Coaches and Athletes: Unlock Sprint Speed and Acceleration

Speed development involves a global approach in which an athlete must address many different characteristics in order to have their best performance. One of the most challenging parts of speed training is what works best for one athlete, may not be optimal for another. Mobility, stability, strength, and coordination are all important factors to consider, but each athlete may be more reliant on some of these factors than others to reach their top speed. During a given training session, athletes and coaches may target improving mechanics, applying more force, or increasing the rate at which force applied with different exercises or drills. However, if we already know that the #1 most important aspect of sprint training is, well, sprinting at full speed, how can we possibly incorporate all these other things? One answer might lie within sprint “complex” training.

Sprint “complexes” are really quite simple. They are an approach to a training session in which different drills or exercises are incorporated into a set or series. A complex can consist of any number of speed and acceleration drills or exercises that lead up to a full speed sprint or acceleration. The exercises leading up to the sprint are designed to help improve upon one of the characteristics mentioned above, and will help “prime” the athlete for each subsequent sprint in the set. A common challenge in speed training is an athlete trying to “think” about fixing a flaw while performing a sprint or attempting to apply cues in real-time while sprinting. This will typically result in slower sprint times and therefore less transfer. Instead of thinking about correcting a problem, performing a complex with corrective-based movements built in will help wire an athlete into a better movement pattern, or help them apply more force by priming them before their sprint. Think of them as “activation” exercises before a sprint, similar to concepts used in strength training or dynamic warm ups.

So where do you start? How many sets per workout? How many exercises per set? What type of exercises should you use? How much rest should they get? The beauty of a sprint complex is that there are no wrong answers here, and you can cater each complex to a specific aspect of improvement, or individual athlete or athlete group. To give you a simple starting point, I like to categorize my complexes into two simple types, with specific goals in mind. 1) Acceleration complexes and 2) Top speed complexes. Both will commonly follow a similar training outline, but one is aimed at improving an athlete’s acceleration while the other is designed to develop top speed or max velocity abilities. Proper testing and assessment will help you determine if acceleration or top speed abilities should be the area of focus, but after this is established, you can start to plug in specific exercises or drills. I like to choose 3 – 4 exercises or drills, with a sprint typically included as the last exercise in a set. I will normally perform 3 – 5 sets within a normal 45 to 60-minute training session (after an appropriate warm-up). The exercises included within the set all have a purpose, to improve upon a specific movement pattern or skill, or to help elicit a quality like force production or “bounce” prior to a sprint (I will provide more detail on exercise selection below). Each sprint or sprints at the end of a set serve multiple purposes. Most importantly, they are the sprinting stimulus an athlete needs to continue to get faster. They are also the test to see if the exercises you chose prior in the set are having the desired effect. This test/re-test method is the key to speed complexes, as you can plug in different exercises each workout to find the combination that gives you the best results. Do not be afraid to stick with a certain complex for multiple workouts, as there is a learning curve here, and each athlete needs time to experiment. Now that we have reviewed why this type of training can be useful and a general outline for the workouts, let’s look at some example acceleration and top speed complexes.

Acceleration complex 1:

a) Single leg wall push 2 x 5 seconds each leg

b) Resisted sprint 1 x 15m

c) 3pt start sprint 2 x 10m

Acceleration complex 2:

a) Wall acceleration drill 2 x 3 each leg

b) Modified triple jump 1 x each leg

c) Standing start sprint 2 x 15m

Repeat complexes for 3-5 rounds

As I stated above, each exercise in a complex serves a purpose. In acceleration complex 1, the athlete begins with a single leg wall push, which is a drill that gets an athlete into an aggressive acceleration posture, and forces them to create stiffness in the ankle through the calf and Achilles tendon. This is an excellent primer and strengthening exercise that can be used prior to practicing starts or accelerations. Resisted sprints are next in the complex, as they assist an athlete to exert high amounts of horizontal force, which is paramount in projecting the body forward from a stationary position. The final movement in complex 1 is the actual sprint, which in this acceleration complex is a 10m sprint from a 3pt start. The exercises leading up to the sprint “prime” the body for acceleration mechanics and force-output, while the sprint at the end of the complex provides the stimulus for the athlete to put it all together at full speed. Acceleration complex 2 follows a similar structure to the first. The wall acceleration drill ensures proper “forward lean” and acceleration mechanics while ensuring strength and stiffness around the ankle joint. The modified triple jump enhances the rate of force development horizontally, and important aspect of acceleration. The standing start sprint provides the stimulus the athlete needs to apply the force application and mechanical work into an actual sprint.

Top speed complex 1:

a) Pogo hops 1 x 8

b) Skips for distance 1 x 30m

c) 10m fly 2 x 40m total

Top speed complex 2:

a) Booms 2 x 3 each leg

b) Primetimes 1 x 30m

c) Sprint – float – sprint 1 x 60m

Repeat complexes for 3-5 rounds

The top speed complexes follow the same pattern as above, but the emphasis is on upright sprinting or “front-side” mechanics and an increasingly vertical direction of force, similar to that seen in top speed sprinting. In top speed complex 1, pogo hops help an athlete apply vertical force as quickly and “elastically” as possible, like a bouncy ball. Skips for distance also emphasize short ground contact times, and get the athlete moving forward at an increasingly fast pace while emphasizing good knee lift and arm drive. The 10m fly(ing) sprint involves a 30m “build-up” where an athlete gradually increases speed, followed by 10m of top speed or top effort sprinting for a total of 40m. Top speed complex 2 begins with booms, which emphasize good upright sprinting mechanics and increase stiffness at the ankle and knee joints, which helps transfer force and gets an athlete to become “elastic” and efficient while sprinting. “Primetimes” or straight leg sprints help athletes recruit their hamstrings and glutes while sprinting, which is very important to top speed sprinting. The complex finishes with a sprint-float-sprint, a drill in which an athlete accelerates to top speed or effort, “relaxes” or coasts for a distance, then resumes full speed or effort all while maintaining good posture and speed. Distances can be adjusted based on the training age and preparation level of the athlete involved. For this complex a 30m build in is followed by 10m at full speed or effort, 10m of relaxed sprinting or “floating”, and finished with 10m of full speed sprinting for a total of 60m. Cones can be used to mark the designated sprint or coast zones.

There are many variables within sprint complexes that can be manipulated. This is both the beauty and challenge of creating quality sprint complexes. You can adjust the number of sets, reps, intensities, and exercises. One variable I have not mentioned yet is one of the most important… Rest! Rest times can be variable based on the goals of the complex itself, but if the goal is for absolute top speed, I typically use the following formula – 1 minute of rest per 10m of sprinting. Different sprints may require more or less rest, for example: Stationary starts, 3 point starts, or block starts may require more rest time between efforts, while rolling starts, skip-in starts, or flying starts can typically follow the 1 minute per 10m rule. Rest between exercises within the complex can vary based on how fatiguing the drill is, for example, a 30m primetime will be more fatiguing than a few booms and will require more rest. Tracking sprint times as you program workouts will you help fine-tune rest times for best results.

Sprint complexes are a great way to incorporate new technical and strength drills into an athletes speed workouts. They can also break up the monotony of simply repeating sprints and relying on cues for improved technical skill and sprint performance. I hope that you have found this intriguing and useful, and are confident in adding Sprint complexes to your own training program or coaching toolbox!

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