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First Step Quickness: Method or Myth?

– Derek M. Hansen – September 26, 2008 –

We’ve all heard the claims: “Improve your first-step quickness so that you are lightning fast in your sport!” Is this possible? Is the first step the most important step? If you teach someone to move their feet fast, does that mean their body will follow? These are all important questions that must be answered to determine if a particular training method will yield the best results. In this article, we will explore the different methods employed for improvement of sport speed, as well as assess their relative benefits within a training program.

What are Speed, Agility and Quickness?

An appropriate definition of speed, agility and quickness must be provided before we can determine the best methods of achieving these qualities. I believe that most of the people operating the SAQ (speed, agility, quickness) programs do not know which qualities they are actually training in their athletes. Using Webster’s On-Line Dictionary, we arrive at working definitions of these three words:

Speed

Ve*loc”i*ty\, n.; pl. Velocities. 1. Quickness of motion; swiftness; speed; celerity; rapidity; as, the velocity of wind; the velocity of a planet or comet in its orbit or course; the velocity of a cannon ball; the velocity of light.

Agility

A*gil”i*ty\, n. [F. agili[‘e], L. agilitas, fr. agilis.] 1. The quality of being agile; the power of moving the limbs quickly and easily; nimbleness; activity; quickness of motion; as, strength and agility of body.

Quickness

Quick”ness\, n. 1. The condition or quality of being quick or living; life. [Obs.] 2. Activity; briskness; especially, rapidity of motion; speed; celerity; as, quickness of wit.

If you examine the above definitions, you will find significant similarities among them. All three definitions have the phrases “rapidity of motion” or “quickness of motion” in common. Using Webster’s definition, we find that these terms are actually redundant when used in combination and provide no distinguishing properties to help the athlete and/or consumer make an educated guess on what to expect in their training. Perhaps using the phrase “Speed, speed and more speed” is just not as marketable and doesn’t make a snappy acronym (three S’s make people think of snakes or air seeping out of a tire, perhaps).

What ultimately occurs is that the marketing gurus take these words and give them new meanings to adapt to the services they are providing which are touted as being comprehensive, multi-faceted and, dare I say, “functional.” “Speed” is put forward as only linear acceleration ability, while “Agility” is apparently the ability to move laterally, backwards, forwards and vertically with uncanny speed. Quickness, then, must mean the ability to move your limbs fast without going anywhere, which is what most of the SAQ drills resemble – lots of work without any useful application. Invariably, the phrase “First-Step Quickness” makes its way into the jargon, somehow implying that it’s the first step that only counts in movement.

We should be able to function in the training world with simply the term “Speed” to describe all of what was identified above. Speed, like the term velocity, can have attributes attached to it, including magnitude, direction and distance. Those in the know will use the term “speed” in this manner referring to short-speed, speed endurance, lateral speed or explosive speed, for example. Until we uniformly adopt this terminology when discussing speed, it will be very difficult to appropriately describe what type of training athletes are actually doing.

For example, I’ll talk to athletes and coaches who claim they are doing speed work. Their workout will consist of numerous repeat 100m runs with a walk back. In reality, no speed work is being done in these types of runs. The recoveries are too short (with the velocities too low) to even deem the work “speed endurance.” They are simply doing a form of special endurance work. However, the runs will still be fast enough to create a risky condition where a muscle pull can occur (i.e. hamstring), particularly during the latter stages of the workout when fatigue is present.

Additionally, you will often hear about fast-footwork being performed in drills that last well beyond 40 seconds in duration, with very short recoveries. In order for an optimized speed adaptation to take effect, the drill should not exceed eight to 15 seconds in duration, and include a significant recovery period for full recovery. Such drills must be monitored with a stopwatch to ensure quality is being maintained over every repetition.

The First Step: Quickness or Quackery

Now that you are thoroughly confused regarding what is speed work and what isn’t, it’s time to get into the individual components of speed. The first step has been analyzed over-and-over again to determine how to make this one stride more effective. Athletes have been told that if they don’t have a quick first step, they will not be competitive in their sport. In reality, the first-step only comprises a very small proportion of an overall performance. It is not the case that the sprinter who gets out of the blocks first does always wins the race. The first step may only cover one meter of distances, meaning that only 1/100th of the race has been completed. Lots of things can happen over 99 meters (or approximately 45 strides). Obviously, the shorter the distance required, the more important the performance of the first step. But quickness is only one part of the first step. There are other qualities that need to be in place to ensure that a good performance is secured. In fact, I would heavily argue that first-step placement is even more important than first-step quickness.

Athletes often think a big, explosive step is the most effective means of beginning locomotion. However, over-committing or over-exerting on a first step is as deadly to an athlete as over-committing on a punch for a boxer or a kick for a martial artist. In the case of a fighter, over-committing on a strike can affect your ability to adequately deliver power on subsequent strikes, as the body is out of position to re-cock the fist or foot. Additionally, over-swinging on a punch or kick can leave a fighter vulnerable to a deadly counter-strike from a well prepared opponent. In the case of a sprinter or any other athlete that is trying to move quickly over the ground, an over-exaggerated first-step can lead to the following problems:

  1. Forcing the athlete to push their body more upward than forward. This can happen one of two ways: First, if the body is not properly angled for delivery of horizontal force, the athlete’s angle of departure will be too high, leading to a tall posture on the second, third and subsequent steps. Second, if an athlete over-pushes on the first stride, the landing of this first step will typically land too far in front of the athlete’s center of mass, resulting in a pole-vaulting effect and bouncing the athlete upward into a less desirable acceleration posture. Acceleration will be stunted, as an upright posture cannot deliver the hip power required for prolonged acceleration.
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  3. Negatively impacting power delivery and speed in subsequent strides. Running is cyclical and requires an appropriate and efficient distribution of power and stride frequency. Over-emphasis on one single stride, whether it is the first, third or eighth one, can disrupt the effectiveness of the speed run as a whole. Teaching athletes to treat a run as a single, inter-dependent effort of movements – rather than isolating individual strides – will always yield a better result.
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  5. Vulnerability to Direction Changes. If direction change is required, such as for football, soccer and basketball players, an over-exaggerated first step will lead to a reduced ability to change direction, with an extended flight phase occurring before the athlete can get the first step to the ground. This is why we teach these athletes to keep their feet moving in contact with the ground, and not well extended beyond their centers of mass. Over-extension into one direction is an invitation for your opponent to “take you” in the opposite direction.
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  7. Energy management. An overly-ambitious first stride can lead to fatigue in the latter stages of the effort. Athletes must be taught that a quick but controlled effort yields far better results without the danger of running out of gas prematurely.

In other cases, the first step can be almost too quick, in that it lands too far underneath the center of mass, thereby not providing enough vertical force to keep the athlete from falling toward the ground. Inevitably, the athlete will stumble forward awkwardly, with the second stride landing too far in front of the center of mass. As a result, the athlete will be driven upward prematurely, limiting his or her ability to accelerate effectively. This type of striding effort is more common with athletes who are taught to move their feet quickly in a choppy manner, as would be done with a “speed-ladder” device. Drills using a “speed-ladder’ can create artificial stride patterns that do not conform to an athlete’s body dimensions and power delivery capabilities. While beginner athletes will benefit from any kind of work – including tap-dancing through a speed-ladder – advanced athletes must be aware of the biomechanical and physiological demands of their sport.

Those who spend too much effort and investment in training the first step will find that other parts of their movement will be lacking. Even in boxing, the big knock-out punch is set up by a series of other punches and footwork, as well as defensive tactics. If starting speed is what you are looking for, concentrate on body position prior to moving to get the biggest bang for your buck. An analysis of the sprint start out of starting blocks will prove that good start technique is more a function of proper set-up (i.e. block pad placement, hip height, back position) and maximal strength abilities, not how much work is done perfecting the first step. Good coaches never over-emphasize one quality in training. If you come across someone who is expounding the virtues of improving first-step quickness, you will know that you have come face-to-face with a genuine snake-oil salesman.

Recommendations

What we can learn from a close inspection of “first-step quickness” claims is that we must evaluate movements as a whole and not over-emphasize the sum of individual parts. In some cases, isolating sub-components of a movement can help to gain technical mastery that can be extrapolated over the entire movement. However, if a movement is cyclical, there is a heavy interdependence amongst individual strides. Each stride sets up the next stride and a balance exists between all strides. Too much time and energy taken by one stride, negatively impacts the subsequent stride – and so on, and so forth. Control, relaxation and fluidity of motion must take priority above all else. And, total movement speed – your ultimate goal of training – must take precedence over first-step quickness.