Rethinking Speed Exposure for Modern Athletes
A Model of Integration for Speed in Human Health & Performance
The further and further I get down the rabbit hole of human health and performance, the more I realize a centralized truth: Speed is the Hierarchy of Athletic Development.
I’ve mentioned multiple times what I believe is the most appropriate model (backlink to VH Health & Performance Model) for health, development, and performance in both the general population and athletes.
The more you peel back the layers of the human body, not only do you realize you know nothing, you also realize that training for human health and optimal performance are mutually exclusive.
Training for optimal performance is literally training to be an inefficient human being. The brain and the body will take the path of least resistance, always.
Look at our ancestry, how humans were designed, how we walk, how we move, how we breathe, all of these factors come into play as it pertains to optimal human health. (backlink to athlete health vs. performance).
Contrarily, training for strength, sport, and athletic actions are all going against what our bodies were designed to do. However, there is one athletic action that is the common denominator that loosely ties human health and athlete performance…
You guessed it, sprinting.
In this piece, I want to present how I’ve transitioned my thinking into a more modern approach as it pertains to human health and athletic performance.
The Benefits of Training for Speed: A Global Approach
1- Improves Performance via the Speed Reserve
In sports, getting there “first” matters, a lot. It’s no secret that speed is the separation factor in an athlete’s ability in sport. In strength training, if you have two athletes, athlete A squats 500lbs. Athlete B, squats 300 lbs. Who will be able to squat 225lbs for the most reps?
Hopefully you said athlete A. Why? Because the absolute strength threshold is much higher than athlete B.
Speed Reserve, or Anaerobic Speed Reserve (ASR), is simply the difference between your maximum speed and your maximum aerobic speed.
The concept is simple: the faster your top end speed, the faster your sub-max speed. Rarely in a game, do we ever see an athlete running at their absolute top speed. This is for a number of factors:
- The game changes paces to quickly
- The distances of a court or field seldom allow room for max speed to occur
- Athlete’s are too fatigued
As a result, athletes and humans for that matter, perform in what I call “operating speeds” via the speed reserve. In order to be highly successful in your sport, you must be able to sustain higher levels of operating speeds than your opposition if you want to “get there first” when the game requires it.
Team sport athletes have adopted many practices and principles from Track and Field coaches, such as Charlie Frances.
If there is once principle that holds the most truth, it’s increasing max velocity (back link to max velocity article) in an athlete will improve their performance and all of the subsidiary physical qualities you intend to improve.
2- Improves Gait Mechanics
Last week, I watched an awesome presentation from Conor Harris. Conor has a lot of valuable insight into human biomechanics and human movement as it relates to athletic performance.
You can find his entire presentation here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2vvFaei5mSs
As humans, we are bipedal in nature. This helps us in four major ways.
Improved vision, temperature regulations, threat display theory, and improved movement economy.
Improved Vision: Being that we are bipedal, we are able to see further distances. This has helped our development over the years. We could see potential threats coming, we could see our territory, most importantly, it improved our overall vision.
Temperature Regulations: A single large surface on our entire body is never fully hit by the sun. As humans, we don’t “overheat” as other species.
Threat Display Theory: Standing upright, full extended, and head held high has been a sign of
Dominance” since the beginning of time. People who represent these physical qualities are often viewed as such, Gutheric 1974.
Improved Movement Economy: As humans, standing on two feet allows us to consume less oxygen on average for the same distance covered as species who walk on all fours, Sockol et al. In essence, we cover more ground, in less time, utilizing less energy. We were designed to be extremely aerobically fit.
This is why since the age of toddlers, we have tried to self organize our gait into what we perceive as the most efficient. (Scott, 1981.)
However, as I alluded to before, our bodies always want to take the path of least resistance. Why? Because consciously trying to force our bodies to alter our gait against what we perceive as efficient is metabolically expensive, Cavanough & Anderson 1996.
Training for optimal performance is literally training to be an inefficient human.
In his presentation, Conor identifies the gait cycle as:
- Two Phases: Stance and Swing
- Two Strategies: Loading and Propulsion
- Loading: Heel Strike, Mid Stance
- Propulsion: Late Stance, Swing
Loading Phase: In the loading phase of gait, you have flexion, internal rotation, adduction, and a posterior pelvic tilt, and lastly the pelvis slides over the femur, also known as AF IR (Acetabular- Femoral Internal Rotation)
During the heel strike in the loading phase there are two separate actions, concentric and eccentric.
Concentric action: You can see in the diagram above, as the heel strikes the ground you engage the hamstrings, as you pull your pelvis over your femur, your glute medius, gluteus minimus, and obliques stabilize this action as you foot is centered underneath your frame.
Eccentric Phase: Here, the quads, calbes, hip adductors, and spinal erectors “push” the body into the loading phase.
Loading Phase: Mid Stance
Concentric: During this phase the hamstrings, adductors, anterior gluteus, and obliques must work hard to maintain this position in relation to the ground. They are fighting gravity to stabilize your frame.
Eccentric: During this phase, your quads, calves, and hip abductors act as breaking mechanisms as your foot begins to align underneath your frame.
In athletics, this is where we come to a sudden stop, begin a jump, or plant to change direction.
Propulsion Phase: In the propulsion phase, the exact opposite is happening. You have extension, external rotation, abduction, anterior pelvic tilt orientation, and AF- ER (Acetabular-Femoral External Rotation).
In athletics, this is what happens when we run, jump, or make a transition out of a cut.
Concentric: The glute max, proximal hamstring, hip abductors, calves, psoas, spinal erectors. The big toe push off initiates the sequencing of all of the muscles in this kinetic chain.
Eccentric: The opposite is happening. The distal hamstring is working to slow down knee extensors, the adductors are there to prevent valgus of the knees, and psoas help initiate the swing.
Concentric: Hip flexors pull the leg through, hip external rotators work to give room for the leg to recover, ankle dorsi-flexion to strike the ground
Eccentric: High hamstring activity upon striking the ground, adductors, pull the legs together, and calves push the leg through.
This is extremely important because before you can sprint properly you must be able to run properly. Each of the actions listed above happen while you sprint – in a much more violent manner with varying degrees of kinematic motion.
Various works of other coaches in the industry such as Adarian Barr, Stuart McGill, and Charlie Francis – all have similar but different viewpoints of sprinting.
Just as we provide reference points for individuals as it pertains to their gait, similar reference points must be made to connect the brain to the body for optimal gait mechanics.
So how does sprinting improve gait mechanics? The body will always choose the path of least resistance
However, proper gait equals athletic hierarchy in sports. In order to reach these optimal gait mechanics, we need to get the brain to unlock.
3-Improves Cognitive Function
The body is not the same on both sides. (backlink to big 3 article), this includes the brain. The brain is divided into two hemispheres. Each side of the brain has very specific responsibilities based on the sensory inputs it receives from everyday life. The left side of the brain is responsible for all sensory inputs from the right side of the body, motor control, speech, language, comprehension, analysis, calculations, timing, sequencing, recognition of words, and numbers.
The right side of the brain is responsible for sensory from left, motor control from left, creativity, spatial awareness, content, perception, recognition of focus, places, and objects.
Why is this important? All inputs that are received by the brain via the left or right side of the body will have a corresponding output.
Human asymmetry and sports are mutually inclusive.
Our brain orientation has favorable positions that we feel most comfortable in, unfortunately, this is generally wrong.
Think about this,
- when you jump, which leg do you take off with?
- When you sprint from a 2 point which foot do you lead with?
- When you land after a jump which foot seeks the ground first?
- Which foot do you prefer to plan with when you cut?
- Which foot feels stronger in a unilateral position?
Your brain has already made a choice which positions you feel the “best” in based on the natural asymmetries of the body and you contant experience athletics utilizing those positions.
In order to achieve our said goal of optimal gait mechanics we must remove any mental barriers that are inhibiting us from getting there.
The above comparable diagrams displayed how walking, although two seperate athletic actions, utilize similar muscle groups when performed.
When you remove reference points, biomechanics, posture, and position from the sprint, you unlock neural adaptations that in turn, will help you get into optimal gait mechanics. Here’s how.
Sprinting and Running changes your brain wiring
David Raichlen, professor of Biological Sciences of USC and his colleagues scanned the brains of young, competitive distance runners and controls while they rested in a scanner with their eyes open for six minutes. As reported in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, the runners showed greater connectivity between the so-called frontal parietal network and other neural regions involved in working memory and self-control, which the researchers interpreted as likely due to the cognitive demands of running and the runners’ increased aerobic fitness.
The runners also showed greater “anti-correlation” between their default mode network (the DMN, which sparks into life when we’re resting) and a series of regions involved in motor control and sensation – the researchers said this could indicate that when on the move, the runners are likely to be very cognitively engaged, with their DMN suppressed.
In layman’s terms, they were able to process their inputs better and make better associations in the brain. Sprinting and running may allow individuals to make connections between improper and proper gait mechanics because they have greater memories and reference points.
Intense sprints seem to boost your executive function
Ever hear of the phrase, “the game slows down.”?
This in part is due to the amount of exposure elite level athletes have to fast paced environments. This can also be referred to as perceptual cognitive speed.
I go over this in greater detail in my Agility Course (link to agility course.)
In Gamespeed, by Ian Jefferys, he states athletes and individuals who operate at higher levels of perceptual cognitive speed have better visual scanning abilities, anticipation, pattern recognition, knowledge of situation, and reaction time.
One of the most eye-opening books I have read over the past year is Nonlinear Pedagogy in Skill Acquisition: An Introduction by Jia Yi Chow, Keith Davids, Chris Button, and Ian Renshaw. In this text, the authors provide some key points that they feel describe skilled athletes in sport.
Skilled athletes are able to:
- Produce functional, efficient, and effective movement patterns that appear smooth and effortless.
- Coordinate their actions successfully, with respect to important environmental surfaces, objects, and other individuals, demonstrating precise timing between movements.
- Consistently reproduce stable and functional coordination solutions under the stress of competition.
- Organize movement patterns that are not automated in the sense of being identical from one performance trial to the next, but that are subtly varied and precisely adapted to immediate changes in the environment.
Every aforementioned athletic action is a byproduct of frequent exposure, nature, and nurture. Another study published in Preventive Medicine Reports, researchers asked young volunteers (average age 12) to complete several 10-second sprints for ten minutes and then take some cognitive tests. The participants acted as their own controls and on another day (either before or after the sprint day) they completed the same mental tests after 10 minutes of rest.
The participants’ performance on the Stroop Test – a long-established measure of mental control or what psychologists call “executive function” – seemed to be enhanced immediately after the sprints and 45 minutes afterwards, as compared with after resting.
There were no effects of the sprints on visual-spatial memory (right side dominance) performance or basic mental speed (as judged by the Digit Symbol Substitution test).
Based on their finding of an apparent benefit of sprints on executive function, Simon Cooper and his colleagues said there was a case for including more opportunities for intense exercise in the school day.
It is my belief that sprinting specifically, can help an athlete or individual cognitivity be more aware of their inputs, orientation, positions, and outputs as it pertains to health and performance.
However, as we all know, the limiting mental factor in convincing a specific change in the body must be made, is removing the most important training variable: STRESS.
All stress is created equal whether you like it or not. The stress you experience from an emotional break up will be processed by the brain the same way an extremely hard workout would be. The same sequences of physiological processes will happen irrelevant of what the external stressor is.
Sprinting is an art form in which the key to success lies in an individual’s ability to relax and contract.
Sprinting and many other athletic actions require reciprocal inhibition: When the central nervous system sends a message to the agonist muscle to contract, the tension in the antagonist is inhibited and must relax. If this doesn’t happen, you have inefficient intermuscular coordination.
If you can have an athlete demonstrate levels of high relaxation while perming the most volatile of exercises (ie the sprint) you will be able to have an athlete “relax” when performing slower more controlled movements (ie optimal loading & propulsion).
As said multiple times, if you don’t breathe through a movement you don’t own it. If you have individuals who cannot demonstrate the right positions in the sprint (mentioned above) and breathe, you further sympathetic tone, extension, and increase levels of stress.
It is my intention to restore health and function in your athletes. I view sprinting as a self corrective mechanism for said desired effect.
Do yourself a favor and end your training sessions with deep, diaphragmatic breathing. Here are a few ways I do this. Make sure to feel thoracic flexion, abs on the exhale, and your upper back (posterior mediastinum) expand upon inhaling through the nose. And DON’T lose that good position throughout the exercise!
5-IMPROVES CARDIOVASCULAR HEALTH
Around 74% of all deaths in the United States occur as a result of 10 causes. Over the past 5 years, the main causes of death in the U.S. have remained fairly consistent. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there were 2,813,503 registered deaths in the United States in 2017.
The age-adjusted death rate, which accounts for the aging population, is 731.9 deaths per 100,000 people in the U.S. This is an increase of 0.4% over 2016’s death rate.
However, the CDC advises that using age-adjusted rates is inaccurate for ranking causes of death.
All figures and percentages provided here come from the most recent data from the CDC, collected in 2017.
The number one cause of death in the United States? Heart Disease.
The total amount of deaths in 2017: 647,457. Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women. This is the case in the U.S. and worldwide. More than half of all people who die due to heart disease are men.
Medical professionals use the term heart disease to describe several conditions. Many of these conditions relate to the buildup of plaque in the walls of the arteries. As the plaque develops, the arteries narrow. This makes it difficult for blood to flow around the body and increases the risk of heart attack or stroke. It can also give rise to angina, arrhythmias, and heart failure.
To reduce the risk of dying from heart disease, a person can protect their heart health by adopting a healthful diet and getting regular exercise.
Unfortunately, the prevalence of Childhood Obesity in the United States is only rising. Childhood obesity is a serious problem in the United States putting children and adolescents at risk for poor health. Obesity prevalence among children and adolescents is still too high. For children and adolescents aged 2-19 years1: The prevalence of obesity was 18.5% and affected about 13.7 million children and adolescents. Obesity prevalence was 13.9% among 2- to 5-year-olds, 18.4% among 6- to 11-year-olds, and 20.6% among 12- to 19-year-olds.
I have worked with thousands of youth athletes ranging from 8-19 years old, as mentioned above, and from a complete empirical standpoint, I have seen a shift in the lack of extracurricular activities in youth athletes.
This issue is in part, due to more technological advancements which can lead to more sedentary lifestyles, central focus, lack of energy experidenture, and ultimately, weight gain.
Walking is a great first step (pun intended), but sprinting will deliver better results. A comparison study between interval and endurance training repeatedly showed better cardiovascular outcomes from intervals.
For example, a 2011 study in overweight women showed increased stroke volume and lower training and resting heart rate after 4 weeks of cycle sprint training. A similar 2008 study, showed better arterial structure, with a decrease in chronic inflammation that damages heart function, from sprints rather than aerobic training.
It should be noted that all sprint training must be delivered in the appropriate form based on the population of individuals you are working with.
Properly adhering to the ample distance and volume (backlink to another article) is largely dependent on where the athlete or individual is in their training cycle.
7-IMPROVES GLUCOSE CONTROL
In individuals who struggle with weight or less fit, insulin and glucose control are weaker.
Why is insulin sensitivity and glucose control so important?
Reduced insulin sensitivity or, more seriously, the development of insulin resistance (which can develop into type 2 diabetes), means insulin can’t shuttle sugar into cells, leading to a dangerous buildup of glucose in the blood.
Researchers published in BMC Endocrine Disorders found that sprinting could improve metabolic risk factors, such as high blood sugar levels, as well as improve cholesterol levels, reduces blood pressure, cuts abdominal fat, and improves sugar metabolism.
Researchers believe sprinting might improve glucose control through pathways similar to how it improves cardiovascular health. A burst of intense exercise such as sprinting, signals to cells that they need to get their act together and make it more likely you’ll survive in a demanding environment.
Furthermore, a number of studies show any time you alternate intense bursts of exercise with rest periods, you will improve insulin sensitivity and blood sugar tolerance. This is partly because sprints decrease chronic inflammation and partly because the cells must adopt to more efficiently produce energy to keep you going.
A 2006 review showed that protocols that are more anaerobic in nature, as sprints are, produce higher EPOC (Excessive Post Exercise Consumption) than steady state-state training because the trained muscle cells restore physiological factors in the cells.
Sprinting tells your cells that life is fierce, and you need them to do better!
8-Calorie Burning and Body Composition
Let me know when you see a fat sprinter, I’ll wait.
Just look at the animal kingdom or watch the Olympics. There is no running for recreation—just running for your life. Survival of the fittest takes precedence, see a common theme here?
Anaerobic exercise does not require you to use oxygen to perform.
Your body’s primary source of fuel comes from high-energy compounds called adenosine triphosphate, or ATP, that is stored and recycled in your muscles. Since your body has a finite amount of ATP storage, you will not be able to do high-intensity exercise for longer than 10 seconds.
According to Vern Gambetta, director of Gambetta Sports Training Systems in Sarasota, Florida, your body uses the stored ATP and some glucose for energy during sprinting. For longer sprints or any high-intensity exercise, your body uses glucose as an energy source to make more ATP.
EPOC: The After-Burner
After a bout of sprinting, your body’s metabolism increases to recover the lack of oxygen and to recover to its resting state. This process is called excessive post-exercise consumption, or EPOC, where your body burns a higher number of calories after strenuous exercise.
While your body repairs muscle tissues and replenishes cell nutrients, it uses fat as the main fuel source for energy in EPOC. In 1994, Dr. Angelo Trembblay, an exercise physiologist at Laval University in Quebec, Canada, conducted a study on EPOC with two groups of people.
One group did high-intensity exercise at several intervals, while the second group did steady-pace aerobics. The first group burned three times more body fat than the second group. Therefore, sprinting causes your body to undergo EPOC, which uses fat for energy to recover.
Sprint training will help you build muscle and it preferentially increases the size and strength of the powerful, fast twitch fibers. Studies show sprinting enhances protein synthesis pathways by as much as 230 percent! With the right nutrition and recovery, this will lead to muscle building, allowing for a higher performing athlete.
In addition, sprint training has repeatedly been shown to increase anabolic hormones that improve body composition. For instance, male football players who did short-sprint training (six 35 meter sprints with 30 second recovery) significantly increased testosterone and decreased cortisol, leading to a favorable ratio between the two hormones for building muscle.
Women won’t experience the same increase in testosterone, but sprints have still shown increases in growth hormone (GH), burning fat, and building muscle.
It should be important to note that every point must be taken into consideration and it not an absolute.
Speed should be looked at more than just data, force velocity profiles, and the likes. We need to look at how speed truly benefits our athletes.