Linear Speed Vs. Sports Speed

Linear Speed Vs. Sports Speed


Before we start, it is important to understand we are using linear speed in reference to straight ahead sprinting as done in track and field.  Sports speed is in reference to every other sport there is that requires running or sprinting. Yes, there is a difference between the two and this article will focus on how and why we train certain ways for all our athletes.

In terms of training, how are they different between track athletes and field sports athletes? Keep it simple – track athletes need a tremendous focus on sprint technique, starting mechanics and actual practice and conditioning for their individual races.  Field sports athletes need to focus on so much more than technique. Field sports should be looked at as multi-directional speed athletes and track athletes as linear speed athletes.  

Multi-directional speed is mostly based on reactive movements dependent on what is happening on the field. This speed requires a major topic that we often miss, DECELERATION.  Most field sports athletes need to be able to decelerate and accelerate very quickly. In track, there is no deceleration.

Take for example a running back in football.  Obviously, they need to be fast but it is so rare that a running back is sprinting linearly for 50 yards ever in a game.  The majority of the time they are cutting and reading defenders. Their “speed” is based on about 5-10 yards each play and their ability to decelerate and accelerate very efficiently.  How about a baseball player stealing a base? Some of the best base stealers are not the fastest guys on the field but the best at reading a pitcher and getting a good jump off a pitcher’s wind up.  A tennis player may never sprint more than 10 yards back and forth but the majority of the time they are reacting to their opponent and anticipating where the ball will be next. I think we understand the point – field sports athletes require “game speed,” which is so much more than linear running.

Let’s get back to the point of this article – understanding the training differences between the two.  For both track athletes and field sports athletes, we need to train linear, multi-directional and deceleration.  For sprinters, all they do is run linear and that is exactly the reason they need to train other things like jumping and lateral movements.  If a sprinter comes into our facility we can’t be sprinting them too much because they are sprinting linearly year round for their sport. We need to take a greater approach to injury prevention, deficiencies in their gait, jumping, and deceleration – the areas that get neglected on the track.  Field sports athletes are just the opposite; they are constantly cutting, jumping, diving, moving in various planes. We need to be cautious of taxing those movements over and over again. Imagine you just played a bunch of basketball games during the week and then arrived at training with your performance coach only to find yourself doing the exact same movements; jumping, cutting and sprinting.  It just doesn’t make sense.

The training of speed for any individual athlete is as simple as understanding their personal movement deficiencies and how to make them perform better in their sport.  I can’t tell you how many times an athlete comes in and says, “I need to get faster.” Well, everyone needs to get faster but we have to do so in a productive manner. As coaches, we want you to get faster progressively without injury.  Most injuries in sport happen during deceleration. I think this may be the biggest difference between the two types of speed mentioned in this article. Training deceleration requires technique but it is also very taxing when done with proper intent.

I could go on forever on the differences of all sports, positions, etc but the takeaway message is don’t over complicate speed. Know your athlete! This includes: being aware of their movement deficiencies, understanding their strengths, getting to know their personal schedules, feeling out when and how to push, and then knowing when to focus elsewhere.  I’ll say it once more, KNOW YOUR ATHLETE! The younger the athlete, the more the training should consist of a wide range of movement patterns. When training a varsity or collegiate athlete the training should be very specific to the athlete’s needs and be focused towards injury prevention and performance.  Train linear, train multi-direction, train deceleration and do so in a proper fashion for each individual athlete.

-Coach Matt

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