“Speed is the most intimidating physical factor in any sport,” Margot Wells
Are you born quick?
This question could be an entire article on it’s own and people much smarter, and less attractive than me, still haven’t found a conclusive answer. Genetic variants associated with over 200 genes are alleged to affect athletic performance.
We do know that there is a protein variation in a gene called ACTN3 that seems to influence sporting potential in activities which require explosive power such as sprinting and weightlifting.
After lots of studying it seemed like to make it to the top you needed at least one working copy of this gene because almost all top olympic caliber sprinters and power athletes do. However there was one exception, an olympic long jumper was found to have two non working copies. So, go figure.
It seems likely, that as with many sports it’s a mixture of nature and nurture. I can tell you that’s it’s empirically demonstrable that anyone can increase their speed and acceleration regardless of their genetic potential. So whilst you may never be Usain Bolt, you don’t need to be the last to the breakdown either.
How to test your speed?
In an ideal world you would have access to high accuracy timing gates. If you have access to somewhere with the right facilities you can just go there and skip to the next section. If not you’ll need cones, a measuring tape, a stopwatch and a sober friend.
The test involves running a single maximum sprint over a set distance. Useful distances for rugby are 5, 10, 35 and 40 meters, depending on your position, what you are trying to measure (eg acceleration or top end speed) and who you wish to compare yourself against.
The starting position should be a stationary position with a foot behind the starting line. A stopwatch will never be as accurate as electronic timing but with practice it can be consistent and there’s a few rules to assist the measurer:
• The more a tester practices the more accurate they will be
• They should give a starting command. Eg ‘ready, set, go’
• They should stop the watch as the sprinter’s torso crosses the line
So how quick is quick?
There’s lots of normative data for various distances you can compare yourself against but below is Springboks sprint standards (based around the 2007 World Cup). These are the base targets so players are expected to exceed them.
How to improve your speed
So you’ve tested your speed and and you’re slower than a dial up download. Let’s get started.
As usual with my articles, remember that whilst speed is a very useful trait it isn’t more important than being highly skilled and committed. It’s a long term cliché about the quick kid you stick on the wing and put the balls in his hands because he can’t pass or kick. Plenty of exceptional rugby players have won World Cups whilst not being the quickest in their position so don’t be disheartened if this is a weaker area. Just work hard, train smart and you will improve. Remember also that sprinting on the track is totally different to rugby. Usain Bolt doesn’t have to perform repeated bouts of speed whilst having to manoeuvre himself around a bit with the ability to side-step and to take collisions and top speed.
*A word of advice
Practice all power and speed drills at a low intensity before increasing the speed. It’s also always better to train for speed first and to leave something in the tank to retain freshness. Fatigue will impair technique and can lead to the picking up incorrect movement patterns.
1. If you’re really new to the weights room get a decent base level of strength and fitness. If you can’t manoeuvre your body around the pitch or gym, start there. You should be able to perform push ups, bodyweight squats and basic jumps before even thinking of overcomplicating things. Get a good base level of strength and muscular endurance. Then make sure your strength training is up to scratch. Unless you’re already deadlifting and squatting twice your bodyweight pick a simple, sensible strength training programme like Kevin Shattock’s and develop some basic strength to transfer into your sprinting. That said if sprinting is first priority make it such. Strength training can happily drop to 2nd or 3rd priority whilst you focus on being fresh and running quicker.
2. Posture. I have a theory which is that those who people attribute ‘natural genetic speed’ to are often just the kids who run a round a lot from an early age and develop naturally good running mechanics. Despite having many disadvantages I was one of these little buggers, sprinting around barefoot every minute of the day and so when I changed sports, disciplines or distances running always felt very natural to me. When I try and coach people who think they are slow they inevitably describe running as feeling uncomfortable or unnatural. So here’s some basic tips to work on the next time you practice sprinting.
• Use your arms
Every sprint coach will tell you that your arms dictate how fast and long your stride is. The faster the arms move, the faster the legs move. Your arms should be bent at 90 degrees and move backwards and forwards in a straight line. I often get people to simply practice arm mechanics over and over before sprint training.
• Run like a ballerina Do not waddle along on your heels if you want to run fast. You must make contact with your toes when sprinting. This requires strong and flexible calves and ankles.
The exercises below have been separated into acceleration, top end speed and sprint endurance drills as different positions have different requirements however if you’re not currently doing any speed training, and you’re not already at the elite level don’t get too hung up on this and start with the first drill in each section:
• Wall Drives
Wall drives are an excellent exercise to develop the correct posture and leg action for acceleration. Imagine you’re being arrested and stand facing a wall. (Don’t tell me you’ve never been in this position, I know you!) Place the palms of your hands against the wall at shoulder height. Angle your body so that there is a 45-degree angle through your ankles to your head. Lift one leg so that the thigh is parallel to the ground and support your weight on the toes of your other foot. Drive the elevated leg back toward the ground explosively so that your toes contact the ground, simultaneously pull the other leg back to the start position. Pause for a second and repeat. Focus on driving the elevated foot backwards as quickly as possible rather than on lifting the planted foot up.
• Falling starts.
This is a fantastic progression from wall drives to reinforce an inclined torso position and a dynamic arm drive whilst moving forward. I don’t know why all rugby teams don’t practice this from youth level. Stand with your feet hip width apart and lean your entire body forward as if you intend to fall over. Take time to practice feeling confident here. It can be a weird sensation trying to fall on your face but do not just bend at the hips! When your straight body reaches approximately 45-degree angle to the ground, explosively lift one leg forward to around a 45-degree angle in front of your body and then dynamically drive it back against the ground (you can mark this with a cone or ring to place your foot into about a foot away from your starting position). Continue to accelerate with legs and arms pumping, while continuing to lean forward for 10-15m.
• Prone and sitting accelerations
These are great rugby specific acceleration drill as it mimics the fact our sport involves constantly falling over and getting up as quickly as possible again to rejoin the action.
Either lie in a prone position with hands by your hips, palms down and chin on floor or sit with straight legs in the opposite direction to the where you’re going to accelerate (please just check there’s nothing, like a brick wall, in front or behind you before doing these drills) Either get a coach or team-mate to shout “Go” or just reach when ready and push yourself up,(turn if sitting) and accelerate away, focussing on the forward lean, leg drive and arm pump discussed in the previous exercises.
Top End Speed:
Now I’m in my third decade I know first hand that top-end sprint speed is a very specific quality that will fade quickly if you fail to train it. Maximal sprinting speed is at the far end of the speed/power continuum. Getting stronger in things like your squat and deadlift only works up to a certain point. You’ll almost definitely improve your 20-30m time by getting a big deadlift but perversely this can start to act against you in a longer sprint.
Speed = stride length x stride frequency
We’re going to focus on two specific thing to improve your top end speed: improving your hip flexibilty and flexion to increase the speed and length of your stride.
• Hip flexbility.
I’m not going to get into the minutae about the the tilt of the hip and Thomas flexibility tests but I can tell you that to run at top speed we need to drive one hip forward whilst the other one extends backwards and this requires goo hip flexibility. Now most of us spend too long sitting down. When we sit with our hips in a flexed position the tissue at the front of our hips becomes tight. Limited hip extension flexibility reduced sprinting efficiency and performance, and can lead to injury.
You may have heard static stretching is out of favour for it’s sexier, younger, dynamic cousin. There’s a debate about whether it can reduce performance before activity (I really don’t think you need to worry about this too much) but static stretches can definitely be used after exercise or on off days as a safe way to increase your flexibility. One muscle we really want to focus on is the the rectus femoris which connects your pelvis to your knee cap. To stretch this properly the hip needs to be extended and the knee needs to be bent. My favourite way to do this is is with the following stretch which is even more effective if you squeeze your glutes and abs tight to stop an anterior tilt of your pelvis.
• Hip flexion
For this we’re going to look at a basic bounding (plyometric) drill. We go into much more detail about these subjects in Rugby Strength Academy but working on your hip drive, alongside improved hip mobility, will help you practise relaxed top end running mechanics much better Lie up six to eight cones or mini hurdles about 2 foot apart. Perform 2-3 sets on each exercise and rest for a minute between sets.
Drill 1 Drive your front knee up so your thigh is parallel to the ground; keep your toes up. Lift the opposite arm, bent at 90 degrees away. Fully extend your rear knee and hip so ti’s completely straight. Plant the raised foot over the first cone and stick it by fully extending the rear leg. Simultaneously lift the other leg and hold it in the starting position. Pause and then continue to the next cone
Drill 2 Follow the same movements as the first drill but in this progression hop slightly between each pair of cones rather than pausing spending as little time on the ground as possible. You are aiming to react to your foot contact with the ground. You are not sprinting yet though. That comes next
Drill 3 Put it all together and sprint through the cones as quickly as possible focussing on the knee drive and reacting to the grounding of your foot. Make sure you keep your opposite arm driving at the same time as your leg. If you feel your form suffering, slow it down and take it back a step
One of my favourite sprint endurance exercise is pyramids using a rugby pitch. It’s beautiful in it’s simplicity to recycle your breakfast.
• Starting at the try line sprint all out to the 22m line and walk back
• Turn and sprint to the 10m line and walk back
• Turn and sprint to the half way line and walk back
• This is classed as one set. Rest for about 90 seconds and repeat for 4 sets.
• Rest for a full 3 minutes and repeat as many times as you or your coach feels is appropriate.
I guarantee that these simple drills, practiced and scheduled properly, will improve your testing time over a variety of distances. If you want to expand on these though the brilliant and FREE 30 day Get Faster programme by Kevin Shattock can be downloaded here: