Understanding the Difference Between Speed Development and Sprinting


Sprinting & Speed Development. What you need to know.

Speed Development is something that most if not all, performance coaches claim they do with their teams/athletes. However, what I’ve found is the contrary. While most performance coaches will have their athletes sprint, this does not constitute speed training. So, this begs the question, what does it mean to train speed? The short answer is that speed development does involve sprinting, however, not all sprinting is speed training—an important distinction.

Here is a list of a handful of signs that let you know the “speed” training being done is not actual speed training:


Incomplete rest periods – probably the biggest culprit of the destruction of speed sessions is the lack of rest. Sprints done at maximum effort drain the CNS unlike any other type of training. Rest needs to compliment that fatigue or else speed training very quickly turns into conditioning. A basic rule of thumb for speed development = 1min rest per 10 yards of sprinting.


Lack of timing or misguided data – in order to know we got faster, we have to be able to prove it. The only real way to prove that is by having an accurate and reliable timing system. This won’t be a review of different timing systems, just stressing the necessity of one. However, having an accurate timing system isn’t enough. How often have you seen a training program that tests some type of speed metric at the start of a training program and then again at the end? Countless. Unfortunately, this is a misguided representation of speed and data.

Speed fluctuates. Ask anyone who knows anything about data, and they’ll tell you that two data points are not enough to conclude. Frequent timing is the key (every week or, better yet, every session). Let’s say that Athlete A runs a 1.02 Fly 10 on week 1 of training. Let’s say that the same athlete runs a 1.04 on week 8 of training. Does this mean that Athlete A got slower? According to this data, yes. However, speed is a CNS-dependent activity. What if Athlete A slept 4.5 hours before the night of testing on the eighth week (a known detriment to central nervous system functioning)? But it felt really good on the seventh week and would have run a 0.98. Data is not important if that data is misguided. Data is harmful if it is used and interpreted incorrectly.


Lack of the technical model – speed development training has multiple buckets: the technical bucket, output bucket, and frequency bucket. Any coach can fill the output and frequency buckets (that is if they abide by correct rest times), but how many coaches can effectively fill the technical bucket? Unfortunately, too few. Being able to, effectively, fill the technical bucket can help to increase the depth of the output bucket. We are raising our ceilings as athletes. However, the lack of a technical bucket will trap our outputs in the basement, no matter how often we try and fill that bucket.


Misguided loading patterns – nearly every sprint program calls for some kind of resisted sprint. However, running against resistance sounds great until you strap the weight on and realize you aren’t sure how much resistance there is, what the friction of the surface you are running on is, and why you might even want to use different types of resistance. It would be somewhat similar to having a group of athletes all use the same weight for back squats and think everyone is getting the same adaptation. Everyone is different – finding correct loads is important.

Now that we know a few things that speed development training is not – let’s be a little more positive and take a look at a few things that help to make up what speed development really is:


Track what you can - I said previously that not timing is a no-no. So, I know it’s boring to say now that you need to do timing – duh. However, to omit this from the list would be inexcusable. That’s how important it is. As Coach Matt Tometz recently wrote in an article for SimpliFaster, timing is everything. Speed development, as previously established, relies heavily on the readiness of the CNS. Since so many things effect that readiness, having the most possible data points when it comes to speed development helps to paint a more complete picture than one data point at the beginning and one at the end. You never know when someone is going to come into a workout firing on all cylinders… and likewise you never know when someone is going to come in after a night out on the town or after a long night of studying. Be ready for anything.


Understand what great sprint times really are – when you start to do sprint training frequently, you’ll realize it's impossible to hit a PR every day. You’ll also start to feel discouraged if you continue to see similar times day after day and week after week. Setting a PR is obviously a great thing and, of course, means that a great speed session was had. However, it is completely possible to have a great speed day without setting a PR. The threshold of success I look for with the athletes I work with is 95%. Charlie Francis, a famed track coach, popularized the 95% threshold of speed for what is to be considered a high enough intensity to drive positive adaptation. Take a look at this chart for flying 10y times and their corresponding 95% and 90% thresholds:

Figure 1. Chart displaying times of potential PRs and their respective 95 and 90% marks.

The inclusion of the 90% is more for us, as coaches, to be able to identify an athlete’s time and do a wellness check depending on where they fall – too far outside 90% and we should probably shut them down for the day, just above or close to 95% - let’s see if we can get them to that positive adaptation threshold. Overall, the goal doesn’t have to be PR every day. Instead, the goal is to reach that 95% threshold and, therefore, I know we had a good speed day.

1.     Understanding how other parts of training align with speed – many things can hurt our ability to get faster. One of those things is training. I can’t tell you the number of times - while working in the private sector - I had an athlete come up to me and tell me about their ‘brutal leg day’ while we were warming up for a max velocity speed session. While most coaches will understand the issue with this type of pairing, clearly athletes do not. Prioritizing training means deciding what’s actually important. If we decide that speed development needs to take priority, then what we do in the weight room needs to reflect that.

Making sure that the weight room stimulus doesn’t interfere with the speed stimulus takes intentionality in programming. If I plan on hitting a heavy lower body lift day, I better not see any max velocity sprints on the program for another 48 hours – at least! Keep the main thing the main thing.

2.     Sometimes you need to slow down to go fast – sprinting is a skill. In order to get better at a skill, you need to practice the skill. A) Sprint often! If l wanted a better jump shot, would I shoot once a week for an hour? Definitely not. The same goes for speed development. Sprinting 2-3 times per week is important for making progress in the skill of sprinting. B) Being intentional with technique. Sprinting frequently is great. But understanding that it's okay if you’re output (remember the output and technical bucket?) drops a little bit initially while you get a handle on the technical side. Work on creating more depth to the output bucket first then act to fill it (and when you’re ready to fill it – fill it often!)

Neither one of these lists is comprehensive. Unfortunately, there are more things that can sabotage speed sessions and vice-versa. But this is a pretty good place to start. Evaluate your own speed training – whether it’s as an athlete or a coach and see what boxes you check and which you don’t. Be intentional about speed training or you’ll never realize how much development you’re missing out on.


Mike Sullivan
Speed & Performance Coach | Illinois State Performance | Former Olympic Weightlifter | Co-Owner Move The Needle: Human Performance


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