How to Design an Effective Sprint Program that Works for You

How to Design an Effective Sprint Program that Works for You

Every week I receive dozens of emails asking how an athlete can dramatically improve his or her sprinting speed. The individual usually expects that I can just email them some magic sprint program and that if they follow it, results will follow! Here’s the bottom line: there is no magic program!

What this means is that no one sprint program is going to work for every athlete. Even a sprint program that works well for an athlete today may lose its’ effectiveness in a week, a month or a year. It all depends on the individual and where he or she is in her training and what kind of genetics and lifestyle (E.X: recovery ability) they have.

Now that I’ve got that off my chest, I’m going to give you, the reader, five tips that can be used to design your own basic speed-enhancement program. The information is based on the best scientific understanding we have at the moment on speed development.

If you follow these tips, you can be assured that you will improve your game day speed. Before we begin however, it is important to realize that speed and quickness in general, is highly determined by genetic factors.

These factors include being blessed with a higher percentage of fast-twitch (Type II) muscle fibers and a highly reactive nervous system. The fact is, some people are just born fast and any amount of proper training they do will make the sprint program look good.

Characteristic Slow Twitch (1) Fast Oxidative (2a) Fast Glycolytic (2b)
Myosin ATPase activity: Low High High
Fatigue resistance: High Intermediate Low
Speed of Contraction: Slow Fast Fast
Oxidative capacity: High High Low
Anaerobic enzyme content: Low Intermediate High
Mitochondria: Many Many Few
Capillaries: Many Many Few
Myoglobin content: Low Low High
Color of Fiber Red Red White
Glycogen content: Low Intermediate High
Fiber diameter: Small Intermediate Large

Unfortunately, many gifted athletes are “un-made” by terrible training programs due to lack of understanding of the underlying science behind athletic development. With this said, any athlete can improve! Lets get on to the tips.

Tip #1 – Identify Your Weakness!

If you don’t know what your weaknesses are, how are you going to improve? As my friend and colleague Charles Staley says: “Exploiting the opponent’s weakness starts with identifying your own!” A good way to figure out your weaknesses is to create what’s called a performance profile.

In this profile, you set up the key qualities that are important to success in your sport on the left hand column and then rate your current level of that quality.

If the discrepancy is large between the ideal level of that quality and the current level of the quality, then you’ve found something to work on.

It is important to pick only two or three qualities to work on at a time or you’ll spread yourself too thin!

The example given below (see table 1) is a performance profile of mine that I created earlier this year for the 100m in track and field. Suit the profile to your sport and situation and choose anything you think is related to success on the playing field (E.X: stress levels, nutrition, etc…).

Quality Ideal Level Current Level Discrepancy: Ideal-Current
Acceleration (Starting ability) 10 7 3
Max Speed 10 7.5 2.5
Speed Endurance 10 6 4
GPP (Tempo) 8 7 1
Max Strength 7 3.5 3.5
Explosive Strength 9 6.5 2.5
Dynamic Flexibility 8 4.5 3.5
Static Flexibility 6.5 3 3.5
Structure (LBM) 7.5 4.5 3
Recovery Ability (sleep) 10 7 3
Optimal Nutrition 10 8 2
Overall Stress Level <5 7 -2

Based on the performance profile I posted, the biggest discrepancies I had at the time were in speed-endurance, maximal strength, and static and dynamic flexibility.

The rest of the qualities, while not perfect, were not as deficient as the one’s mentioned. One important category that must always be kept aware of is the overall stress in one’s life. This will be discussed more in a later tip.

Tip #2 – Improve Your GPP!

GPP, or General Physical Preparation, is fancy way of saying, “in-shape.” It is also related to what is called “work capacity.” For most anaerobic sports, too much emphasis is placed on aerobic means to improve this elusive quality.

Many coaches still run their athletes for long distances thinking this will improve their sport performance. Wrong! The result is usually a slower athlete who is more prone to injury.

Most team sports for example, might have games that last 1-2 hours in length. The unenlightened coach will think long runs are needed to build the endurance needed to last the game. But if we look closer into the demands of say, basketball, we will see that the game is basically a series of short intervals of near-maximal speed and explosiveness interspersed with short recoveries.

Long, slow distance runs will do nothing to prepare the body for the ballistic nature of a sport like basketball. So what is the solution you are probably asking? The answer is tempo running.

Specifically, tempo running is known as “extensive interval running” and was popularized in the track and field community by the legendary Canadian sprint coach Charlie Francis. It involves striding at around 50-75% of your maximal speed for a given distance.

For most athletes, depending on the sport, repeat intervals of distances ranging from 50 to 200 yards are sufficient.

The 50-yard distance could successfully be used for athletes like football linemen whereas a receiver or back would choose 100-yard distances. The reason for the difference in training distances lies in the fact that linemen, on average, don’t have to sprint longer than a few yards during most plays. Contrast this to a wide receiver that might have to sprint 30-50+ yards during a given play.

A sport that might use 100+ yard distances is soccer, as some players on the field (mid-fielders) have to play both offense and defense constantly.

Beginning workouts for tempo work begin with 10 x 100 yards and work up to 20 reps over a period of weeks. A great place for doing tempo work is on a football or soccer field where the athlete strides the boundary line of one side of the field and then walks the end zone for recovery.

The key with tempo work is to choose a pace in which the last rep is done at the same speed as the first. If you start too fast your last few reps will turn into very slow jogs!

To recap, tempo work is your conditioning work and no long distance running needs to be done. You can obtain all the aerobic benefits and more from a properly implemented tempo-training program without ruining your sport-specific fitness qualities. As far as how much tempo work needs to done, it depends on where you are in relation to your season.

During the off and pre-season, anywhere from 1 to 3 sessions per week can be performed. It all depends on one’s current level of fitness and whether or not an individual needs to lost body fat.

Tip #3 – Improve Your Acceleration!

Traditionally, A Sprint (E.X: 100m dash) Can Be Broken Down Into 3 Phases:

  1. Start/acceleration – 0-30 meters
  2. Speed/maximum velocity – 30-60 meters
  3. Speed endurance – 60 + meters

Careful analysis of the above phases clearly place most anaerobic-dominant sports in phase 1. How many athletes are going to frequently sprint all out for greater than 60 meters?

Maybe a few in soccer or football will have to sprint that far, but for the vast majority of sports (E.X: baseball, basketball, tennis, volleyball, etc..) what is really needed is the ability to quickly accelerate and decelerate the body in various directions.

Although the focus of this article is on improving “linear speed,” it is not discounting the fact that agility, or the ability to change direction is crucial to success in many sports.

So how does one go about improving the ability to accelerate? It’s easy; focus your speed work on distances ranging from 5 to approximately 30 yards. It is best to start out with 5-10 yard repeats and gradually increase the distance over several weeks or months.

Sample Off-Season Speed Workout

A sample off-season speed workout for a football lineman follows:

Distance Reps Sets Rest (Seconds)
10 5-10 1 30-60
15 5-10 1 60-90
20 5-10 1 60-90
30 1-2 1 120+

As you can see, the distances range from 10 to 20 yards with one speed endurance run thrown in at the end for the occasional chance that the lineman might have to sprint for a touchdown or something comical such as a fumble recovery.

Also, notice that I gave a range of reps and rest intervals because ultimately, an athlete must individualize the workouts for his/her specific situation.

Over a period of weeks, the distances would slowly increase as the athlete’s acceleration improved. The key is to first emphasize speed, and then add endurance to that speed. The previously mentioned Canadian sprint coach, Charlie Francis, brilliantly forged this concept.

This approach is exactly opposite of what is done in this country as countless coaches try to build a “base” before allowing their athletes to do speed work.

This approach, as discussed earlier, often results in getting athletes injured (E.X: hamstring pull), as their bodies never learn to deal with the ballistic contractions of sprinting.

Tip #4 – Get Stronger & More Explosive!

A key to getting faster for many athletes is learning to apply more force to the ground as they sprint. This isn’t a conscious act but a byproduct of getting stronger and more explosive in the weight room. Too often athletes are fooled into thinking that getting bigger is the key to athletic success.

A certain level of hypertrophy certainly will aid performance but too much muscle bulk is useless for many sports and will ultimately slow one down.

The focus in the gym needs to be on developing an optimal amount of muscle tissue that actively contributes to improved performance on the playing field.

To help you achieve your goals, you should embrace the time-tested exercises that I call “the magnificent seven!” I recently spoke about these with my good friend and colleague Josh Henkin, at Charles Staley’s latest Boot camp in Las Vegas.

Here Are The Seven Key Exercises That Should Be Foundational To Your Strength Training Routine:

  1. Clean and Jerk
  2. Snatch
  3. Squat
  4. Bench Press
  5. Deadlift
  6. Military press
  7. Rows/pulling (horizontal & vertical)

Between all the hundred of variations of these seven exercises, world-class athletic ability can be developed. It is important to mention that what athletes need to focus on is “training movements not muscles.”

This basically states that the human body is more concerned with activating chains of muscles to produce movements. Isolated bodybuilding exercises can never develop the useable strength needed to perform at a high level on the playing field.

With just seven key exercises most, if not all of your strength goals can be achieved. Regarding actual program design variables, that is another article in itself.

Based on available science it would seem that most anaerobic athletes should limit their repetitions between 1 and 6 with maybe occasional sets of up up to 10 reps.

Any more reps than 10 is pretty much a waste of time and won’t develop the appropriate muscle fibers anyway. Since explosive strength, or the ability to produce high levels of force in a short amount of time is paramount for most anaerobic-dominant sports, it is wasted time to spend too much time training in the higher repetition brackets.

However, too often, you see strength coaches (especially in football) trying to turn their players into power lifters. Getting stronger and improving maximum strength is important, but there’s another side to the coin.

Science has shown that there is no direct correlation between being maximally strong (high force capability) and being really explosive (high power capability).

Just because you can move a pile of iron in the gym doesn’t necessarily mean you are going to tear up the competition. The reason for this lies in what is called the explosive strength deficit. What this deficit shows is the lack of ability to utilize your maximum force potential in a given movement.

Most dynamic sporting movements require force to be produced within a very brief amount of time and thus, a great deal of the force that can be produced on a heavy bench press might go unused during the sporting movement. This is why athletes need to incorporate explosive type of training to improve their rate of force development.

Modern power lifters however, have fixed this problem by adding in dynamic effort days. Dave Tate of the legendary Westside Barbell Club has explained this in numerous articles.

Olympic lifts are also great ways to achieve impressive explosive strength gains and let’s not forget acceleration sprints as well. Some of the highest power outputs known to man are produced during sprinting!

Tip #5 – Implement & Utilize Recovery Strategies

Too many athletes have to call it quits before they probably want to. The main reason for this is injury or even burnout. Without a doubt, injury is the number one reason why athletes choose to or are forced to refrain from a given activity.

Some injuries are unavoidable such as freak accidents. However, the vast majority of athletes do not treat their injuries correctly and thus do not heal properly, setting up a vicious cycle of chronic injury.

This is such an in-depth topic that I think I’ll tackle it in a future article but let me give some advice on injury prevention and recovery strategies.

First off, all athletes should implement recovery strategies such as using hot/cold showers or baths and self-massage. Self-massage can be performed with one’s own hands or with implements like a foam roller, a rolling pin, and items like golf and tennis balls. If one can afford it, specialized massage therapy can be an invaluable tool for recovery and injury prevention.

A deep-tissue massage once a week could be amazing for helping athletes improve performance and decrease chance of injury.

There’s even anecdotal evidence that regular massage might help the muscles grow better by keeping the fascial compartments that house the muscles free of restrictive adhesions. This is one of the main principles of treatments like Active Release Technique (ART).

Also important to athletic success is joint mobility and range of motion. There are two generally recognized types of range of motion, active and passive.

For most all sports, active flexibility is far more important for athletic success. Too much emphasis is still placed on static stretching methods before exercise, when the scientific literature clearly is showing that static stretching pre-exercise can be detrimental to performance and may even increase risk of injuries.

The entire concept of stretching and injury prevention is very controversial with many different “experts” on either side of the fence. Based on the current research literature, it makes sense that static stretching might better be left until the end of the workout or as separate session by itself. Personally, I find that static stretching before bed is very effective for inducing relaxation and sleep. I also feel less stiff in the morning after nights that I stretch.

Lastly, it is important to have a periodized program with regular unloading, or recovery weeks planned to help the body supercompensate from previous training.

In addition, life stresses and circumstances often ruin your ability to train at a desired intensity so contingency plans and alternate workouts must be planned for days on which the planned workout just won’t work.

Ultimately, LIFE will design the ultimate periodization program of all of us so you must be flexible and go with the flow. The important thing is to persevere.

As Dan John says: “Just show up.” I honestly believe that just showing up and doing something regularly is truly half the battle. You’re not always going to have PR workouts and thus you must learn to look at the bigger picture.


Hopefully, much of what I’ve written is stuff most of you already know for the most part. If not, I hope you learned a few things if your interests include athletic ability and speed enhancement.

To recap, its hard to give exact volumes and prescriptions in an article format so it must be remembered that it’s the principles of the training process that must be learned and then adapted to each person’s specific situation.

If you take these 5 principles and weave them into you training process, expect great things to happen!

Article was written by Keats Sideman and originally appeared on

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