Why Most Speed and Agility Training Protocols Suck
Social media seems to be awash with thirty second video clips of athletes (I use the term loosely; normally the guy behind the video camera’s pal) and their coaches (again, I use the term loosely; cheerleaders may be more apt) performing random speed and agility "drills". "Tricks" is probably a better description. As soon as the video is uploaded, their social media feed blows up with likes, thumbs up emojis, and comments like: “Sick skillz bruv, wish u woz my coach, respect".
Evidence supports simple and specific sprint training. No more. [Photo credit: U.S. Army Europe via Flickr CC-BY 2.0]
This sort of crap is reaching epidemic level and if we're not careful, the skill of developing well-crafted speed, agility, and change of direction training sessions is going to become a lost art. I suspect the people putting these videos online don’t even know there’s a distinct difference between agility and change of direction.
Most of the gizmos and gadgets you see being used in these video such as ladders, parachutes, bungees, reaction belts, and balls have no place in a speed development programme. They should be consigned to the store cupboard, only to see the light of day when some kit is needed for an obstacle race.
All of the evidence - and I’m talking about research, not YouTube clips - supports the use of simple and effective training methodologies to improve sprint performance. A recent study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research summed it up beautifully: to improve sprint performance, distance-specific training should be implemented.1 Simple.
There's no mention of parachutes, elastic bands, hurdles, reaction balls, cones or ladders. The crazy academics have looked at all of the available evidence and figured out that athletes wanting to show their opposition a clean set of heels should focus on….wait for it…wait for it: simple and specific sprint training.
If you want to improve speed, agility and change of direction, here’s what you should spend your time doing.
- Sprint over the distances that are relevant to your performance, particularly if you need to be rapid over distances greater than 20m.
- If you need to be quick over shorter distances (i.e., less than 20m), supplement training with resisted sprint training. Towing sleds loaded with around 10% bodyweight will improve horizontal force production, step length, and ground contact time which in turn will help linear acceleration.1
- Throw in some strength, power, and plyometric training for good measure. Legendary coach Charlie Francis said: “to go faster, you need more force.” This is once again borne out in the research. A recent study showed changes in maximal squat strength (absolute and relative) can be linked to improvements in speed over distances of less than or equal to 20m.2
The bottom line is, if you want to be quick, give the social media crew with sharp hair cuts and funky drills a wide berth and find a great coach. Stop looking for the sexy, cool, and fancy stuff to spice up training. Stick to the basics and do them well, run fast, run over appropriate distances, and get strong and more powerful. Avoid coaches that hide behind drills and tricks. The bottom line is they just don't know what they are doing.
1. William J. Styles, Martyn J. Matthews and Paul Comfort, “Effects of strength training on squat and sprint performance in soccer players,” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 30 (6) (2016) 1534-1539
2. Michael C. Rumpf, Robert G. Lockie, John B. Cronin and Farzad Jalilvand, "Effect of different sprint training methods on sprint performance over various distances: a brief review” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 30 (6) (2016) 1767-1785