Training to Sprint Faster

Even the most casual fan of baseball knows that baseball players have to sprint. In addition to sprinting to first base or beyond after hitting a ball into play, outfielders run after fly balls, infielders accelerate quickly to get to a ball, and base runners steal.

But that’s not all.

Young athletes sprinting
courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Ballplayers who improve their sprinting also develop muscles used in hitting and pitching. Improving sprinting also improves explosiveness, by recruiting the right types of muscle fibers (type II) and generating energy more efficiently with the body’s fastest system for replenishing ATP, Creatine Phosphate.

It turns out science has a lot to say about how to train for sprinting, and I learned some of that science recently by completing a Coursera course, The Science of Training Young Athletes.

My son has been trying to improve his sprinting speed in the off season. After taking this course, I suggested he change his routine. He did.

The improvement was swift and dramatic.

In this post I share both the details of how his sprinting training improved, and the science behind why it works. I’ll start by describing how we started without me knowing what I was doing . . . and how that didn’t work at all.

First Try at Sprinting: 1 Mile Runs

My son is 12 1/2. While he has certainly done some sprinting in baseball and basketball practices over the years, it wasn’t until the last few months that he’s purposely wanted to do some off season workouts to improve his fitness. One area he wanted to get better at was running, and especially sprinting.

My son looks to me for advice on what to work on, and I’m learning on the fly. At first, without a whole lot of thought, I suggested he run 1-2 miles, twice a week. I told him speed was important and that it was not ever going to be worth his while as a baseball player to run more than 2 miles at a time, as that would just train him to jog, not run.

He did this for a couple months, and occasionally sprinted as well. He gradually got faster at 1 mile runs.

About two months ago I started timing his 50-yard sprints on a sidewalk in front of our house. The time was not that great and it didn’t seem like his sprinting had improved any. I’ve since learned that my timing method was imprecise, and flat-out incorrect on the finish line, but I’ve recently greatly improved how I time him. Piecing together various bits of timing data, I think he was probably around 8.3 seconds for the 50-yard dash, which is okay for a normal 12 1/2 year-old but not that great for an aspiring athlete.

Running 1 or 2 miles a couple times per week did not improve sprinting times, and was not helpful preparartion for baseball.

I’ll explain the science behind this later on in this post but the very short explanation is that training to run 1 mile fast causes your body to adapt to that kind of a run. It will not help develop maximum speed that lasts just a few seconds, because the body adapts to sprinting much differently than it does to 1 mile runs.

Second Try at Sprinting: Plyometrics

At this point my son started doing a workout based on the book Progressive Plyometrics for Kids. It included some sprinting and agility exercises, but it also included some exercises called plyometrics that basically helps develop muscle power (explosiveness), especially in the legs. Some of those very same leg muscles are used in sprints.

He only made it half way through the program before he got bored. I think this program would have better kept his interest if he were part of a group of 3-5 kids. He completed the first two weeks at Bronze level and then the next week at Silver level. After 3 1/2 weeks he stopped.

Result? His 50-yard sprints dramatically improved, by nearly half a second, from 8.3 seconds down to 7.8 seconds. And he didn’t even complete the program! See my in-depth review of this plyometrics program for further detail.

We don’t know what would have happened if he had completed the program, but perhaps his sprinting time could have dropped another couple tenths of a second. He is now doing a vaguely similar once/week program organized by one of his summer baseball coaches. This is probably not frequent enough to move the needle, especially because he’s had to miss some of them.

However . . .

Third Time’s a Charm: 30-yard Sprints Followed by 90 Seconds of Rest

Plyometrics was really helpful. But then I took The Science of Training Young Athletes course and learned that he could do even better.

A 50-yard dash can be done in 7.0 seconds by the fastest 12-year old athletes. It’s more like 8 seconds for a more typical athlete, or a little better than that with training. However, if you study the science you’ll find out that the typical human in non-life-threatening situations can run all out for at most 6 seconds.

There are several reasons people can run all out for only 6 seconds. The main one has to do with how the body uses and replenishes energy. ATP is the immediate energy store that can be tapped instantly to supply power but the brain does not permit drawing down ATP when it is below 60% of maximum capacity. So when the body expends energy, ATP must be replenished to stay above 60% of ATP maximum capacity before more ATP can be converted into energy. There are 3 energy systems that replenish ATP:

  • CP (Creatine Phosphate, also known as Phosphocreatine)
  • Anaerobic Glycolysis (stored glycogen is broken down into glucose)
  • Aerobic Glycolysis (respiration)

All 3 energy systems can operate to replenish ATP simultaneously, but for sprinting, aerobic energy is irrelevant because it takes too long to ramp up and operates at a rate too low to have any impact. Glycolysis ramps up faster and supplies ATP at a faster rate, so it does contribute some. But by far the most important energy system for sprinting is the CP system. It ramps up extremely quickly and supplies energy at a much higher rate than even anaerobic glycolysis. Sprinting at maximum speed requires maximum energy, with CP being the biggest contributor.

The rate of ATP replenishment provided by the CP system starts to rapidly decline somewhere between the 5 and 6 second mark, so by the time an athlete has been sprinting for over 6 seconds, he is no longer being provided with maximum energy replenishment and can therefore no longer run with maximum speed.

So why the big digression into energy systems? Because the most effective way to get faster at sprinting is to train at maximum speed. The science is clear that you can’t exert maximum energy for more than 6 seconds, and most people’s rate of CP production starts to slow down somewhere in the 5 to 6 second range.

To practice at maximum speed, you therefore want the time of the sprint to last no longer than approximately 5 seconds. For my son, that turned out to be a 30-yard sprint.

Furthermore, the CP system takes around 90 seconds to recharge to about 80% to 90% of it’s maximum capacity. So we also know that maximum speed will only be possible in the next sprint if the rest period is at least 90 seconds.

So the new protocol is 30-yard sprints, followed by at least 90 seconds of rest. He does 4 of these, then ends on a 50-yard sprint to see if he got faster on the longer, slightly slower run. He then does another 5 sprint set later in the day (waiting at least half an hour).

So how did this work?

Amazingly, the improvement was immediate. The very first time he tried this, his 30-yard dashes got gradually better, improving by around 0.2 seconds altogether after several sprints. This may sound small, but when the time is around 5 seconds total, a 0.2 second improvement is a lot.

What was especially interesting though was that his 50-yard dashes got better by about 0.2 seconds as well.

Frankly, I was stunned by the immediate improvement. My timing methods were imprecise so it’s possible the recorded results were inaccurate and not quite that good. But visually, he looked to me like he was running faster—the fastest I’ve ever seen him sprint.

This all happened late October. He has since continued to sprint using exactly the same system, and is improving both his 30-yard dash and 50-yard dash times at a rate of about .1 seconds every 2 weeks. Eventually the rate of improvement will necessarily slow down and then stop altogether, but we’re hoping he can get down to 7.0 seconds on the 50-yard dash before that happens. I’ll add a comment or two below with updates over the next few months to report the latest recorded times. At the moment, his personal highs (using the more accurate timing system described below) are:

  • 30-yard dash: 4.84 seconds
  • 50-yard dash: 7.63 seconds

While these times are not blazing fast, the 7.63 second 50-yard dash time is so much better than his best time of (approximately) 8.3 seconds recorded a couple months earlier.

Getting More Accurate Sprint Time

It is unfortunate that the earlier results I recorded were suspect. I did not realize how difficult it is to accurately time sprints. Using the built-in iPhone stopwatch introduces perhaps a tenth of a second of uncertainly at both the start and the stop because of button press imprecision. Furthermore, knowing when my son was crossing the finish line turned out to be difficult to eyeball, and it turned out I wasn’t even doing it right according to foot racing standards.

I wanted to improve timing accuracy without spending hundreds of dollars on equipment. So I spent $3 to get the iOS SprintTimer app for my iPhone. It has really helped.

SprintTimer takes more than a couple minutes to figure out how to use but it has good help screens and documentation. Once you get the hang of it, you can remove all button presses, which gets rid of most of the inaccuracy of stop-watch timing. The only uncertainty that will remain is the runner starting too early or late.

In brief:

  • Use the Photo Finish
  • Start Set Up should be changed to Self Start which means that the phone will say the commands out loud “On Your Marks” then “Set” then a gun sound (or you can choose a beep).
  • Finish Set Up should be set up with the right direction.
  • Then hold the phone up to point the camera at the finish line and click “Play Commands,” saying the words along with the phone if the runner(s) can’t hear the phone.

The phone automatically records a photo finish, which is where you can find the precise ending time.

After a race, you go to the photo and slide the line back and forth until you see a tiny part of the front of the runner’s torso touching the line. The time will be displayed and that’s the time. You can then Mark it and Save it if you like. If you save many results, you’ll have a record over time to track progress. To keep the number of data points manageable, we typically just keep the best sprint time of the day (one each for 30-yards and 50-yards).

It was when using this procedure that I found out how inaccurate my prior times were. Using information from the accurate times obtained from this app, I adjusted the older times reported earlier in the article to be my best approximation of what they really were.

What Next for Sprinting?

Now that I understand the science behind energy systems and different types of muscle, we’re just going to keep using the same protocol for sprint practice: 30-yard sprints followed by 90 seconds of rest. Do this 4 times and then the last run is a 50-yard sprint.

In a year or two, we’ll almost certainly switch the 50-yard sprint to a 60-yard sprint, because that is a commonly timed sprint for high school baseball players.

I’ll also continue to learn more about sprint training. His (currently too-brief) warmup and recovery routines need improvement. At some point he’ll need to learn better starting and finish technique. And there are undoubtedly adjustments to running mechanics that could help. For some of this we’ll need the help of a track coach.

However, the main point right now is to get faster, develop more power, and train up his type II muscle fibers and CP energy system. So long as he continues to drop 0.2 seconds/month off his sprint times, we’re good with that!

Author: Joe Golton

I’m a dad with a son who loves baseball. Professionally, I’ve been a software developer, investor, controller, and logistics manager. I now make my living from this blog, supplemented with occasional consulting gigs.

14 thoughts on “Training to Sprint Faster”

  1. If I had a dollar for every time you posted something that I am currently either working on or interested in….

    This was great! What amazes me with my kid is how much faster he looks when he is just running around playing with his friends vs. when he is running on the base paths. It’s almost as if he gets too amped up or overthinks things and his stride and overall gait suffer as a consequence.

    I have definitely noticed wild inconsistency with my ability to time him when he is sprinting; look forward to giving that app a try.

  2. Running to first introduces a few more things to deal with, that are not so intuitive for kids. Every year as rec ball coach I had to drill running through first multiple times, as majority of kids do several things that impede running to first properly. They are some combination of:

    * Slow to drop bat
    * Stare at where they hit the ball
    * Watch ball while running
    * Slow up just as they are arriving at first
    * Get worried about colliding with the first baseman

    I see this every year and even when they seem to get it, they lapse a few weeks later. Have to drill it 3-5 times during the season for 11-12 year olds, even more for 9-10 year olds as they seem to forget in like 2 weeks.

    Make sure to drill with bat in hand, so they simulate dropping the bat and running – or at least have them do a pretend swing without a bat.

    Coach can also throw the ball in a simulated hit so they practice not watching the ball as they take off to first.

  3. Joe, Another great article. You’ve created a blueprint for me and my baseball-loving son, who is about four years younger than your kid. I’m learning a lot from your past experiences and really enjoy your insights. Thank you and please keep writing!

  4. Hi Roy – You and your family are exactly the kind of people I write for, so glad it’s working for you! Up to 46 baseball articles on the site, and if you want to dig through and read older ones, you can scroll through the baseball category:

    Note that 11 of these posts cover the story of Leo, who goes from 10 years old to playing college baseball. You’ll know a lot more of what’s in store for you and your son if you read through that series:

  5. Do you recommend starting with Plyometrics and then do the sprinting with the 90 second intervals in between or go straight to the sprinting?

  6. Greg – Following the program from the book Progressive Plyometrics for Kids is far more comprehensive and therefore better than just practicing sprinting, if you can pull it off. Elsewhere on this site is a review of that book. Bottom line is getting bored is a big possibility if you do it with just one kid. Better to have several kids meet regularly – they’ll have fun competing with each other as they do the exercises and be more likely to stick with it longer.

    The upside of sprint only is that it’s really easy to keep it going. A few minutes to warm up and then do a few sprints. Not nearly as involved as following a program with a more involved warm-up, setting up cones, doing the recovery routine, etc. and before that investing time in learning how to do the exercises right.

    So if you want to at least do something, get started with sprinting. But if you think you have the time and patience to organize a small group of kids – by all means follow the plyometrics program, which will have many many benefits, not just improved sprinting times.

  7. Joe – any technique work? I’m Sports Performance coach and times can generally be improved quickly through learning ideal mechanics along with the speed and plyometric work you’re already doing. Also, the start and the first 10 meters are the most difficult and hence the area that lowers times the most so a lot of priority should be placed on this area. Just my 2 cents

  8. In recent months my son stopped altogether and his sprint time got much much worse. His 30 yard sprint time went from an almost respectable 4.8 seconds for a 13u to a sluggish 5.3 seconds. He then tried doing it twice/week for a couple weeks and it quickly dropped to 5.1.

    I think what you’re really asking is what is the best number of times/week to do sprint training sessions? I would say 3. You could also do alternate days so that you were doing 7 times every 2 weeks, but I think it might be easier to keep to a schedule of you did it 3x/week. The rest day is important, but so is making sure to do it again within 48 hours, or at most 72 hours.

    When my son followed the 3x/week schedule, he was rapidly improving. We never did find out what his best time would have been had he continued, but likely it would have been better than 4.8 as there no sign that he had yet reached a plateau. Unfortunately, he got busy with other things and got out of the habit. He may start doing it again soon.

  9. This site had an issue that required I roll back comments from November 20 to November 8, 2018. The comments between November 8 and November 20 were wiped out, but here they are again:

    2018/11/19 at 11:39 am

    Joe, while encountering the same timing problems you have, I moved to a video stopwatch. Look for the iPhone VStopwatch. You basically video them on say the 20yd dash or whatever letting them start on their own and you add start and stop markers to the video that automatically calculates time. This eliminates all guess work and removes the player reacting to the voice “go” or hand drop. As you have a late bloomer as well, here are the best 60yd times my son had through each year that you may find helpful for reference. He also has osgood schlatters in both knees, so really did not want to push his legs much until he got the results of his first 60, and was a wake up call to push through the pain.
    60yd times by age

    14 – 10.3s (HS Camp summer before Freshman year, few months before 15)
    15.5 – 8.76s (put in a lot of work accounting for the big drop)
    16 – 8.28 (1st college camp)
    16.5 – 7.91 (big deal to finally break 8.0) JV Tryouts
    17 – 7.55 (college camp)
    17.5 – 7.29 (college showcase) Varsity Tryout time
    (10yd time 1.62 at the showcase)
    18 – 7.1 (college showcase)

    He has averaged dropping about .5s a year, but this is not typical for these ages. Most players have had these large drops earlier due to hitting puberty earlier. You will find most HS players drop .2s their freshman year, then .1 the following 2 years.

    A LOT of work went into his numbers from technique to weight training. I would expect him to plane out around 6.8s next year. As you have found, you have to focus on the sprints. Most of my son’s work was put in on the 10yd and then on the 20yd and rarely the 30yd. You will find that on the 60 or even the 40 that the first 10yd is the slowest and allows most room for improvement. The remaining 10yd splits will be about the same. For example Johnny runs the 60yd in 8.3s but the breakdown looks like this for each 10yds: 1.8s, 1.3s,1.3s,1.3s,1.3s,1.3s so running further than really the 30yds is not needed except for test days.

    reply from Joe Golton
    2018/11/19 at 11:43 am

    Interesting detail – thanks! My son almost always does 30 yard sprints these days – but he hasn’t been consistently doing spring work since I posted this, so his times got worse. Doing a series of sprints a few times/week caused him to become faster by over .5 seconds, and then he lost most of that improvement when he stopped doing the sprints.

    In reply from Zach:
    2018/11/20 at 12:58 pm

    I think when he starts back, he would enjoy the 10yd training more. It is not nearly as tiring as it doesn’t focus on the cardio as much. He will probably be more interested in competing against his current PRs (Personal Records). The 10yd focuses more on explosiveness in the legs which will also have a big impact on hitting (exit velocity) and throwing velocity as well. Save the longer sprints and use more hamstring focused exercises to aid in the rest of the 60yd. Being a BSEE by trade, I am always focused on the numbers as you are.

  10. My son just turned 13, he’s fast with a 7.8 60 on turf. We plan are doing some sprint training in the next couple weeks. But I disagree with you on the 2 mile runs, you are correct in that it won’t make them faster, but it will make them stronger and able to recover faster. We run in the am a couple times a week. In fall ball, he played his first season on the 60/90 field. I gave him the steal sign and he took off with the pitch. (We were playing against the top 14u team in our league) he beat out a nice throw. I let him know he could go again when he was ready. And he stole third on the very next pitch. I don’t think anyone on the other team expected him to go. He was barely breathing heavy. At this age, I think we need to focus on the complete athlete vs. specialized skills. Baseball can be a long game so endurance is just as important as speed. Plus a 2-3 mile run allows you to train for the slow times in a baseball game.

    Finally, as a track athlete, I can tell you that sprints are more than legs, arms and core play a major part. These are things to work on in the off season. Arms should pump straight back and forth. When they come across the body, you start giving up time and power. Also have to keep you upper half still. Watch Bolt run, little to no wasted motion. That is what it takes to make amazing plays look easy.

  11. Thanks for sharing your comments Stephen. I agree with you. 2-3 mile runs will not increase your sprinting speed but has the benefits you outlined, and more. And yes – I totally agree that it’s important to get your whole body in shape for baseball, and most especially the core which is typically the weakest link for baseball players, especially if they don’t play other sports.

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