Breaking Down Maximum Velocity

This excerpt is from SpeedRunner: 4 Weeks to Your Fastest Leg Speed in Any Sport by running coach Pete Magill. In SpeedRunner, Magill reveals his 4-week training plan to make any athlete a faster runner.  Faster than a speeding bullet. More powerful than a locomotive . . . No,…

This excerpt is from SpeedRunner: 4 Weeks to Your Fastest Leg Speed in Any Sport by running coach Pete Magill. In SpeedRunner, Magill reveals his 4-week training plan to make any athlete a faster runner. 

Faster than a speeding bullet. More powerful than a locomotive . . .

No, you’re not Superman, but you’ll need Superman’s lightning-quick feet and enormous capacity for generating force if you’re going to improve your maximum velocity. For acceleration, your primary objective is to push—harder and more effectively than you’ve ever pushed before. For maximum velocity, you have an equally simple objective: to hit the ground as hard and fast as you can.

“When sprinting, your goal should be to put as much force into the ground as possible to move forward as quickly as possible,” writes Andrew Sacks in a 2013 website post. Sacks has trained athletes of all ages and skill levels, from nine-year-olds to college stars to major league baseball players on rosters for the Cubs, White Sox, Twins, Orioles, and Diamondbacks.

Hit the ground hard and fast. It’s that simple.

But is it necessary?

In this article, we’ve identified acceleration as the key phase of speed for most athletes, and we acknowledged that team sports generally don’t require sprints that extend beyond this acceleration phase. So why train for a type of speed you’ll rarely, if ever, use on the field or court? Because when you train to be faster at longer sprints, you’ll also get faster at shorter sprints. Maximum velocity training accomplishes this by increasing both the distance you’re able to accelerate and the horizontal force you can produce with each step. The result: You end up faster, from your first step to your last. As sprint researcher and coach Ken Clark explains in a 2017 interview, “There is no better way to train the nervous system than high-speed running because it [requires] the highest rate of force application.” So to train your nervous system for all phases of speed, maximum velocity running offers the biggest return. Besides, as Clark reminds team-sports athletes: “When big plays happen, they’re often based on whose top speed is fastest.” It’s up to you to determine which side of those “big plays” you’d like to be on.

What Is Maximum Velocity?

Maximum velocity is top-end speed. It’s that moment when you can no longer accelerate. Until that moment, the positive (forward) horizontal force you’ve been generating has been larger than the negative (opposing) force—the negative force is a combination of braking force and drag (air resistance). At maximum velocity, these positive and negative forces equal out. You can’t get any faster. But neither are the negative forces enough—yet—to slow you down.

At top-end speed, you’ve still got inertia on your side—a body in motion will stay in motion. All you need to do is produce the minimum horizontal force required to offset braking and drag, while also producing the necessary vertical force (think up and down) to get you off the ground at toe-off. As your contact time (the time your foot is on the ground) for each step gets shorter, you must produce force quicker. That requires a shift to an upright posture and a change in gait cycle mechanics, which we’ll address shortly.

One other thing: Maximum velocity ends almost as soon as it begins. While it takes an Olympic sprinter 50 to 60 meters (i.e., 55 to 65 yards) to reach maximum velocity, he or she can only maintain that speed for 10 to 30 meters (i.e., 10 to 33 yards). You may last 10 to 20 yards. After that, deceleration begins. It doesn’t seem fair. All that work for 10 to 20 yards of top-end speed? But look at it this way: You get 30 to 40 yards of high-quality acceleration before reaching maximum velocity, so altogether you’ll blast 40 to 60 yards before the slow-down kicks in.

Speaking of Olympic sprinters, only Usain Bolt has come close to sustaining maximum velocity through 100 meters. For everyone else, it’s a matter of limiting deceleration. When you see a sprinter burst into the lead over the final meters of a 100, he or she hasn’t picked up the pace. Instead, the other sprinters are fading faster.

Researchers aren’t sure why top-end speed is so short-lived. Acceleration expert Morin speculates that “you’re getting neuromuscular fatigue which lowers your vertical and propulsive forces.” He also suggests your feet and ankles get tired. Of course, “fatigue” is a tricky concept; no one’s sure what causes it. The Central Governor theory suggests that your brain shuts down muscle fibers when energy supply is low, body heat is high, etc. But the specific anaerobic system that provides most of the energy for sprints is good for 10 to 12 seconds of explosive burn—surely long enough to carry an Olympic sprinter past 60 to 80 meters (and average speedsters past 50 to 60). And you don’t overheat in 10 to 15 seconds. Another theory suggests it’s the process of creating the energy itself that leads to fatigue. Whatever the reason, fatigue happens. And when it does, your speedometer moves backward.

We’ll discuss energy systems and fatigue more in later chapters. For now, let’s stick to the components of maximum velocity:

  • Vertical force: In maximum velocity, it’s all about hitting the ground hard.
  • Knee lift position: What goes up (higher) must come down (harder).
  • Hip extension: The engine for maximum velocity resides in the hip extensor muscles.
  • Contact time: Less is more.
  • Leg stiffness: You want stiffness from your toes to your shoulders.
  • Stride length versus stride rate: The right mix makes you a faster sprinter.
  • Asymmetrical gait: For elite speedsters, the spring-mass model goes out the window.
  • Stability: Speedsters don’t wobble.

While you may never reach maximum velocity per se in your sport, the trickle-down effect of maximum velocity training will improve your acceleration and overall running efficiency. You’ll get faster. You’ll get fitter. And you’ll be on the high-fiving end of those big plays.

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