Following on from our acceleration post we move into maximum speed or velocity. Maximum velocity is reached after our acceleration phase (after 4-6 seconds) where velocity is maximal and is maintained for only a short period of time (generally 3-5 seconds) (4). In lower level athletes this phase will be reached sooner, while in higher level athletes it will take longer for them to reach their maximum velocity, of which will also be far greater than that of lower level athletes (4). For some sports such as tennis, netball or basketball, maximum speed is somewhat irrelevant as players will never cover enough distance to be able to reach their maximum speed (4). For field sports such as AFL, soccer and hockey and track and field where there are greater distances that can be run, maximum velocity becomes important (4). It is argued that because in field-based sports it is often that sprints are started from a walk, jog or running start that they may be more likely to reach their maximum velocity earlier (4). This can occur as a field sport athlete’s maximum velocity is generally slower than that of a track and field athlete (4).
What exactly is maximum velocity and how can we train for it? Maximum velocity is the highest possible velocity you can achieve and maintain for a short period of time before muscular deceleration and fatigue slow you down (4). As we increase our running velocity our stride length will also increase until a moderate speed, while stride frequency will increase until we reach our maximum velocity (4). As we increase our running velocity our muscles must shorten and lengthen at increasingly rapid rates (4). There are a few mechanical properties that allow us to do this including, strength, power and technique (4).
Just like with acceleration there are various types of strength that can affect our maximal speed and all of these need to be considered when training to improve our maximal speed (1, 2, 6). It has been found that maximum speed running has a greater reliance on maximum strength and reactive strength (1, 2, 6).
As stated in our previous acceleration article maximum strength is the maximum amount of force you can apply to an object or how strong you are (1, 2, 6). It has been stated that one of the single best predictors of maximal sprint velocity is that of maximal force relative to body weight (1, 2, 6). Ways that this can be measured include through a 1 repetition maximum (RM) or through an Isometric Mid-thigh Pull Test (1, 2, 6). From this measure it can be determined how much force an individual can apply to the ground with each stride during their maximal velocity phase.
As stated in our previous article on acceleration, reactive strength is our ability to rapidly change from an eccentric to a concentric muscle contraction (1, 2, 6). This type of strength uses the stretch shortening cycle (SSC). This relates to our ability to store and utilize elastic energy within our tendons allowing them to act like a spring (where they are stretched to their maximum potential, before rapidly releasing energy as they recoil back to their resting state) (1, 2, 6). This means that we can have faster ground contact times (GCT) increasing our stride frequency and the velocity at which we are travelling (1, 2, 6). This form of strength is commonly measured through a countermovement jump test (assessing the slow SSC) or a drop jump test (assessing the fast SSC) (1, 2, 6). It has been found that the drop jump test has a greater correlation to maximum speed sprinting due to the shorter contact time and the smaller knee flexion angles produced (6).
Power is the change in force being applied with respect to time, this means that the amount of force that is applied is proportional to the speed at which force is applied (1, 2). During maximum velocity running power is just as important as during the acceleration phase. As stated, stride frequency is at its greatest during the maximum velocity stage of running, this also means that out GCT is also at its greatest (1, 2). Therefore power is important as the greater amount of force you are able to apply to the ground over a short period of time, the shorter the GCT you will have (1, 2).
We know the 2 biggest factors affecting an athlete’s maximum velocity include stride rate and stride length (3). An athlete however can only run as fast as their technique will allow them (3, 5). Poor technique will lead to poor body position, poor leg turn over, over striding (creating braking forces) and collapsing at the hips (3, 5). So, how can we improve our technique to improve our maximum velocity and reduce our risk of injury? There are 3 technique factors that we will talk about below.
Triple extension/slight forward lean:
Triple extension is the ideal position we can form at toe off during all phases of running. This is when we form a straight line from the shoulder to the ankle, linking the whole of the posterior kinetic chain together (erector spinae, glutes, hamstrings and calves) (2, 5). This allows the big power house muscle groups to work together in a synergistic manner, allowing you to apply greater force to the ground with every step (5). When we break this chain the end resultant force that we are able to apply to the ground is reduced. Reducing our stride frequency and ultimately slowing us down (3, 5). This can lead to technique faults such as over striding (creating breaking forces), collapsing at the hips and poor leg turn over (3, 5).
Active clawing action:
This means that with every step your forefoot actively lands on the ground and pushes the ground behind you (3, 5). Doing this will mean that you are able to achieve the next technique point. It will also help to prevent you from overstriding (creating a breaking force), and/or have poor body position as it forces you to lean forward (3, 5). The best way to think of running and especially running at high velocity, is that it is just falling forward and catching yourself with every stride (3, 5). However, if we are able to turn that catch phase into a positive clawing action this will lead to the propulsive phase of the gait cycle efficiently (3, 5).
Negative shin angle:
When the foot lands behind the knee on ground contact, doing this will mean that you are not over striding and will force you into a forward lean position (3, 5). This foot positioning and shin angle also allows us to have a greater use of our SSC with every stride, one of the fastest ways for us to produce and utilize energy within our muscles and tendons (3, 5). Leading to shorter GCT and a faster stride rate, ultimately increasing your maximum velocity (3, 5).
Some ways that we can teach these technique points include:
- Barr, M. Agar-Newman, D. Sheppard, J. & Newton, R. Transfer effect of strength and power training to the sprinting kinematics of International rugby players. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 28(9): 2585-2596, 2014.
- Lockie, R. Murphy, A. Schultz, A. Knight, T. & Janse De Jonge, X. The effects of different speed training protocols on sprint acceleration kinematics and muscle strength and power in field sport athletes. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 26(6): 1539-1550, 2012.
- McFarlane, B. Developing maximum running speed. National Strength and Conditioning Association Journal. 18: 24-28, 1984.
- Miller, R. Umberger, B. & Caldwell, G. Limitations to maximum sprinting speed imposed by muscle mechanical properties. Journal of Biomechanics. 45: 1092-1097, 2012.
- Nagahara, R. Matsubayashi, T. Matsuo, A. & Zushi, K. Kinematics of transition during human accelerated sprinting. Biology Open. 3: 689-699, 2014.
- Young, W. McLean, B. Ardagna, J. Relationship between strength qualities and sprinting performance. The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness. 35: 13-19, 1995.