4 Ways to Develop your Athlete’s Linear Speed

Ben Smalley

[6-minute read]

The article is a short summary outlining the importance of developing your athlete’s linear speed and how to do it. But first, let’s start by defining exactly what speed is:

What is speed? /

Speed is equal to stride length multiplied by stride frequency. However, these aspects are not why you run fast. They are outcomes of running faster. By applying greater force into the ground, in shorter time frames at ground contact – we increase stride length and increase frequency.

Image 1: What is Speed?

Sprinting 101  – “Big force, right direction, minimal time” 

– Mike Young, Director of Performance and Research, Athletic Lab

Sprinting is comprised of two key phases:

  1. Acceleration; and,
  2. Maximal Velocity

An athlete’s ability to accelerate and reach maximal velocity is driven by the neuromuscular system and technical competency within the given task1, 2. We must apply force into the ground (physical qualities) in an appropriate direction (technical competency) and do this in increasingly shorter periods of time as we progress from acceleration into top speed.

An athletes’ ability to accelerate and reach maximal velocity is driven by the neuromuscular system and technical competency within the given task.

Why is speed important? /

Speed is such a critical aspect of all field and court-based sports. The ability to cover ground quickly is critical in winning individual duels, as well as enhancing success in defensive and offensive scenarios.

Higher maximal sprinting speeds will improve an athlete’s speed reserve3, meaning the cost of moving around at an absolute sub-maximal speed is less taxing for faster athletes.

For example, compare:

  • Athlete A who has a Maximal Sprinting Speed of 10m/s and only has to work at 70% of his maximal capabilities to run at 7m/s; with,
  • Athlete B, Maximal Sprinting Speed of 8m/s, who has to run at 87.5% of his maximal capabilities when moving at 7m/s
Figure 2: Speed Reserve Transfer Effect

Greater maximal sprinting speeds will also benefit the athlete when repeatedly sprinting in competition. We know repeat sprint ability (RSA) is determined by an athlete’s single sprint performance and the ability to recover between these sprints4. Therefore, training these two components will be critical in optimizing your athletes’ on-field performance.

Charlie Francis had a great quote referring to raising the ceiling of your athletes’ maximal output – “If you can’t touch the basketball rim once, it doesn’t matter how many times you can’t touch the basketball rim”.

In a field sports scenario, the same concept applies. Just helping an athlete get better at being repeatedly slow isn’t helping anyone. Generally, a more fatigued fast athlete is still beating a less fatigued slow athlete in a foot race during competition. Overall, never stop trying to increase your athlete’s maximal linear speed outputs.

Figure 3: Factors to Improve Repeated-Sprint Ability

Practical application: Developing Linear Speed /

Cam Josse presented a fantastic webinar on developing linear speed in team sport in April on the Hawkins Dynamic YouTube page. He illustrated the breakdown of each sprinting segment and complimentary training methods to aid in its enhancement.

Figure 4: Sprinting Segments and Training Methods (Credit: Cam Josse)

As you can see in Figure 4, as you progress through the segments of the sprint cycle the activity becomes less muscular and more elastic. Thus, the training methods to complement this should follow the same theme.

Figure 5: The Linear Speed Continuum

See our previous two blogs in the series for more information on Training for Strength and Power and How to Develop your Athlete’s Reactive Strength.

Whilst, research supports strength and power training improving early phases of the acceleration phase, the increasing elastic environment must be taken into account, and methods to enhance top linear speed must reflect this. A variety of training methods will aid in the development of acceleration and maximal velocity, however, the most specific and potent tool to develop these qualities is through sprinting.

There is no mechanical or neurological stimulus quite like maximal sprinting and thus it should be implemented into the training program with appropriate progressions and volumes.

Figure 6: Motor Units Involved in Training Activities

Within early general preparation you may train shorter (10m) maximal sprints or hill sprints to elicit the mechanical and neural stimulus derived from maximal sprinting without the risk of soft tissue injury. This stimulus can then be progressed incrementally into long accelerations, as well as longer and flying sprints over the course of the program.

It is vital to include pure sprinting into the training week to develop linear speed but also to mitigate the risk of muscle injury5. If the only sprinting your athletes are doing is in competition on the weekend, you are doing your athletes a huge disservice.

Remember – sprinting is a medicine, therefore the dose of this activity must be taken into careful consideration when programming.

When training team sport athletes to be strong, powerful, and elastic, a training menu consisting of the following methods should be included:

  1. Sprint Training / short and long sprints
  2. Plyometrics / extensive and intensive
  3. Ballistic Training / a variety of unloaded, light loaded, and heavily loaded
  4. Strength Training

Conclusion /

Including a variety of training methods to elicit linear speed development across the sprinting phases, will build maximal sprinting speeds, improve speed reserves and benefit repeated sprint ability. In addition, sprinting is vital to include in the athletic development program to mitigate against the risk of muscle injury.


  1. Hicks, D., Schuster, J., Samozino, P. and Morin, J., 2019. Improving Mechanical Effectiveness During Sprint Acceleration. Strength and Conditioning Journal, p.1.
  2. Morin, J., Edouard, P. and Samizino, P., 2011. Technical Ability of Force Application as a Determinant Factor of Sprint Performance. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 43(9), pp.1680-1688.
  3. Hansen, D., 2014. The Relevance And Importance Of Speed Reserve In All Sports. strengthpowerspeed.com. Available at: <https://www.strengthpowerspeed.com/speed-reserve/>
  4. Bishop, D., Girard, O. and Mendez-Villanueva, A., 2011. Repeated-Sprint Ability – Part II. Sports Medicine, 41(9), pp.741-756.
  5. Malone, S., Roe, M., Doran, D., Gabbett, T. and Collins, K., 2017. High chronic training loads and exposure to bouts of maximal velocity running reduce injury risk in elite Gaelic football. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, 20(3), pp.250-254.

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Programming Speed

About the author

Ben Smalley

Ben is an S&C Coach and Sports Scientist based in London. After completing a BSc in Sport, Exercise & Rehabilitation Science at the University of Birmingham, Ben is currently finishing off his MSc in S&C at Middlesex University. Ben is also working towards his UKSCA Accreditation. Along with his role as a Sports Scientist at DSS, Ben is also working at Queen’s Park Rangers as an Academy Sports Scientist.

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