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The Science of Speed

Looking to boost your speed and conditioning? Find a hill and get to work.

Most people think of speed as an attribute: something you’re born with or that you develop through years of hard work. But speed is actually an ability. Even if you have the physical underpinnings — the metabolic conditioning and muscle strength — your body still needs to learn how to go fast.

“It’s all about neurological reprogramming. All the systems are ready to fire, but they haven’t done it before so you have to teach them,” says Robert Forster, PT, a physical therapist who trains and rehabs elite-level athletes at his Phase IV performance center in Santa Monica, Calif. ( 

Forster teaches his athletes to get their Usain Bolt on using a technique called overspeed training in which he puts them in a harness suspended over a treadmill. The harness removes roughly 20 pounds of bodyweight, allowing the athlete to turn his legs over quickly and fluidly, as if he were running on a planet with less gravity. According to Forster, it’s a very quick adaptation and takes only a handful of sessions to train the nervous system to break through speed plateaus.

But what if you don’t have access to a gravity harness and sprint-worthy treadmill? “Downhill running is the low-tech way of doing overspeed training for neurological retraining,” says Forster, who has trained 44 Olympic medalists and is the co-author of Healthy Running Step by Step (Fair Winds Press, 2014).

Yet running downhill isn’t quite as simple as it sounds. For one thing, it’s not for beginners. Forster describes the classic pyramid of periodized training originally created by Russian sports scientists: The first priority and largest level is joint stability (the structural integrity to train hard), followed by strength, then power. Speed is the final and smallest part of the pyramid. That means before you start speed training you should have a decent base of slow and flat running, at least three to four miles a couple of times a week. After that, you should spend four weeks running uphill (strength) plus at least a few weeks performing short and fast intervals or plyometrics (power). Someone engaged in a well-rounded conditioning program like CrossFit can utilize downhill training almost immediately.

Most people tend to lean backward when going downhill as a natural braking mechanism. For overspeed training, however, try to lean forward slightly so your upper body is perpendicular to the running surface. Forster recommends using a shorter stride and faster cadence, which prevents injuries of all types. Aim for 180 steps per minute (30 steps every 10 seconds) no matter the pace or the decline.

“This training will also transfer to the gym for a few different lifts,” says Forster. “The whole reason we do this is for more leg speed, and in certain lifts those muscle fibers will be able to fire faster.”

Cruise Control

Try performing this downhill running program once a week for three weeks, then take one week off. After that, do two downhill running sessions per week for another three-week block.

• Run for one mile to warm up.

• Find a slight decline (2 to 4 percent grade) and run for 50 meters. Walk back to the starting point and repeat for a total of four to five intervals. These intervals should be at about a six on a Rate of Perceived Exertion scale (10 being all-out effort and three being a warm-up pace).

• Stretch after each session. Focus on the quadriceps, says Forster, which can help prevent the kneecap from getting sore.

• Don’t overdo it. Downhill running is stressful and requires more recovery.