- Derek M. Hansen -
Believe it or not, I’m asked this question at least once per week. Being in the business of making people run fast, you would figure that it would be the only question I would hear. Thankfully, some of my clients are already pretty fast. They just want to get faster. However, I’ve spoken with a long list of parents, listening to sad stories about how their son or daughter feels left out because they are not fast enough to “make the team” that all of their friends are on. Other kids tease them because they are slow on the field or court. And some of these slow running kids may be the hardest workers, the best decision makers or the best team player. But, they will never make it to the next level because they just don’t have the running speed to compete. It is essentially an affliction of slow-twitch muscle fiber composition.
So what is a parent to do? Unfortunately, you can’t do anything to change the genetic make-up of your child (well, not quite yet at least). So, in the meantime, if you and your spouse were slow, it’s a pretty good bet your offspring are trailing behind their friends. While good training may not make them into the team speedster, there are many things that can be done to improve your child’s speed abilities and maximize the genetic potential with which they were born. Provided below are list of recommendations that will give your developing athlete a fighting chance when it comes to running speed.
1. Have them Run at their Fastest on a Regular Basis
Many parents wonder why their child isn’t getting any faster. They send their child off to soccer practice several times per week, and watch them play in games week after week, but don’t see significant differences in their speed over time. The simple truth is that children need to run at top speed on a regular basis. This does not happen at sport training sessions, where kids are inundated with drills and general conditioning. The drills are performed with a ball or other equipment and can impede the athletes from running at maximum effort and velocity. Conditioning and general fitness work typically emphasizes endurance aspects of training, and not speed related activities. Actual games such as soccer, basketball and football do not even involve maximum velocity efforts, as shown by studies. Hence, athletes do not experience the positive speed stress and adaptation required for faster running. Specific training sessions must be implemented to allow kids to run at or very near top speed, with appropriate recoveries between runs. My most common advice to parents is to have their kids “run fast to get faster.”
2. Provide Good Instruction on Sprinting Technique
Obviously, running fast is a necessity for improving your speed. If there is only one thing you do to make your kids faster, it should be to allow them to run fast. However, if you can provide your kids with simple, foundational technique for sprinting, they will be much better off in the long run. Running fast and efficiently is a complex motor learning challenge for most people. At the highest level of competition, the Olympic 100m final, sprinting looks effortless. Turning on the right muscles and turning off the unwanted muscles at the highest velocity of movement is a skill that must be taught, refined and maintained by a skilled coach. Kids must be taught the proper limb movements, body posture and level of effort to maximize their speed potential. If they are simply instructed to “push hard” or “go as fast as you can,” they will most likely run into trouble at some point in their development and develop poor habits that will be very difficult to break later on in their athletic career. Seek out a qualified, proven sprint coach to help out your children. Watch the workouts to determine if the coach is working on fundamentals. If they break out the speed ladders, parachutes and other gimmicks, sprint as fast as you can in the opposite direction. A good coach will have some cones, a stopwatch and a proven plan for teaching the fundamentals of running fast.
3. Avoid Unnecessary Endurance Running
Many coaches associate good training with long bouts of aerobic exercise. If the kids are breathing hard, sweating and even on the verge of vomiting, they believe that they have appropriately improved their conditioning. These types of workouts, however, do nothing to improve the speed abilities of athletes. Not only are the wrong muscle fibers being worked, excessive endurance work will result in poor posture, inefficient biomechanics and low motivation to continue training. Any chance for transitional muscle fibers to move into the fast-twitch category will be dashed by long-distance running workouts. And, even if your child wants to become a marathon, triathlon or Tour de France star, doing speed work at a younger age will only help develop speed qualities that will help them later on in their careers. Remember, the top marathoners in the world can run under five minutes per mile numerous times during a race. Over 99% of the adult population are not fast enough to run even one 5-minute mile. General conditioning is fine, but do not allow it to become excessive. Spend more time building skill and motor coordination with young athletes.
4. Introduce Basic Strength Training Protocols
Young athletes can improve their speed abilities by improving their overall strength. One of the big myths of athlete development is that lifting weights can be harmful to the health and development of young kids. While dropping a weight on your foot can be quite harmful, performing weightlifting exercises with low to moderate loads can be useful in developing general strength and improving movement mechanics. Some kids have problems initiating movement because they do not have the strength to move their own body weight quickly. This is exacerbated when kids go through a growth spurt and their limbs have lengthened, but muscular strength has not improved to handle the new lever lengths. Movements such as squatting and lunging, as well as Olympic weightlifting movements can build strength and power for accelerating. Simple jumping movements can also improve power and starting strength. Jumping up onto a box or up stairs can be performed easily, without the heavy eccentric impacts that often occur with plyometric movements such as hurdle jumps or depth jumps. These types of activities can be introduced gradually and performed at low volumes one to two times per week.
5. Emphasize Relaxation, Ease of Effort and Patience
Running is a complex activity that requires good control and muscular relaxation to be performed effectively. When teaching young athletes proper running mechanics, the initial phase of training must include only sub-maximal efforts to ensure that optimal technique is maintained throughout the workout. Working at a perceived level of effort of 80-85% is optimal for mastering sprinting mechanics. Such effort may translate into 90-95% of top velocity, which is fast enough to effect a positive speed adaptation in the body. Sprinting is a “feel” sport, which means you need to get a feel for proper technique at higher velocities and work on maintaining this feeling. Young athletes that spend a good deal of time perfecting these qualities will benefit from this investment over the long run.
One of the most important reasons for parents and young athletes facing the question of, “Am I destined to be slow all my life?” to continue to work on improving their speed is that all young athletes are developing at different rates. An athlete who is slow now may develop into an athlete with reasonable speed abilities later in their career. This is why it is important for young athletes to try to stay in the game and not give up based on their current performance. One of the biggest problems in youth sports these days is that potentially good athletes are being cut from teams at very early ages. Early specialization is narrowing the potential pool of athletes for various sports. The longer we can keep athletes in the development pool, the greater chance we will have to find the best athletes for the elite level.
Following the recommendations above can give an athlete a fighting chance to not only maintain their career, but perhaps vault them into a new level of performance. If we can prevent young athletes from getting discouraged by providing them with good training guidelines, we will go a long way to improving sport and maintaining larger participation rates in active lifestyles for our youth.