I hear it all the time. My son/daughter needs to get faster feet. This athlete needs to work on his foot speed. That kid would be a great skater if he improved his feet. I hate hearing an athlete being told over and over again they need to improve their foot speed. Why? It's simply not true. There's a huge misconception in the athletic/fitness community that fast feet has anything to do with speed. Seriously, all those ladder drills you’re doing to get faster….they aren’t helping. In fact they may even hinder you depending on what sport you play.
Brad you’re nuts. Everyone knows the faster your feet move, the faster you move.
Is that really the case?
No. Not even close. If fast feet had anything to do with speed, tap dancers would be the fastest athletes on the planet. Here’s an interesting fact. Did you know Usain Bolt’s legs move just as fast as your average male college student while sprinting? True story. Think about that for a second...the FASTEST man in the world's "feet" are moving the same speed as an average male college student.
I don’t care how fast your feet move. I care how fast your body moves. After all, that’s what true speed is. If I can get you to move faster I’ve done my job. If I make your feet faster going through a predicted pattern in a ladder drill I’ve done nothing. I’m not saying ladder drills are useless, they have their place as a neurological warm-up. But if you spend a majority of your time doing "speed work" with a ladder, find a new trainer.
So how do you get faster?
In my opinion the biggest determinants of speed are;
1) Movement (How efficient you are in your movements)
2) Rate of Force Development (How fast you can put force into the ground)
3) Strength (How much force you can put into the ground)
4) Deceleration (How fast you can stop)
Let’s break down movement a little further and use the game of hockey as an example. Any vertical movement during acceleration is a limiting factor in skating. In other words, hockey is about creating horizontal force production. You want to stay level while skating to maximize force production. You never see any good skaters moving up and down while they skate. Look at Sidney Crosby. A big reason of why he’s so good is how well he moves. He’s very strong on the puck and can change direction on a dime because he limits vertical movement and has proper body/lean angles which I will discuss in a minute.
Another limiting factor in skating is anterior centre of pressure of the foot. If the weight is on your toes it leads to a limitation in blade contact which decreases force contribution of the hip, decreases balance, and decreases stability during transitional movements. Base of support on the foot where you create pressure is a big determinant of speed. In order to be fully active through your glute max (the main muscle you skate with) you have to be in a dorsiflexed position (knees past toes) and the weight in the middle of your feet. What do you think ladder drills…where you’re on your toes…are going to do to that motor pattern? They sure as shit aren’t going to make you faster on the ice.
Body/lean angles are another big factor in how well you move. A sport like hockey where you’re constantly having to change direction makes it even more paramount. We spend a lot of time teaching our athletes how to change direction properly. Watch them move on the ice. Look at how many times they put their body in an advantageous position to accelerate from. It's not that often. Again looking at Crosby he’s extremely good at doing this on the ice. He’s always leaning the way he wants to go and has very little wasted energy when it comes to movement. If I’m skating backwards and want to transition into a linear (forwards) acceleration I better have my trunk leaning forward, knees past my toes, weight in the middle of my foot and avoid standing straight up. Once you stand up or lose those angles you lose a valuable second on the ice. When you get to the pro level, every half second counts.
You can see how important movement is when it comes to speed. Like I’ve said before, no athlete who is the fastest at their sport moves poorly.
The second biggest determinant of speed (again my opinion) is Rate of Force Development. This basically means how fast you can put force into the ground. One of the best ways to improve this is to sprint everyday. That and doing a variety of lighter sled work. We do speed everyday for 10-15 minutes where our athletes are having to do some sort of maximal sprint. Whether it be a 20m sprint or a transitional drill they’re still sprinting as fast as they can. With our more advanced athletes we also use things like speed deadlifts vs chains or a variety of medicine ball work to improve RFD.
The third determinant of speed is strength. Strength is a wonderful thing as an athlete, but only if we’re talking about “functional strength.” Yes I hate the word functional but I’m talking about how strong my hockey players glutes are as opposed to how much they can bench press. The more force you can produce the faster you “can” become. I say “can” because if you don’t fix how you move or don’t improve your RFD, you’re not going to get a whole lot faster.
Let’s use a basic physics equation from Isaac Newton to help explain this. F=MA (Force=mass*acceleration). We need to rearrange the equation to find acceleration so…A=F/M. Let’s use 2 athletes. Athlete A weighs 100kg’s and can produce 3000N’s of force. Athlete B weighs 100kg’s and can produce 2700N’s of force.
Athlete A- A= 3000N’s/100kg’s = 3m/s²
Athlete B- A= 2700N’s/100kg’s = 2.7m/s²
As you can see athlete A can theoretically accelerate faster than athlete B if all else was equal.
The last determinant of speed on my list is deceleration. The faster you can decelerate, the quicker you can accelerate in a different direction. From what I've seen in programming this is the most overlooked aspect of speed training. If you're going to make your athletes faster you better make their brakes stronger. Putting a Ferrari engine in a Prius is great for straight ahead speed. Problems happen when you try to change direction on a dime. The fastest athletes are the ones that can maintain speed while changing direction. How do we do this? Use drills that incorporate 'eccentric deceleration.' If you play a sport that involves running or jumping, these drills can also help prevent things like non-contact ACL injuries. Do them.
If you’re a parent or a coach please stop telling your child/athlete they need to improve their foot speed. They’ll end up going home doing ladder drills for an hour everyday. What they should be doing is learning how to move properly, getting stronger, and making their bodies bulletproof by working on stability and mobility in certain joints. The fitness industry is filled with many gimmicks, fads, myths, and misconceptions. My goal with future blogs is to help rid the fitness community (more like the 7 people that read this blog) of these and to help educate people on what works and what doesn’t. If you have a topic you want written about let me know in the comments section! I’ll do my best to answer it to the best of my ability!