The Speed Conundrum


The more I watch athletes sprint, the more I realize that the majority of athletes are not proficient sprinters. I think it is mostly due to kids not playing outside as often as in the past. They do not sprint as often as they used to, especially at practice. Practice will always take a precedence in developing sports skills and developing their conditioning in the hopes of developing their speed. Unfortunately, conditioning for speed is the equivalent of taking a race horse and turning it into a workhorse. The majority of people think they need to be more conditioned. They equate being out of shape with being slow.

Enter Cross-Country practice. The easiest way to make someone slower.

Let’s play a game: How many times do you hear the announcers say “He’s a track guy” and how many times you hear them say “he’s a cross-country guy”?

How many times did you hear “track guy”? 5 or 6?

How many times did you hear them say “Cross-Country guy”? zero.

Everyone wants to be fast, But nobody wants to RUN FAST!  They think that if they get in better shape they will run faster. The reality is they will be in better shape for cross country but will be slower at their primary sport. Unless, they are extremely slow, which in that case anything they do will make them faster, but I digress. The reason Cross-Country will not make them faster can be summed up by a concept I  heard from track coach Charlie Francis called ‘speed reserve transfer effect’. If an athlete runs at 12mph at 100%, then at 80% he will run at 9.6mph. Now lets say we train speed instead of Cross-Country. Now after training speed, hypothetically lets say they increase the max speed from 12mph to 14mph. Now when they run at 80%, they’re running at 11.2 mph. By increasing the maximal speed that they can sprint at, they can now sprint at much lower percentages of intensity at the same speed at which they did prior to speed training.

Here is an image representation of the concept in meters/ second.



The problem with speed

The biggest problem with speed is exactly what we referenced above. Everyone wants to be fast, but nobody wants tor actually run fast. They want a magic pill that will make them fast. that one thing that will instantaneously make them faster. It does not exist. Speed is a skill that needs nurturing and time. It is a skill that becomes harder and harder to develop as the years go on.

The other issue comes from training and developing sprinters. We have pieces of a puzzle, and this puzzle can be put together in many different ways. The main pieces of the puzzle that are largely used to make better sprinters are the development of power, strength, elasticity, and flexibility. These are qualities that all great sprinters have developed into a balanced masterclass of sprinting. They all have to be developed to an extent. If one of these qualities is under or overdeveloped, speed suffers.

Lastly, Remember this puzzle can be put together in different ways, This is where the training arguments start. One person says that strength makes you fast, the other says, flexibility is the only way. It’s like watching a real life version of the blind men and the elephant. Everyone thinks they have an answer but we are all missing the big picture. Speed is the skill. Develop the skill. All other qualities should help this build this skill. If it is giving diminishing returns. Find another quality that will yield larger margins.

In other words run fast. Train qualities to make you fast. If that quality does not make you fast. Train a different quality that will.

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