Training Speed and Agility: Keys to Improvements

By Coach Jeremy Hoy, MS, CSCS, SCCC, TPI1, RPR

While there is a lot to be said, and a lot of ways to dissect this, training speed and agility is a subject that most experts have weighed in on. So then, why am I addressing it--because I still get questions about it almost daily. For the sake of this blog, I am going to talk about what can be done to improve these areas, and can follow up with a bunch of additional blogs providing specific exercises and training plans that have been proven to work.

Having developed and trained athletes at all levels and ages for over 20 years, I can honestly say that programming for and gaining strength is much easier and more quickly realized than seeing significant, lasting gains in speed. Speed is a skill, and must be trained accordingly.

Linear top end speed, or straight-ahead speed, can be trained for lasting improvements in 3 main ways:

  1. By improving the stride rate/frequency (how many foot contacts and minimizing ground contact time, or the time the foot is on the ground with each stride),
  2. By improving stride length (distance between foot contacts), and
  3. By improving ground force development (how much force is placed into the ground and used reactively per time that the foot is on the ground)

Yes, it is also extremely helpful when training speed and agility to learn and practice proper athletic positions for starting (2 point starts, 3 point starts, split stance, not split stance, etc.), acceleration techniques (learning basic physics and body positioning such as base of support, center of mass, deceleration and acceleration in multiple directions), and transitions into full speed.

Following a long term athlete development model, such as those seen internationally with athletic clubs (USA Hockey, etc.) will help ensure the young athlete will develop the specific physical literacies (physical skillsets) needed that will enable them to progress to more advanced and specific training techniques and plans.

Once body positioning and awareness and running mechanics and techniques are learned and practiced, it’s good to add in training exercises and methods that can improve one of the 3 main areas for improving the linear top end speed. Sleds, sprinting, track work, lifting weights, sprints on an incline, plyometrics, and exercises that work on deceleration and yielding strength (plus isometric strength) will all help contribute to improvements in speed. As I mentioned earlier, speed is a skill, so it is highly recommended that it is addressed and trained at least 2 days a week year-round.

What about agility? Agility is being able to change direction at as fast as possible--accelerating, hitting full speed, decelerating, stopping, then reaccelerating in another direction. Does it sound like body awareness and control, and coordination would be helpful with this? You bet—they are all important. Setting up simple short cone drills can give excellent teaching and learning points. I also like to add the game of red light, green light into the mix, with changing at each signal (I typically do this alternating between forward and backward, with deceleration involved).

The key to speed is remembering to build the foundation of technique and body control awareness, then layer in the rest of the important factors and don’t forget to sprint. 10-40 yard sprints are good, as long as you are properly warmed up and you are running at 100% full speed. Be sure to give yourself plenty of rest between exercises to get quality speed work. If you are breathing heavy the whole time then it becomes ‘conditioning’ and not quality speed work.

And remember this:  Hard Work Beats Talent When Talent Fails to Work Hard.

If you have questions, please comment below. Also keep checking back for updates about training speed and agility and other performance related topics!

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