Reasons for Slow Athletes
Speed kills in nearly every sport.
The ESPN highlight reel is full of fast moving, high flying plays and color commentary never suggests, “That guy is just too fast, slow down!” We covet the concept of speed so much that the number of speed and agility camps popping up in every town seems endless.
When it comes to speed though, it seems to be unfairly dispersed towards those with better genetics. There is a lot of truth to this but just like too many programs running on your computer, there could be some things slowing down your young athletes.
Here Are 5 Reasons Your Athlete may be Slow
Reason #1: Getting Taller
This is the kid that just looks funny when running. We all have seen it and unfortunately you may have an athlete you are working with that falls into this category. Arms and legs just seem out of whack and you wonder how this athlete doesn’t just fall down with each step.
I wanted to start with this one because the culprit could be something you have no control over—a growing body. If you have a chance to check out the Long Term Athletic Development concept and you dig a little into it, you will see that there is a time frame that athletes are encouraged to develop speed.
This includes swinging a golf club and throwing a ball, but the same goes for running fast. Pop into your pediatrician’s office and you will see how this mirrors that of a slower growth period prior to puberty.
This is not a coincidence.
If your athlete seems to be having a slowdown and there has been a lot of growing, complaints of aches and pains, and sleeping 24/7 let’s not get too caught up on fixing the problem—just let things work themselves out for a bit.
It doesn’t mean your athlete should avoid doing things fast, just keep a healthy realization that this child is going through an iOS update and things might be running a bit slow.
Reason #2: Asymmetry
An unbalanced body, is a major risk factor for injuries and that same thing applies to speed.
Pro Tip: An athlete CANNOT achieve their top level of explosiveness if there is significant asymmetry from side to side. The body works best when in balance.
This balance does not have to scale out perfectly, but it needs to be close. For example, in the rehab world we like athletes to have 90%+ symmetry from a single leg jump following ACL reconstruction.
Why? Because if one leg can push and land faster than the other, then it puts the rehabilitated leg at increased risk.
The human body will only move as fast as its slowest part. Since sprinting is full body motion this requires exquisite timing.
Making sure that the body is in balance is critical to optimal performance.
Reason #3: Poorly Rehabilitated Injuries
Injuries will happen in sports. Even as a physical therapist, I will break the glass and acknowledge that “bubble wrapping children” is not the answer. However, just as injuries are a part of sports, the means to return the body to optimal performance is critically important.
Hamstrings and calf muscles are often the victims of fast moving. Quad and hip flexor strains, as well as achilles tendinopathy, also fall in the mix. Regardless, damage to the soft tissue requires appropriate rehabilitation. This could be a muscle tear, tendon irritation, fascial tightness, etc. but not addressing an injury appropriately is going to slow down an athlete.
Pro Tip: This is particularly important if these injuries are from overuse as now the breakdown is exceeding the healing. Children normally heal REALLY fast so if this is happening it means this athlete’s activities are way too much!
Reason #4: Sport Selection
In high school I excelled at two sports—Cross Country and Baseball. How well do you think these two worked together when it comes to speed? Just terrible!
Every fall I would train my body to maintain a pace to run many miles and then in the winter I would have to condition the opposite—teaching my body to be explosive for swinging, throwing, and stealing bases.
Now I was a pretty committed Type A person when it came to sports and I put in the sweat equity to make it happen. It was great for my arm, gave me a solid off-season but not so good for my first explosive step.
If your athletes have sports that are polar opposites when it comes to speed, this may cause some slowdown.
Muscles can be retrained so don’t just quit all endurance sports because of this article. Just keep in mind that this type of athlete may need a bit more attention on the speed training side of things.
The IYCA’s Long Term Athlete Development product is a sure-fire way to get our athletes ready for any sport.
Reason #5: Weak Core and Hip Flexors
“Strengthen the Core” has been beaten to death but I am going to kick this dead horse again.
Weak Core = Slower Athlete
Watch any sport where an athlete rips off their shirt and what will you see? A human washboard. Training these muscles are hard, time consuming, and for most young athletes this type of conditioning moves to the bottom of the pile. I am sure you have read a lot of articles on the importance of core training…let me try another one.
When the arms and legs move quickly there is a lot of energy that travels back and forth to generate velocity. A smooth running engine is flawless and if you watch the fastest athletes out there it almost looks effortless.
The hip flexors, in particular, help drive the legs forward as the athlete flexes down into a sprinting position. These muscles are attached to the front of the spine which means every step, the lower back is jerked forward and side to side.
If the surrounding core musculature does not offset this motion, then the legs have a poor platform to pull off of, confounded also by the forward energy generated by the arms being dissipated as well. As a result, your athlete becomes a car with weak chasee—rattling and wobbling along.
Now if you were behind the wheel of this weak framed car, would you floor the gas pedal? I didn’t think so.
The brain is no different. If the body is at risk of injury, the self-preservation systems will slow everything down. You could “will it” all you want but your brain isn’t going to risk damaging the body unless there is a bear chasing after you.
Take Home Message
Running fast is more than just wanting too but also realizing there are limitations, such as genetics, that we have no control over.
Some people have more fast twitch muscles and others don’t but they recognize individually achieving top speed requires more than just training to run fast.
Speed and agility training, when used appropriately, is a good adjunct to strength and conditioning but should always be considered in balance with the bigger picture.
Speed does not develop day-to-day. It’s more like a business, quarter-to-quarter with a solid year-end review.
If your athlete just shot up an inch last month and is concerned about feeling slow, assure them that it’s normal and things will get back to normal soon. If their response is that of ten different emotions all in a single conversation then you definitely know you are making the right call!
Dr. Keith Cronin, DPT
About the Author: Keith J. Cronin
Keith J. Cronin is a physical therapist and owner of Sports and Healthcare Solutions, LLC. Keith currently supports US Operations for Dynamic Tape®, the “Original” Biomechanical Tape®, providing guidance for education, research, and distribution. He graduated with his Doctorate in Physical Therapy (DPT) from Belmont University in 2008 and later earned his Orthopedic Certification Specialist (OCS).
Prior to graduate school, Keith was a collegiate baseball player and top-level high school cross country runner. He also had the opportunity to work as a personal trainer (CSCS) prior to his career in physical therapy, providing a very balanced approached to educating fitness and rehabilitation. Keith has focused his career on the evaluation, treatment, injury prevention, and sports conditioning strategies for athletes, with particular attention to youth sports. He currently lives in the St. Louis, MO area with his wife and two daughters, Ella and Shelby.
Additional noteworthy items about Keith:
- Keith is currently a reviewer for the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy (IJSPT) on a variety of topics including throwing athletes, concussions, and ACL rehabilitation.
- Keith has produced several online CEU courses for PTWebcuation.com on the topics of running injuries, ACL rehabilitation, Patellofemoral Syndrome, and injuries to the Foot and Ankle.
- In 2012, Keith participated in a concussion education program in Newcastle, OK that resulted in the documentary “The Smartest Team: Making High School Football Safer” which had several runs on PBS worldwide.
- Keith has also been published in a variety of media, publishing almost 100 articles through venues including MomsTEAM.com, Advanced Magazine, the 9s Magazine, the American Coaching Academy, and Suite101.
- Keith was also featured on Fox2News several times on topics of concussions and ACL injuries.
- In 2008, Keith was a winner of the Olin Business Cup at Washington University for his product innovation “Medibite” a jaw rehabilitation system designed to improve the outcomes for individuals suffering TMJ dysfunction.