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Sprinting, Squats and Sleds – Are You Training Effectively?

The article concerns the following question – Sprinting, Squats and Sleds – Are You Training Effectively? Sprinting is a crucial part of many sports, and hockey is no exception. In the fast paced environment of a hockey game, explosive starts are essential.

Sprinting, Squats and Sleds

It is no surprise therefore that many studies have been conducted into sprint training techniques, with the aim of determining the best way to improve sprint running performance in athletes. The link between resistance training and improved sprinting ability is well established, and many trainers use resistance exercises such as the squat to improve lower body strength, and thus sprinting speed.

But is this the best way? A recent study published results that called into question the accepted logic that heavier squats means faster sprints. Different studies, meanwhile, have looked at the effectiveness of other training methods, such as resisted sprints using weighted sleds. This article will try and break the results down.

The first study in question was published this year in the International Journal of Sports Medicine. The study used male subjects with prior resistance training experience, and split them into two groups. The subjects then performed a linear periodized training programme, performing only the back squat, over 6 weeks. The study was set up so that “one group performed each repetition with a maximal velocity in the concentric phase, and the other group performed each repetition with half of the intentional maximal concentric lifting velocity.”

The reasoning behind this was that, whilst difficult to assess in a controlled environment, there is good evidence that fast repetition speed leads to greater strength gains than slow repetition speed. The reasonable conclusion to draw was that if the faster velocity group did get stronger as predicted, the researchers should see a corresponding improvement in sprint speed.

The results, however, defied these expectations. Whilst the maximum velocity group did show greater improvements in back squat 1RM (1 rep maximum) than the sub-maximum velocity group, neither group showed any improvement in sprint performance over either 10m or 20m. Another, separate study examining the relationships between half-squat 1RM, different loads in resisted sprints and sprint speed also drew some interesting conclusions. Again, it would be expected that a higher half-squat 1RM would indicate a greater lower body strength, and a higher sprinting speed.

However, the study found no significant correlation between half-squat 1RM and overall sprint velocity. What the study did find, on the other hand, was a significant positive correlation between the maximal sled load (here defined as the final load at which the athlete was able to continue accelerating in the final 5m of the 20m sprint), and sprint running velocity.

Another study also looked at the effect of resistance sprint training using weighted sleds, using weighted sleds of 10% and 20% of total bodyweight. This study concluded that using a 20% of bodyweight load “appears to increase horizontal propulsive ground reaction force impulse, which is a key measure associated with faster sprint starts”. They went on to recommend that “coaches should make use of heavier sled towing over short distances to improve accelerating sprint running performance.”

The results were backed up by yet another study, which found that sled loads of 30% of bodyweight “led to significant increases in net and propulsive horizontal ground reaction force impulse in comparison with no load.” So what does all this mean? Does this suggest then that when training for sprint performance, we should move away from traditional squat training? Well, probably not. The first study was limited in that the subjects ‘were not regularly sprinting during the intervention period, and therefore they may have not been able to translate the strength that they developed in resistance-training to [improved sprint performance].’ Moreover, there are plenty of studies out there that show a significant positive correlation between maximal squat and sprinting ability. To discount such a wealth of evidence out of hand would be premature.

What the studies do show, however, is that there is a strong case for using the weighted sled in sprint training. Resisted sprints have the potential to lead to significant improvements in sprint speed. If you aren’t incorporating them into your training, you should be. In terms of the weights you should be using, the studies did not set any specific guidelines, but training with sleds weighted at over 20% of bodyweight, and even as much as 30%, has been shown to be effective.

To conclude, then: if you’re training to increase sprint performance, you should seriously consider performing resisted sprints as part of your training. That said, the squat remains an excellent exercise for all sprinters, and should still be used, particularly if you don’t have access to weighted sleds. Just be aware that it may not be the be-all and end-all for sprint training.

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