Build and Measure Athleticism with Tests for Speed

Nate Boyle
tests for speed

Bursts of speed fascinate our athletic imagination and it’s for this reason that many sports use 20-m sprints, or variations thereof, as tests of speed and agility. Although they are short and require little space, a number of elements must be considered before they are undertaken.

Many sports-specific skills require rapid changes in direction and reactive movements. Therefore, testing should have a sport-specific focus and incorporate various cutting and jumping exercises. Multiple repetitions of these efforts should be avoided in a day and individual ones require between 15 and 20 seconds in total.

If you are a swimmer, try these swimming test sets to measure your speed and more.

Our fascination with speed starts with preparation.

Before a match, team practice or training session, it is common for athletes to participate in a standardized warm-up routine. The goal is to prepare the body for intense activity and help prevent injury.

A great neuromotor warm-up includes slow movements mimicking sport-specific movements, such as running, stopping and cutting. Followed by dynamic stretching and movements mimicking sport-specific actions such as kicking, accelerating and changing direction at half or three-quarter speed.

Because static stretching compromises performance in speed, strength, and power activities, it needs to be excluded from preparation and applied, if at all, to recovery.

Straight Line Speed

For the land-based athletes out there, to determine an individual’s maximum speed, tests of speed should be short (~20-30s) and not yet involve changes in direction.

If you’re a track sprinter, sprint swimmer, speed cyclist, or speed skater, for example, speed is the operative word and with good reason. If you care about performance, you can’t be content with being slow. But it’s not just these individual sports; speed is also important in team sports. Hockey and basketball teams that are fast in transition crave speed. And the NFL has even monetized it.

Each sport has different requirements, but the ability to accelerate to top-end speed is definitely a feature in demand.

The granddaddy of them all is the 40 yard dash. It, along with the Wonderlic, is the most famous test at the annual NFL scouting combine. The fastest player not at the 2016 combine was wide receiver Tyreek Hill, who ran it in 4.29 seconds. And it is as simple as it sounds, mark off 40 yards and sprint for glory.

Moreover, inside the 40 yard dash, talent evaluators look at three more tests of speed. How fast an athlete can get to 5, 10 and 20 meters helps understand an athlete’s innate ability to accelerate quickly.

Lateral agility for the win

The most successful NFL lineman on both sides of the ball is the one who can react most quickly to the snap while getting out of their stance into the opposing player. Similarly, Lionel Messi and Wayne Gretzky change direction in a blink before taking off with the ball or puck. Viewing speed as a one-trick pony without agility does not test a sports actual demands.

An excellent speed test for agility is the 5-10-5 shuttle run, also known as the Short Shuttle Run or the Pro Agility Drill. You’ll go back and forth five times. Making this is not only a measure of explosiveness but agility as well.

Famously, physical specimen and wide receiver extraordinaire, D.K. Metcalf had a 3-cone drill of 7.38 seconds and a shuttle time of 4.5 seconds after running a 4.33 40 time. In contrast, Tom Brady raced to a 5.28 40 time but made up for his straight-line speed (not typically a QB trait) with a 3-cone drill in 7.2 seconds and the shuttle in 4.38 seconds. Nice athletic moves in tight spaces.

Agility testing can be modified to mimic a sport or position’s subtleties. Like carrying a football or getting down into a three point stance for the shuttle run. And shuttle tests may also be modified for the principle of specificity when designing into practice and ultimately performance.

Managing tests of speed

When individuals’ maximum oxygen uptake attained during a laboratory-based test is not feasible, the 20-m shuttle run test seems to be a useful alternative for estimating cardiorespiratory fitness.

Daniel Mayorga-Vega, et al

So tests of speed can also be used to estimate V02 max while requiring very little equipment. Because these multivalue tests can typically be accomplished with a stopwatch, a tape measure, and some plastic cones. And while automated timing devices can increase the accuracy of the tests, having the same person time each athlete is a suitable alternative.

But how can fitness testing prepare athletes for future success?

The previous discussion can be translated into strength and conditioning processes in youth football. In short, the stronger association between the studied conditioning qualities…in older boys indicates that the training process in younger players should be mostly focused on the development of specific motor skills, techniques, and corresponding neural parameters. While this is important for the long-term development of young players, it will probably also facilitate an improvement in technical competency and assist in coping with anthropometric changes that occur in this period of life. For this purpose, we may suggest the usage of different forms of speed–agility–quickness (SAQ) training, as well as small-sided games. On the other hand, our results suggest that, in the older group, the focus on strength and conditioning should instead be placed on the development of sprinting and jumping capacities, which have been found as important determinants…in 14–15-year-old football players.

Ante Krolo, et al

Magnificent, for soccer players, but remember sports require specific abilities (e.g., speed, agility, power, anaerobic capacity), so an array of tests address each capability separately.

Finally, athletes should be adequately hydrated and well-rested following intense practices (at least 48 hours). And sufficient rest periods (5 to 20 minutes) allowed for between tests to waylay any fatigue-related reduction in performance between the baseline and subsequent retests.

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