George Dintiman can remember when he trained athletes to hold a rope strapped to a motor scooter and run behind the moving bike. Keeping up with the bike was supposed to make them faster. It was pretty out there for the time, he admits, but it worked.
“We were doing crazy things,” said Dintiman, professor emeritus at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of 40 books on speed improvement. People “thought we were nuts.”
Thirty years later, speed training is more sophisticated, involving explosive power movements and proper running mechanics. Once the domain of college and professional athletes, it’s now gaining favor with weekend and recreational runners and others playing team sports like soccer or volleyball.
“It takes a certain individual who’s looking for sport-specific training,” said Shawn Stewart, a sports psychologist and owner of Velocity Sports Performance in Richmond. “That individual has a different agenda than the guy who goes to the gym.”
'Looking for that little edge'
Randy Puryear, 46, turned to speed training this spring to reach his goal of qualifying for the Boston Marathon. He needs to shave about 15 minutes off his time to meet the qualifying time of 3½ hours.
“I’m looking for that little edge that at my age helps me get over the hump,” said Puryear, a social worker in suburban Richmond. “Adding more miles is not the solution.”
Puryear’s sport-specific plan will instead have him doing a number of drills for eight weeks aimed at correcting his stride. Running properly can shave four to six minutes off a runner’s time in a marathon, said Shane Sykes, a trainer at Velocity Sports Performance.
Runners are taught to have their heels touch first followed by their toes with each step. Experts say athletes get faster by taking more steps per second — stride rates — without decreasing the length of stride.
Sykes said the back of the leg is like a rubber band, and the farther it’s pulled back, the more efficient the step. The muscles in the body have stored energy. When each foot hits the ground, that power is released, he said.
Another technique that helps sprinters or runners is keeping elbows close to the body. Sykes likened the elbows to a sail on a boat, ultimately slowing the runner.
Undoing bad habits
Many of the drills taught have been around forever. A training tool that resembles hopscotch squares lays on the floor. It helps athletes focus on where to place each running step. Other training includes a resistance machine where athletes strap up to bungee chords and jump up in the air. Another exercise involves jumping on and off wooden platforms.
“This is a lot more applicable to older athletes,” Sykes said, because their bodies have developed bad mechanics over the years.
Advocates of speed training claim the drills increase vertical leaps by 6 inches and take 0.2 seconds off a 40-yard dash. Both skills are valuable in the highly competitive high school, college and professional markets, where the demand for speed camps and centers is growing every year.
But for weekend athletes?
People as old as 70 are contacting Dintiman and Bob Ward, a trainer for the Dallas Cowboys during the Tom Landry era. Dintiman said speed trainers can see improvement in as little as six weeks. Both men founded the National Association of Speed and Explosion.
Randy Kagan, a Richmond speed and conditioning coach, said some of his clients were never great athletes as youngsters, but are now yearning for competition.
“As they got older they found they were getting better,” he said.
Gaining an advantage
Linda Rehak, 47, started training with him a year ago, and ran the Ukrops Monument Avenue 10k race — placing seventh in her age bracket out of about 700 runners. Nearly 14,500 people competed in the run along Richmond’s most famous street, lined with 50-foot statues of Confederate generals.
Fresh from a second back surgery for a ruptured disc and advised to find an alternative low-impact sport, Rehak instead had Kagan devise a program to make her faster.
The corporate lawyer now runs prescribed interval track sessions twice a week.
“I could teach myself how to go out and run for a long time,” she said. “I needed someone to teach me how to run fast.”
Duke Rousse, of New Orleans, convinced his flag football team to use speed training instead of hitting the treadmill.
“I speed train just to stay in shape, stay active and try to prevent injury,” he said.
Rousse, 30, trains with Tom Shaw, a speed improvement coach in New Orleans.
“These guys start seeing that they can get an advantage over their opponents,” Shaw said, particularly, since many flag football tournaments pay winners.
Puryear, the social worker who has competed in 10 marathons, hopes his training will pay off with a spot Boston’s marathon next April.
In November, he’ll run in Richmond to qualify. Then he’ll get a final tuneup in Myrtle Beach, S.C., in February.
“For the next five or six months, I’m just going to put it all on the line,” he said.