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Training Athletes to Develop Speed? Why These 2 Variables Can Make or Break A Program

When programming effectively for athletes, one of the best approaches is to reverse engineer the demands of the sport and position. This will allow the coach a clearer understanding of what attributes are necessary to make an athlete better, as well as create a roadmap to address the areas that are lacking without getting too bogged down by the minutiae that can make a program defunct.  Programming with this lens can also make interpreting the volume demands and end goals of a program much easier to lay out, which hopefully makes the program concise and effective.

Bottom line, the main goal of programming effectively is to define what the task at hand is and to rid the training process of any “noise” that gets in the way of completing that task.

When training for speed, the two most butchered variables I see on a consistent basis are lack of constraints on volume and not nearly enough rest times.  A lack of understanding the importance of these two variables with relation to speed development will surely lead to a program leaving much to be desired by the end.  These variables are critical to control in order to elicit the correct adaptation response and to ensure we are targeting the desired energy system to maximize those results. For example, a speed endurance/capacity session should look quite different from a max velocity day, so look at the desired intensity of the efforts and work backwards from there.  If rest times and volumes are similar between the two days mentioned above, good luck reaching the athlete’s goals.


Very simply, when training for speed; as intensity/efforts get faster and faster; overall volume of work must decrease and rest times must increase.


Work to rest ratios are the easiest way for a coach to ensure qualities of the program are adhered to. While there is no “golden rule” for the ratio to use for an athlete, as everyone is different, some basics that have stood the test of time are:

  1. :06 of rest for every meter/yard run
  2. Or more conservatively, 1:10-12 (meaning 10-12 times as long of rest as it took to complete the movement) example: a :10 max effort sprint would require 100-120 seconds of rest between bouts

Essentially, the athlete should be fully recovered before completing the next rep. An incomplete recovery is going to be detrimental to an athlete reaching their goals or achieving the adaptation the coach is programming for; think back to speed endurance/capacity as opposed to max effort speed.

Speed is the key; fatigue is the enemy. 

A lack of control and/or understanding of rest and volume can quickly turn a speed session into a conditioning session, sending the goal of max speed right out the window; as well as leading to over-conditioning or utilizing the conflicting energy system.

When we look at volume prescriptions for athletes, we also need to keep in mind that near max efforts are basically self regulating.  Think of it this way, as an athlete sprints faster or jumps farther/higher; the tension, forces and demands of the tendons, muscles and fascia is higher, creating a greater stress response.  When coaching, we shouldn’t treat these outliers that are elite in this area any differently when it comes to prescribing volume.  Again, the intensity is higher when compared to a more novice, weaker or slower athlete, so more volume will just lead to negative adaptations or outcomes.  This also means, volumes really shouldn’t be changed too much throughout the year when working in that near maximal effort zone, as it stays self-regulating.

There is also a great misconception between “fit enough” and/or “conditioned enough“.  Many coaches (especially sport coaches), will see athlete outputs degrade over the course of a game and will direct the strength coach to include more conditioning in the program to counteract what they think they are seeing on the field.  What if the athlete just isn’t fast enough?  Think about it, if the athlete isn’t fast enough, they will be operating too close to their maximum capacity throughout the game, which is not sustainable.  What if we got that athlete faster, so that they can then build capacity on that and keep them from maintaining a constant redline throughout the game? Just working on conditioning alone will not solve the greater problem at hand in most cases.

Let us also look at speed training as a way to hopefully mitigate potential injury risk and as a way to tame some of the overuse movements that many athletes are subject to. 

Maximal velocity sprinting dosed throughout the season (yes, even in season with a closely controlled volume) is shown to maintain good eccentric hamstring strength which is essential in providing the body some resilience to lower limb injury potential (Shah, Collins, Macgregor, 2022).

Shah, S., Collins, K., & Macgregor, L. J. (2022). The Influence of Weekly Sprint Volume and Maximal Velocity Exposures on Eccentric Hamstring Strength in Professional Football Players. Sports, 10(8), 125. MDPI AG. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.3390/sports10080125

In the study above, and based on the fact there is limited information of >95% max efforts, the researchers also concluded that athletes should not exceed 7-8 reps at >90% max efforts per week in training to ensure good eccentric hamstring strength, in an effort to provide resilience towards mitigating some injury risk in the lower limbs.

In short, intensity matters just as much as volume from a positive adaptation standpoint, especially in season.  Or, look at it from the other perspective, too much volume is a sure fire way to increase injury potential and decrease performance capacity.

It is also important to monitor how the training session load is being administered.  Is the athlete performing 1 max velocity training session a week, or 2 or 3?  I think we’d all agree that one training session with 7-8 reps at near max velocity would be way more intense than dividing those reps up between multiple sessions.  I think most of us would also agree that the safer dosing of these efforts is to spread them out over 2-3 days instead of all at once.  Think of smartly dosing continuously during the week so as to mitigate the overtraining, form flaws and fatigue build up that one big session could result in.  

I would also stress that if an athlete missed a session, we don’t try and force a way to make up the volume.  Missing 2-3 days between sessions is not going to be detrimental to tissue preparedness.  However, if a coach just adds volume to make up a session in order to hit the suggested quota above, without giving much thought of how it will affect the athlete and subsequent training sessions, I would think more harm than good would come out of that.

In other words, it is not just about controlling intensity and volume, but about how we as coaches dose or administer the sessions throughout the week and even in the individual session itself.  

You can and should also pair weight room sessions smartly with speed sessions; yes they can be done in the same day with proper planning.  A high intensity, neurally demanding lift for example, should not be paired with a high intensity speed day as there are only so many eggs that can fit in one basket.  

When it comes to pairing the lifting sessions with speed work, I really like pairing hip dominant movements with top end speed days (think projection) and knee dominant movements with change of direction and acceleration focused days.  That’s just my preference; as we all should be aware by now, you can justify just about any pairing as long as you make sure to put some thought into it so as not to run into competing demands being placed on the body.

I hope the above is helpful to you in your programming for speed. Close consideration of the variables mentioned above can have a drastic impact on the successfulness of your coaching session and on helping the athlete achieve their goals. Feel free to comment with your thoughts and any other areas you feel may be overlooked when it comes to programming for speed. Happy Coaching!

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