There are many links in the chain of developing speed. But the links aren’t equal as some are absolutely essential and others are just helpful. Perhaps the most essential link in the chain of speed is that you’ve got to have strong muscles to drive you, muscles that are specific to the task. And once you’ve found a way to strengthen the exact muscles you need, then comes the real work – firing them faster and faster.
A very effective way to teach sprint muscles to fire faster is to trick them into firing fast. Think of it this way. There are half a dozen similar boxes lying on the ground that need to be lifted on to a pickup truck. The first one is about 50 pounds. You lift it up on to the truck easily. The next one weighs the same, you easily lift it up. The next one is the same. Then you grab the next box, fully expecting that same 50 pounds, and it only has a couple of pounds. The body is geared up for the 50 pounds, muscles are ready for it, but when you lift it with the same energy, it flies over the top of the truck; such is the force of your lift.
The body was tricked into exerting more force than was necessary. It was taken out of its comfort zone and applied more muscles working faster than needed. The box zoomed into the air.
This is the principle of contrast training. Knock the body out of its comfort zone and apply more force than expected. It doesn’t take a lot as just a couple of repetitions will send a clear message to the brain and body that there is more speed in your bones than you thought. But the key is that contrast training needs to be done full speed. It can’t be done as part of cardiovascular conditioning when the body is necessarily moving less than its fastest; that would send the wrong message that you seek sub-maximal speed. You don’t want to teach yourself to run at 90% of your speed, you want to run at 102% of your speed, to find a new maximum speed. Make that 102% into your habitual maximum. Then some time in the future, do the same thing to find yet another 102%. This is how speed is developed, not in one magic lump.
There are a dozen drills to accomplish this. As long as you remember to do contrast training when you are relatively fresh, a couple of reps will go a long way. One way is to resist your sprint with a harness. Keep the distance of the sprint and elapsed time short. Be careful not to misunderstand resisted training, something of great value for speed development, and contrast training. That’s comparing apples and oranges. The resisted runs are just setting you up for your contrast burst. Do just four or five reps resisted, and then contrast the effort with a couple “free” full speed short sprints. The contrast free sprint should be done within a minute or so to the resisted effort so that you learn best from the effort, giving yourself enough time to re-charge the ATP in your fuel tank.
In the course of a speed workout, it is good to have several varieties of contrast training. Do a couple full speed bursts after four resistance harness bursts. Do a couple after very short uphill bursts. A great way to teach more force production in a short time is to use ankle harnesses. These essentially tie the ankles together with a thin flexible cord that moderately resists the leg as it is raised. After a few bursts with the ankle harnesses on, take them off for a couple of free bursts for 20 yards.
Do a couple 10 yard bursts as part of plyometric training with boxes, hurdles, or medicine balls. One great contrast is to depth drop off a box (any height from chair to picnic table height). Come down on both feet and instantly burst into a sprint. More advanced athletes can use two low hurdles to jump, then sprint for 10 yards. Stand on a line holding a 6 to 12 pound medicine ball, quickly squat down, push the ball up and out with all your might then chase after it for about 10 yards.
Contrast training can even be done during the resisted action. There are several options here, as the sprint starts out resisted then suddenly the resistance is released and the athlete jolts forward. A great way to do this is with a pair of two pound hand weight bags. You start off on a 30 yard sprint holding a weight bag in each hand still emphasizing fast arm action. The body reads this resistance as being much heavier than two pounds due to the centrifugal force of the swinging arm. Much more muscle is recruited to help the swinging arm. Then in a flash, the payload is dropped and the arms are free. The first couple of arm swings after dropping the hand weights force the contrast to take place, as all of that additional force is put into swinging the arms that no longer carry the hand weights. You’ll feel yourself lurch forward with a burst of speed.
The Queen Mother of contrast training is the resisted let-go drill. Long ago white gym towels were put around the waist of a sprinter as a teammate held both ends of the towel in back of the runner. The runner took off driving hard for five yards, then the teammate let go of one end of the towel. Suddenly the towel released the sprinting athlete to burst forward for a short sprint. Over the years this system of letting go has improved; I even saw an electro-magnetic one where the resistance rope had a handle with an activating button. But training on grass and often running for cover from the rain storms pretty much rules out anything magnetic for most athletes. So it falls to the rope release system devised by my friend, Mike Woicik. When Mike started out as strength and conditioning coach of the Dallas Cowboys in the early 1990’s, he asked me to help. I made a dozen durable waist belts with a D ring in the back. Then a thick six foot rope was threaded into the D ring. The players would sprint as I held on resisting for five yards, then just like the old towel drill, one side of the rope was let go and the athlete took off as if shot out of a cannon.
I’ve experimented with the parachute contrast training system and frankly, I wasn’t impressed. What happens is the parachute doesn’t offer much resistance until the athlete gets up to top speed. When the release is triggered by the parachuting runner, the jolt isn’t much of a contrast, and not enough of a shock to trigger additional muscle action. Furthermore, the elapsed time of parachute running tends to be well up to 10 seconds, changing the energy system to speed endurance. In my opinion, the result sends mixed messages. I find it better to stick to shocking the body with hand weights or rope releasing.
Surface footing can also be used, but it takes time and just the right surface. A long jump pit can work, as the runner takes off at one end of the sand, sprinting hard through the pit. Once on the runway, the surface changes and the athlete takes off. This can work so-so, but the shoes get filled with sand. It can be done barefoot coming out on the grass, but the pit must be perfect along with the grass.
Contrast training is also a fabulous way to teach speed in the weightroom. This works great for knee dominated work such as squats. Here is another of the Mike Woicik system. Long ago Mike had guys squat with heavy lifting at five reps, then immediately contrast this with jumps up on to boxes. Another form of this is to contrast your hip dominated lifts such as the deadlift or Romanian Deadlift. Once again, do a set of five followed by explosive work, in this case by standing long jumps. You can even contrast upper body work such as bench presses contrasted by medicine ball chest passes into a wall.
Technically what contrast training does is described as PAP training, or reaching post-activation potential. This is the development of explosive capacity of a muscle after it was forced to work at maximum level. The effort of contrasting draws in much more from the motor neuron at the same time as it reduces pre-synaptic inhibition. In other words contrast training arouses your nervous system to sound the fire alarm for more muscular involvement. No inhibition, just using everything you’ve got.
In the real world outside of the exercise physiologist’s lab, contrast works beyond the scientific explanations. You get much more than just motor units firing. Contrast training clearly involves the brain and emotions, well beyond any measurable number. How do you measure feeling great? How do you measure what it feels like to explode with speed?
It doesn’t matter what the guys in the white coats in the lab say. What matters is that contrast works fabulous to develop speed