Strength Training

Can sprinters improve their maximum velocity in the weightroom? (The answer isn’t as straight-forward as most coaches think!)

Incline/Resisted sprints are great for certain aspects of speed development and mechanics…but will they help with the ‘max velocity’ portion of your sprint? 


Q: Joe,

I run the 100m & 200m in track. I understand that strength is the foundation to speed, but would it be effective in max velocity maintenance? If so, what can I do specifically in the weight room to build max velocity maintenance? My friend suggested doing in the higher rep ranges at a slow tempo. My track coaches (who I have worked with for several years) put me through 250m-600m workouts at below max velocity and I feel that they just don’t work. It frustrates me because I have seen no improvements in my track times despite the effort that I put in.
A: Steve,
This is a very difficult question to answer without knowing pretty much ANYTHING about you. But, I will do my best to give you some “foundational” advice with regards to improving max velocity.

Before giving you any kind of “running” advice, I’d be doing a disservice if I didn’t mention the importance of flexibility and bodyfat% with regards to sprinting speed. You must make sure that your flexibility is adequate enough to achieve the posture/positions required in sprinting. For example, tight hip flexors and glutes can drastically decrease stride length. If a lack of flexibility is a problem for you; you must make it a priority in your program so you don’t continue to engrave improper motor patterns (short, choppy strides) in your brain every time you run!

I don’t care what you do in the weight room – or how good/bad your track coach is – if your bodyfat percentage isn’t in the single digits, you’ll never achieve jaw-dropping speed! It’s that simple. Drop the baby fat, gain/maintain your muscle, and you’ll improve your speed before you even step foot on the track!

Wanna know what these two athletes have in common? 
They both have under 6% bodyfat
…and that single digit bodyfat% has translated into 4.3-second 40-yard dashes for BOTH of them!
Now onto the training part of your question…

Anyone who knows me – or has read this website – knows that I’m a huge advocate of strength training for improving all aspects of athletic performance…especially speed! I have witnessed and experienced first-hand the “power of strength” for the majority of my life; the benefits just can’t be overlooked. With that being said; the area that the weight room has the least transfer (with regards to sprinting) is max velocity/top speed. (The exception would be younger children or untrained adults. These two populations will usually experience an increase in speed with any kind of strength improvement.) The reason that the weightroom isn’t as “important” regarding the max velocity phase of sprinting is because there is nothing you can do in the weightroom to mimic the tremendous speed of contractions that occur when you hit your max velocity. (Max velocity has more to do with the “elasticity” of your muscles, compared to the start/acceleration phase of a sprint.)

STRENGTH, aka, “The Foundation”

Please don’t get me wrong; strength is still of utmost importance for sprinters! But the strength you gain from squats, deadlifts, sled dragging, hill sprints, etc., are effective mostly at improving your starting power and acceleration, not so much your max velocity. (The ground contact time, speed of contractions and biomechanics of acceleration are very different from maximum velocity mechanics.) Improving your acceleration mechanics and power through “weight room” training definitely has a positive – yet “indirect” – influence on your top-end speed. Simply put, a powerful start/acceleration will help you reach your top speed in less time — and with more “momentum”. Here’s an analogy to help me explain myself better:

POWER: Bridging the gap from the weightroom to the track

I explain this “increased momentum” to my athletes by using the analogy of a bowling ball rolling down a hill. Picture two hills that are next to each other and the exact same length, yet one is steeper than the other. For example, let’s say one hill has a slight, 15-degree angle and the other hill has a steeper, 70-degree angle. If I were to roll a bowling ball down each hill at the same time, which bowling ball would get to the bottom of the hill faster? Obviously, the ball that was rolled down the steeper (70-degree) hill will get to the bottom faster. Then, once it reaches the bottom of the hill, it will continue to roll forward on the flat ground without any outside forces “pushing it”. The superior momentum that was gained by the ball rolling down the steeper hill basically “carries it” forward once it hits flat ground. That ball will also roll further on the flat ground, compared to the other ball. Experience has proven to me that a proper strength training program will enable athletes to “accelerate like a bowling ball rolling down a steep hill”. They will reach their top speed faster, compared to “weaker” athletes. And once they reach their top speed, the “momentum” gained from the powerful acceleration provides a great foundation for maintaining it  for a longer period of time…that is, IF they trained properly for that aspect of the race!

…approaching MAX VELOCITY!


And I guess, THIS is where I FINALLY get to the point and answer your question regarding “what you can do in the weightroom to build max velocity maintenance?

First of all, you hopefully now realize that your efforts in the weightroom will mostly be going towards building a powerful start and acceleration. Squats, deadlifts, weighted jumps, sled drags, prowler pushes/sprints, split squat variations, med ball throw variations and kettlebell swings are a few of my favorite “strength training exercises to improve sprinting speed.” These types of strength exercises, coupled with a proper diet and flexibility program will build your “speed foundation“. After focussing on this “foundation”, start working in more specific “max velocity” drills and training. This will create the “total package”!

Here are 5 of my favorite drills to improve your max velocity…(notice these “max velocity” drills are all performed outside of the weightoom):

1) Flying Sprints or “Next Gear” Sprints: This drill helps athletes work on their top speed/turnover and feel what it’s like to “hit another gear”. You start by jogging, then you hit your top speed for a prescribed distance. For example; you can ‘jog/pick up speed’ for 20 meters, then sprint for 50 meters. You would only time the “final 50 meters” when performing this drill. This would be referred to as your “flying 50” time.

2) Ins & Outs: This drill is similar to “flying sprints”, but you alternate between “going hard” and “relaxing” multiple times within one sprint. For  example; you would run hard for 20 meters, “relax & coast” for 20 meters, then sprint hard for the next 20 meters, then relax again for 20 meters and finish the final 20 meters by performing an all-out sprint. (This one “rep” would be a total of 100 meters.) This drill isn’t only good for training your max velocity, it’s GREAT for teaching you how to RELAX while sprinting (which will pay HUGE dividends in the long run). The fastest sprinters in the world know how to “run relaxed”. By “coasting” and not trying to go full speed during certain portions of this drill; you can focus on relaxing. With enough practice, you’ll eventually be able to “run relaxed” at top speed. This is when you will reach your true speed potential!

3) Straight Leg Bounding/ Bounding into Sprints: Straight leg bounding can be described as sprinting as if you have two full-length casts on both legs. You’re basically running without bending your knees. The purpose of this drill is to focus on and feel your “backside mechanics”, aka, your glutes/hamstrings! Sprinting speed really is dependant on how quickly/powerfully you can apply force back into the ground, in order to propel your body forward. This drill really helps you “feel” your hamstrings and their force application while running with “max velocity mechanics” / upright posture. The key is to run tall or with a slight forward lean…DON’T lean back like the drummer from your favorite schools marching band! When you do this, you don’t apply as much force back into the surface. By maintaining an upright posture, your foot can land directly under your hip, then fully extend at the hip and apply force backward (which explosively propels you forward). *This exercise is shown in our soon-to-be-released POWER! dvd!

I have seen very positive results in stride length when performing straight leg bounds right into sprints.

4) Butt-kickers, version 2.0: I explain this exercise in the AMPED DVD. This is a drill that mimics the running motion and trains your CNS to “fire & relax” quicker. You do NOT just kick your heel to your butt like “old-school” butt-kickers. My problem with the old, yet popular, version of this drill is that it reinforces poor hip flexion when running…actually, the old version of this drill reinforces NO HIP FLEXION when running!

What’s the point?? Seriously…how does this help your sprint mechanics??

In “version 2.0” of this drill, I coach my athletes to drive their “heel to their butt IN A STRAIGHT LINE”. If done properly, this will create about 90-degree flexion at the hip. This drill also reinforces dorsi-flexion at the ankle and athletes can rehearse proper posture and arm action as well. I love using this drill as a warm-up “finisher” before a sprint workout.

5) Light ‘Weight Belt’ Sprints: Most resisted sprints are associated with improving acceleration power/mechanics. When running with a weighted sled behind you or elastic band resistance, you must lean forward in order to overcome the resistance. This is great for improving your quad and calf strength in a specific manner (acceleration), but top speed mechanics are much different. During maximum velocity, the body (should) reach an upright posture. Once the body is upright, your hamstrings become your sprinting “engine”! To overload the hamstrings at “high speeds” I’ve used light weighted belts in the past with great success. When training track athletes/sprinters, the weight of the belt should not alter their mechanics at all — and it shouldn’t slow them down any more than 10% of their top speed. (Years ago, we used a thin, 8lb. belt used for scuba-divers. The weight belt – as opposed to a light sled, resistance bands, or parachute – didn’t alter the athlete’s “top speed posture” at all. It worked great!)

**Besides working on the above drills, make sure you’re also incorporating your specific events (100 & 200-meter) into your training.

Hopefully I was able to clear some things up for you regarding maximum velocity training and other important factors affecting your speed. (It better have cleared things up…I spent a lot more time writing this answer than I originally planned 🙂

-Joe D. 

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