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What are the Factors that Determine an Athlete's Speed Potential?

Oct 16, 2007
We are not all created the same! How true this is. So when it comes to determining your speed potential there are several key factors that can either assist or inhibit your ability to become faster. The key point here is that every athlete can become faster, how fast is just often determined by factors out of our control. This article outlines these factors and provides you with some background in understanding an athlete's speed potential.

Genetics: Some of the factors that affect an athlete's speed are determined by genetics and who your parents are. Some of these factors include muscle insertion points, muscle fibre type and lever length. This doesn't mean you cannot become faster through the right training, it just means that some athletes have an advantage over you purely because of genetics. Don't use this as an excuse; you just need to work harder and smarter!

Obviously there is not much you can do about heredity but you can still become a faster athlete through training.

Muscle Fibre Type: Some athletes are born with predominantly more Type II fibres which are found with sprinters. This may give these athletes an advantage but does not mean that you cannot be as fast as them through appropriate training. Endurance athletes have a more predominance of Type Ia fibres.

Age: Endurance athletes tend to peak later on with many athletes such as marathon runners or road cyclists finding themselves performing at their best in their late twenties and early thirties. Lance Armstrong is a perfect example of this as he was winning the Tour de France all the way up to his mid thirties. Athletes will tend to peak earlier when it comes to their speed. So the older we get the slower we are likely to become.

Gender: As far as absolute speed goes men are faster than women. Once again there is not much that can be done about this. However, many female sprinters have shown how fast they can become and many can out sprint other professional male athletes. Female athletes will become faster if they want to be!

Ethnic Background: African American sprinters have been shown to be faster generally more than Caucasian athletes due to heredity. All you have to do is watch the finals of the 100m sprints in the Olympics and you will see this. This is the general rule but there are exceptions.

Technique: Stride length is also a natural aspect of an athlete's make-up. Although it is one area difficult to improve on, it can be done. The frequency of stride is a little easier to change. This refers to the rate of leg and arm movement as you run. Biomechanics which is the study of an athlete's movement will help to determine these factors. Improving your technique will eliminate wasted movements and energy. This will help you to train and perform more economically which will directly lead to improved performance.

Power: Speed is dependant on the power generated and how well the athlete can sustain this power. For many 100 metre sprinters the winner is the athlete who slows down the least. Power is one of the essential elements to speed.

Agility: In order to be fast an athlete must also be agile. The ability to change directions fast, speed up and slow down all contribute to the speed of an athlete. The key factors that can influence how agile an athlete is are balance and coordination.

Reflex or Reaction Speed: This refers to the time that the stimulus is applied until the athlete actually responds by moving or performing the physical act. This is one component that can be improved through training. There is a strong functional aspect with reaction speed. Therefore it is important to perform exercises that actually simulate the exact movements required by the athlete.

For example a soccer goal keeper will need to be able to react quickly after diving and landing on the ground. Whereas a 100 metre sprinter will know that their reaction speed comes down to the specific stance involved and how quickly they react to the sound of the starting pistol. The difference from when they hear the gun to when they actually move can be the difference between winning and losing. This is also the same for swimmers as they dive off the starting blocks.

Leverage: Without getting too technical, leverage basically refers to our joints and limbs and the mechanical principles as far as overcoming a resistance or weight. Our body is amazingly complex and everything works together. For movement- our ligaments, joints, bones muscles and tendons all work together.

There are certain inherited factors that can determine leverage such as muscle fibre type (type I or type II a) or limb length. However, we can still improve by improving our biomechanics of movement, or by increasing our strength of the joint structure.

Taller players will have longer limbs and as a result have longer levers. This will affect the athlete's speed and agility and is why you see the shorter athlete's being more agile on the tennis court.

Acceleration: There are many terms that are also referred to as acceleration such as quickness, but they all refer to how fast an athlete can achieve maximum velocity within a very short period of time. The athlete must achieve maximum velocity as quickly as possible, this is speed and this is also how we train for pure speed!

Speed - Endurance: This term refers to the ability of an athlete maintaining speed over a great distance. This could be a 200 meter runner or applied to a wide receiver in football that must be able to sprint 60 or more yards without being caught. For athletes who require speed endurance they will need to train appropriately. Tennis players require speed over very short distances and are better off performing drills that simulate these short distances rather than performing 200m or 400m runs. Aerobic capacity is very important in speed endurance events as the body will turn from predominantly the anaerobic energy systems to the aerobic systems the longer the run goes on. Athletes in soccer, swimming and cycling will all experience this.

Anaerobic Capacity: Speed is dependant on the anaerobic energy systems. The anaerobic system is responsible for producing energy without the use of oxygen-hence the name anaerobic meaning "without oxygen." Short bursts of speed are anaerobic and are very intensive. Our body can only perform a certain number of quick bursts of speed before we experience the physiological response of pain and fatigue. This is due to a build up of lactic acid and is a result of our body not being able to recover quickly enough in between repetitions. Our body tries to deliver as much oxygen as possible to the working muscles but can only do so much.

Oxygen debt is where the oxygen we consume during recovery pays back what we consumed during the intense burst of speed. The more intense the activity the harder it is to recover. Once you have just sprinted all out for 100m, the last thing you could do is turn around and immediately do it again. However, once our body has had enough time to recover then we could do it again. It is this recovery period that can influence an athlete's speed in quick succession.

Flexibility: Flexibility refers to the range of movement at a joint within the body. Flexibility covers all joints and has numerous effects on performance. Lack of good flexibility can have a direct negative impact on speed due to the limitations of joint motion. This is one component often neglected by athletes but the rewards of achieving good flexibility are quite amazing.

Athletes of all levels should realise that they can become faster athletes if they participate in a well designed program that is suited to their own specific sport and needs. Unfortunately an athlete's speed potential is often determined by factors out of their control.
About the Author
David Horne is a former professional tennis player who has created several online sports web sites including Sports eBooks which is the Ultimate Sports eBook Directory for all sports fans!
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