This article is a simple way to answer the question of how much and how often you need to engage in various components of training - especially sport specific speed, plyometric, and other such work.
There is quite a bit of variance in the recommendations you'll find in this area.
I've seen sprint routines calling for enough sprint volume to kill an elephant and I've also
seen routines calling for 5 minutes of sprints per week. I get a lot of questions like "Ok,
how many sprints do I need to run for session and how often?" It's really very simple. To
understand my volume recommendations it helps to understand how improvements in any endeavor occur. Gains occur in 2 ways. These are:
1. Gains in inter-muscular coordination- This is otherwise known as simple
coordination and is highly relevant to improvements in movement efficiency. With
gains in inter-muscular coordination, the various muscle groups involved in a movement become more proficient at carrying out the movement. Think of a youngster first
learning to walk or run. Initially, their arms and legs are flailing all over the place and
they have a hard time coordinating their movements. With practice they become more
proficient until one day they just get it. If the coordination is lacking, one will initially make improvements just from the improvements in coordination that occur as they master the movement pattern.
It should be noted that one can only gain so much from increased coordination. This is
particularly true of gross primal movement patterns like sprinting, jumping, punching and
the like, which really don't require a whole lot of technique in the first place. Once a
person develops a certain level of coordination in a movement they don't need to focus
near as much on it. It's kind've like riding a bike. Once you learn how to do it you don't
forget. I haven't been on a bike in over 3 years but I'm sure I could get on one tomorrow
and be just fine. Muscle memory is very real. As an example of how this relates to
running fast I've known several people who have gotten totally away from any sprinting
activity for periods as long as 6 months or more at a time. When they do get back on the
track they'll initially feel a little discombobulated, yet within a couple of weeks their
technique and coordination will be right back where it was before. More on that in a
2. Gains in intramuscular coordination - The 2nd way gains occur is through gains in intra-muscular coordination. This is what I often refer to as
horsepower. With gains in intra-muscular coordination, each muscle group involved in
the movement becomes more proficient at generating force in the movement. Activities
like weight training transfer to other movements by boosting this aspect. In short, strength training makes your muscles stronger and more powerful so when you execute a movement you do so with more oomph.
So, when it comes to something like a sprint or a jump, you can improve your ability to carry
out and coordinate a movement pattern, or you improve by putting more force
behind that movement pattern. It should be noted that gains in coordination generally
always occur prior to gains in horsepower. One first learns to carry out the movement
pattern effectively and then learns to put more force behind the same movement pattern.
As far as frequency goes, gains intermuscular coordination (basic coordination), respond better to increased
frequency. This is why when a baby is first learning to walk he or she doesn't get up and
try to do it just once every few days. No - he practices constantly. Perfecting any type of movement or skill is the same way. A sprinting frequency of 3-7 times
per week is optimal for gains in coordination . The more quality exposures you get when
learning a movement pattern, the faster you pick up the technique required to efficiently
carry out the movement pattern.
In contrast, gains in horsepower tend to respond well to lower frequency with much more
intensity per session. In this respect, gains in intramuscular coordination for a sprinter
are much like gains in strength for an advanced lifter. Think about that. A very strong
powerlifter will often only train a lift once every 7 to 10 days. His technique for the lift is
well developed and he doesn't need endless repetition practicing the various lifts. Rather,
his time is spent stimulating and strengthening the muscles involved in the powerlift.
After a hardcore workout it'll often take his muscles and nervous system a week or more
to recover. Because he's already spent years perfecting his technique, he need not worry
about losing any technical prowess not hitting his lifts every other day. He can simply
focus on getting stronger in the various muscle groups overall and then apply that
increased strength to his powerlifts.
The same sort've thing can also be observed in sprinting. This is why you can
take an active group of young athletes off the track and throw them in the weight room
for 3 months and get them really strong. Providing they maintain their mobility and
leanness you can take them back out on the track and within 3 sessions most of them will
be setting PRs in the sprints. They didn't lose much technique from not sprinting because
it's something they've probably been doing since they were kids. However, they did
gain a lot of strength, which they were then able to transfer to the sprints. This is one
good reason why one need not spend endless hours all year around out on the track
sprinting, providing they've reached a baseline level of proficiency in their ability to
move efficiently when they run. Sprinting is a simple gross movement pattern and,
providing one has at some point learned how to perform it with some proficiency, ** they
can often get away from it and focus on the strength qualities that will make them run fast
and then transfer that increased strength to the track. So, you use frequency to learn.
You use intensity to enhance what's learned.
** In this day and age, it isn't a given that young athletes have ever learned how to move and run correctly. Kids often do so much
sitting around they never learn how to run. Watch a group of teenagers engaged in a sports practice and it's not uncommon to see
arms and legs flailing all over the place, heels stomping, and an assortment of other indicators that tell that a person has never
learned how to move with a whole lot of proficiency. This type of athlete would need to spend some time focusing more on movement
Maintaining Movement Proficiency vs Improving Movement
It takes a lot less volume to maintain a skill, movement pattern, or strength
quality then it does to improve a quality. In general, it only takes 1/3 the volume to
maintain a given movement pattern as it does to improve that quality. In other words,
you might become more coordinated by sprinting 3 times per week, but once you've
made those improvements, you can maintain the majority of them sprinting one time per
week. ** Activities like football and soccer practice or games, or anything else involving sprinting at a high intensity, can count
Regardless of whether you're training for increased coordination or increased
horsepower, gains will occur much more readily if each and every sprint or movement
you do is performed in a fresh state. This means you should take a full recovery between
sprints so that fatigue does not interfere with muscular recruitment.
Many people think the way to get faster and more explosive is to perform multiple
sprints with short rests to the point where they're huffing and puffing and the muscles are
really burning. This type of training definitely hurts, requires a lot of mental toughness,
and may improve conditioning, or the number of sprints you can run in a fatigued state,
yet it won't do a thing for the speed of your fresh sprints. Think about it. If a powerlifter
wants to increase his maximum bench press how does he do it? Does he train with light
weights and very short rest intervals to the point where his muscles are burning and
cramping? Or does he lift really heavy weights for low reps with long rest intervals so
that he can be as fresh as possible for each lift?
The way to increase your speed is to train exactly like you would if you were
training for maximum strength. Sprint over fairly short distances (10 to 60 yards) and use
long rest intervals. Trying to train for maximum speed by running in a state of fatigue is
like trying to increase your bench press by training with foo-foo weights and short rest
intervals. It simply doesn't work! As a general recommendation, you should rest 1
minute for every 10 yards you sprint. So, if you sprint 10 yards, you'd rest 1 minute. If
you sprint 40 yards you'd rest 4 minutes. To avoid fatigue interfering with quality work,
this also means that a speed session should be stopped prior to, or as soon as, you start
to slow down on your sprint times in the workout. That generally means a speed workout
will not exceed 500 yards per session and will often be as short as 100 yards. Personally,
when I made my best gains in the 40 yard dash, each workout consisted of 3 to 5 all out
sprints and that's it. Nothing complicated about it!
More On Volume and Training Frequency
So, when training to improve running speed and not just training to improve
conditioning, you should terminate a sprint session prior to, or as soon as, your
performance starts do decline during a workout. The same goes for any other movement
skill or explosive movement you're trying to improve. Wanna improve your agility?
Your jumping? Your footwork? Your martial arts kicks? Your gymnastics ability? Then
treat all those just like you would sprints. Perform a lot of quality reps with good
recovery and stop a session as soon as fatigue begins to interfere with performance. It
will work for the acquistion and improvement of any movement or skill you're trying to
improve. That's the simplest way to monitor volume you'll ever hear and it's also highly
effective. The reason it's so effective is because these gains are mostly all neurological
in nature and making neural improvements requires fresh exposures.
For improvements in plyometric capacity like jumping, choose a low volume of exercises per workout and perform them the same way. Each set should be relatively brief (0-10 seconds), each set should be followed by a complete rest, and the session should be terminated as soon as or before fatigue starts to interfere with your ability to get quality reps in.
Now, as mentioned above, when training for increased coordination, movement
proficiency, and skill, you can and should train more often. A frequency of 3-5 days per
week or even every day works very well for coordination and movement acquisition for
something like a sprint. The more fresh exposures you give yourself to a given skill or
movement, the more proficient you're gonna get at carrying out that movement. As long
as fatigue is not accumulating on a day-to-day basis and as long as your performance is
not deteriorating on a day-to-day basis, you can train as often as possible.
Frequency When Training For Horsepower
When I refer to horsepower I'm referring to things like weight training and any
plyometric training other than very basic low intensity movement efficiency drills like
jump rope. In these higher intensity tasks, you're trying to improve the amount of
"oomph" that you put behind your movements. In other words, squats and depth jumps
don't improve the coordination of your sprint stride, they improve the amount of force
you put behind each stride. Prescribing frequency when training for horsepower is a
little more difficult. Why is this? Well, the main reason is because most of the things
associated with boosting horsepower tend to be highly intense activities that tend to
causes a significant amount of whole body central nervous system fatigue or muscular
micro-trauma. Either of these will require recovery time. How do you tell if something is
causing whole body fatigue and/or micro-trauma? Very simple: If you perform a task
today and can't come back the very next day and repeat the task at the same level, your
body is not recovered.
I went in the gym yesterday and did a fairly heavy squat session. I could not come
back and repeat that same session tomorrow with the same weights. In fact, I'd probably
have to wait 4-5 days before I could repeat that same squat session. If I were to do some
depth jumps tomorrow those depth jumps would induce enough fatigue that I probably
wouldn't be able to come back the next day and jump as well either. I wouldn't have to
rest 4-5 days like I would with the squats, but I probably would have to rest 48 hours or
so. The more micro-trauma (muscular damage) that you induce in any given workout the
longer it's going to take to recover. This is why weight training tends to require the most
recovery time. However, nervous system fatigue can be induced even without microtrauma.
The depth jumps don't induce much micro-trauma yet still drain the system
enough that they require some recovery time.
One other very important point: Things like basic sprinting and jumping, when
performed at a high level, can also require significant recovery time. An elite level
sprinter may only be able to sprint maximally 2-3 days per week. If he tried to sprint at
full speed every day he'd most likely find his times from one day to the next would get
slower and slower as he builds up fatigue. But allow him a day of rest between
maximum sprints and he's fine. However, a grade schooler can sprint every day with no
day to day deterioration in performance. Why is this? Since the elite sprinter is much
more advanced shouldn't he be able to sprint more often? You would think so.
going on? Well, the body can double, triple, or quadruple the capacity to generate stress
(increase performance), yet the capacity to recover from that stress does not improve
nearly as much from baseline. The elite level sprinter is putting out a TON of force when
he sprints and, in comparison to the lower level athlete, puts a lot more stress on his body
and nervous system. Have you ever wondered why pro athletes or sprinters tear and
strain hamstrings left and right yet you never see a single person in a class full of
kindergardners have any such problems? They're simply not able to create enough stress
to challenge their bodies. It's like the difference between a thoroughbred and a camel or
a funny car and a Honda civic. The thoroughbred and funny car are so strong and
powerful they'll blow out if you try to run them full bore all the time. The camel and
Honda Civic don't operate such a high intensity and thus can be ridden further and more
You see the same thing in lifting. A very strong powerlifter with an 800-pound
deadlift might only be ABLE to deadlift once every 7 to 10 days without any
performance deterioration yet when he was a beginning lifter only deadlifting 200 he
could probably lift maximal weights every other day. The bigger weights he's lifting
simply require more recovery time because over time he's turned himself into more of a thoroughbred. An explosive athlete is the same way.
The point to take home is this: If you perform a task today and can't come back the very next day and repeat the exact same task, you need some recovery time. Activities such as heavy weight training may require 2-7 days recovery while activities such as intense plyometric and speed will typically require 48 hours recovery. It's generally best to allow 48-hours rest between any highly intense activities for a given muscle group.
So, if I did a heavy squat session today I wouldn't wanna come back tomorrow and perform depth jumps or sprints. I'd wanna give my legs and my nervous system at least 48 hours rest. For that reason, for those athletes who have advanced past the coordination stage, it's often best to put any activities that require significant recovery time all on the same training day. So, instead of performing weight training one day, high intensity plyometrics the next day, and sprinting the next day, you'd do them all on the same day with 48 hours rest in between workouts. On the days in between your higher intensity workouts you could either rest or engage in lower intensity activities.
Activities that could generally be considered "High-Intensity" activities would be the
1. Strength work (anything above 80% of 1rm for lower body and "whole
body"movements such as deadlifts, cleans etc.)
2. Maximum effort lower body bodybuilding work (8-12 reps to failure)
3. Maximum effort speed work with full recovery between reps
4. Maximum effort plyometric work (depth jumps)
5. Maximum effort agility and deceleration work will full recovery between reps
6. Maximum (or near maximum) effort conditioning work (ie. All out intervals or timed intervals with short rests)
7. Sparring and heavy bag work
9. Any activity performed with heightened and competitive emotional intensity
10. Any activity performed under the influence of artificial stimulants
(ephedrine, various energizing supplements)
11. For advanced athletes only - any activity involving PR type performances
Activities that could generally be considered "Low-Intensity" activities would be the
1. Aerobic work
2. True sub-maximal conditioning (tempo) work
3. Dynamic warm-ups and form running drills
4. Sub-maximal bodybuilding or upper body isolation bodybuilding work
5. Sub-maximal speed work (runs less than 80% top speed)
6. Easy plyometric work (basic uni-lateral and bi-lateral hops etc.)
7. Footwork drills (agility ladders and dot drills)
8. Jump rope
9. Martial arts kata, mitt work, or shadowboxing
These activities that don't induce much if any fatigue and can be repeated on a daily basis
10. Shadowboxing and mitt work