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If you play tennis, soccer, lacrosse, field hockey or are an athlete in some sport that requires speed and quickness do not be resigned to the thinking that speed and quickness are innate. Speed and quickness are two qualities that can be improved; you can be faster, you can be quicker. Genetics only determines the outside limits of how fast or how quick you can be.
There are two proven methods of improving your speed and quickness. These methods are not theory, they have been practiced for many years and the results speak for themselves. The main factors that you must work on are your running and cutting technique, acceleration, how you take the first step to get started from a ready position and improving your physical qualities (such as strength, explosiveness, flexibility, etc.) as they relate to your technique.
Improving Running Technique
Unless you are into track or cross-country, most sports require quick bursts of speed. At times longer distances are needed as for example playing the midfield in lacrosse or soccer, in which the players must cover a great deal of territory. However, in a short dash or in a longer run, you must still do the same joint actions that are involved in regular running. Execution is slightly modified, but the actions and muscles involved are basically the same.
For example, one of the most important features of running is to drive the thigh forward in front of the body. After you push off in a running or acceleration stride and are airborne you begin to drive the push off leg thigh forward to prepare for contact on the next step. The faster you can drive the thigh forward, the sooner you can take the next step. This results in greater stride length (greater distance in one step) and faster speed.
If you do not have a forceful knee drive it changes other parameters of the run, and you may end up pushing yourself more vertically than horizontally, which is not conducive to fast running speed. Pushing your body horizontally on each push off when the leg straightens and the ankle extends, is extremely important for speed and quickness.
Bringing the thigh forward is not always a simple matter, you need muscular strength and endurance to do this through the range of motion in which the thigh is active. Conventional exercises such as squats do not hit the muscles in this range of motion. You must do specialized exercises that duplicate the same motor pathway pattern (movement) as seen in the running stride.
For example, using a hip abductor machine at the gym (in a seated position, legs press out spreading the knees apart with resistance) to strengthen the hip abductors. These muscles play an important role in keeping the hips level during running and sprinting, and in the prevention of iliotibial band syndrome. However in running, when the hip abductors play their role, the leg is in line with the body as in standing not at right angles, as in sitting. The strength of these muscles must be developed in the upright position (not in a seated position) in order to have a carryover to running.
The abductor muscles also play a very important role in cutting actions. When you cut left or right, you use the abductor muscles to push the hips and upper body in the newfound direction. Once the upper body is in motion then you use leg extension to propel you even faster. Thus by doing one specialized exercise for the hip abductors, you enhance not only your running stride but also your ability to cut left and right which is the key to agility and/or quickness.
The specialized exercise must develop strength and flexibility in the same range of motion as is seen in the running stride (or when simply taking a few quick steps). For example, the abdominals are important in running, particularly the obliques (the abdominal muscles that you feel at the sides on the waist). The familiar crunch with a twist strengthens the obliques, but it does so in a far more restricted range of motion than is found during running, and especially in cutting actions. Even more important, the spine is flexed during a crunch while its normal curvature is maintained in the running stride, not only in a forward direction but also laterally.
Another aspect of specialized strength and flexibility exercises is that the exercise employ the same type of muscular contraction. For example, in the push off, the calf muscles undergo a fairly explosive shortening contraction after being pretensed. This explosive shortening produces greater force to maintain or increase speed. A specialized exercise must include an explosive muscular contraction of the calf muscles. This is typically done in a calf raise exercise but modified to produce an explosive contraction.
Because the specialized strength and flexibility exercises have specific criteria it is often necessary to create exercises to fulfill these criteria, especially duplication of the joint actions. Therefore, most conventional exercises cannot be used. Thus, to satisfy the criteria for specialized exercises, I have devised exercises with rubber tubing, more specifically rubber tubing as in the Active Cords set. This set was developed to provide ample resistance, ease of changing the resistance in the exercise, and attachments to allow you to do exercises for different parts of the body and with different actions. It also has a dual attachment strap so that you can hook it onto an outside fence or post to do the exercises or, if you are at home you can secure it in a doorway.
SAMPLE SPECIALIZED EXERCISES FOR FASTER RUNNING
This exercise duplicates the action of driving the thigh forward which is very important for increasing speed and stride length. Attach one end of an Active Cord to a stationary object about knee high behind you and the other end to the ankle strap attachment. Stand far enough away from the attachments so there is tension on the tubing when the leg is behind you and you are in an upright position. A slight forward lean is permissible. Hold on to a partner or something stable for balance on the side of the support leg. The leg to be exercised should be free to move through a full range of motion. Stand erect with the exercising leg behind the body as far as possible to duplicate the thigh position immediately after pushoff.
When ready, drive the thigh forward with your knee bent and shin basically parallel to the ground until it passes the vertical position. To duplicate more closely what occurs in running during the knee drive phase, keep your trunk erect, fully straighten the support leg, and rise up on the ball of your foot as you drive the knee forward. Once you are comfortable with the exercise, perform it at a moderate rate of speed to develop greater strength.
Warning:Do not press the thigh upward to a parallel position with the ground. In a running stride, once the leg passes a position slightly in front of the body, the thigh continues on momentum to reach its uppermost position. You do not want to drive the thigh upward as this creates more vertical force rather than horizontal, the key to speed.
The knee drive gets the knee in front after which you straighten the leg then bring it back to make contact with the ground. The faster and more forcefully the leg is driven down and back the quicker you will propel the body forward and the more speed you will have. The pawback exercise duplicates the thigh pawback action, the down and back pulling action of the leg to make contact with the ground. Attach one end of the Active Cord to a high stationary object in front of the body and the other end around your ankle. Stand so that when the leg is raised with the thigh below parallel the tubing is vertical, or at a high angle.
When you are ready straighten the leg and pull down and back fairly vigorously. Initial ground contact should be with the whole foot or with the ball of the foot. Inhale and hold your breath as you pull down and back, and exhale and relax as you bring the leg back up in preparation for the next repetition. Balance your body in an erect, stable position during execution. If needed, hold on to a partner or something stable for greater balance. In time, you should be able to do this exercise without holding on to anyone.
These are two key specialized strength and flexibility exercises to improve your running speed. However, many other exercises are also very valuable for improving running speed. These are all explained and shown with photographs in Explosive Running.
In the next article I will look at exercises for cutting actions and how you can improve quickness. If you want to jump ahead, read Women’s Soccer: Using Science to Increase Speed or Explosive Basketball Training. Each deals with agility or the change of direction quite thoroughly. Note that the actions involved in cutting are the same regardless of the sport. Thus even though the book may say women’s soccer, the actions still apply equally to men.