Developing Speed in Older Athletes!

Speed is one of the 5 major capacities of human performance, or athleticism. Along with strength, power, agility, and endurance…speed is a defining characteristic of winners. Every athlete, and in fact every human organism, needs speed to live and perform to the highest potential. Developing, maintaining, and improving speed in older athletes, however, is often a challenging proposition.

The first challenge we often face is simply the recognition of the need for speed. As I see it, there are three groups, or three types of people, when it comes to the consideration of speed. I’ll present those in list fashion for the purpose of clarity.

  1. Lifetime athletes who know the value of speed. They seek it, crave it, and are zealous in the pursuit of maximum velocity.
  2. Open-minded and “speed-curious” individuals. These might be recreational athletes or serious fitness enthusiasts who want to learn, face challenges, and get the most out of their bodies and life experiences.
  3. “Speed-avoiders” who are oblivious to the true value of speed or who are actually in abject denial regarding the subject. 

I mostly deal with the first two groups. These folks line up with my messages and are already motivated and educated. We just get to work, achieve amazing results, and don’t think about it too much. That third group doesn’t work with me very often. They take a lot of convincing, don’t usually embrace speed, and are hard to convert. I find working with them quite fatiguing and unsatisfying, and I’m sure they feel the same about me. My “door” is always open, but group 3 anti-speed people need to get themselves into a group 2 mindset before we can actually accelerate (pun totally intended).

So let’s preach to the choir and move forward in blistering, blazing fashion. Going fast is a trainable skill. While speed does have its genetic limits, it can be effectively addressed in training and the benefits are immense.

We should also define speed and identify its utility. Speed is maximum velocity. It’s the absolute highest rate of movement you can produce. It’s important to understand that in some instances, you have to access every ounce of your full speed. But what is also interesting is the higher your absolute speed potential, the easier it is to summon a percentage of it. Fast people are just faster than everyone else.

Speed training is scalable. No matter where you are on the speed development continuum, there is an onboarding point. Some Lifetime Athletes, those with a very high training base or lengthy “training age,” can get into some relatively high-level training. For others, their first entry into the speed zone might simply be walking briskly, and raising their personal velocity bar just a bit. In many situations, going a tiny bit faster (in any movement) is the appropriate place to start. Even though we are talking about maximum speed, effort, and intent…this may not be something you can or should do for many months, or even years. You have to earn the right to train, and speed punishes those who disrespect this mandate.

Speed is safe. Done properly, speed training is entirely safe and presents no injury risk different from any other exercise or life pursuit. But a high degree of knowledge and wisdom has to be applied to the older athlete to make this true. This is one of the biggest obstacles for many athletes whose experience has been “whenever I tried to work on speed I just get hurt.” In practically every case they went about it wrong. They didn’t have the proper foundation to begin speed training and their progression was inappropriate for their needs. Easy mistakes to make, but good coaching can reduce and even eliminate this problem.

Speed represents the pinnacle of athleticism. There is something about going fast that feels awesome. Primal. Victorious. And speed, when we witness it, looks a certain way. It conjures up the appreciation of excellence in human movement. And it correlates with champions in every sense.

Speed requires proficiency in all the other capacities before it can be optimally addressed. While the other 4 major capacities of athleticism are equally important, you actually have to possess a fairly decent amount of strength and agility before you can really start working on speed. Progressing that sensibly allows you to then use power training to approach more speed. And interestingly enough, speed training does best when you have a little endurance in the tank as well. You don’t need marathon-level endurance to do speed training (in fact this may work against you if you take it too far) but you have to have enough work capacity to not get gassed out in the middle of a workout and lose effectiveness in your speedwork.

Older athletes require very intelligent progressions. I alluded to this earlier but it bears repeating. On a scientific level, we need to use extremely reasonable workload elevations. An acute:chronic workload ratio for a mature athlete should probably only be 1.1:1 or so. Let’s say your monthly average of training workload in the speed category is “1” just to have an arbitrary figure. In a given “uploading” week, you would do about 1.1, or only 10% more work. This can be via slightly more volume or intensity (speed), but probably not both at the same time. And the other side of this art form is hitting some planned regressions, in which we intentionally back off the workload for a week or two and let the body “catch up” or consolidate the gains. This is an often overlooked component in training and it’s critical for long-term success.

Older athletes need more recovery. Here we have a unique balance between the mind and body. Our rational minds like to think that whatever amount of recovery we are placing between hard(er) workouts makes sense, but we are usually wrong. The body, and especially that of the older athlete, will make clear its demands. Trying to work on speed, which has an extremely high tissue and neural demand, when you are tired…just doesn’t work. And it leads to disaster. A lot of people get nervous about going big and then waiting what seems like a long time (several days in most cases…doing light recovery exercise) before going big again. They fall into the trap of under-recovering and then hitting repetitive, moderate, mediocre, half-assed workouts. They don’t get faster and they usually get injured. They say speed training sucks or doesn’t work for them. They are just doing it wrong.

Speed isn’t just sprinting. It includes quick movements of all types such as throwing or change of direction. It’s good to keep this in mind. While locomotive movements are primary – any cut, jump, or drive into acceleration is also speedy use of the human body. We can use speed in many applications, and it’s important to do so. Being fast helps you in every sport but it is also critical in righting reactions and the reduction of fall-related injuries. Quickly catching yourself, or tucking and rolling, happens in milliseconds and slow people get hurt more. Fact is fact.

There is a difference between true speed (max velocity) and relative speed (submaximal velocity). While this is really just semantics, we should address this topic. True speed or maximum velocity can only be held for about 6-7 seconds at best in world-class sprinters. For most athletes, max speed is in the territory of 5 seconds or less. But relative speed, such as your half-marathon pace, is worth talking about for a moment. Depending on your level, performance at distance running is largely dependent upon aerobic fitness (endurance) and running economy. However, and to a point, the more speed you have…your distance pace uses a lower percentage of your max potential and you are ultimately “faster.” Just take one look at elite distance runners and you’ll appreciate this phenomenon. 

Exercise tempo is a great way to begin to encourage speed adaptations in the body. Tempo is essentially the speed of a lift or movement and I like to break most exercises into 4 components. Initial movement phase-hold or not-return movement phase-pause or not. We can apply a count (I like numbers like 1-2-3-4 instead of seconds or one-thousand-one, etc. for simplicity) to the exercise and make either the concentric or eccentric phase (or both) faster. This elicits a greater response from the Type 2 or fast-twitch muscle fibers.

Extensive plyometrics are great training adjuncts for speed development, especially for the mature trainee. Plyos are those exercises that emphasize a relatively rapid stretch-shortening cycle (SSC) in a movement. Jumps, hops, bounds and certain medicine ball exercises are examples. Extensive plyos are basically low-level impulses that work on quickness with generally lighter loads. Jumping rope is an excellent option here.

Intensive plyometrics, when done correctly, can have a great return on investment. But these movements need to be progressed incrementally and with great caution concerning any athlete, particularly the older one. Depth jumps, in which an athlete drops off a box and explodes up onto another one, is a classic intensive plyo. These things are as fun as they are effective and I have a number of people in their 70’s doing this impressively. It’s a great goal to work up to for most of us.

With running, we can use drills and repeats, often with cues, to enhance speed. The big key with drills is to find the one (or only several) that works best for the specific situation and athlete. Same goes for cues. Less is more. It takes some work to find the best drill and cue, but when you do…it’s money.

Sprinting, or running faster, is highly related to body type. In other words, different body types generate movement in unique ways, and training speed is most effective when we match up locomotive mechanics with genetics.

In AnimalFIT (grab your copy at the AnimalFIT menu item on the website), I identify the three major body types and movement problem-solving strategies used by human athletes. I’ll briefly describe those next.

  1. Force-dependent athletes. These are muscle-driven beasts who tend to rely on deeper countermovements and flexion angles in order to emphasize concentric muscle contractions. They generally have slightly longer ground contact times but also very high levels of force production.
  2. Elastic athletes. The key to elasticity is the ability to create nearly instantaneous stiffness in the system, transferring energy most effectively. These athletes are typically viewed as being “bouncy” and they are masters of the isometric contraction in their movement cycles.
  3. Momentum-reliant athletes. These individuals tend to neither produce maximum force nor create incredibly high levels of isometric stiffness. Instead, they are highly proficient at using eccentric contractions to minimize energy leakage in the system and “steer” force (more so than repetitively creating it or rapidly reversing it like the other two groups).

All athletes can and do use all three strategies, and most humans are a hybrid of the 3 types. However, in almost every case, an athlete will have a go-to preference for only one of these strategies.

If we apply those athletic types and strategies to just one element of speed coaching, we can use a different focus in order to facilitate each group getting faster. Speed can be broken down into two main areas which are ground contact time, and flight (or stride) distance/time. It’s basically related to these three questions: “How much time does your foot stay on the ground, how far does it travel through the air until the next ground contact, and how quickly does it traverse that distance?” 

When we are optimizing speed, we want relatively brief ground contact times (GCT’s) that are just long enough to facilitate adequate energy transfer into the ground and back to the foot. Any longer and we are literally wasting time. We need reasonable amounts of velocity and distance during the swing or flight phase to accomplish fast locomotion. Each of those 3 groups we are talking about usually needs a little help in a specific area to truly get faster. Here’s how we might approach this for each group.

  1. Force-dependent athletes generally benefit from “quickening” up their ground contacts. We never want to totally change an athlete or take away his/her gifts, but helping this type of athlete to get a little more “crisp” in stride cycle mechanics is key. A little less “pushing” is our goal. While skipping occasionally gets a bad rap, it is actually extremely effective in this application. This is because it slows the gait cycle down (good to do temporarily) and allows us to focus on two key elements in the process…the “snap” and the “pop.” We can emphasize snapping down to work on aggressively attacking the ground more quickly. Then we can work on popping off the ground to accomplish a shorter GCT and speed up the leg recovery and switching mechanism necessary for better speed.
  2. Elastic athletes usually have what it takes to naturally access speed. The trick with this group is to make sure they are able to use enough of their feet and legs to not turn things into a “pitter-patter” presentation. Consequently, bounding is a great tool to get elastic athletes to learn to use a bit more foot surface during GCT’s and also to make sure they can wait just long enough on the ground to get a max energy return. They don’t need to generate force like the first group, but they need to learn to not pick the foot up (too soon) before the energy has been restored to their system.
  3. Momentum-reliant athletes are in a different situation. These folks are usually quite economical and are often very endurance-based. However, they can be made speedier by helping them to acquire some of the characteristics of both the preceding groups. While they are really good at rhythm, they need a bit more force and bounciness in their gait patterns. This is where the gym, or supplemental work, can have a really impressive impact. Variable-tempo lunges, step-ups, and squats, along with mixed doses of plyos such as box and pogo jumps are excellent in this category.

Of course, the drills, cues, and exercises we just mentioned are only part of the coaching and training equation. We always intersperse or immediately follow these interventions with specific sprinting practice. Flying 10’s and 20’s (meters or yards…on track or turf) are the best in this application. A flying start, or gradual run-up, allows for easy acceleration and the reps are short enough to work on true speed. A good rule of thumb is to rest one full minute (at least) for every 10 meters to ensure proper intra-workout recovery. Rushing the rest periods turns this into endurance conditioning and does not allow access to the neural elements of speed training.

The examples we discussed depict fairly high-level approaches to training, but you can use these principles in “easier” manners when that is indicated. You can start out just doing a few low-resistance fast spins on a bike, or sprints in the water (either running or swimming). Do a few quick pulses in a split stance. Try a snap-down. Throw a light medicine ball. 

I’ve been able to take many people in their 50’s, 60’s and 70’s and help them to develop their speed, both efficiently and safely. It just takes patience and proper program design. The benefits are huge, as folks report they feel more capable and confident in everything they do. Speed helps every athlete. It also keeps those reflexes, righting reactions, and animalistic functions alive in our beasts. This is pure gold for every Lifetime Athlete.

Thanks for joining me as always. If you need some help with YOUR SPEED, consider signing up for some coaching with me. I love working all out with and for my clients and seeing you get those fantastic outcomes! Until next time…Coach JZ signing off and wishing you all the best!

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