The Neuromuscular Component To Speed Work

Starts and sprints can help muscles fire quicker, which ultimately leads to faster distance running. Photo: www.shutterstock.com

Did you know that becoming a faster runner involves working your nervous system?

If you want to get faster, there’s more to it than just trying to run faster. Without your synapses and nerves being conditioned to fire at a quicker rate, you’ll never be able to employ those stronger, more powerful muscles. Your legs need to be told to turn over by the brain.

Developing your neuromuscular reaction time involves working on your reactivity. This kind of work is done with drills, footwork ladders and foot-firing exercises. The premise is to condition your feet to snap off the group faster so you’re spending less time on the ground. That translates to faster times.

In tandem with speed intervals, reactivity drills will prove their worth rather quickly.

“Typical time-course for moving the needle on speed can be as little as a few weeks, where noted changes in stride length can be seen,” said Lance Walker, the director of performance at Michael Johnson Performance labs. “Stride frequency and overall running performances can take longer to show major change, but micro-level improvements should be noted within the first month of an effective speed program.”

Precision First

Walker said he’d prefer that people not do any of these drills over doing them wrong because the latter reinforces bad habits. Aim for precision over quantity.

For runners drawn to the sport because of their gawky nature, drills and footwork may leave them feeling out of their element.

“At first it felt very awkward to do these types of drills and intervals, but I was determined to practice and learn the skill,” said Morgan Gonzales, who lives and trains in Mammoth, Calif. She avoided frustration by adjusting her perspective. “So often in distance running we focus on getting fitter, but I thought it was fun to switch my mindset to learning a new skill set.”

Between last season and this season, Gonzales lowered her 1500m PR from 4:47 to 4:38. Remarkably, she did so in her opening race of the year.

RELATED: What Distance Runners Can Learn From Sprinters

Taxing The Nervous System

It’s important to realize how taxing this work is on the body. Don’t balk at the fewer repetitions or distances; in order for this to work, the key is not to overload the central and peripheral nervous systems.

Similarly, it’s crucial to do this work in a rather fresh state. Don’t just tack some strides and agility drills at the end of your tempo drills; you need to think in the reverse. On your day dedicated to true speed work, your prime focus is on running as fast as possible with a nearly full recovery. Same goes for when you do your reactivity drills — aim for precision and take as much time to recover as you need. If you need to add extra miles, do it after all of this work has taken place.

Footwork Drills

“One of our favorites is box tappings,” Walker said. “This drill was probably stolen from some of our soccer athletes, who were actually doing the drill for footwork quickness on, or around, the ball.”

- Box Taps: Standing 6-12 inches behind a box or riser (4-6 inches high), bend slightly forward (10-15 degrees at the ankle), and alternate tapping the box with the balls of your feet. Work on proper positioning (center-of-mass over box, dorsiflexion of ankle, long spine angle, and reciprocating arms) before trying to increase frequency. “Use this in buildups of 10-40 seconds, resting five times as long as the set to ensure you are working for speed and not endurance,” Walker said. Perform twice a week. Check your progress by counting taps every third week.

- Ladder drills: Move through the ladder by firing both feet into each rung, doing two sets. Then move to single-leg drills by passing through while firing only your left foot, keeping the right foot outside the ladder. Repeat with right foot firing. Once you’ve mastered this, start adding accelerations coming out of the ladder.

- Starts And Sprints: “I practiced my reaction time and race starts with repeats as short as 50 meters; this taught my muscles and my brain to fire and react more quickly, as opposed to just running faster,” Gonzales said. Repeats below 50 meters work too, as Walker is a fan of fly-in 20’s.

RELATED: Speed Training For Beginners

Program Implementation

Tell a distance runner to reduce their interval lengths and you may get a balking response. However, if you want to run faster for your 5Ks and beyond, you have to start thinking of working from the bottom up. Increasing speed makes your eventual race paces feel relatively easier and will allow you to dig into that second gear to accelerate at the end.

Walker prescribes a “tier-conjugated” system. “This incorporates elements of speed, power, strength, stamina, and corrective training all in a weekly plan,” he said.

This system places your speed and power-focused workout in the beginning, “when the central and peripheral nervous system is freshest and most recovered,” Walker added. The next days are recovery, strength training and endurance/tempo work. The mini-cycle would then repeat with your next speed-focused workout.

Walker advises runners just starting or who require longer recovery between workouts to extend their training week to 10-days.

“The key is to keep the body ‘stimulated’ every 72-hours with some form of speed training stimulus,” he said.

You still need to do those 200s, 400s, and even shorter sprints to get faster, but in order to truly reap the rewards of speed work and increased power you need to train the nervous system to keep pace.

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About The Author:

Caitlin Chock set the then national high school 5K record of 15:52.88 in 2004. Now a freelance writer and artist she writes about all things running and designs her own line of running shirts. You can read more, see her running comics, and her shirts at her website.

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