The number one goal I hear from any athlete is “I want to get faster.” This is said for good reason. It’s easy to see how improving speed can improve performance in a sport. There are a lot of ways to improve speed for performance but for the purposes of this article we’ll look at top end speed and repeated sprint ability (RSA). Unfortunately most sport coaches and strength coaches do not emphasize true max speed training or RSA within their practices and training. Conditioning is often done at submax speeds for long durations and short rest. Although this will help condition the athletes it’s not the most effective way to prepare them for their sport. The best way to prepare an athlete is by improving their RSA.
RSA is “the capacity to repeatedly produce maximal or near-maximal sprint efforts with brief recovery intervals” (Lockie et. al 1362). Most sports involve shorts bursts of max effort followed by a period of time when the athlete is moving slower. Think of a soccer player sprinting down the sideline for a ball and then shooting it on goal. They needed top end speed when chasing down the ball, but once they shot the ball on goal they will get a period of time when they don’t need to sprint and can just watch and react to the play.
The methods for improving RSA may be different than you think. “What is interesting is that a player’s aerobic capacity may not contribute to RSA as much as other physiological factors. More power-based actions, such as jumping, and sprinting, may relate more to RSA” (Lockie et. al 1363). Sport is based off of speed and power so those two components need to be the basis of training for all athletes. A great endurance capacity is not going to help you if you lack the top speed needed to beat a defender or make a play. That being said, if an athlete has no aerobic base of conditioning they will be too deconditioned to repeatedly utilize their speed effectively.
Sprinting to improve maximum top end speed should not be mistaken for running hard with a maximum effort. Even if the athlete is trying their hardest a maximum effort isn't going to improve the speed of the athlete if the athlete is already fatigued or the distance they are running is too far. Top speed is developed using shorter distances of 30-60m for field sport athletes with significant periods of rest between sprints. Once top end speed is developed then it's time to improve the sprinting capacity of the athlete. This is where repeated efforts of 30m with brief rest periods will help develop the RSA of the athlete.
In a study done testing the RSA of soccer players, “...the field tests that showed the strongest relationships to RSA were the Vertical Jump and Standing Broad Jump, and 0-10m and 0-30m sprint performance” (Lockie et. al 1367) . The power developed through jumping and 10m sprints develops the acceleration of the athlete while the 30m sprints improved top speed. This combination of plyometrics and speed work along with an aerobic base of conditioning is best for improving RSA.
All sport coaches and strength coaches need to understand the demands of the sport and how targeting improvement of RSA through purposefully designed practices and training sessions can help the athlete and team succeed. Training to improve RSA through maximum sprint speed is misunderstood or overlooked and it’s time more athletes and coaches should make it focus of their program.
Lockie, Moreno, Orjalo, Stage, Liu, Birmingham-Babautu, Hurley, Torne, Beiley, Risso, Davis, Lazar, Stokes, Giuliano. “Repeated-Sprint Ability in Division I Collegiate Male Soccer Players: Positional Differences and Relationships With Performance Tests.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 33(5) (2019): 1362-1370.