Sports Science: Why most speed training drills are a waste of time

By Clint Youlden
So what do all these ‘innovative’ sprint-training drills do for a footballer? I emphasise innovative there because the most common form of sprint drills is mostly a series of exercises I can only label as ‘time wasters’, by ‘experts’ who’ve read a few textbooks in the acquisition of speed. A good example of this is backwards running, terrific if you are an umpire, playing defence in gridiron or need to high-tail it out of a bear cave without losing eye contact, but absolutely useless for anyone else!
So why all the emphasis on drills that are not specific to the motor patterns (techniques) an athlete will use? I’m going to give you a run-down on the most common ‘speed’ drills that you might see people performing and tell you if there are any significant benefits to doing them and why they do or don’t work from my own professional experience.
Speed ladders are a common one we see getting used by footballers. It’s designed to train ‘quick feet’ by stepping into each space in the ladder. This drill has its merits but only if full knee lift and range of motion is used, and only if it is performed like actual running. That means no hopscotch type movements of two hops one-step two steps etc. We see athletes doing little steps and quick ones, sure it seems good, it might look quick, but the athlete isn’t moving any force at all and therefore it is pointless in developing any speed. This exercise definitely has its place in a warm-up and only if they are using a full range of motion and with the similar stride frequency they currently run at on the field. Other than that …  waste of time and as sure as hell won’t make them any faster.
Crossover steps and other things resembling a cabaret dance are, once again, only good for range of motion. They can’t be done fast enough to develop any type of speed and no one has ever performed a movement like that on the field. They are training their athletes to develop movement patterns that they will not use in a game and actually training them to be slower. Not something that would be ideal in a fast-paced sport …  but I could be missing something.
Fast-arm motion techniques are designed to increase speed, but once again the actual range of motion that the arms travel is not specific to actual running speed. The players end up moving their arms really fast but from three inches or so back and forth. A proper running motion requires full range of about 12-18 inches so this activity will only result in the players messing up their coordination and looking like chickens trying to take off!
So what should they do to get fast? Practise running fast with someone who knows how. Thse people identify their technique flaws, simple as that. Based on most of the things I see out there, anyone reading this article could buy a text book and put together a speed session for a football team …  easy. However, what a book can’t teach you is why someone is running slow, what proper technique looks like, muscle imbalances that are affecting the athlete, genetic differences and strength abilities, and the most important aspect of coaching …  how to teach the athlete to make changes for improvement.
Teaching is the single most important and the most overlooked aspect of improving athletes (probably the main reason players can’t kick for goal, no one at the club knows what the best way is). There are too many self-proclaimed experts who regurgitate other people’s information from text books and write up terrific lesson plans and programs that look good on paper but are unable to make anyone better because they simply …  don’t …  know … how! Of course I have a vested interest in this topic because I am a speed coach and I pull whatever hair out I have left when I see great athletes being fed garbage by people trying to justify their positions by using the latest and greatest methods of improvement. Unfortunately, most of these coaches are the marketing man’s dream and simply don’t have the hands-on experience, practical and theoretical understanding to dismiss bad concepts.
The worst thing is, it’s the athletes that ultimately suffer, not the coach, because no matter how good or bad the coach performs, he can always off-load responsibility and hide behind whatever is written in the textbooks!
In my next article, I’ll talk about the benefits of ‘proper’ speed training to football and how vital it is for agility, strength and endurance—yes, endurance!

About Clint Youlden

Clint Youlden is a High Performance Sports Scientist that specializes in the biomechanics/coaching and training of speed and is also the inventor (and patent holder) of a training method that simultaneously increases all aspects of athletic performance. He deals with skill acquisition, training, nutrition, supplementation, and recovery of athletes. You can contact him on 0402 498 798 or at [email protected]


  1. Clint – couldn’t agree more. I reckon some of the stuff used to “train” athletes is more psychological than physical. Tell a bloke that running backwards at training helps his forward movement in a match and he’ll believe you – maybe.

    Here’s a plan – get the footballers to practice the skills a lot, run with loose shoulders and practice the skills again. Just a thought.

  2. The Cannonball says


    Love your plan! Similar to mine- teach them how to run and move as fast as possible (including technique and justify why), practice the skills a lot (at full speed), rest, practice some more, rest and practice again…

    The most effective training is fortunately the most simplistic (provided done correctly) and unfortunately the most boring!

    Gee, is it that simple from a high performance coach? You mustn’t know anything Clint!

  3. Clint,

    Great article. How often should footballers train on a running track during pre-season and the regular season? I know a lot of clubs believe it’s too hard on the player’s legs and back. Will players who are 95kg pull up worse than lighter players?

  4. Pamela Sherpa says

    Clint, Why are so many clubs doing things that aren’t really useful? Why are so many experts employed to make a simple game complicated? Might have answered my own question there. I’ve always considered goal kicking and taking a contested mark to be important basic attributes a footballer needs. So why all those triple sized protective crash mats at training sessions? Simulated marking practise perhaps but I’d like to khow how often they throw in a few bodies to practise the real thing. Also coming on and off the interchange bench on a cold night mid winter i.e cooling down warming up etc seems like a hazard . Any thoughts on this? Thanks for the logical explanations in your article.

  5. The Cannonball says


    I would suggest that footballers need to do at least 1 session per week on a running track. This should be speed based so they develop faster movements. Why it’s important to do track work is because the harder surface trains the muscles to respond faster than they possibly could on grass. Grass is soft and you have to sink into it before you hit the hard stuff and it significantly alters contact time (we are only dealing with 0.1-0.2 seconds here). Anyone who runs on grass will never be as fast as someone who runs on a track. Although footballers just run on grass, it is in their best interests to train their contacts to be faster. Here’s why-

    When you actually train your muscles at a certain speed, you get improvements at that particular speed and at slower speeds. You don’t get improvements at faster contraction speeds than which you train at. So in general, running on a track will make you faster on a track and on grass, but running on grass will only make you faster on grass. The advantage is, you can run significantly faster on the track so when you move to the grass, you will be faster than those athletes that have just trained on the grass alone.

    I’ve seen this work amazing results for an old uni friends of mine, Cameron Blight who played for Tassie in the VFL. Made astonishing improvement by training with me once a week at the track and almost got picked up in the draft again at 22 because of it.

    Don’ forget, he had a great teacher though….ha

  6. The Cannonball says


    I have the very same questions? So called experts need to justify their positions of employment I believe. The main problem is football teams don’t do enough research into personnel and basically employ people that have been volunteers at the club for years and years (because they don’t rock the boat). Unfortunately these people become institutionalised to think the same way as everyone else at the club because they don’t have the experience or the real-world smarts to see through the bullshit. They develop their skills within a closed system at a young age and within the confines of close people and assume they are doing things the best because they are at the highest level. They are probably held back by politics and don’t want to take a chance on something just in case it doesn’t work, but there are ways around that- do it with the rookies or the VFL team and see if it works and then take to the seniors.

    Football teams simply don’t spend enough time looking or interviewing or being open to the experts out there that can take them forward. For christ sake, the Bulldogs have a boxing coach! What part of AFL requires someone to hold their hands up in a tensed state for 3 mins and swing punches?

    As for the crash mats, you do have to protect your players during the week from unnecessary bruises and minimise the risks to get hurt out of competition- remember it takes about a full week to completely recover from a game, longer with bruises and sprains etc.

    It’s a good question you raise about the bench, but these days it seems that they are only on the bench for a few minutes so it wouldn’t be bad at all, remember their body temps are very high from the efforts they put in so a few minutes on the bench to slightly cool is ok. However, if they are sitting for a while, putting the warm ups back on or a towel to cover (like the country boys) is a better idea.

    I am with you on this one Pam, hopefully I’ll get a call one day from a team to fix all these problems and i’ll employ you as my ‘common sense’ assistant. Looks like most football teams need at least a half dozen of them!

  7. Pamela’s post got me thinking. We have a lot of young men who care little for their bodies and seem to have high pain thresholds – for example they go out looking for fights on weekends knowing that even if they win there’s a good chance of cut lips, broken noses and chipped teeth. Such young men could be employed by AFL clubs as bodies. They could stand under high balls while the players honed their high marking skills or be used as tackle dummies. They’d love it and it would keep them off the streets. Training with such realistic props would do wonders for our players.

  8. Pamela Sherpa says

    Very sensible idea Les,for getting bodies off the streets and doing something much more useful.

    Clint, thanks for your answers- I’ve had the same feeling about coaches who justify their innovative(sometimes mystifying)ideas in order to secure a new contract.

    I don’t know about the boxing coaches being unnecessary- some might say they are very useful! Just kidding !

    Nathan -interesting – re training on grass. It makes you think about all the players who grow up playing on hard surfaces and indeed in some parts without footy boots.

  9. Can vouch for everything you say cannon – there’s no doubt the year Cameron trained a whole pre-season with you his performance went through the roof! He went from a solid VFL player into a B&F winner and state representative. A phenomenal increase in performance over a short period of time. I’m hoping that a player like Daniel Harris gets exposed to your tutelage because I honestly think that you could improve his physical capabilities to the extent that he could get re-drafted and have a massive impact at AFL level.

    What really frustrates me about AFL conditioning people is how they jump on other clubs ‘fads’.. Think about how Essendon started doing bikram yoga, and most teams jumped on the wagon – like an earlier article you wrote – EVERY team does a cold-water recovery session the day after a game, which was borne out of other clubs taking up the practise.. Yet there is clear evidence, as reported by you, which suggests the practise may actually slow recovery!

    With the increased impetus on speed as the main component of AFL football, I hope you get to put your knowledge into practise in a professional team setting soon Cannon.

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