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.
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.
- 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!