Speed is one of the most sought out athletic qualities. A play can be broken down into milliseconds' actions, and while several other factors go into what makes a successful athlete on the field, such as tactical and technical preparation, perceptional awareness, and agility. The first step is brought up a lot, and for a good reason. The ability to accelerate out into a burst of speed is one of the make or break qualities of great athletes and a requirement of big-time plays!
Acceleration is defined by a few standard guidelines such as:
- A shorter distance 0-20 yards
- A more aggressive forward lean position, led by a positive shin angle in the starting position
- A piston-like leg action that is a more aggressive attack
Some physical limiting factors that significantly affect acceleration include:
- Strength will significantly improve the youth and the untrained, but it can only take you so far.
- Mobility, especially in the hip flexors
- Proper body positioning
Training should be holistic, and the weight room development should aid the athlete on the field or court. One cannot be as effective without the other. While increasing strength and hip mobility is a primary focus of weight room development, teaching proper body positioning or "technical mechanics," if you will, must be done in open space and have a different exercise selection set.
The best drills to develop acceleration speed put the athlete in the optimal position to succeed. Drills where the athlete has a clear objective to complete, and there is little thinking required, yet many feel involved. It sounds simple, but to be fast you must train fast.
10 Most Effective Acceleration Drills
These will help any athlete obtain a greater first step burst and the acceleration speed needed to be a playmaker on the field.
The push-up start is a great drill because it requires little to no equipment or intensive coaching. This drill can be performed with no equipment, but you can use a small hurdle or obstacle to enforce the proper sprint sequencing.
Most athletes will perform the push-up start the correct way through their free thought and self-organization, but if they are struggling or losing timing in their sprint they should be given the task. The task is that they should get over the hurdle on their third step, so an alternating step sequence is required. The athlete will either step right leg first, then left leg for support, before finally driving the right leg over the hurdle or performing vice versa.
Performing the drill will ensure that the athlete is achieving a straight acceleration power line as they explode over the hurdle. This drill is very beginner-friendly and can compete with either themselves against the clock or a partner.
2) Falling Start Sprints
Like many of the drills on this list, this sprint's unique ability is that it accomplishes the almighty task of reaching the acceleration power line position without ever having to mention it. The falling start achieves the same body position as the push-up start. Still, it is a little less beginner-friendly, seeing that the athletes must trust themselves as they fall towards the ground, and patience in the drill is vital.
3) Assisted Falling Sprints Starts
A more advanced variation of the falling start is the assisted falling start. The advantage of this drill is that a partner or coach can physically put the athlete into the body angle that they desire. You can quickly progress or regress athletes by adjusting the angle, and it requires less patience of the athlete, a win-win.
4) Tennis Ball Reaction Start Sprints
Changing the starting stimulus is a significant variation to include in the sprinting sessions. Most athletes I work with are field-based athletes to be sprinting and reacting to several different responses. Whether it is responding to a ball, an individual, or a particular play unfolding, the faster they can get there, the better.
The purpose of the drill isn't even necessary to catch the tennis ball. The goal is to achieve a significant first step into the sprint, and if their timing or response is off, then they won't have a chance at catching the ball anyway. You can see in the video the first athlete sprints right past the ball without even attempting, while the second athlete sprints out and catches it on his way through. They both had great reps and achieved the goal of the drill.
The drill shouldn't change the athletes set up or sprint at all. The tennis ball typically creates a deeper drive to run fast, and they have a lot of fun with the drill as well!
5) Deep Knee Bend Start Sprints
One of the qualities of an influential acceleration position is a more aggressive forward lean, led by a positive shin angle. Getting into that positive shin angle position is not very comfortable. It will test the athlete's mobility and relative body strength as they progress and reach higher potential positions.
The deep knee bend start builds upon that focus and exaggerates the shin angle. The knee bend should be much deeper than their usual sprinting position and help build up the athlete's lower body spriting strength and power to generate more power out of the disadvantageous position.
6) Medicine Ball Start Sprint
The medicine ball acceleration start adds more to the starting position and angles required to have success. Utilizing the medicine ball in the sprint will add in the explosive first step, as the athlete will do everything in their power to launch the medicine ball down the field.
Creating a second nature tendency to explode out of the starting position will only lead to faster runs. Keep medicine balls relatively light for this drill, 4-6lbs for female athletes, and 6-8lbs for males. These are just general guidelines, and you should use your best judgment for the athletes you are working with.
7) Sled Push - March
The sled push march is a special strength exercise that helps build up the lower body muscles and joint angles required for above-average acceleration speed. I wouldn't say I like referring to many of the sled movements used as "speed exercises" necessarily because they indirectly help improve the athlete's speed.
They are not performed at high enough speeds to create a positive speed adaptation but help build many other necessary qualities for the sprinting speed your athletes crave, which in return will give them the tools to reach those higher speeds.
Performing the march itself is a better starting option for athletes as the sled achieves that acceleration power line with load addition. Going slow through the march is perfect for athletes who still need to coordinate their bodies better and learn how to move efficiently.
8) Sled Push - Sprint
The sled push sprint is just as effective as the march mentioned but is performed faster and typically with more weight—both things required to continue improving your athlete's speed.
9) Low Sled Push - March/Sprint
The low sled push will follow the same progression of a slower march followed by a sprint. The low-sled push series's main focus is to overload the hip, knee, and ankle complex. The athlete takes large steps putting the lead leg in a brutal shin angle. This develops strength in the lower body like nothing else and is a very tough movement to perform.
10) Various Starting Positions
The final drill listed on this list is rather a collection of drills instead. Varying the starting position is a key factor when training field-based athletes. This may be cheating in a way but there is something to be said about putting athletes into disadvantageous positions to allow them to problem-solve and turn a successful sprint out of it.
Sprinting from so many different starting positions is important because it will help build a more well balanced and coordinated athlete, especially at the youth level, exposing them to more movement situations than originally. Also, it breaks up the tedious nature of training and gives them a little fun. This is really only limited by your imagination, and I will regularly let the athletes pick the starting position in a race against someone who may be slightly faster. It is always interesting as they strategize their plans for victory.
Sets and Reps
When training for acceleration speed, the quality of work must be very high. Sprints will be shorter in the distance 5-20 yards and full recovery will be needed for every single rep. A starting rule of thumb for elite athletes is 1 minute per 10 yards. You may not be training "elite" athletes, but you still cannot turn this into a conditioning session. If you train youth athletes who are easily distracted you can mix in filler movements during their rest to still give them something to do, but not disrupt the training session's goal.
I would recommend keeping the sets lower at first, 8-10 reps, and progress one training quality each week. You could add in additional sets, or more yards, or even a more complex drill, but I would recommend just manipulating one training variable at a time until you see how it affects the athletes involved.
Effective speed training doesn't need to be complicated. The more complicated you make it probably, the more ineffective it becomes. The more cues you're giving to the athlete creates an inverse relationship of success. Effective coaching should be defined by the less you have to cue and correct your athletes, the better. I'm not saying you leave them to their faults, but if they cannot perform a particular drill well, it should be placed more upon the coach and the exercise selection.
The ten plus drills and exercises showed do an excellent job at teaching better body position, mechanics, and work to increase the physical qualities needed for fast acceleration speed. Utilize these in your sessions and watch as your athletes progress and develop the powerful first step acceleration needed for sport!