In a sport where every millisecond counts, speed is of more than just the essence.
For track and field runners, its the only objective. The more, the better.
But exactly how athletes get faster involves much more than running.
Strength plays a role, which requires time in the weight room. Technique is critical, which requires specific training.
And commitment is vital, which requires a combination of all of the above.
“Speed is something that is ever elusive in our sport, and we’re always trying to find new ways to get from point A to point B more quickly,” said Franklin Community High School boys coach Mike Hall, who is in his 30th season with the Grizzly Cubs.
“In our way of thinking, faster and stronger are the same thing,” Hall said. “The tough part is remaining disciplined in the approach to training, and realizing that every year more preparation is needed to get the desired results.”
For high school runners, desired results typically vary depending on the length of their races.
Sprinters, for example, often measure improvement in fractions of a second. Distance runners usually look to shave multiple seconds from season to season.
How each type of runner goes about increasing speed is as different as their respective races.
“Getting faster for sprinters is more difficult than for distance runners,” said Whiteland coach Brandon Bangel, who coaches the Warriors’ boys and girls teams. “I would say that if a sprinter improves their performances by five percent per year, that would be a very, very good year.
“A lot of times for our junior and senior athletes, we are hoping to improve their times by as little as two-tenths of a second, realistically.”
Although running is an important component of training, it is not necessarily the key to speed.
For sprinters, refining technique, increasing agility and strengthening core muscles are important aspects.
Athletes can improve these areas through a variety methods, from muscle-specific weight training to plyometrics to specialized drills employing bungee cords, parachutes and sleds.
The idea is to increase stride length and stride frequency. The more proficient a sprinter is with both, the faster he or she can run.
“You can improve stride length by getting stronger and by improving running technique,” Bangel said. “Athletes will also see an improved stride length as they physically mature during their high school careers. Stride frequency is much more difficult train and tends to be more of a natural ability for athletes.
“We do have certain drills we try to incorporate to improve stride frequency, but it is not as easily as improved as an athlete’s stride length.”
Center Grove senior Zak Smith, a 400-meter and relay specialist, is quite familiar with what it takes to go faster.
One of the top performers on the Trojans’ state power track team, coached by Eric Moore, Smith attributes much of his yearly improvement to focused training on and off the track.
“We do specific workouts to help our speed training and muscle-memory. The fast-twitch muscles, we work those,” Smith said. “We do speed workouts, where we’re constantly working on our quickness, making us faster athletes.
“All the training our coach puts us through helps to get us where we are now and constantly become better.”
For distance runners, strength is perhaps the most important ingredient in building speed. To achieve it, athletes spend time in the weight room but also mix up running routines, incorporating fast runs at shorter distances, as short as 400 meters, to a weekly “long” run of eight to 12 miles.
“The majority of improvement you see in distance runners is actually an increased ability to deliver oxygen to the body during exercise,” Bangel said. “Distance runners can actually improve their times without necessarily improving their actual speed.”
Although the stop watch is the ultimate barometer, improvement can be as dramatic as a handful of seconds for a distance runner or as incremental as a few tenths of a second for a sprinter.
Sometimes, improvement is indiscernible until happens.
Taylor Hickey is a senior middle-distance runner on the Center Grove girls team. Also a cross-country athlete, she didn’t realize how much her work last year was paying off until the track season actually started.
“I thought I was getting slower, and then I kept getting faster and faster throughout the season, and I’ve been working harder and harder,” said Hickey, a state qualifier last year in the 800-meter run. “It’s very difficult to tell that you’ve been getting faster, in a sense.
“You’ll start to see it in practice a little bit, but it shows in races. It kind of creeps up on you. It’s not not going to be just one day when you see it.”
Tim Leonard, the longtime girls track coach at Franklin, agrees that speed is not always an immediate reward for all runners, for a variety of reasons.
“Getting faster from year to year varies by the athlete, but it also depends on the event,” Leonard said. “A distance runner may improve by several seconds, where with a sprinter may be just a few seconds or even tenths of a second, and both may be considered really good for that athlete, depending on what they are running.
“Athletes usually set a goal where they want to be by the end of the year and measure their performance each meet against that. We try to work with them to set a realistic goal.”
For Center Grove’s Smith, the goal is simple: Be faster than the guys in the other lanes.
“You’re trying to improve from year,” Smith said. “We do our speed workouts where we’re constantly working on our quickness, making us faster athletes. You want to take off seconds. That would be awesome.
“But even just the little things we do, getting out of the blocks. Any part of your race can help improve those fractions of a second, which can get you one spot higher.”
Local coaches weigh in on training techniques to improve speed for track and field runners
Franklin Community High School girls coach Tim Leonard
“Sprinters will mostly do shorter runs/sprints than distance runners and to it at a higher tempo or speed. They are usually shorter, more intense workouts where distance runners are getting in a lot of mileage, and their workouts will be at a different pace than sprinters will be.
“Sprinters use dynamic warm-ups and several drills in practice designed to improve running technique. We use parachutes and partner pulls for technique, and jump rope, line jumps and various body weight training and ab workouts to improve their core and agility. This helps with their running technique and starting out of the blocks.”
Whiteland Community High School boys and girls coach Brandon Bangel
“There is a big difference between the way you improve speed in distance runners and sprinters.
“Typical techniques you see track athletes use to get faster will include weight lifting, former running and barrier runs, where barriers are set a certain distance apart as athletes run over. As the season progresses the barriers get farther apart.
“We also use resisted sprints, with a sled or bungee, and plyometrics.”
Franklin Community High School boys coach Mike Hall
“There are many differences in training between sprinters and distance.
“Sprinters tend to work at short distances, quickly, with a lot of attention to reaction time. There is over-training, working at slightly longer than race distance, but a great deal of time is spent on explosive starts and finishes.
“Distance guys tend to train at a slower pace for much longer distance. A greater amount of energy goes with distance work.
“Basically, as an athlete gets holder, he or she should get stronger and be more efficient. Every year that athlete needs to step up their training, including weight training for strength and quickness.
“The toughest part is remaining disciplined in the approach to training and realizing that every year more preparation is needed to get the desired results.”