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Limiting factors of maximum velocity

  • Posted: 02.08.2015
  • Author: Richard Buck (uCoach)
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The Physiological limiting factors of maximum velocity; and some of the training methods that might be utilised to push the threshold of these limiting factors.

The maximum speed of our sprinter is essentially a relationship between stride length, power and leg speed, however, much like each individuals physiological make up, the best arrangement of this relationship is highly specific to the individual (Mero, Komi & Gregor, 1992, Hunter, Marshall & McNair, 2004). However, shorter ground contact times in elite sprinters positively correlates to higher velocities (Mann, 1986, Mann 2010). The contact time of sprinters is probably considered the most important phase of the athletes’ race, as it is the only point where the athletes can transfer force into the ground.

An increased velocity results in decreased contact time; our athlete does not have a great deal of time to transfer this power through the ground (Rhea, Ball, Phillips, Burkett, 2002). Research has suggested that contact times of 0.3 - 0.4 seconds are needed for optimum transference of force (Rhea, Kenn, Dermody, 2009), yet elite sprinters are spending much less time in contact with the ground, somewhere between 0.1 and 0.2 seconds (Newton, Kraemer, Häkkinen, Humphries, Murphy, 1996).

When an athlete is close to maximum speed, it is primarily limb speed increases that result in higher velocities (Hay, 2002). However, increased limb cycle and recovery rate is not the preferred strategy for increasing maximum velocity. Rather that the individual would be decreasing ground contact time whilst increasing force transference into the ground resulting in a longer stride. A longer stride results in the athlete covering the race distance in less steps (Brughelli, Cronin, Chaouachi, 2011), this therefore results in a net loss of ground contact time over the race distance. Another potentially limiting factor is the athletes’ neuro-muscular capabilities; the athlete must be able to effectively pre-load and transfer force into the ground at high velocities. It is suggested that an athlete’s maximum velocity is reached when the vertical force applied provides just enough flight time for the limb to cycle back to the same point underneath the athletes centre of gravity (Bosco, Vittori, 1986). This therefore leads us onto the suggestion that a third limiting factor of maximum velocity is the overall force that an athlete can produce in upright running during in the limited ground contact time.

As a coach, it is important to view all the limiting factors of maximal velocity in combination and not just in isolation, as increasing one threshold does not necessarily result in higher velocities if the individual is still limited by either of, or both of the other limiting factors.

When we look at how elite athletes train to generate the required forces, you imagine a combination of speed and strength work to generate power, however, though effective combinations of those training types might result in increased force production and maximum velocity, Wenzel and Perfetto, (1992) found that both were as effective as the other in isolation when it comes to reaching the power output for max velocity.

To clarify, power is a combination of both force and velocity (Newton, Kraemer, 1994), so how can the athlete train for this max power then? Some research suggests that the velocity element of power production can be achieved through negative loading. This involves using resistance to aid the concentric action (Argus, Gill, Keogh, Blazevich, Hopkins, 2011).

Many athletic programmes focus on heavy lifting; usually somewhere between 70-90% of a one-rep max, strength is regularly views as a way of measuring an athletes potential (Wenzel, Perfetto, 1992). However, some research suggests that increased levels of strength have a negative impact on an athlete’s ability to generate speed (Verkhoshansky, 1981). An athlete can be strong, but this alone does not guarantee that they can apply that force quickly enough for the short contact times in a sprint race (Garhammer, 1993). Strength alone is not a suitable measure of an athlete’s ability to generate force; it is the rate of force development that should be viewed with greater importance then strength alone (Rhea et al. 2009).

Resistance programmes that instruct athletes to move the weight as quickly as possible do attempt to take the rate of force development into account, however, the problem these programmes face as the athletes become stronger, and therefore able to lift heavier weights, is that a large part of the lift is spent decelerating the weight (Cronin, McNair, Marshall, 2003, Elliot, Wilson, Kerr, 1989). A training method that does take into account the rate of force development is generally referred to simply as; variable resistance training (Borek, 1997). In theory, this allows our athlete to use their mechanical advantage in generating force. There is also increased muscle activation during the concentric phase as a result of progressing the resistance levels (Ebben, Jensen, 2002). From a theoretical standpoint, our athlete will be able to store elastic energy in their muscles and tendons. When we apply this to sprinting, the athlete can ‘pre load’ the elastic energy in the muscles and tendons during the flight time, so greater force can be transferred over a shorter ground contact time (Rhea et al. 2009), there is a lack of adequate research to suggest if an increased flight time results in increased loading ability of the athletes, however it is generally suggested that that is related more with the athletes neuro-muscular capabilities.

Over speed training has also been shown to create positive outcomes on an athletes maximum velocity, the body under goes surpamaximal muscle movements (Corn, Knudson, 2003). Positive effects have also been seen from similar methods of training using downhill running (Paradisis, Cooke, 2006). One benefit to over speed training is that it seems to reduce ground contact time of sprinters (Clark, Sabick, Pfeiffer, Kuhlman, Knigge, Shea 2009). In addition to this, over speed surpamaximal muscle contraction seems to produce a change in the muscles neuro-muscular activation, thereby pushing two of the athletes limiting factors and potentially increasing maximum velocity (Bosco, Vittori, 1986).

Roig, O'Brien, Kirk, Murray, McKinnon, Shadgan and Reid (2009) conducted a meta-analysis comparing the effectiveness of various exercise modalities. They found that high intensity eccentric training resulted in greater power and therefore greater velocities then when compared to concentric training. Research has shown that the peak force produced in eccentric training is greater then that produced by concentric contractions (Crenshaw, Karlsson, Styf, Bäcklund, Fridén, 1995).

It is apparent that there a benefits to these differing style of training approaches, however it is unlikely that athletes would simply utilise a single training modality. Therefore, Cook, Christian, Beaven, Martyn, Kilduff and Liam (2013) implemented a three-week training intervention designed to see if the combination of these modalities were more effective then working in isolation. They found that both eccentric and concentric approaches used in isolation did not result in a significant difference in maximal running velocities, however, when the two approaches were used in a single programme, greater levels of power output were achieved resulting in increased maximal velocities.

It is important to bear in mind that whilst numerous factors are the same across all sports when attempting to increase maximum velocity, there are some noticeable difference between that of a track sprinter and that of, for example, team sports. The team sport athlete typically runs with a lower centre of gravity, and less knee flection, it is also likely that there will be differences in first step quickness, distance spent in acceleration, and it is likely that maximal speed will differ (Cronin, Hanson, 2005).

There have been three key limiting factors identified face by a coach and track sprinter, when attempting to increase maximum velocity: decreasing ground contact time of an athlete at maximum velocity, increasing maximum force an athlete can produce, and improving an athletes neuro-muscular capabilities to transfer more force over a shorter contact period. A series of different training modalities has been discussed, each with their own physiological benefits intended to push these limiting factors and allow athletes to increase their maximum velocity. Cook et al. (2013) talk about the benefits of combining different training modalities, it is important for the coach to understand the demands of each of these modalities, and to effectively balance them within an athletes programme.


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