconds. Those sprinters who have stressed the long term anaerobic system (lactic energy system) will be able to perform better at distances greater than 60-100m. Michael Johnson of the USA is an example of this type of athlete.

In the preparation of the sprinter there are many variables for the coach to attend to, so let us look at the most basic training components first. Flexibility, or, range-of-motion is perhaps the best starting point. There are three rules of training that apply to flexibility; 1) specificity - these exercises must focus on the joint actions and event demands; 2) overload - gains in flexibility occur when the limits of existing range of movement are reached regularly, this will allow new limits to be set; 3) reversibility - improvements in flexibility will be lost if regular work is not maintained. Even elite athletes will see flexibility deteriorate after approximately three days if some maintenance work is not done.

Drills to improve flexibility fall into two categories; 1) passive range of motion and 2) dynamic range of motion. The stretching of muscle tissue is best achieved in either category after the muscle has been "warmed-up". This means that there has been an elevation of core temperature in the body, usually achieved by jogging or moving actively until perspiration has started. This time frame may be 10-15 minutes of light jogging and movement drills. After this time, muscle tissue is more pliable and likely to give when elongated. It is also likely to stay stretched for a longer period of time. Flexibility work should precede every workout, and even more importantly, should conclude every workout. This allows for the removal of fatigue metabolites as well as maintaining muscle length and reducing tension. It should be noted that some researchers believe that excessive flexibility can be detrimental to power development. Therefore, it is important to know the ranges required for a particular sport or activity and not to train beyond them for extended periods of time.

In sprinting, flexibility and elasticity in the gluteals and hamstrings can benefit the athlete during knee lift and help to produce a longer stride.


Whereas, flexibility in the quadriceps is essential for maximizing the recovery of the leg during the swing phase.


After take-off, the farther the legs can be separated, the elastic recoil can help in closing the angle at the point of landing, again helping to maximize stride length.


Upper extremity flexibility is often overlooked. With so much focus on the hips and legs it is not surprising that this area may be ignored. However, there is an optimal degree of shoulder flexion and extension required to match the efforts required to match the efforts required on the legs.


Table 1 summarizes some of the potential ranges of motion that will be required of a sprinter at the various joints.

Table 1 - Flexibility-Optimal Range of Motion
Degree of Rotations
Swinging leg
Supporting leg
230-235 deg
140-155 deg
20-30 deg
at amortization
175-180 deg
at take off
70-85 deg
at amortization
140-150 deg
at take-off
40 deg (flexion)
80 deg (extension)
70 deg (flexion)
90 deg (extension)

Given this information, let us return to the issue of exercises and drills useful for developing flexibility and range-of-motion within the athlete. Static or passive stretching techniques require the individual to assume a position and hold it for a minimum of 15-20 seconds. This is the time frame required to stimulate receptors within the tendons known as the golgi tendon organs (GTOs). Stimulation of the GTOs results in inhibitory stimuli being sent to the muscles causing them to relax and elongate. This activity should be repeated several times for the same muscle group.

The following diagram depicts 99 different static stretching and flexibility exercises.

The coach has many options to call upon for the stretching of the entire body and it's joints. The design of a static stretching program depends largely upon the amount of time the coach and athlete are willing to devote to this area. This time can be a very individual preference in that some athletes will require or desire to stretch very little and will need more work; and others will want to spend great amounts of time stretching when they already have more than acceptable ranges of motion.

In summary, this is the first article in a series that will deal with speed development. In preparing an athlete to attempt maximal speed in pursuit of personal and national or international records we must reject the old adage that "sprinters are born, not made". Instead, coaches need to examine the best means of preparing their athletes for competition. The key to running speed is stride frequency and stride length. These two factors along with motor learning and training at the proper metabolism are extremely crucial to the success of both athlete and coach.

This article has attempted to take the first step towards examining the steps necessary to achieve success. Static stretching serves as a means of developing suppleness and increasing range of motion. Various ranges of motion (degrees) during the sprinting actions have been discussed. This gives the coach some idea of the optimal ranges required for high speed running. The key is to apply those most needed stretches to achieve optimal ranges of the arms, trunk, hips, knees and ankles.

Finally, the next article will cover the concept of warm-up and dynamic stretching. Although closely related to static stretching, these topics deserve a discussion related to each area separately.


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