3 Ways to Improve Acceleration and Why It’s Important

Have you ever seen how Derrick Rose blows past defenders taking the ball in for a score, or Marshawn Lynch blazing through the line past opponents (and laying punishing hits on opponents) to quickly reach the end zone?  One thing these athletes do very well is accelerate to gain speed and momentum quickly.  Well, what is acceleration?  Acceleration is the rate of change of an objects velocity or as far as we are concerned, the ability of an athlete to quickly gain speed.  This is important because in all sports that involve running, the athletes who can gain speed quickly (along with being skilled at their sport) tend to make more plays since they can move around faster.  Being able to create separation from your opponent in Ultimate Frisbee is crucial in catching a long huck (unless you sky them of course) or short comeback throw.

What does solid acceleration look like?  Let’s look at Shelly-Ann Fraser-Price, a blazingly fast Jamaican sprinter that took gold in the 2012 Olympics.  She is 3rd from the left side.

Emerging out of the blocks, she maintains a 45° angle with her body from the dorsiflexed ankles as that is the optimal angle in bursting out of the start to have the appropriate horizontal velocity.  Fraser-Price also initiates with a high knee, piston-like movement stepping just in front of her to be able to push herself forward until she reaches maximum velocity.  The piston-like steps in her drive out of the blocks allows her to be able to apply large amounts of force into the ground to propel her forward.  Aggressively driving back the elbows in a chin-pocket motion close to the body is also important to synchronize the legs to move swiftly.  This ability to start out of a stance or cut is important to gain speed in sports.

Given that we have an understanding of acceleration, how do you or your athletes increase the ability to accelerate faster and more efficiently?  Here are 3 ways to improve the ability to accelerate:

  • Improve technical running form
  • Increase strength in the glutes and hamstrings
  • Increase the speed that fast twitch fibers are activated

Improve Technical Running Form

This involves coaching the proper mechanics mentioned above as an athlete practices sprinting from a dead start.  Starting in a runners start, have the athlete practice maintaining a 45° angle and piston like movement with aggressive arms over a distance of 10-30m.  Allow 2-5minutes of rest depending on how far the athlete sprints.  Another exercise is to have the athlete sprint on a hill with a small incline of 5-10 degrees.  This will force them to adopt a forward lean and drive their knees up in a piston like fashion.  Lastly, wall drills such as the wall sprint, in which the athlete leans at a 45° angle on the wall and practices driving the knees while keeping the toes pulled up are useful in reinforcing the proper acceleration posture.  This can be done to a cadence where each knee lift and put down is a count or each leg cycle is a count, as the athlete understands the skill better.  Also a drill many call, “The Claw” (sounds like a scary movie title), is effective in further reinforcing the high knee with dorsiflexion.  The athlete starts upright with the wall to their side with an arm on it and the outside leg raised with a high knee and pulled toes with each “go” signaling a cycle of the legs.  Below is an example of the wall sprint, going to a part by part cadence and then to a timed goal of a few seconds.

Increase Strength in Glutes & Hamstrings

In an earlier article, I spoke about how the glutes are the most important muscles in the body.  The glutes and hamstring muscles (hip extensors) are responsible for the high amounts of force that need to be applied to the ground for the runner to propel themselves forward.  Extending the hips is the most powerful movement the body makes and in order to improve the force applied, this movement needs to be strengthened.  The more force you can apply into the ground, the more reaction force you endure, which in this case will propel you forward further.  Resistance exercises such as squats, glute bridges, glute-hamstring raises, RDLs, and lunges help target these muscles.  Doing long springs up hills will also work to train these muscles as well as practice the acceleration movement as hills sprints put you in the appropriate position.  It’s no coincidence that the most powerful athletes tend to have large rears and thighs!

Increase the Speed that Fast Twitch Fibers are Activated

Without lecturing you on muscle anatomy (I remember gruesome memories of my undergrad A&P class with those dry lectures) I will tell you about the 3 main muscle fiber types in humans.  Type 1 fibers, aka slow twitch fibers, that marathoner legs have that aren’t very powerful but have great oxidative capacity, Type 2 fibers, aka fast twitch fibers, think Deon Sanders.  Type 2 fibers are generally split into 2a and 2x, in which 2x fibers are very powerful but have very limited endurance capabilities and 2a fibers which are not as powerful as 2x fibers but have more oxidative capacity, although less than Type 1.  For an athlete to accelerate faster, the goal is to have the nervous system activate your Type 2x fibers sooner and also increase the amount of ATP-PCr (energy system that helps create high forces) enzymes in the Type 1 and 2a fibers allowing them to have stronger contractions.  Training at high velocities helps train fast twitch fibers.  To emphasize that point, motor units (nerve and the muscles it innervates) need to be at 90% maximal contraction to even be activated.  To recruit 90% or more of your motor units, you need to be: moving at a very high speed, moving a maximal or near maximal force, or entering serious fatigue.

max contraction vs firing rate

Plyometrics are a popular and effective means of training at high velocities.  Plyometric training consists of various ballistic or single jump exercises that take advantage of the need to apply large amounts of force into the ground within a very short amount of time.  Various exercises such as tuck jumps, hurdle hops, depth jumps, etc. function as plyometric exercises.  These are performed at maximum intensity with generous amounts of rest.  If you or the coach is experienced on coaching Olympic lifts, these serve as an excellent means of developing maximum power and creating high speed hip extensions.  Exercises include, cleans, push jerks, and snatches.  These should be taught by a qualified coach and performed at high velocities.  It is advisable to use less than 70% 1RM to be able to maximize the speed that the hips go through extension, thereby targeting the fast twitch muscle fibers.  Another popular exercise is a sprint bound, which is where each stride is treated as a jump really focusing on the knee lift, dorsiflexion, and application of force into the ground springing forward.  Below is a video example of a sprint bound.  Take note of the short ground contact time as well as the high knee and dorsiflexion.

By following the tips listed, you can surely improve your or your athlete’s ability to accelerate and make the game changing play because they move better than the competition!  Good form, strong legs, and enhance fast twitch activation are huge components to achieving better acceleration power.  Do you already do these things for your or your athlete’s acceleration program?  Do you have other means to train for acceleration?  Share with our readers in the comments below!  If you have any questions about what was written, feel free to ask below or type and send a message though the contact form on the homepage!  If you would like further details about creating an acceleration program for yourself or athletes contact me as well.

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