When attempting to make an athlete faster there are many qualities that will need to be worked on. These include technique, power, flexibility, relaxation, work capacity, and others. There is one quality that can be worked on while the others are fine tuned and will improve the athlete’s speed simply by it’s own improvement: Strength.
In younger athletes especially one of the primary hindrances to their speed improvement is that they simply aren’t strong enough. You can, and should, work regularly to improve their technique and flexibility, but the bottom line is that they are only going to put as much force into the ground as they have strength. If you can increase this force produced, the athlete’s stride length will improve and they will become faster.
Many speed coaches, although this is definitely changing, still worry that their athletes are going to become “muscle bound” and slowed down by the addition of muscle mass from strength training. As long as proper flexibility and technique work is kept up, this will almost never happen. With younger athletes, I’ve never seen it. What I have seen is an athlete gaining 50 pounds in the off-season, most of it fat, under the excuse that they needed to “get big”. Getting big (muscular) and getting fat are two totally different things.
A sound strength training program for speed will enable your athletes to produce more force in less time per step. It will strengthen and condition their joints and muscles which will help protect them from injury. It will also help condition their metabolic system to short, powerful exertions (many weight training sets are the same time under tension as a short sprint, think about it). It also will provide a strong stimulus for your athletes to change without overstressing the sprint movement patterns.
Here are some things to consider when designing a strength training program to enhance athletic speed:
Utilize primarily compound movements
You know, the usual subjects like squats, presses, lunges, dead lifts, and rows. The key with strength training for speed is that you aren’t putting the athletes through marathon lifting sessions. The strength training should be brief and focused.
Focus on lower rep sets and not failure on primary movements
There’s no need for endless high rep sets of leg extensions and curls here. Your athletes are not bodybuilders. Your primary lifts such as squats and presses are going to be the real strength builders. In addition to building muscle mass they will recruit and refine the central nervous system to enhance the athlete’s strength. Using lower rep sets (and thus heavier weights) within reason will focus on this strength development.
Failure is the enemy when it comes to heavy weights during high periods of stress, such as an aggressive speed program. Regularly forcing your athletes to failure on big movements like squats and presses is a recipe for burn-out. They should be progressively challenged by the weights, but should be able to accomplish them as they increase their strength.
Don’t rush the athletes through the big movements
Remember, the strength component of your speed program is just like the sprint training in that your focus is on quality, not quantity. Just as you’d give your athletes plenty of rest between speed reps, allow them sufficient rest periods between heavy sets. This could be a minute or two or even up to five for very heavy work. If you start cutting their rest periods way down it becomes metabolic conditioning, not strength building.
Of course, don’t let them get lazy and start loafing through the workout. As a good coach you’ll recognize this. Move them along if that starts occurring.
Strength is a valuable component to speed development. With a sound strength program you’ll see vast improvements in speed from a relatively short period of time in the weight room.