Tips for Training Speed in Young Athletes
Steve Daisey MPT, CSCS
I am frequently asked by parents and coaches the question: “what exercises can I do to increase speed in my kids?”
My response is that blindly throwing new “speed” exercises and drills at a young athlete is never a good idea. What might work for a mature fifteen year-old, can injure a twelve year-old who does not have the body to handle the drill. Exercises designed to improve speed can be damaging when performed incorrectly or by someone who has too many mechanical faults in their running style. When I hear about speed and plyometric training techniques being applied to young children, I am frequently astonished at how little regard has been given to the readiness of the child to begin that type of program.
There are many approaches to building speed in a young athlete that have been shown both clinically and in research to improve speed. Some of these methods include over-speed training (3,4), resistance speed-training (4), plyometrics (1), and traditional weight-training (5). All of these methods have inherent risks with them. At the very least, done incorrectly, they can end up reinforcing bad mechanics. At worst, they can cause an overuse injury.
So before considering speed training for a child, look at a few things first:
1) When the athlete changes direction or takes off in a sprint, does he or she appear to be running very upright? If yes, there are significant postural-mechanical faults that require specialized training before undertaking things like plyometrics, over-speed or resistance-speed training. Body angle needs to be corrected first. A very motivated, coachable young athlete can learn how to get a better body angle in one session with a week of practice following the session.
2) Have the athlete sprint toward you. Are the arms of the athlete coming across the body or far out to the side? Are the hands clenched in fists? Are the hands coming up past the collarbones? If the answer is yes to any of these questions, or the arms look grossly uneven in their action, but the body appears angled well when changing direction, there are moderate mechanical faults that can be corrected with some pointers and probably someCORE strengthening/coordination exercises. Normal arm mechanics include symmetrical arms driving back, coming from the shoulders, with arms at sides and hands relaxed.
3) Have the athlete squat up and down a few times. At the bottom of the movement, does it look like the picture to the right?
If the knees are in front of the toes, or the back is curved, or the hips have not dropped as far as what you see in the picture, there are deficits in the athlete’s ability to use the hamstrings and gluteals (CORE muscles) that could lead to overuse of the knees during many of the typical speed training techniques.
If the child in question passed all three tests with flying colors, chances are he or she is one of the faster kids on the team already. With a coach or trainer who has a good knowledge of speed training, the child would likely improve by adding in speed drills and strengthening exercises.
If there are problems in those areas, it would be irresponsible to give out over the internet many of the typical speed training exercises. Most athletes are guaranteed to make mistakes when first attempting a new speed training technique. All athletes, children or adults, should be watched by someone who knows what to look for and how to correct common mistakes which can cause injury.
There are certain drills which are relatively safe and easy to learn, that are great for building up speed in all athletes. These include drills that do not require a ton of professional intervention to correct mechanical faults. They are also fun for kids, and do not demand a lot of intricate teaching.
Agility Ladder Training
Running patterns in an agility ladder and emphasizing light feet is a great way to develop foot quickness and a better sense of body awareness. It is also a great way to build faster arm drive turnover, which will make the feet go faster.
Agility ladders usually come in 5- to 10-yard pieces. They can just as easily be drawn in the pavement or on a field with powder. Each square in a ladder is generally 18 inches x 18 inches.
In the above pattern, the athlete runs through the ladder with two forward steps in each square as quickly as possible. Most young kids performing this will drop their arms, which is incorrect. Be sure to have them drive their arms with EACH step. Arms need to drive backward and come from the shoulders, not in a chopping motion at their sides using the elbows. Slow them down at first to be sure the arms are synchronized with the feet correctly. Gradually speed up without sacrificing arm drive.
In this pattern, follow the feet and numbers as above. Stand to the left of the ladder, facing down the length of it. Step into the first square with the right, then left, then out to the right side of the ladder. Reverse the steps, this time going to the left. Always step into the ladder with the foot that is closest to it. This pattern is similar to a waltz (1-2-3, 4-5-6, 7-8-9, etc…). Do not pause outside of the ladder. Keep the feet moving constantly.
With all agility ladder drills (and there are hundreds of patterns you can run in them), emphasize being light and quick footed with no pauses. Keep feet as low to the ground as possible to emphasize foot quickness. Do not sacrifice steady rhythm for speed.
Top Speed Training
During sprinting, a human being does not hit his or her top speed until about 30-40 yards into a run. Often, training does not engage this distance, so top speed is never conditioned or improved upon with practice.
After a 5-minute general warm-up (jogging), follow it with 2-3 sprints of 10-yards, then 20, then 30, then 40 then 50 yards. Then have the young athlete practice running as fast as possible for 80-100 yards. Five reps of this is plenty, as full-speed sprinting obviously gets very tiring. Have them walk back to the starting line and rest for a long enough period to be able to run with maximal speed during each rep. Do not over-train here.
Studies have shown that by simply practicing top speed, an athlete will get faster over time (2).
These are two simple, safe ways to improve speed in a young athlete. If you see any of the faults described previously, the athlete may benefit from more specific training to address mechanical problems having to do with body lean, arm technique or core strength.
- McBride JM, Triplett-McBride T, Davie A, Newton RU: The effect of heavy- vs. light-load jump squats on the development of strength, power, and speed. J Strength Cond Res 2002 Feb;16(1):75-82.
- Young WB, McDowell MH, Scarlett BJ: Specificity of sprint and agility training methods.J Strength Cond Res 2001 Aug;15(3):315-9.
- Corn RJ, Knudson D: Effect of elastic-cord towing on the kinematics of the acceleration phase of sprinting. J Strength Cond Res 2003 Feb;17(1):72-5.
- Paradisis GP, Cooke CB: Kinematic and postural characteristics of sprint running on sloping surfaces.J Sports Sci 2001 Feb;19(2):149-59.
- Delecluse C, et al: Influence of high-resistance and high-velocity training on sprint performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc 1995 Aug;27(8):1203-9.