Run, run as fast as you can...

Mar 9 / Dr. Joe Eisenmann
Young kids, 3-5 years old or so, love to run as fast as they can. They’re beginning to master how to walk or already have and given the chance, they will take off sprinting. Remember getting new shoes and seeing how fast they were?! It’s the shoes … it’s gotta be the shoes.  

Moving into primary or elementary school, the movement bug is still there. Invasion games like tag are a lot of fun or even just challenging a friend to a race to see who’s the fastest. As for the latter, I recall a baseball trip to the Dominican Republic where I witnessed a group of 5 boys just challenging each other to races. It was just pure, organic speed training.   

There is little doubt that sprinting speed starts to become an important and coveted physical attribute in youth sports during childhood and adolescence. And related to this notion is the interest in training sprinting speed in youth.  

Age-related changes in sprinting performance 

As we always should – let’s “first understand the system” (see The Roots of Growth and Maturation) of the normal growth and maturation or natural development of linear sprinting speed.   

When youth fitness testing initiated in the mid-20th century, a sprint or “dash” was usually part of the testing battery; thus, there is a range of available research in the general population of youth. The graph below shows the age- and sex-associated variation in the 50th percentile of 50 yd dash performance in U.S. youth aged 6-17 yrs from the 1985 National Study of Youth Fitness. Although nearly 40 yrs ago, these data span the entire age range of childhood and adolescence unlike more recent studies of select age ranges.  For comparison, I am also showing the U.S Track & Field age group records for the 100m dash. 

Similar to most physical performance outputs in youth, sprinting performance differ between sexes and is impacted by normal growth and maturation. In general, sprinting performance improves with age in boys and girls during childhood and early adolescence, and sex differences are relatively small but consistent. Among girls, sprinting and endurance performance generally reaches a plateau at about 13-14 years, while increases in performance continue through late adolescence in boys.

There is also a strong correlation with maturity status in boys. 

Speed Limits

Besides simply getting the time (e.g., 4.42 sec), many strength & conditioning and sport science practitioners are reporting maximal sprinting speed (MSS, or what other call Max Velo or Vmax) data in mph, m/s or km/hr.

This is usually obtained from the fastest split-time using laser timing gates, a speed radar gun or GPS microtechnology unit.
As shown in graphs below (and should be intuitive given the times reported in the previous graph) MSS generally increases with age and across maturity groups in boys. There is limited published data is available in girls.

The Speed Profile 

Practitioners and sport scientists are also visually the data using a speed-distance curve (see below). Aside from determining the MSS, the sprint phases can be visually represented as another source of information about the athlete’s locomotor profile. The first phase of sprinting is referred to as acceleration followed by the transition phase which leads into maximal velocity, and depending on the distance, the speed maintenance or speed endurance phase. To date, no published data has shown the age- and maturity-changes in the speed profile.
The changes in sprinting ability are largely due to a number of factors including maturity and body composition changes (i.e., muscle mass), and neuromuscular determinants including muscle size, fibre composition, anaerobic enzyme concentration, and connective tissue / tendon changes.

Training Methods and Trainability of Speed

First and foremost, and related to understanding the age-related trends, teasing out the effects of normal growth and maturation from the training response in youth has been a long-standing dilemma of the pediatric exercise scientist.  In other words, if there is a change in sprinting performance in a youngster what percent of that change is due to normal growth and maturation and what percent is truly due to the training?  Besides growth and maturation, the adaptation to training of youth also depends on genotype, nutrition, pre-training levels (current status), training age, and psychological factors.

Nonetheless, although this has maybe given you something to think about, you are most interested in training. How can we train speed? ….. run, run as fast as you can!!  Well, that’s one way to do it, and we might call that specific sprint-training (including unassisted, assisted, resisted) and then also include some non-specific sprint training modalities such as resistance training and plyometric training, and a combination of specific and non-specific modalities. There are now a few meta-analyses that have summarized the available research on sprint training in youth. Overall, the results are not entirely conclusive aside from the point that speed is trainable in children and adolescents using a variety of training methods.
The LTAD Network YPD Model for Speed

The key aspects of speed development within the LTAD Network framework are:

Foundation Phase: 

Provide frequent opportunities for youngsters to sprint fast using games, relays and chasing activities.

Development Phase:

Continue to sprint frequently using a variety of speed games (racing and chasing), technical drills and appropriate sequenced sprint training methods for developing acceleration and maximal velocity. Refine and recalibrate in response to PHV and PWV.

Performance Phase:

Optimize sprinting technique when growth stabilizes and the required underpinning strength and power is developing. Maximize speed using a short to long periodized programme that enhances the skill of sprinting through appropriate sequenced training methods.

Stay tuned for next month’s blog. Until then explore previous LTAD Network Blogs.  

…you can’t catch me – Joe Eisenmann, PhD 

Do you want to learn more about developing speed with your athletes?

You can learn from some of the world's top coaches, S&C coaches and sport scientists in our online learning platform:

Jonas Dodoo (SpeedWorks) - Coaching Eye
Dr. Mike Young - Developing Physical Capacities for Speed
Dr. Ken Clark (Ken Clark Speed) - From the Lab to the Track: The Science & Application of Linear Speed
Boo Schexnayder (LSU) - Critical Factors in Speed Training Design
Dr. Michael Cahill - Resisted Sled Training
Ross Jeffs - Sprint Typing
Dr. Brad DeWeese - Speed Training Design
Ruth Waghorn - Speedwork for Team Sports

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