Speed myths – part 1: Sprinters are born.

When lecturing, I encounter a lot of ideas and concepts that are often taken for granted by a large part of the audience without any critical thinking about what is written or said.
In the form of a few blog posts I will try to clarify some of these sprinting and speed training myths.

Sprinters are born (?)
Yes, but so is everybody else. Were you born to be a coach, a therapist, a personal trainer? I doubt it. Elite sprinters look suspiciously like the average human being, at least from the outside, they don’t have three legs and when not in track clothes, you can’t distinguish them from the average Joe Doe.
One often hears the average person to be compared to a “donkey” and the elite sprinter to a “race horse”. But I hope one can see the difference between those from a distance! Elite sprinters belong to the same species as people who run 100 meters in 15 seconds: Homo sapiens.

Besides that, it is not very interesting, because looking at racing: donkeys seldom race against race horses. It’s donkeys against donkeys and race horses against race horses. Yes, and among racehorses there are faster ones and slower ones, just as there are fast and slow donkeys.

Sprinting speed is a quality consisting of many different components and processes. Some work against sprinting fast, and some promote fast sprinting. And I bet that Usain Bolt has more components to his advantage than you and I have. But whereas some components are not subject to change e.g. height or leg length, others can be trained or modified in the direction of higher sprinting speed, stride length, muscle fiber composition, body weight, reaction time, or technique.
However nobody will tell you this is an easy task (and if they did, they lied to you). If you take a fast 17 year old football player, he might run the 100 meters for the first time in 11.00 secs. After 10 years of training he might run 10.00 secs, quite good, still. But this is 10% improvement over 10 years, so basically we are looking at 1% improvement a year, if you are lucky. For this you might need 250-300 workouts a year. So the gain to be made in each workout is in average only 0.3% of 1%, that’s not a lot.

We are looking at marginal gains only. A careful tinkering with all the components and factors involved, and not too much room for useless exercises or concepts. In other words don’t waste your time with thoughtless exercises. There is no linear thinking involved here: an improvement in some factors involved might not directly translate into an improved sprinting performance!

Bottom line: of course, sprinters are born and genetic predisposition definitely helps. But I have seen very gifted sprinters fail to fulfill their potential, and much less gifted (read born) sprinters go a long way and beating them or sprinting faster, just due to proper coaching. Smart coaching still makes a difference.


  1. Peter Augl

    Hi Henk

    what do you think? if u train a ft athlete with junk voume, they get a lot slower than they could be?
    how to treat tempo runs for those athletes, or circuits? short duration and more rest between sets?
    my assumption is, all they need is two speed days, fill the rest with with some fintess based tempos or circuits, that wont affect fast twitch contractability, maybe just an easy pool workout, or easy bike ride? thank you

    1. Hello Paul, Yes, that is my opinion: 1, speed is hard to improve only 10-15% over an athlete’s career, compare that to strength or flexibility. Time is not our side: getting older means getting slower unless you are 12 years old.

      One reason is that one can lift with 60% intensity instead of 100% (of ones 1RM) and still get stronger, one can still improve endurance with a heart rate a lot less that the maximum heart rate, or maximum velocity. But one cannot improve maximum speed below 90% of your maximum speed and I would even say: 95%. How many minutes or seconds per week can one run at that very high intensity? Only when you can run at high speed twice (be it acceleration or maximum speed) per week, all the other stuff you do will can support that. If not, everything else will not make you a lot faster.

      Always ask yourself a few simple but important questions: if I could only perform one single exercise and nothing else, to improve speed, what exercise would that be? Second question: what would happen in the short or the long term if I would never do this exercise again in my program, would that affect my final results in the 100 meter in competition? If the answer is NO, maybe there are other priorities.

      To run fast, the most important thing is to run fast, all other things have less priority. Don’t lift weights if you don’t know how to start from the blocks, don’t do plyos if your can’t run properly yet. It makes no sense to put a stronger engine in your car if your wheels are not running parallel, but at a 90 degree angle to each other. I hope this explains my ideas a bit.

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