Rethink what you know about acceleration training
Tips for creating more effective speed training programs
Acceleration training not only improves performance but can help prevent injury. Unfortunately, you might need to alter your approach, says Lance Walker, director of Human Performance and Nutrition Institute at Oklahoma State University. Walker is one of the top speakers in the world on the topic of speed changes and direction, an area he gained expertise on by working with Olympic athletes and English Premier League soccer teams.
Walker shared his thoughts on how coaches should conduct acceleration training with the audience at the 2023 Hammer Strength Clinic. Here are his top takeaways for coaches who want to reduce sports injuries while improving speed.
What we’re doing wrong
The main problem, Walker says, is that when we train for acceleration, the dominant drill is for linear accelerations.
“We think that’s the holy grail of acceleration training,” he says. But if you watch movements in sports like basketball and soccer, and pay attention to when and how athletes accelerate, you don’t see a lot of straight-ahead running. You see curvilinear acceleration, crossovers, and lateral acceleration. That means traditional speed acceleration training doesn’t prepare athletes for the scenarios they encounter in competition.
This incorrect interpretation of how acceleration works has led to another problem: multidirectional speed training. Multidirectional speed training – at least as it’s being taught now – isn’t training acceleration, Walker points out, it’s teaching athletes how to decelerate and stop.
How bad acceleration training hurts athletes
“I have a hard time coming up with any sport where it’s a performance enhancing capability that I’m really good at stopping,” Walker says. And most of what multidirectional speed training focuses on is deceleration. For example, when a basketball player shoots a jumper, she’s not stopping or decelerating, she’s transforming her acceleration into vertical movement.
Bad acceleration training also puts athletes at a competitive disadvantage. “If you watch these defensive backs, they’ll get their butts beat,” Walker says. “A lot of the times it’s because they’re not very good at accelerating backwards as the receiver is closing their cushion.”
It also creates more opportunities for injury. “When do we pull a hamstring?” Walker asks. “It’s a deceleration thing. Maybe we’re not supposed to be decelerating.”
What is acceleration training? How do you do it the right way?
Walker says the key to rethinking how we coach acceleration is to see what the world’s fastest humans are doing. What postures and angles and patterns help them accelerate without injury? Once coaches understand those skills, they can reverse-engineer what training is needed to build the required postures and angles and body positions they need to develop. Here’s what Walker has learned about acceleration from the world’s fastest runners and athletes.
- Acceleration is rarely linear. Sports often require athletes to accelerate on a curve, laterally or even backwards. So rather than straight-ahead sprints, incorporate drills and warmups that build the ability to shift force in different directions without decelerating.
- The center of mass should be in front of the athlete’s base of support. If the right leg is on the ground, that’s the base of support. ACL injuries happen when the center of mass is directly on top of the base of support. As you’re coaching, look for incorrect alignment.
- The attack angle of the torso and shin bones should be positive in the direction the athlete is headed. The torso and shins should point where the athlete is moving. The position of the hips is something that can create correct alignment. In drills, work to keep the hips level and horizontal to prevent them from oscillating.
- Legs piston harder as athletes accelerate. The world’s fastest runners attack the ground, like they’re punching it. Don’t worry about teaching athletes how to absorb impact as they land – that’s a form of deceleration. Instead, maximize their ground attack to create more powerful leg force.
- Athletes must be able to produce force with the edges of their feet. Curvilinear acceleration requires an athlete to create and leverage force on the inside edge of their outside foot and the outside edge of their inside foot. To build this ability, strength coaches need to think beyond flat feet-only weight training.
Motion is lotion: How to design a dynamic acceleration warmup
Walker shared some exercises he uses to help athletes develop the postures and joint position aptitudes needed to perform correct postures and patterns at speed.
- Lateral lunges. Keep the center of mass low with no oscillation.
- Curtsy lunges. Don’t let the pelvis rotate; force it to stay square. That puts the shinbone into a positive shift position with the ground.
- Eagle hip crossovers. Again, focus on form and loosening the leg while maintaining proper hip alignment.
- Hydrants. Focus on the pelvis, not the hip, to achieve rotation abduction and external rotation, internal at the hip. This helps create an effective drop step.
- Snapiocas. Make sure the athlete is not only snapping the lead hip up and driving the knee down, but also snapping the other side. This trains both legs to piston down during crossovers.
- Lateral pogos. Don’t land. Attack the ground. It’s what the world’s fastest humans do.
- Lateral and linear A-skips. This helps with lateral and linear acceleration. As with the pogos, don’t land, rather focus on attacking and launching from the ground to keep accelerating.
- 20 yards of cones. This drill focuses on helping athletes accelerate in multiple directions without decelerating.
- Skipping/marching backwards and backpedaling. Make sure the athlete is propelling their body backwards, not landing. Their legs should hammer the ground.
- Contrast acceleration training. Provide a resisted rep, like a resisted backpedal, then take off the harness and do a contrast rep. Once you’ve increased resistance and distance with backwards movements, repeat contrast acceleration training for lateral movements, then curvilinear runs.
When you add resistance to movement, Walker says, asymmetries are easier to see. “It’s a great teacher. Just throw resistance on it. Strength coaches think strength is the golden hammer, but it’s not strength that’s fixing it. It may be just the angulation and the vector.”
Stay flexible. It’s more important for an exercise to produce the right result than look good. For example, if working with a belt is difficult during resisted crossovers, then move the resistance up to above the center of mass with a shoulder harness.
The final step: Transferring strength and skill from the rack onto the field
It doesn’t matter how good the athlete is on the rack if they can’t transfer their skills to competition.
“Don’t memorize drills,” Walker recommends. Instead, think: “How do you do the drill to best fit the movement pattern? Build backwards. Do the drill to get the transfer. You’re trying to find the edges and the little nooks and crannies of motion. When you demand something of the body at speed and it can’t oscillate, it’s going to do something else. This is a great way to tease some of those edges out by focusing on those key postures and patterns that we’re trying to coach at speed. This is [what] allows you to apply and transfer all that hard work out into where it matters: the nooks and crannies. This is the glue. It’s the connective tissue that connects all those great capacities out on the field. And that requires a critical eye, even on the warmup.”
Want to learn more? Watch this video to see how Walker uses a curved treadmill for acceleration training.
By Kristi Casey