By Mike Mejia, CSCS
The mere mention of the word speed is enough to get any athlete or coach to stop dead in their tracks. Tell them that you have a program that's designed to help improve speed and they'll become so completely rapt with attention that they may temporarily lose the ability to communicate in any kind of coherent fashion. Okay, so maybe that's a bit of an overstatement, but there's no denying the fact that speed training for young athletes has become something of a cottage industry in recent years. It seems like everywhere you turn these days you're being inundated with advertisements for various programs that promote "dramatic increases" in speed in "just a few short weeks". My problem isn't so much with the existence of such programs- after all I certainly have nothing against the idea of kids training to become faster. I do, however, often question some of the methodologies that are being used and wonder if they're really in the best interest of young athletes.
Case in point; whether in some sort of specialized training facility, or out on a local field, I often see kids hooked up to various training devices in an effort to help increase speed. Sometimes they're towing sleds behind them, other times its parachutes, while still others are "running" in place against the resistance of an elastic band. Admittedly, these have all been well established as effective ways to improve speed in athletes who have demonstrated the physical readiness to work against external forms of resistance. They are not, however, appropriate for kids who lack the kind of baseline levels of systemic strength and mobility necessary to derive any real benefit from this type of training.
In my view, any sound approach to youth speed development should be predicated on two main criteria: 1. Getting athletes to move better by simultaneously increasing strength and mobility in and around the torso, shoulders, hips, knees and ankles. This will enable them to exert more force against the ground and produce a longer, more powerful stride. 2. Instill good running mechanics to help clean up any unnecessary motion (i.e. arms swinging out, away from the body) that may detract from their ability to move efficiently. If you skip these two crucial steps and rush right into external forms of resistance in the forms of sleds and parachutes and the like, you may indeed induce improvements in speed but they will likely be short-lived.
I say this because kids will do whatever they have to in order to exert the necessary amount of force to get the resistance moving, including things like shortening their strides, or using faulty postural mechanics while running. Will they get stronger? Perhaps, albeit through a shortened range of motion. The real issue, however, is what impact all of this will have on their susceptibility to becoming injured. Think about it for a minute. If they lack the mobility and strength to propel their own body weight in an efficient manner, what happens when you add extra load into the mix?
The following are some simple body weight exercises that you can start instituting as part of your regular practice sessions. They require absolutely no equipment, and can therefore be easily integrated into a team training format. Although they may lack some of the cache of working with parachutes and sleds, they're every bit as effective and a much safer for option most kids. When performed on a regular basis, drills like these will help build the perfect foundation for more advanced forms of speed training down the road.
Drill: One legged supine bridge
Objective: Builds strength in glutes and hamstrings for better hip extension, while dynamically stretching the quadriceps and hip flexor of the working leg.
Execution: Lie on your back with your knees bent approximately 90 degrees and your feet flat on the ground. Begin by lifting one leg up and holding it bent (at 90 degrees) so that your knee lines up directly over your hip. Keeping your core braced tight, press into the ground and lift your hips and lower torso up until your body forms a diagonal line from your knee to your shoulder. Lower and repeat until you're completed 8-10 reps, then switch sides.
Objective: Increases core strength to serve as a platform for limb movement.
Execution: Position yourself on the ground so that your upper body is supported by your forearms with your legs held straight back behind you. Maintain a neutral spine posture (no excessive lower back arch, but don't round it either) and simply hold for 20-45 seconds at a time.
Drill: Seated Arm Swing
Objective: Improve range of motion (around the shoulders) and core stability to help improve sprinting mechanics.
Execution: Sit in the ground with your torso up nice and tall and your legs lying straight out in front of you. Begin by bending both arms approximately 90 degrees and bring one forward so that your fingertips line up with your eye socket and your other line's up with your hip pocket. Next, keeping your elbows in close to your body throughout the drill, drive your elbows back forcefully, as you initiate a sprinting movement in place for 5-10 seconds at a time. As you do, try and keep your legs straight and torso as tall and still as possible.
Drill: High Knee March
Objective: Helps increase hip extension and flexion of opposing limbs, while also incorporating proper upper body mechanics and an optimal recovery position of the lead leg.
Execution: Stand with both feet together and arms at your sides. Begin by pressing your left leg into the ground, as you rapidly bring your right knee up and left arm forward. Pausing there for a split second, make sure that your left fingers are lined up with your eye socket. As you're doing this, your right elbow should also drive past your torso, with your right lower leg positioned diagonally beneath your thigh. Then, rapidly switch to bring your left knee up and right arm forward, with the emphasis being more on driving the right foot into the ground and left elbow back behind you. Continue marching this way for 15 to 20 yards.
*Note: As you get better at this drill you'll be able to quicken the pace.
To Read Mike's article on proper warm up for youth athletes click here.
For more information on Mike's BASE Sports Conditioning program click here.