Speed training workouts: does the over-speed training technique work?

How effective is over-speed training and how best can you implement it for maximum benefit?

At a glance:

  • Over-speed training uses a variety of methods such as downhill running or bungee cords to help increase maximum limb speed;
  • However, scientific research on the benefits of over-speed training has produced mixed results;
  • This is probably because for best results, over-speed training needs to be implemented carefully, particularly regarding running speeds, gradients and posture;
  • Over-speed training also needs to be properly integrated into normal training for best results.

The goal of over-speed training is to allow an athlete to move his or her limbs faster by using special training techniques to increase limb speed such as hill descents or assisted propulsion from elasticated bungee cords. However, there’s confusion about just how effective over-speed training is and how best to implement it for maximum benefit, as John Shepherd explains.

The general consensus among athletes and coaches is that the regular and systematic use of over-speed training methods increases unassisted speed by recruiting more muscle (in particular fast-twitch muscle fibre) and through improvements in stride length and stride frequency. These benefits are believed to have physical and neural components.

In physical terms, the increase in speed generated by over-speed training methods has a lasting effect on muscles’ ability to generate force, particularly during the foot strike and drive phase of sprinting. Put simply, muscles become more powerful and faster at contracting. From a neural perspective, advocates of over-speed training believe that the brain will literally ‘learn’ to fire faster and control more muscle (in particular fast- twitch muscle fibres) to achieve greater speeds.

Over-speed training therefore starts from the relatively logical premise that providing an athlete with the conditions to move more quickly than normal must improve speed, and some of the early research does indeed seem to support this notion.

For example, research by Finnish scientists in the 1980s addressed the relationships between ground reaction forces, electromyographic (EMG) activity, elasticity and running velocity at various running speeds, including over-speed running (1). The team discovered that ground reaction forces, maximal force, average force and power were all significantly greater in a horizontal direction and that maximal and average forces were also greater in a vertical direction when over- speed running.

In the male subjects the relative change in stride rate correlated with increased EMG activity, in the eccentric phase between maximal and over-speed runs (the eccentric phase occurs on foot strike, when the sprinting muscles, notably the calf and quadriceps muscles, lengthen as they contract, just prior to performing a concentric contraction to propel the athlete forward). This led the researchers to believe that over-speed methods could improve unassisted sprinting, by recruiting more muscle fibre and increasing specific sprinting strength and EMG activity. However, some inconsistencies were already apparent; for example, it was noted that the increased EMG activity was only attributable to the male sprinters.

As research into over-speed training progressed numerous other researchers identified further problems. For example, American researchers concluded that there were no benefits to be gained from elasticised tube (towed) acceleration sprints (2). Nine collegiate sprinters ran two 20metre maximal sprints (MSs) and towed sprints (TSs). These were recorded on high-speed video.

When compared, the MSs and the TSs conditions displayed significant differences between horizontal velocity of the centre of mass (CoM) of the sprinter’s body, stride length (SL) and horizontal distance from the CoM of the foot to the CoM of the body. However, there was no significant difference in stride rate between the MSs and TSs conditions.

Adverse effects of towing

This led the researchers to conclude that ‘Elasticcord tow training resulted in significant acute changes in sprint kinematics in the acceleration phase of an MSs that do not appear to be sprint specific (and that) more research is needed on the specificity of TSs training and its long-term effects on sprinting performance’. Simply put, the towing condition negatively affected sprint technique, meaning that there was a strong probability that non-beneficial effects would be transferred to unassisted sprinting.

Further research focusing on kinematic (energy requirements) and postural characteristics (sprint technique) analysed the relevance of both downhill and uphill sprinting to on-the-flat speed (3). Eight male physical education students were filmed while sprinting maximally on an uphill-downhill platform under each of three conditions:

  • Uphill at 3 degrees;
  • Downhill at 3 degrees (the over-speed condition);
  • Horizontally.

Running speed, stride rate, stride length, stride time, contact time, flight time and selected postural characteristics of the sprinting action were analysed.

Unsurprisingly, it was discovered that running speeds were 9.2% faster during downhill and 3.0% slower during uphill sprints, compared with horizontal sprint running. During downhill and uphill sprint running, stride length was the main contributor to changes in running speed. This increased by 7.1% for downhill sprinting and was associated with significant changes in posture at touchdown and take-off.

These results led the researchers to conclude that the interaction between the acute changes in stride length and posture when sprinting on a sloping surface may detract from the specificity of training on such surfaces.

Given that research has concluded that over- speed training at best may lack the specificity required to improve sprint performance and at worst may even produce negative effects, is it possible to actually identify the conditions where over-speed work can succeed?

Maximising over-speed training methods

The following section provides an overview of the main over-speed training methods in use and indicates the most suitable conditions for implementing over-speed training in practice. A number of these recommendations are based on the work of George Dintiman (4), Professor emeritus of health and physical education at Virginia Commonwealth University in the US and one of the world’s leading speed coaches.

Outdoor downhill over-speed method

Ideal set-up

Use a dry, non-bumpy grass area that allows you to sprint 20m on the flat (to accelerate to near maximum speed), sprint 15m down a 1-degree slope and then sprint 15m on the flat (to allow for the continuation of increased speed, without the assistance of gravity). Progress gradually – for example, by running at 75% effort in preliminary workouts and by not wearing spiked shoes until you’ve adapted to the demands of over-speed running.

The history of over-speed training

Type ‘over-speed training’ into your computer’s search engine and you’ll be confronted by a plethora of purveyors of over-speed training kit and programmes, many of which are North American in origin and which claim to cut 40-yard time, improve acceleration and dynamic agility. Because of this, you might be led to believe that the concept of over-speed is a relatively new (and American) development. It’s not. Over-speed techniques have in fact been around for over 50 years, albeit in more rudimentary formats. There are numerous examples of athletes being towed behind motorbikes, scooters and cars. The latter method was used by 1956 Melbourne Olympic 10,000m bronze medallist Al Lawrence, who ran over-speed by holding on to a rigid bar attached to the back of the vehicle. Coaches from around the world, most notably from track and field, have used over-speed methods regularly, at least from the 1970s, whilst the author has actually experienced bungee and pulley towing methods over 20 years ago.

 

General factors that affect the success of over-speed training

Having identified how best to implement the more common over-speed methods, what other factors can help produce better results from over-speed training?

Perform unassisted runs in the same workout

Unassisted runs should always be performed in the same training session as over- speed work to help you learn how to fire your muscles at increased speeds, rather than simply being ‘dragged’ to achieving remarkable sprint times. Research indicates that you’ll run faster unassisted immediately after over-speed runs. However, this window of opportunity may only exist for 10 minutes or so, which means you shouldn’t delay.

Keep over-speed speed to within 10% of unassisted speed

This should provide the best conditions to ensure that your neuromuscular system is optimally stimulated by your own effort. Achieving greater than 10% over-speeds is non-productive because a) you won’t be fully in control of what you’re doing and b) you’ll be forced to adopt an incorrect sprinting posture in an attempt to stop yourself falling.

Master sprint technique

Following on from the first two points, it is crucial that you approach any over-speed training with a well-honed and relaxed sprint technique. Many sports scientists and coaches believe that, particularly at the upper echelons of speed sports, it is the ability to relax whilst moving flat-out that is key to optimum and improved performance.

Rest and recovery

Only perform over-speed training when you’re rested, with a maximum of 2-3 sessions a week. Too much speed and over-speed work can be counter-productive as the neuromuscular system needs plenty of time to recover and regenerate.

Optimum angle of over-speed descent

Research indicates that to optimise downhill over-speed work the maximum angle of decent should ideally only be 1% and certainly no more than 2.0% (4).

Towing methods, including bungees

Ideal set-up

Use a bungee 20-25m long and secure it tightly around your waist and to an immovable object (such as a football goal post). Walk back to tension the bungee. The further you walk back, the greater the tension produced, but 25m is a good starting point allowing runs at 75% effort to be performed.

Progress until sufficient confidence and condition is developed to sprint flat out and eventually over-speed. As with downhill running, wear spikes only once suitable confidence and condition is developed. To develop the over-speed condition the athlete should back up 30-35m to create the necessary tension in the bungee.

Towing behind motor vehicles, either by rope or by hanging on to a suitable platform is best avoided because of potential dangers. Patented pulley based towing systems that allow athletes to tow each other or be towed to over-speed performance offer greater safety than bungees, primarily because they afford the athlete the opportunity to ‘bail out’ safely on a run. However, these can be very expensive.

Bungees can also be used to develop multidirectional speed, which can greatly assist those in field and racket sports, where quick turning, darting and fast feet ability are required. To achieve multi-directional over-speed, position yourself backwards or sideways to the direction of pull then move in the direction of the pull, performing the requisite sport’s skill.

Treadmill methods

Ideal condition

The decline of the treadmill should be 2% or less (4). You’ll need plenty of time to adapt to the different demands of treadmill running/sprinting before over-speed returns can be maximised. It is also necessary to continue with normal ‘ground surface’ running to optimise the transference of treadmill running to other sports.

The potential advantages of treadmill running include:

  1. Speed can be systematically and progressively controlled throughout a workout and across the developmental training programme;
  2. A coach can stand alongside the athlete, whilst they are in full flow and provide immediate verbal feedback;
  3. Some speed treadmills enable the coach to physically correct the athlete from the side, eg by the use of a carefully placed hand to the small of the athlete’s back whilst they are in motion to help keep the athlete’s hips ‘high’ (a key aspect of sprint technique) and assist them with keeping up with the required belt speed.

Over-speed training and eccentric muscular damage

Over-speed methods are likely to create eccentric muscular damage. This results in painful, tender-to-the-touch soreness, particularly in the quadriceps muscles of the thigh. To minimise this effect over-speed training should be introduced progressively and combined with a good level of pre-conditioning, such as sport specific drills, weight and plyometric training. However, despite these precautions it is still likely that eccentric muscle damage will occur, especially for those who have no prior over- speed training familiarity. But the good news is that one bout of the exercise that caused the soreness in the first place can ‘inoculate’ against further muscle damage for a period of up to about six weeks afterwards, even if that method of exercise is not practised regularly (see PP 206 for a detailed consideration of pre-conditioning methods).

NB – ideal conditions for downhill outdoor and towing methods are adapted from Dintiman (4).

Conclusion

Over-speed training methods offer speed athletes an opportunity to increase their speed potential. However, both coach and athlete must implement them carefully into any training programme in order to maximise returns.

John Shepherd MA is a specialist health, sport and fitness writer and a former international long jumper

References

  1. Eur J Appl Physiol Occup Physiol 1986;55(5):553-61
  2. J Sports Sci 2001 Feb;19(2):149-59
  3. J Strength Cond Res 2003 Feb;17(1):72-5
  4. Dintiman G and Ward B, Sports Speed, Human Kinetics 2003

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