Alternatives to Traditional Speed Drills
Go to a track meet, football practice, or sports performance facility, and I will almost guarantee you will see athletes performing some combination of: marching patterns, A, B, and C skips, high knees, and sled pushes. I am not here to knock what anybody else is doing, as I believe almost anything can be used to facilitate success. Additionally, I have used all of these strategies, and still do with certain populations even after implementing some changes in thought processes when it comes to running fast, jumping high, and showcasing athleticism. I also believe all drills can be used as “context builders” when utilized appropriately, meaning they can create subconscious references for athletes when performing tasks that require more hindbrain activity. In more simple terms, drills should be used to teach the brain and body what to do so that they don’t have to think about what to do when it is time to perform at a high level.
For instance, high knees and skips can serve as references for younger athletes to learn how to maintain contralateral rhythm. I have seen numerous examples of young athletes who struggle to showcase the coordination ability to move in an opposite arm, opposite leg pattern; and using basic drills that break this down really simply can have excellent carryover to other athletic activities. I even go as far as using paused marches with this group of athletes to really hammer this concept home. With that said, I have found with older athletes that have a decent understanding of basic coordination and timing principles, there are other drills that have more carryover to athleticism, and I am going to explain what they are and why.
Cross Extensor Reflex
The first subset of activities I have been using a lot more with non-beginner athletes are drills that have an emphasis on switching efficiently and effectively between the stance-leg and swing-leg. The ability to switch your stance-leg quickly and smoothly is seen in athletic patterns all the time, and is something that I believe separates average athletes from great athletes. Examples of when this occurs in sporting contexts are: defensive linemen when the ball is snapped, a sprint start in any track and field sprinting event, a baserunner preparing to steal, a basketball player that false steps before driving towards the rim, a volleyball player preparing to rise up and spike the ball, and a wide receiver making a move off the line of scrimmage. These are all instances where a quick and efficient switching of the limbs is present, and the faster one can execute this move the better advantage they have in achieving the outcome they seek. Anecdotally, I have noticed that fast athletes generally perform the three exercises listed below much better than those who are not as fast.
A few drills I use to drive this concept home are: lunge switches, remove and replace, and switch skips.
A lunge switch is exactly what it sounds like: start in a lunge stance with good torso positioning, and switch the front and back leg as quickly as possible while managing how much the hips rise. Ideally one would sync up the arms in a contralateral fashion to mimic patterns seen while running, but this is not necessarily a requirement at the beginning of the learning process. As far as I am aware of, this was originally a movement that American trainers and coaches adapted from Soviet Track and Field training back in the day, and was at some point referred to as a Russian Speed Lunge. Though I am unsure who exactly coined the term and first performed the exercise. I personally like this movement as a special strength exercise for sprinting, as well as a warm-up activity to prepare the nervous system for fast and efficient movements during the remainder of a training session. It reinforces: switching limbs, absorbing force quickly, contralateral coordination, and rapidly turning muscles on and off in appropriate sequences. I prefer to minimize the dosage and keep sets and reps low, but I encourage athletes to attack each rep with maximal intensity and effort.
Remove and Replace
This is a drill that I learned from Coach Adarian Barr of barrunning.com while at a Rewire Clinic that he and gym owner Mike Kozak hosted at Mike’s facility in Columbus, Ohio called Soar Fitness. In an athletic stance, an athlete will start on one foot and switch the stance-leg with the swing-leg as fast as possible. In simpler terms, an athlete will balance on one foot in a stable stance, and switch the leg on the ground as fast as possible. The goal is to remove the leg on the ground before the leg in the air begins to travel downwards; hence the name remove and replace. The biggest mistake I have seen with this is that athletes tend to move the leg in the air before picking up the foot on the ground. And the next biggest mistake is accomplishing the task by jumping and vertically displacing the hips rather than staying low. Instead, the athlete should lift the foot off the ground as fast as possible, and the reflexive action from the body will be to get the opposite leg down quickly and efficiently. Incredibly simple, but a great sign of a nervous system that operates in a fast manner.
A “switch skip” is essentially just “remove and replace” performed in a more dynamic manner. Rather than just switching legs in place, an athlete will hop a specified distance, and after every few steps switch the stance-leg and swing-leg as fast as possible. The goal is the same as “remove and replace,” just done in a more challenging environment that challenges the feet, ankles, and coordination more so than doing it while standing in one place. As an athlete demonstrates competence in “remove and replace,” this is a good progression to continue to challenge the athlete in a similar context. To progress this activity, you can have an athlete perform multiple switches in a row as opposed to just one at a time. I typically never go above three switches at a time, but as long as technique is sound and you are achieving the desired adaptation, then creativity is the only limiting factor. The goal is simply to remain in an athletic position and lift the stance-leg up prior to having the swing-leg travel downwards.
As Aristotle once said: “You are what you repeatedly do; excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Further, whatever you did most recently is going to have the most profound impact on your system. This is another concept I took away from Coach Adarian Barr from the Rewire Clinic. What I mean by this is that if you do high knees and then immediately go and run, your body is going to replicate some kind of pattern similar to that of high knees. The same goes for any other activity as well. This is not necessarily good or bad depending on the situation, but is something that is important to remember for application purposes.
It is always important to remember that no matter how good something may seem, there are always consequences associated with any choice or action. Exercise and training are excellent when applied in intelligent and thoughtful doses, but do too much and you can suffer from a multitude of issues. Same with sleep or water, some is good, but too much can be harmful and, at the least, have negative effects. The key is to always remember that there is not one right answer for everything, but there are definitely situations where certain answers are the wrong answers. Think about each situation from all perspectives, and apply the best solution you can at that specific time to the best of your ability. That is all you can ask for.