Speed: More than just being fast

Within sport, there is no arguing that speed is a desirable trait, and can often be the difference between winning and losing. Fans want to see their players hitting top gear in a sprint during a match. Coaches want their players to be able to finish a play off when given the opportunity, or to cover a big distance in cover defense to make a try-saving tackle. In my current role working with the Oregon Ducks football team, speed and acceleration abilities could not be more important, whether that be a running back accelerating into a closing gap between his offensive linemen, or a wide receiver trying to achieve separation from his opposing defender to get open for his quarterback.

Despite the clear importance of both speed and acceleration abilities, the integration of such sessions into a preparation program can often divide a performance team. Questions such as when do these sessions fit within a week? How do we progress these sessions? How much is too much? I have always had my own opinion on these issues, but I’m also realistic, and understand that I’m likely regularly wrong – for me to comment on what is right and wrong in this situation would be inappropriate. Luckily for us, one of the world’s most renowned and experienced speed and agility coaches shares the same building as Matt and I. Jim Radcliffe has been with the University of Oregon’s athletics program for over 30 years, the majority of that time as the school’s head strength and conditioning coach. He is widely recognised for his work in plyometrics, and has been a primary contributor to Oregon football’s up-tempo offense that the school has been so famous for. Jim was kind enough to answer a few of my questions.

JD: A recent opinion piece I read suggests that in some cases there is simply no time to train speed. Time allocated to speed development is often overlooked in preference of recovery from matches, or for technical and tactical training, particularly during the in-season phase. Would you agree with that? Or do you think speed training can be effectively integrated into a skills-based program?

JR: Define skills! One of the problems confronting all of us at this time is that too many coaches believe that technical skills only apply to handling the ball, or negotiating the opponent; gravely overlooking the ultimate skill of negotiating the ground. High-speed movements are arguably the greatest skill, being able to move rapidly in a multitude of directions, negotiating the ground efficiently and effortlessly, thereby maintaining high level execution of other skills longer and healthier. Another concept is that of rehearsal. Whether it’s “warm up”, strength training, speed training, skills training… everything is a rehearsal of synchronized movement patterns! So, we are either rehearsing effective patterns, or inefficient ones. If it is that important to recruit or buy fast players, then it is important to rehearse fast, rather than slow. Do we buy an accomplished opera singer, and then have them sing rap songs day in day out, expecting them to sing beautifully at the opera house on the day?

JD: Second to that, in the case that you were only afforded 30 mins per week, how would you spend that time?

JR: Developing athleticism, defining it as an improved power, from gradual increases in strength (increased force), speed (decreased time of execution), and agility (coordinated increases in biomechanical distances).

i.e. P = F × d / t

30-minute progressions via a Posture, Balance, Stability and Mobility Checklist.

JD: In your experience, what do most people get wrong when doing plyometrics?

JR: Understanding of and utilization of progressions.

JD: Do you do planned change-of-direction drills, reactive agility drills, or a mix of both?

JR: See below phase illustrations…



JD: On one side of the coin, high-speed running loads have been associated with increased injury risk. On the other hand, frequent bouts of high-speed running has been suggested to act protectively against such injuries. You don’t use technology such as GPS, but still manage to avoid soft tissue injuries. How do you know when you have pushed your athletes enough, and how do you know when you have room to go harder? Where do you think the balance lies?

JR: Every training modality must be a part of a systematic (not symptomatic) approach to progressing. Progressions in strength, speed, agility, plyometrics, etc. need to constantly and consistently be evaluated biomechanically as do proper Posture, Balance, Stability and Mobility. >90% of soft-tissue injuries are biomechanical errors (most common is over-striding). For example, two runners can have exactly the same distance run, intensity loads and speed of movement, however, one runner had exaggerated back-side running mechanics (extremely common) as opposed to the other runner with better (front-side) mechanics. Even though most of the data is comparable, the pendulum (versus piston) runner will be “jamming” the foot down at improper angles with every single step. We then wonder why he/she has metatarsal, shin, Achilles, calf, patellar, hamstring, hip flexor, and/or low-back issues. And then, we continue to run them farther, longer, and in such ways that foster rather than solve the issues. The answers are often right in front of us if we know what we are looking for. It’s not an issue of high speed, since longer moderate speeds often foster the biomechanical inefficiencies. It is more of an issue of proper progressions.

JD: Are there certain athletes that just physically can’t improve, whether that be due to age, genetics or otherwise? How do you deal with athletes with this perception?

JR: Define improvement. Do not believe any athlete has walked through the door hasn’t improved athletically in some area of posture, balance, stability, mobility, ground negotiation… therefore Power!

Jim’s responses here raise a few points that I entirely agree with, and some that I would not have even considered without his input. Jim’s points about training fast vs. training slow resonates with me and my PhD work extremely well, and I particularly like that analogy. A very simple concept: train the way that you want to play. Secondly, the idea of being “systematic” vs. “symptomatic” I think is an important one. Unfortunately, as sports scientists, we are commonly the catalyst for a symptomatic point of view. So often it is the feedback that we provide that results in a symptomatic reflex, which for me is sometimes the most difficult part of my job. Conversations with coaches and performance staff about ways that the session could have gone better are never fun, and it is definitely a better approach to be ahead of the issue, be systematic in the approach taken, and collaborate with all of the performance staff to ensure the entire team is on the same page.

From my point of view as a sports scientist, I think we can do a pretty good job of quantifying a lot of useful information associated with running speeds during training and matches, as long as the limitations of the technology are kept in mind. For example, it is not uncommon for peak speed to be reported to coaches on daily basis, which GPS are generally capable of measuring quite accurately. However, matches played in certain stadiums or training grounds located in built-up areas might result in a decrease in available satellites, and therefore compromise the data. A couple of Australian rugby league stadiums are notoriously bad for this – Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane being one of the worst I have dealt with. Another issue I’ve faced is that GPS alone cannot discriminate between a player who is running at top speed, or simply sliding on their stomach when diving for a try! Whilst the GPS device did not make an error, the implications of these two actions are completely different. But as Jim discussed earlier, all of the knowledge of the number of high-speed exposures, loads and intensities from GPS cannot tell us anything about how it was achieved mechanically and/or technically, and therefore is only a small part of the picture.

In this post I’ve only scratched the surface of what is a really important topic, but would hate to take away from the quality that Jim has given us by waffling on about GPS for another couple of paragraphs! Thanks again to Jim Radcliffe for taking part, and I hope you’ve all enjoyed the read.

One thought on “Speed: More than just being fast

  1. Mal Purchase

    Hi I’ve worked in professional football for many years and I work my speed & agility work in when we have a high tempo session planned like a Tuesday if it’s a Saturday to Saturday game week, With this session I make it competitive so it maximizes effort and I usually have the opportunity to repeat on a Thursday but I scale it down and take the competitive edge off the session. All my posture, balance, stability and mobility is added into the warm up, also making sure all the athletic drills are done with strict technique and tempo as this is a great way of building the foundation’s for the body to produce speed.

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