The Need For Speed

If you are an athlete in a sport that requires speed and strength or if you are simply looking to get in better shape and the same old thing is just not working, read on. I have some insights and answers for you.

For both scenarios you need to add speed, or intensity, to your workouts. For the purpose of simplicity I will refer to the athlete and/or the average exerciser as an “athlete.”

Traditional speed or sprint training focuses on a “long to short” model. Simply, work for a long period of time (several months) on slow aerobic work (low heart rate parameters) and progress for a short period of time to fast, intense work. Progressive thinking coaches have, over the last two decades, drastically changed this prescription. Their approach is to work with low aerobic power for a short period of time and with speed consistently, with adequate rest. This will enable the athlete/exerciser to maximize physical speed development, stimulate the CNS (central nervous system), reduce injuries and maximize the power of fast-twitch muscle fibers. Injuries will be reduced because athletes will not be training for months at a slow rate and then try to insert speed. As for maximizing fast-twitch muscle fibers aerobic training at slow rate trains our slow-twitch muscle fibers (endurance type activities). Training at a high rate trains our fast-twitch muscle fibers (for speed, power and strength). Too much training at a slow rate (lower heart rate parameters) causes the fast-twitch muscle fibers to de-train and become less effective. Hence, less powerful and strong.

The way our bodies function during a workout is to extract oxygen and use the pulmonary system to distribute oxygen to the working muscles. Powerful muscles and a strong pulmonary system utilize oxygen very well. Working with intensity helps to ensure the fast-twitch muscles are fed oxygen and developed. Training with intensity consistently and properly allows our body to become extremely efficient at extracting oxygen and distributing it to the working muscles. Working slowly, at low heart rate parameters for long durations (slow long distance or SLD training) deemphasizes fast-twitch muscle fibers and blunts speed.

So, where do you start? Top speed coach Charlie Francis (who coached Ben Johnson, the “fastest man in the world” in 1988) advocates a base of six weeks of endurance training (heart rate below 75%) to build an aerobic base pre-season for conditioned athletes. Less experienced athletes will require a longer time period for their base, possibly 8 to 12 weeks. After this initial time period the athlete will mix up training in what is referred to as “Undulating Periodization” (UP). This type of training combines strength, power, agility, endurance work, speed and flexibility. The athlete will work with weights, plyometric exercises (dynamic jumping exercises allowing fast, powerful contractions of fast-twitch muscle fibers) and flexibility (defined as rhythmic moving, not static stretching).

The athlete’s aerobic baseline should be established by a thorough examination. Obviously a physician’s examination and clearance. A metabolism test (Metacheck) to determine daily caloric needs and resting metabolic rate (RMR) is suggested. Strongly suggested is Fitness Incentive’s “Heart Smart.” This evaluation is conducted by our staff exercise physiologists. Heart Smart will determine proper heart rate parameters and ensure that blood pressure is proper during warm-up, intense work and cool down. Our exercise physiologists will work with the athlete’s Personal Trainer and/or coach to design a program specifically to help to reach that athlete’s goals.

Believe me when I tell you that completing the medical clearance and evaluations are the easy parts. The work comes in when you begin to train! If you are not extremely well disciplined I strongly suggest hiring a knowledgeable Personal Trainer or coach to at least get you started.

Some examples of the athlete’s weekly routine would be: tempo runs (heart rate never below 75%), interval/anaerobic threshold work (heart rate fluctuating between 70% and 92% +) plyometric/strength work and endurance work. Remember that the endurance work will be used at the start of training to build a base. Minimal endurance work will be used throughout training so the fast-twitch muscle fibers will not become de-trained.

With this type of training the athlete can expect to remain in “sprint” condition all year round. The muscles and articulations are prepared for the stress of the game, helping to avoid injury. Body composition is kept at a regulated healthy level and the CNS is kept on fire and active.

An aspiring athlete or an athlete desiring improvement will hopefully feel fired up after reading this and want to train. The average exerciser, however, may say, “Thank goodness that’s not me. I don’t have to do all that hard work.” Think back to the beginning of this article. Have you been working out forever and have not achieved the results you desire? Scaled down, this type of training can be designed for any exerciser. Once proper parameters have been established through the above mentioned evaluations a program will be designed specifically for you. Keep in mind that we are working with personal parameters. A 75% HR will not be the same for you as it would be for me, nor would mine be the same as Lance Armstrong’s. In addition, that 75% may be your eventual goal, whereas 92% may be someone else’s goal. Think about what this type of training can do for you. Keep you fast, strong and agile and keep your body composition at a healthy rate. Intense training is going to burn many more calories than SLD training. Gone are the days of the “fat burning zone” myth. We used to believe that by training at a lower heart rate we would be burning more fat than at a higher heart rate. It was suggested to keep the heart rate at approximately 65% to 70%. All this does is cause your body to burn a higher percentage of calories from fat. Look at it this way. If you exercise at 65% HR and burn 200 calories in one hour you can burn up to 50% of those calories from fat. Exercising at 80% may allow you to burn up to 500 calories in one hour, burning approximately 35% calories from fat. Compare 200 calories/100 from fat to 500 calories/175 from fat. Which would you prefer?

This certainly does not mean someone is going to go out and work out at 75% heart rate capacity initially. Hence, the physician’s clearance, evaluation and building an aerobic/endurance base. And training on a consistent level, with proper rest.

I’m certainly not going to lie to you and tell you it’s not hard work. It is, but if you are looking to improve performance, increase speed and strength and burn fat then the need for speed is for you!