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Faster Out of the Gate: How to Improve Speed and Explosiveness

July 16, 2016 Posted in: Article , Work Out Like a Pro

Usain Bolt is indisputably the fastest man in the world, holding records in both the 100-meter and the 200-meter dash. And while his explosiveness has never been in doubt, Bolt isn't known for his long-distance prowess. Why is that? How can a runner be so fast but not have great endurance?

Well, the answer lies in basic muscle physiology: The composition of your muscles and the type of training you do determine the kinds of skills you develop and excel at.

Understanding Muscle Fibers

There are two major types of muscle fibers: slow-twitch, also known as Type I, and fast-twitch, or Type II. Fast-twitch fibers can be further categorized into Type IIA and Type IIB. In response to a contraction, slow-twitch fibers reach their peak power within approximately 100 milliseconds. Fast-twitch fibers reach peak power much more quickly, however: within 50 ms for Type IIA fibers and 25 ms for Type IIB. Fast-twitch fibers are more powerful, while slow-twitch fibers are more resistant to fatigue.

While training can improve the performance of either type of muscle fiber, your genes determine the proportion of different fiber types you have. In other words, Usain Bolt was born a sprinter, not a marathoner. But he certainly wasn't born the world's best sprinter -- he got there through relentless training.

The Bolt Workout

Regardless of the proportion of fibers you were born with, you can improve your agility just like Bolt through high-intensity, anaerobic activity that engages those fast-twitch fibers and optimizes their performance. Anaerobic exercise refers to activity that draws on the energy stored in your muscles, rather than being dependent on the oxygen you breathe while you work out. Bolt spoke about his training with Men's Health, outlining two phases and five total exercises that comprise the bulk of his high-intensity, anaerobic routine.

The first phase focuses on boosting explosiveness by improving the muscles' ability to reach peak force in the shortest amount of time. This phase includes three main exercises: bunny hops, box jumps, and bounding. Each of these movements consists of a sudden burst or jump. Whereas elite sprinters aim to perform these exercises with maximum effort, novices can be more cautious. Focus on form first, and gradually increase your effort level as you gain comfort and experience.

The second phase of Bolt's training emphasizes core stability and flexibility, particularly of the hip flexors. The two exercises Bolt uses here are cable knee drives and hanging leg raises. Developing flexibility and strengthening the hip flexors can improve stride length and, as a byproduct, speed. Studies have shown a strong association between hip flexor strength and sprint speed, as well as agility and performance.

Other Exercises for Explosiveness

Many other exercises can improve sprint speed and explosiveness, including the plyometric lunge. This method of lunging promotes hip flexor flexibility and core stability and engages fast-twitch muscle fibers through explosive jumping. Develop proper form by first mastering standard lunges, then progress to the plyometric lunge. After developing sufficient strength and agility, you can use a medicine ball for increased resistance.

Other great exercises include wall drives and sled drags. The sled drag is particularly taxing, so be sure to get the guidance of an expert, a trainer or a health care professional. Remember, regardless of how agile or strong you may be, you still need to use proper technique to avoid injury. Even if you feel competent in your exercises, have a coach and trainer watch your drills and check your form from time to time.

With enough training and commitment, you too will be on the fast track to breaking sprint records -- even if they're just your own.

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