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Acceleration Techniques and Speed Development

Phil Campbell explains the science and biomechanics behind the acceleration techniques that will increase your athlete's speed.

Specific numbers will be remembered for a lifetime. Most sports enthusiasts, most will never forget their best 100-meter sprint time, and in the USA, no one forgets their personal best 40-yard sprint. Why do athletes remember their personal best speed time all their lives? It is probably because speed is highly correlated with performance in most sports and speed has been shown in 2004 to predict athletic performance in US college football. For years, there were opinions about which tests were most valuable because no one knew, which, if any of the tests would predict success for college athletes. A new study now provides the answers.

The researchers summarised their findings

The purpose of this investigation was to examine the relationship between 6 physical characteristics and three functional measures in college (US) football players. Data was gathered on 46 NCAA Division I college football players. The three response variables were a 36.6m sprint (40 yards), 18.3m shuttle run, and vertical jump. The six regression variables were height, weight, the percentage of body fat, hamstring length, bench press, and hang clean. A stepwise multiple regression analysis was performed to screen for variables that predict physical performance. Regression analysis revealed explicit prediction models for the 36.6m (40 yards) sprint, and 18.3m shuttle run. (Davis 2004)[1]

In recent years in the US, a system of selecting athletes for college and professional sports teams has evolved into several major physical tests involving speed, agility, and strength given to athletes on the same day. These tests are called the "combines" in the USA. Having a good day at the combines can produce on-the-spot scholarships from large universities, and it can mean millions of dollars in sign-on bonuses and salaries for athletes entering the professional ranks. With the results of this new study, future "combines" may focus on two acceleration tests. In the USA, the 40-yard sprint is king for many sports, except baseball, which uses the 60-yard distance required to run bases.

Big Ticket Items in Teaching Acceleration Techniques

Several acceleration techniques can be taught in a few training sessions that will increase the speed of many athletes. Techniques like Ankle Dorsiflexion, Pocket Chin Arm Swings, Acceleration Position, and the grand prize of speed training is the Valsalva Acceleration Technique.


Most untrained athletes run with their toes pointed downward. While they may have fast leg turnover, just like throwing a ball without using the wrist, the power is missing unless the foot is dorsiflexed (pointing up) and ready to fire off the ground. Dorsiflexion of the ankle means to raise the toes and, in essence, cock the foot before striking the ground. This action engages the ankle and the foot for additional power generation, and this can mean extra stride length for the athlete. The Claw Drill and many of the skipping drills teach athletes to dorsiflex their feet.

Pocket-Chin Arm Swings

Without exception, teaching proper arm mechanics for maximizing running speed is the most difficult. Many athletes do not see themselves unless they are taped, and they frequently gauge what they are doing with their arms based on their perception of how their arms feel during sprinting. In most cases, arms swings are incorrect and need repositioning. "Pocket / Chin" is a good way of teaching arm mechanics and the Butt Bumpers drill is the best drill I have seen for teaching correct arm swing mechanics. Have your athletes sit on the ground with both legs straight in front (side-by-side) with arms locked at 90 degrees. In slow motion, have athletes swing one arm back until the hand reaches the pocket, and one arm forward until the hand reaches chin level (approximately twelve inches away from the chin).

This is the "pocket/chin level" position. Performing this drill in slow motion is a good idea until the coach sees that the athletes are getting the feeling of the arm positions. Move to half speed, then to full speed for three sets of 5 to 10 seconds. If performed correctly, it is easy to see why this drill is called butt bumpers. In 1970 I was taught to run with arm swings pointed in a straight line forward. Now we know that this instruction slightly restricts the hips during running and thus, makes the athlete run slower. The arm swings should be pointed slightly toward the centre of the body to maximize the hips, which can increase stride length. Too much side-to-side will over-rotate the hips and cause problems. If an athlete points the arms past the centre of the body, this can make the feet push off the surface in a duck-footed style rather than push the athlete straight toward the target. When you see a problem with the feet, look to the arms first for correction as there may be an easy fix here. Challenge them to perform Pocket/ Chin drills with "locked 90-degree arms" at home looking in the mirror, sideways, and front ways.

Acceleration Position

Due to the work of Brian Mackenzie coaches are hearing about the importance of proprioception training for sports. This term becomes very important in teaching the acceleration position. The number one mistake made by athletes trying to run faster is to stand up too soon in the fly phase running without going through the "drive phase," which is marked by an aggressive forward lean (at the ankles). The description of an airplane taking off, low at first, but slowly rising upward with an effort made not to jump up to quickly and bump the passenger's heads, seems to be an understandable analogy for most athletes. When performing the standard calf stretch, with one leg back and one forward, leaning on a fence is a good way to reinforce the acceleration position -- straight back, bent at the ankles.

Valsalva Acceleration Technique

A slower athlete can beat a faster athlete to the ball, to the hoop, to the tackle, to the touchdown, and the finish line if the slower athlete is trained to hit the acceleration position (body straight, forward lean from the ankles) with arms pumping pocket-to-chin level and tactically using the Valsalva acceleration technique at precise points.

If you look up Valsalva manoeuvre on the internet, you will find that this describes briefly holding your breath. When appropriately applied for a brief burst of 2.5 seconds, this technique can be the greatest single producer of an instantaneous explosion in force, speed, and strength known in science. Like many techniques, this one is so powerful that it can cause harm, but it also delivers championship plays.

We all use the body's natural ability to increase strength by unconsciously performing the Valsalva manoeuvre. My favourite analogy to explain this to athletes is to describe a situation where the athlete's mum hands the athlete a jar with a tight lid. Mum needs some extra strength to open the jar, so she calls on the athlete for help. On the first attempt, the lid is too tight for the athlete. On the second attempt, the athlete increases the intensity and pushes hard with maximal effort.

If you think about what the body does naturally in this situation, you will understand this valuable technique. The athlete tightens the abs and holds the breath for 2 or 3 seconds at max effort is applied. This is the Valsalva manoeuvre. The body increases blood pressure by an additional 100 points very quickly with this natural action. This is dangerous to older adults with the potential for stokes, and it can be hazardous to some young athletes. But this technique will assist an athlete to open the jar, lift more weight maximally, and beat a faster athlete to the ball, goal, or finish line.

An athlete cannot perform a maximum lift while inhaling. Nor can an athlete quickly accelerate with maximum force while inhaling. The body is designed for the Valsalva manoeuvre and needs to be trained on how and when to deploy the technique.

Valsalva Acceleration Strategy

Holding the breath too long can cause harm by making an athlete pass out. One occurrence is reported in the literature where this technique was responsible for bursting a tiny blood vessel in the eye of an athlete during heavy maximal lifting.

It is easy to observe that the Valsalva manoeuvre is frequently used safely as a natural function of the body to increase strength, but it is only held for two to three seconds naturally. A 100-meter sprinter would have time to plan for four Valsalva acceleration techniques during the short ten-second event or a masters sprinter like me may get in five before the finish. The miler may place the Valsalva acceleration technique in the race strategy 100 meters before the finish line to power that extra kick.

The 400-meter sprinter may want to deploy this technique during the four handoff zones during the single lap around the track. The baseball player may wish to deploy this acceleration skill twice during the seven-second trip to first base.

The football player may strategically use the Valsalva technique to break on the ball for a surprise steal. The applications for this acceleration technique are endless.


We have all seen the superstar athlete interviewed on television after making a game-winning play.

"How did you make that great play?" asks the reporter.

"I knew that the game depended on it. I gave it everything I had, and I made the play" seems to be the frequent answer. That is what we hear, but the athlete should have explained:

"I wanted to make the play, so I made the extra effort to get into the acceleration position (with a straight body bent from the knees), pumped my arms pocket-to-chin level, and positioned my shoulders lower to the ground than my competitor to drive my body forward toward the target, I took the extra energy necessary to apply the Valsalva technique to temporarily raise my blood pressure by an extra 100 points so I could get there faster than my competitor."

Some athletes make great plays without knowing the science of acceleration, but what if all your athletes trained with these techniques throughout the season. Perhaps this technique explains why some teams that do not match the physical attributes of stronger teams, still find ways to win a championship. Perhaps the inferior team realised that they had to go deep inside, work hard, get into the acceleration position on every play, and use the Valsalva technique more to beat the superior team. "Who wants the victory the most, will win this game" is what we say to the team. Maybe we should train athletes to use this natural technique designed to assist the body to get into maximal effort so athletes will have the skills necessary to beat a faster athlete and not wait until it is the game-winning play to deploy it. I rest my case. Speed is a skill and skills can be improved.

Article Reference

This article first appeared in:

  • CAMPBELL, P. (2004) Acceleration Techniques and Speed Development. Brian Mackenzie's Successful Coaching, (ISSN 1745-7513/ 15 / September), p. 11-13


  1. DAVIS (2004) Physical Characteristics That Predict Functional Performance in Division I College Football Players. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: 18 (1), p. 115-120

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • CAMPBELL, P. (2004) Acceleration Techniques, and Speed Development [WWW] Available from: [Accessed

About the Author

Phil Campbell is a personal trainer and a master athlete holding several USA Track and Field Master titles. He has a black belt in Isshinryu Karate and has competed and won titles in martial arts and weightlifting competitions. His Sprint 8 cardio program is featured in award-winning Vision Fitness treadmills and exercise bikes.