Usain Bolt is not just an athlete, he’s a household name synonymous with his unparalleled record as the fastest man on earth. During the Brazil 2016 Olympic Games, Bolt was part of the winning Jamaican relay team (4×100). They were victorious in the race taking a gold medal with a time of 37.27. Japan, who took second place with a silver medal were just 33 seconds behind at 37.60.
In sport, it’s not the minutes that count, but the seconds – sometimes even the milliseconds. This is the same in most sports, from rowing to running. If time is therefore of the essence, speed and explosive power play a critical role in the overall physical components of fitness.
In this section, we’ll delve deeper into speed in sport, and look at what it is and why it plays an important role in performance, and how athletes can improve their speed.
What is speed?
But first, what is speed? We use it every day and have some knowledge of what it involves. But to be clear, it can be defined as “the ability to move quickly across the ground or move limbs rapidly to grab or throw.”
To frame this better, think of it as a spectrum. On one side of the scale there’s strength, on the other side of the spectrum there’s speed. Somewhere in the middle sits power. They are play an important role and careful balance in one’s overall performance. But most of all, speed fuels muscle power.
Sports coaches and those in the industry will be aware that you can develop speed with the right training programme in place.
Why is speed important?
As above illustrated, speed can make the difference of winning and losing in sport where every second counts. But more than just being the quickest or first across the line, speed in sport is important for overall fitness.
Whether you perform in track and field sports, in boxing, rugby or elsewhere, speed will give you the impetus to perform to your highest ability for the longest time possible.
For instance, sprinters need to develop leg strength in order to have the raw power to sustain their performance, while maintaining a strong core. Footballers for instance need to be fast to outrun their competitors, while being able to multi-task at the same time; looking for space, players and opportunities.
Testing your speed
There are various ways in which speed in sport can be tested.
The five-metre sprint test is a popular test used to measure the time in which an athlete accelerates. Since this is a short-distance test, it can be completed using a stopwatch on a track or field, and can be carried out by your fitness instructor or sports coach. This can be repeated in ten-metre or 20-metre bursts.
Another method for measuring speed is the 10 x 5 metre shuttle. This requires a stopwatch and measuring tape (between two cones) to measure speed and agility.
There are also numerous sport specific tests which can be applied to certain disciplines. For instance, the way a swimmer’s speed is tested will differ to that of a boxer.
Improving your speed
As the Olympic and Paralympic Games have shown us, records are there to be broken. As we improve our knowledge in sport and physical abilities, and sports kit is enhanced with technology, we are continually beating records by running, swimming and bowling faster than ever before (as well as many other sports). Reports even suggest that humans have a way to go; Bolt can currently run up to 28mph, while it’s predicted that humans will one day be able to run as fast as 40mph.
This suggests that we can improve our output with the necessary training programmes in place.
To improve your speed, work with your sports coach to devise a plan specific to your sport. The below is an example of improving speed in runners, although this might well be beneficial to a host of other sports, such as; rugby, football, hockey, baseball, boxing and so forth.
Get running: Running is one of the best ways to develop your endurance and speed. This requires a mix of speed work and slower level endurance which aim to develop your overall physical condition. As with those starting out to train in a marathon, the key to this is a long-term strategy, where you build on performance each week. There are various training plans which you can follow, but they should all gradually increase in terms of distance week on week. Helping to stretch you just that bit further, within your personal reach. As any sports coach will tell you, key to progress is subjecting your body to longer distances and quicker speeds over a prolonged period.
Jogging/walking: Interval training has become popular in recent years. This can be integrated into your running training programme, whereby you mix up each run with a few minutes of walking or jogging in between.
Work out: Strength and speed go together. Work with your sports coach to find the best exercises to enhance your overall fitness. For instance, a basketball player than needs to build power in their legs might undertake a series of squats and lunges, while a swimmer might be better suited to a ski-erg machine.
In competitive sport, where the difference of seconds can make the difference of first and last place, it pays to have speed on your side.
The good news is that speed in sport can be improved over time, no matter what level you are currently at; amateur or professional.
As such, it’s important to devise a training programme that integrates the right work outs with your chosen sport in mind. Building speed takes time and persistence, with the right dedication to stretch yourself week on week.
As we nurture our own personal needs and develop into world-class athletes, speed is one of the most important foundations and physical components of fitness.