Speed Training For Athletes: Tips, Drills & Workout Plan

Speed training is a fundamental part of most sports, and is often one of the biggest factors separating the best athletes from the bench-warmers.  In this article, we’re going to cover:

What is speed training?

Put as simply as possible, speed training is training that improves how fast you get from point A to point B.  

Within most sports and athletic pursuits, speed tends to refer to top end speed, i.e. how fast you can sprint.  

However, there can be some confusion, as for longer and middle distance runners, speed training can also be used to refer to training styles that improve the speed at which those longer distances are run.

Within this article, we’re primarily going to be discussing top end speed.

What are the key concepts that underpin successful speed training?

Successful speed training is underpinned by four key concepts…

1. Develop good running and sprinting mechanics: If you want to improve your speed, you need to be able to move properly.

2. Increase maximal force production: Use strength training methods to maximise your muscles’ ability to produce force.

3. Increase the rate at which that force can be applied: Use plyometric and power type exercises to teach your body to use it’s new strength quickly.

4. Ensure efficient force delivery: Strengthen connective tissues, especially around the foot-calf-ankle complex, so that you can utilise the stretch shorten cycle and transfer as much force as possible without wastage.

What type of exercise do you do to for speed?

Based on the four key concepts we discussed above, here are six recommended exercises to improve speed.

1. Sprints – For the most specific speed practice

Sprints are, without a doubt, the most important, central part of any speed training programme.  If you want to get good at an activity, you need to practice it.  Sprint sessions will help you to improve technique, ankle stiffness, plus rate of force production.

2. Squats – For strength / force production

Squats (any variation) are a basic strength training movement that increases the amount of force that your legs can produce.  If your legs can produce more force, they can exert more force into the ground, and thus create more speed through Newton’s third law.

3. Nordic Curls – For strength / force production

Nordic curls are a fantastic lower body strength exercise that targets your posterior chain.  It’s especially useful for sprinters and people looking to develop speed, as it strengthens your hamstrings as they lengthen (Siddle et al. 2019).  If you find this too difficult, try using band assistance, or one of the progressions shown in this video.

4. Countermovement Jumps – for rate of force production

Countermovement jumps are a basic plyometric exercise that teaches your body to produce force faster.  Speed is all about fast force production, so this exercise has great carryover for pretty much everyone that does it.

5. Bounds – For rate of force production

Bounds are an advanced plyometric exercise that teaches your body to produce force faster unilaterally (one leg at a time). It takes a little more coordination, but it has fantastic carryover to top end speed, as well as acceleration.

6. Pogo Hops – For efficient force delivery

Pogo hops are a simple calf and ankle stiffness exercise that improves your ability to utilise your stretch-shortening cycle and transfer force from leg to ground and back again as efficiently as possible.  The key is to perform them with as little help from the knees as possible.  In the demo video, you want to look like the person on the left.

A brief keyword glossary

  • Ankle stiffness: Ability of muscles and tendons in the ankle to resist deformation through better absorbing force.
  • Stretch-shortening cycle: active muscle lengthening followed by active muscle shortening.
  • Plyometrics: A training style (typically jumping based) that uses the speed and force of different movements to develop power.
  • Acceleration: How fast an object gains speed (Rate of change of speed).
  • High end speed/Top end speed: Maximal sprinting speed, or close to it.
  • Rate of force production: How fast someone can produce a given amount force.
  • Force production: Someone’s ability to produce force.
  • Posterior chain: Muscles on the back of the body (hamstrings, glutes, lower back and spinal erectors).
  • Newton’s third law: Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.

Speed training workout

Now that we’ve got our 6 speed training exercises, how do we go about structuring them into a workout?

If we absolutely had to put all types of training in one workout, then I would go with an exercise order that starts with the quickest movements and ends with the slowest, so… 

  • Stretch shortening cycle / force transfer efficiency exercise
  • Sprints
  • Rate of force development / power exercise
  • Strength exercise

So you’re starting with the lightest, quickest movements and progressing towards the heaviest, slowest movements.

Filling in the exercises that could be:

  • Pogo hops
  • Sprints
  • Countermovement jumps
  • Squats

Next up, we need some sets and repetitions.  I like to keep things conservative, as you can always add more sets and reps over time.

  • Pogo Hops: 3 sets of 10 reps
  • Sprints: 4 sets of 30-40m
  • Countermovement Jumps: 4 sets of 4 reps
  • Squats: 3 sets of 5 reps

These are pretty classic sets and reps based on established practice for speed, strength and power, but they can be varied as per athlete needs.

Moreover, this is just one example workout, and there are loads of ways to structure sessions, and ideally we would space the different exercises out over multiple days as shown below.

Speed training plan

Now that we’ve seen an example speed training workout, how would we go about planning workouts and exercises more optimally over a number of weeks?

Here’s an example structure for you…

Example structure of a speed training plan
Example structure of a speed training plan

Speed training progression explained

Speed training is very much about quality over quantity, so progression each week should mainly come through trying to improve the quality of the movements, rather than through trying to add loads of extra sets and reps.

Aim for…

  • Better technique on exercises
  • Higher jumps 
  • Quicker hops
  • Faster sprint times

Then, after a few weeks, you can progress onto a program that uses more advanced exercises like drop jumps, depth jumps, single leg bound variations and weighted jumps.

Here’s a great video full of unique progressions and ideas that you could try out going forwards…

It’s also important to remember that getting the most out of speed and power exercises is all about maximum intent. Your goal is to move quickly with high levels of effort. 

How many days a week should you do speed training?

This really depends on your training level, time availability and goals.  For example, if you’re pretty new to speed training and just want to get a bit faster for fun or for a recreational sport, then you might be fine with 1 or 2 sessions per week.

On the other hand, if you’re a serious athlete looking to maximise your sprint times, you might train 5-7 times per week, alternating between harder and lighter sessions.

For most people, 2-3 sessions per week seems like a happy medium.

How long should a speed workout be?

Most speed workouts should be quite short, focusing on quality over quantity.  Warm up for around 10 minutes, pick 2-4 exercises and perform them within 20-30 minutes.

If you’re adding strength exercises onto the end of your speed session, your workout might take a bit longer.

It’s also important to allow for longer rests (3+ minutes) in between maximal effort sprints and strength work.  Power work and stretch shortening cycle exercises can also benefit from longer rests, but it really depends on how intense the working sets are.  For example, a set of 5 box jumps might only require a minute or so’s rest between sets, whereas a set of multiple high hurdle jumps might require longer.

Should I run first or lift first?

Generally speaking, you should aim to train your faster and more complex movements first, so all sprints, sprint drills and speed work should be done before your lifting.

However, if you’re planning on doing a hard sprint session, I would aim to separate your lifting session from your sprint session by at least 3 hours.  This will give your legs a little time to recover and ensure that your lifting session still has a decent quality.

What muscles are key for running faster?

Your quadriceps, hamstrings and calves are your key running muscles.  With that said, you will also want strong core muscles, as well as strong hip muscles, in order to control your posture and better transmit force from your legs.

How can I train my speed at home?

Many of the exercises we mentioned are trainable at home.  Jumps and pogo hops you can do at home (ideally on a hard floor) and with a little ingenuity, you can do nordic curls too.  If you have a safe outdoor space you can also do bounds and sprints.  For squats, you could buy a weight set for your home, or focus on getting really good at single-leg squat variations for higher reps.

Does lifting make you faster?

100% yes.  Lifting improves your strength, which means you can produce more force.  Being able to produce more force means that you can push into the ground with more force, which due to Newton’s third law, means that you will have greater ground reaction forces (essentially the floor pushing back into you) resulting in more speed.

Do squats make you faster?

Yes, just as we mentioned above, squats mean more strength which means more force which means more ground reaction forces which means more speed.   Squats will absolutely improve your running speed, and you can use back squats, front squats or any variation that allows you to lift challenging loads in the 3 to 6 rep range.

Does jogging improve speed?

Honestly, not really.  With jogging you’re actually training your body for endurance, which means you’re training it to get good at repeated low intensity efforts.  Speed is the exact opposite of that.

However, if you’re currently inactive, or not running at all, you’ll likely find that a few weeks of jogging is a good way to condition your legs and calves, preparing you for more dedicated speed training later.

How long does it take to see results from speed training?

If you’ve not done much dedicated speed training before then you can expect to start seeing results within a few weeks. Based on my coaching experience, I would say that after following a programme similar to the 4-week speed programme above, you will see significant improvements in sprint speed, acceleration and jump height.

Summary

  • To maximise your results from speed training, include sprints, stretch shorten cycle/ankle complex exercises (pogo hops, drop jumps), strength exercises and rate of force development exercises
  • For best results, structure these exercises intelligently across your training week.
  • Keep speed sessions short, and focus on improving through quality, rather than through quantity.

Further reading

Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

Parry, A (2022). Vertical jump test explained: normative data & considerations. Available from: https://sportscienceinsider.com/vertical-jump-test/ [Accessed dd/mm/yyyy].

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Alex Parry
British Weightlifting Tutor & Educator at Character Strength & Conditioning | Website | + posts

Alex is the Owner and Head Coach of Character Strength & Conditioning, and specialises in strength & power development for athletes.

He currently works as a Tutor & Educator for British Weightlifting, and has previously delivered S&C support to gymnastics and swimming talent pathways.