In softball and pretty much any other sport, speed is crucial. I would even venture to say that it can make or break you in terms of playing time, especially in the outfield, but even more so on the base paths. In fact, a number of studies actually show that speed is the deciding factor between starters and nonstarters in team sports (1-3). I was lucky and born with speed. I was fast from a young age, but over the years I have added some drills to my training that have helped me hone in my form and become more efficient. Efficiency is a crucial point when we are talking about speed. The quickest way from point A to point B is a straight line, and often times when we are not sprinting our best, it is because we are not putting our bodies in the proper position to move from point A to point B as fast as possible. Before diving into this, I would also like to add in a tiny disclaimer. There is a genetic ceiling when it comes to increasing your ability to sprint, meaning that how fast your mom and dad are plays a big role in how fast you can be. Because of this, it is important that realistic expectations and goals are set when trying to decrease your home to first time. Now that everyone just yelled at their parents for not be Olympic sprinters, let's dive into some stuff that can make you as fast as you can possibly be.
Get Stronger. This is without a doubt a precursor to any speed development, especially when we are talking about youth and adolescent athletes. There has to be some baseline strength that you have in order to maximize your speed. Sprinting is an extremely powerful movement. The equation for power is power = force x velocity. Strength training is the key to developing the force aspect of that equation. The higher the force we can produce, the more powerful we are going to be. There are 3 main reasons why strength is so important when it comes to speed, particularly lower body strength.
Rate of Force Development (RFD). RFD is a measure of explosive strength, or how fast an athlete can develop force. Strength training allows us to generate more force, and depending upon the speed of which we move that weight, allows us to enhance our rate of force development. Increasing RFD means that we can explode out of the blocks or off the base and have a quick and powerful first step. An increase in RFD has been directly linked with a sprint performance increase (4).
Ground Reaction Force. Ground reaction force is the force exerted by the ground on a body in contact with it. Meaning the harder you push that foot into the ground, the harder the ground will "push back". In order to increase ground reaction force, we must increase our own individual force, meaning we must increase our unilateral lower body strength. A recent study found that exerting a lage propulsive force during the entire acceleration phase, suppressing braking force when approaching maximal speed, and producing a large vertical force during the maximal speed phase are essential for achieving greater acceleration and maintaining higher maximal speed, respectively (5).
Stretch-Shortening Cycle (SSC). A stretch-shortening cycle occurs when a muscle or muscle group is stretched and then immediately shortened, like a rubber band. It’s actions make use of tension and the length-impulse response to the motor neural system. Typically plyometric exercises make use of the SSC (things such as jumps, hops, skips, etc.) but a foundation of base strength is recommended before pursuing a plyometric program for athlete safety. For strength training purposes specifically, the SSC can be targeted by training with eccentric and isometric variations of bilateral and unilateral lower body movements.
Some foundational lower body exercises that should probably appear in your training programs to increase the body's force capabilities:
Technique. Technique is something that everyone can get more proficient at. The more enhanced our technique becomes, the more efficiently we can get from point A to point B. Mentioned, earlier, the equation for power is power = force x velocity. By focusing on maximal intent while sprinting, as well as moving weights as fast as possible when resistance training, we can increase our velocities, therefore increasing power and therefore increasing speed. As with pretty much anything in sport, the key to developing proper technique is repeated deliberate practice, so get your HIGH QUALITY reps in. Let’s break this technique down joint by joint.
The Ankle: Upon the initiation of acceleration, the ankle should be dorsiflexed, meaning that the toes are pointing up. This allows the foot to drive into the ground at an optimal angle to produce the most force, aiding particularly in ground reaction force (in the picture, look at my right ankle).
The Knee: Knee drive in the sprint is crucial. With the knees driving up and forward, they will generate more power and encourage an optimal stride length to cover more distance. Focus on driving the knees both up and out (in the picture, look at my right knee).
The Hip: First, hip extension to initiate acceleration is important. This occurs with the lead leg to start, again aiding in ground reaction force, as when the hip is extending it is pushing the foot into the ground (in the picture, this is my left leg). Secondly, rapid hip flextion allows the knee to drive up and keeps the cyclical rhythm of the strides optimized (in the picture, my right leg).
The Arms: A cue I like to use with arm action in the sprint is “cheek to cheek.” Meaning that the hands should travel from the face to behind the hip in a loose, fast fashion. If this is achieved, normally the elbow angle will be just around 90 degrees. In addition, the arms should move opposite of the legs (i.e. left arm up, right knee up).
The Powerline: The body as a whole should be in a straight line from the head to the heels upon the initiation of acceleration, at roughly 45 degrees. This angle will increase with every stride until maximum velocity (which is rarely, if ever achieved in softball, due to the short bases a circular nature of the base paths). In the picture, you can see I am a little upright, this is due to my right heel being a little too far forward. Ideally, I would like to see that right heel a little more towards my right glute, but it brings up an awesome point. Even with all the sprint training that I have had, combined with the genetics I was blessed with, there are STILL things that I can clean up. The goal with speed training should always be daily progress, not perfection.
Here are a few example drills to aid in sprint technique, just make sure you are emphasizing high knees, high toes, proper arm action, driving the foot into the ground, and rapid hip flexion in the exercises:
Seated Sprinter Arms
High Knee Marches
High Knee Skips
Skips for Height
Skips for Distance
If you have additional questions or would like further explanation on anything discussed in this article, feel free to fill out the contact form on my site and I would love to chat with you!
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Black W, Roundy E. Comparisons of size, strength, speed and power in NCAA division 1-A football players. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 1994; 8: 80-85.
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Slawinski, J, Bonnefoy, A, Leveˆque, JM, Ontanon, G, Riquet, A, Dumas, R, and Che` ze, L. Kinematic and kinetic comparisons of elite and well-trained sprinters during sprint start. J Strength Cond Res 24(4): 896–905, 2010
Nagahara R, Mizutani M, Masuo A. Association of sprint performance with ground reaction forces during acceleration and maximal speed phases in a single sprint. Journal of Applied Biomechanics. 2017; 34 (2): 1-20.