Frank Horwill



  • These articles were first published many year's ago and whilst some are as relevant today as they were when new, many are now mostly of historical interest as modern research and coaching methods have superseded them.

The Anatomy of Speed

By Frank Horwill

Joe Louis, the former great heavyweight champion of the world was getting too big for his boots, so thought his trainer. His mentor said to him, "So, you think you're good do you? Well, all the greatest fighters could catch a fly in mid-flight with either hand. When you can do that, you can call yourself a great fighter." It took Louis a year to master the feat, and when he finally succeeded, he rushed off with the fly still in his fist and released it in front of his trainer...

You could say the capturing of a fly buzzing around a room is an act of speed of movement. The perception of speed originates from the cerebellum, a pair of finely convoluted miniature hemispheres situated in the rear of the brain and under the main structure. It allows us to perceive the speed with which we approach objects and with which objects approach us. Without this ability, we would crash into barriers. More to the point, we would miss the cricket ball hurtling towards our wicket or fail to duck a swinging punch directed at our head.

For some time, physiologists were of the opinion that this perception of speed was innate to a high degree in talented sports-people, or could be acquired. Strangely enough, they were shocked to discover from reaction tests on world-class tennis players that their reaction times were no better than lesser talented individuals. So, what made them better? Apparently, they could "read" the game better. However, in slight contradiction of that theory, there is a growing belief that, in the sensory area of the brain, a skill that has been rehearsed many times becomes memorised, and that when a sports-person wishes to perform that particular skill, the "record" is immediately replayed. These well-rehearsed motor patterns which we can call on without much thought are called engrams by psychologists. Research by Franklin Henry at the University of California revealed that we do not necessarily possess general speed, but may possess specific speed. In other words, there is little if any carry-over from one sport to another unless the skills are nearly identical.

Striding out

If we pick ten school children of the same age and ask them to sprint 100m flat out three times with adequate rest after each effort, the odds are that the first three places will be filled by the same athletes. But, if the distance were then shortened to 60m the result may differ a little owing to some having a faster reaction time to the gun and possibly better starting technique.

Speed is defined as rate of stride multiplied by length of stride. The first three home in the 100 yards dash may have different speed abilities. One might have a rate of five strides a second and cover 2m per stride, making a total distance of 10m covered in a second. But another may only have a rate of four strides a second and cover 2.6m per stride, resulting in 10.4m being covered in a second, slightly faster than the faster striding runner.

While the rapid strider may have more fast-twitch muscle fibres in his legs, the slower strider may be able to exert more force on the ground as his foot pushes off to cover more distance. This latter point is a pungent answer to those who believe that sprinting speed cannot be improved and that we are either born fast or slow. We can improve sprinting speed by specific leg strength exercises which will enable us to cover more distance per stride.

Let's say that after twelve weeks of every-other-day strength training, we succeed in increasing our stride length by two inches (five centimetres). On average, we take 50 strides to cover 100m and 200 strides to cover 400m: that's a possible 50 x 2 inches faster respectively than before. That's about 0.3 and 1.2 seconds improvement, not to be sniffed at in sprint races!

But there are those who believe that even the rate of stride can be improved. One such was the Soviet coach Nikolay Osolin, who conducted painstaking research into the matter. He found that conventional sprint training became stereotyped and slowed down improvement. He tested sprinters on a downward slope of 2-3% and measured stride frequency. Immediately after downhill sprinting, stride frequency on the level increased by an average of 17%. He warned that the hill must not be too steep. He pressed on with his research and found that a sequence of sprinting up a gradual hill one day, sprinting downhill the next day and on the flat the third day was the ideal combination.

Recovery time

Another Soviet research, S. Kaledin, decided to investigate the effect of long recovery versus short recovery intervals. Each of two groups ran four series of the following, four days a week: 30m, 60m, 100m, 300m. The only difference in training was rest time after each repetition. One group took 1 minute, 1.5, 1.5 and 2. The other group recovered about 50% longer after each run.

A year later he tested the sprinters at various distances. At 30m, both groups were equal; average improvement was 0.4 second. At 60m, the short recovery group had a decided advantage - 0.9 seconds faster, compared to 0.6 seconds for the longer resters. The difference was more pronounced at 300m, where the short recoverers had a 4.5 to 3.1 edge improvement.

One leg at a time

With regard to the acquisition of specific leg strength for sprinters, there has been a major shift in thinking. It has taken nearly a century for physiologists to realise that we only use one leg at a time to propel ourselves forwards. Therefore, logically, all strength training should be confined to one leg at a time. Hopping up a gradual incline comes to mind over a specific distance, starting with 25m and aiming to reduce the number of hops. Hopping over hurdles is another activity, and increasing the number of barriers. One-legged squats with weights is also growing in popularity. Recent research suggests that the hip flexors and extensors are the main movers of the leg throughout the swinging stage. Knee extension and leg curl exercises have been relegated in importance but not abolished.

DIY speed tests

There are a number of simple speed tests which are linked to dynamic flexibility: in fact many believe that a trio exists: speed - flexibility - balance-coordination. Here are a few.

Test 1: From a standing start, sprint 40 yards (36.6m). Good times are sub-5 seconds for a male and sub-6 for a female. This is a requisite for track racing, football, rugby, hockey and cricket.

Test 2: Twist and touch. This is a spinal rotation examination. A line is drawn perpendicular to a wall. On either side of the line on the wall, a horizontal scale is extended from 0 to 30 inches just above shoulder height. The athlete stands with the non-preferred side to the wall on the line, and without moving the feet, twists back around touching the wall with the preferred hand palm downwards and holds it for two seconds. This action is required by most throwing eventers, such as volleyball players and cricket fielders.

Test 3: Squat, twist and touch. This measures the speed with which an athlete can flex and extend legs and rotate the spine. A belt is placed around the arms, tight enough to restrict the upper arms but allowing movement of the lower arms to bring the palms together in front of the body.

The athlete stands between two uprights with adjustable plates level to the elbows. Two other tap plates are placed on the uprights 18 inches below the others. When the start signal is given, the athlete, standing upright, twists to the right and touches the top plate with both hands, then squats and touches the lower tap plate on the right with both hands. While in the squat position, the athlete twists to the left and touches the lower left tap plate with both hands, and then rises to touch the top plate on the left with both hands. This completes one cycle. This continues for 30 seconds. A score of 15 completed cycles is good. I have found that weight training stands can be readily adapted for this test and stiff cardboard cut to the right lengths with holes inserted for string to go through for securing to the stand. This is a requisite for boxing, wrestling and rugby.

Test 4: Dodge run. This test measures the ability to change direction either suddenly or in a continuous fashion while moving forward. Six cones or chairs are set up in pairs six feet apart and the same distance behind each other. The starting line is eight feet away from the first pair of chairs. The chairs are negotiated twice - the outward zig-zagging trip and back. The run is timed. It's a good idea to vary the distance of the cones from feet to yards and compare times. See diagram below. This is indicated for tennis, hockey, football and rugby.

Diagram by Frank Horwill

Test 5: Shuttle run. This test measures the speed with which an athlete can suddenly and completely change body direction. Two parallel lines are drawn 15 feet apart. The athlete starts behind one line and runs to the opposite line where both feet must cross the line, then return to the start. This completes one trip. The time is take to complete five trips. This is indicated practically all team ball games.

Test 6: The duck test. This measures the ability of an athlete to alter body position while moving forward at fast speed. Two up-rights are placed ten feet apart (high jump stands or weight stands will suffice). A bar is placed across and adjusted to the height of the athlete's navel. Starting at the right and behind one of the stands, run under the bar and around the next stand and back under the bar, criss-crossing in this manner (figure of eight fashion) until four round trips have been done and timed. This is indicated in tennis where sudden surges forward are required to scoop up a dropshot just over the net. It's also a good suppling test for hurdlers and steeplechasers.

When testing an entire team, a mean average will soon be established for each test and also an average for positional players, e.g. defenders and attackers.