Increasing team speed through progression, recovery, and collaboration

Fast players stand out in football matches. They stand out in almost every sport. The ability to outpace your opponent, with or without the ball, and to make a line break into space and receive the ball is a game winning ability. And the higher the level of competition, the faster the pace of the game, both physically and mentally. It is important then to make sure that players are prepared to run fast when needed. Whilst it is unreasonable to expect every player to be the fastest, I have an expectation that every player can be their fastest when coached well.

Recovery: is your team getting faster or just getting tired?

Getting faster uses the same principles applicable to other types of training: progression, overload, specificity and recovery. Yet time and again coaches stray from the basics and default to slogging runs or military-style training in the name of speed. Just because you are running doesn’t mean you are moving fast. In order to develop speed, players need to run fast, then rest, and then run fast again. This seems blindingly obvious. But, working with players from three different football teams this summer, I was amazed at how little time was spent doing this. Coaches seem to want players to do ‘fitness’ and ‘running’ that involves the players being unable to stand at the end of the session.

Here are some examples of sessions that will not help your players get faster:

  • Boxercise
  • Circuit training: burpees, squat thrusts, squat jumps and shuttle runs (I saw this team lose the next day: 2-0 down at half-time, they lost 11-1 (penalty) as their players gassed in the second half).
  • 3 mile jogs at the coach’s pace.
  • Fireman lifts and carries (led by an ex-Royal Marine where this type of activity is relevant to rescue battlefield casualties).

The sessions above got the players tired, but had little to no specificity, no progression and most had minimal recovery. Without recovery, players soon learn to pace themselves to be able to last the session without ever reaching high speeds. If you want to get your players faster, they need to be fresh at the start and to have adequate rest in between sets.

Progression: build the speed up

Running faster requires having the technical capability and the physical capacity to get to top speed. If you ask players to run 60m as fast as they can then they may find their hamstrings and quadriceps are ill-prepared. If you ask players to sprint 5m then they are less likely to get injured. They are also more likely to put in maximum effort for a short distance.

I always start coaching footballers with short sprints of 5m and 10m. I progress the distance they cover over the weeks up until they can sprint full speed for 60m. I emphasize the word sprint because all footballers can run 60m and many think they are running fast. But, if they are used to running 60m ‘fast’ and then jogging back before doing another run, then they (often subconsciously) start conserving effort and energy and run at less than top speed.

However, over 5m to 10m, they are comfortable with putting in top effort, especially when put into partner races over short distances. I link these with physical preparation exercises and technical drills that lay the foundation for top speed running.

So the session in the first week might consist of:

  • Warm-Up: 10 minutes.
  • 5m sprints x 6
  • Technical drills
  • 10m sprints x 4 (2 as a race)
  • Football training

Top speed running is a physical overload that causes the body to adapt. The hamstrings need time to adapt and so I am cautious in how far they sprint. Unlike sprinters, the footballers are also using their hamstrings when kicking and decelerating as well as reaching for the ball. Flexibility work is included in the technical drills and warm-up to help increase the range of motion and at the end of the session to help relax the muscles.

I also have to earn the footballers’ trust. Once they see that when I say, “two repetitions, max speed,” then that is what they do and no more, they can then stop saving themselves for whatever is next.

By the time we get to week 6 training will progress and might consist of:

  • Warm-Up: 10 minutes.
  • 5m sprints x 4
  • Technical drills
  • 20m sprints x 2
  • Technical drills
  • 40m sprints x2
  • Technical drills
  • 60m sprints with curves x 4
  • Football training.

Collaboration: work with the coach

None of this works if the coach is a die-hard ‘flog ‘em until they puke’ advocate. Many coaches still run training sessions based on what they did as a player. This will train speed out, making whatever speed work you do worthless. Time is precious within the semi-professional ranks: the team needs to practice skill and tactics as well as get fit for the season. I take time to work with the coach and explain my methodology so we can get on the same page. Two questions I find helpful to ask the coach are:

  1. Do you want a faster team?
  2. Do you want fewer injuries?

If the answer is ‘yes’ then we have a great base from which to work. I can then offer suggestions about how to improve the endurance of the team (which all football coaches are thinking about) that does not require boxercise.