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The Athletic Role of Speed

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By Mick Clegg

For decades I’ve believed speed gives athletes a definitive edge. However, what speed involves is typically underestimated, so here are some key concepts that lay out what it’s about and how to approach training it beyond a purely physical perspective.

The Speed-Cognitive Principle

Speed is always initiated through cognitive processes, it depends on sufficient mental resources being activated that then distribute the necessary nervous and muscular responses across many physical body parts at the same time. Substantial speed gains must come from a training approach that hones this synchronous coordination of cognition and physical activity. It’s a lot more than just quick muscles.

Speed can be improved with cognitive processing, which can increase efficiency across the whole physical system. It’s also key from a bio-mechanical standpoint – quick movements are not useful unless they are accurate movements. This allows higher ratios of muscular exertion because the body has learned to accurately position the skeletal frame and muscular tension at each moment for optimal force.

Achieving Bio-Mechanical Efficiency

An everyday example of the brain and central nervous system improving faster physical motion is seen with a simple exercise such as standing up from a floor position. This is a sensory experience involving factors such as perception, proprioception and balance, including from the vestibular (ear) system. If you test most athletes from a lying flat position on their front with their arms stretched forward, hands down, it’s often surprising just how inefficient they are. Then when drilled repetitively on the seemingly simple task, their brain and nervous responses become wired to engage these processes more effectively. Quite quickly they become more efficient, and faster. In this instance muscle fitness is unchanged, unlike the brain.

This idea expands more broadly. To achieve higher and higher speeds the brain must know the best position for every part of the body to work from and to, and then through rapid cognition excite impulses to the physical system on shorter timescales to meet continual force demands. To operate beyond normal thresholds, the activity itself must become an innate process to the whole physical system. This is why speed is one of the most complex aspects of performance to train – it involves everything.

Progressive Speed Training Methodology 

To train speed of movement effectively across many actions, we need to first train the brain to accurately understand each exercise form. This means learning without unnecessary sensory complexity, such as extra weight or too much speed before a foundation of coordination is properly established.

Then through closely monitored progression, perfect form is built upon with small increases in factors such as speed, weight or movement complexity. These need to be part of a total progressive overload methodology. This is a pivotal concept, because the overload training principle should be achieved for mental resources as well as physical.

Essentially these are shared resources in a single combined system. The key is controlling the individual variables that contribute to how challenging each exercise is to each athlete, at each step of their training. It’s not simply about increasing force or effort, it’s about the subtle interplay of cognitive and physical stimuli, and adaptivity to them through conditioning. The aim is to make the training exercises multi-functional one step at a time.

In this sense it’s worth thinking about training drills as a cognitive assimilation of the exercises themselves. This assimilation provides the foundation on which speed can effectively progress.

Physical Excellence Through Mental Focus 

In this broader progressive overload approach, we can now see that adding more complex sensory challenges can be as, or more important, than just increasing physical factors. For example testing balance, perception, awareness, and decision-making during exercises increases the total performance load of an exercise, directly impacting the speed of physical responses. This impact can also be a measure of performance readiness – as we know, the mental pressures of competition are a major threat to skill performance.

Finally it’s essential to recognize that total concentration on an exercise is of absolute importance. It’s amazing how much help athletes can need guidance with this discipline. Their whole system needs to be active and tuned in to make every moment in training as efficient and impactful on performance as possible. Simply going through the motions of exercises is ultimately not enough to excel. This is one reason I believe Olympic-Lifts are invaluable power exercises – with clean and jerk the athlete must be totally focused and engage their whole system.

Teaching Gradual Mastery

From a coaches standpoint overall, this approach means 1) stripping down carefully all exercises, then utilizing them in ways that apply the correct total load, 2) teaching athletes to concentrate on every aspect of the exercise and master it through their combined sensory systems, and 3) to continuously build up the foundation of speed through training at threshold across of all the necessary cognitive and physical components involved in an exercise. It’s with this approach of constantly moving performance boundaries over time, that athletes can make unprecedented gains in speed that can transfer to competition.

If you’d like to read more from Mick, then check this out.

Brain Holds Key to Performance Edge in Elite Sports

About Mick Clegg

Mick has been a personal coach and trainer 36 years. Mick had the amazing privileged to work at Manchester United Football Club from 2000 to 2011. He was the Power Development (Strength & Conditioning) Coach to many of the worlds top football players including Cristiano Ronaldo, David Beckham, Wayne Rooney, Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville, to name just a few.

Since he left Manchester United he has continued to coach other top class athletes including Mike Eade, Kyle Howarth, Matt Gilks and Aaron Cook, as well as working with those in golf, BMX, ruby and American football. Learn more about Mick’s work by visiting elitelab.co.uk or seedofspeed.com

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