If you have ever been around summer sport camps, athletes’ training, or sport practices, you have no doubt seen a speed ladder. The ladder is made from rubber or cloth, generally about 13 to 26 feet, and laid on the ground for the athlete to run through. It is basically a longer, modern take on the old football drill of running through tires. However, the misnomer is in the name “speed” as the ladder does little more than improve your ability to do the ladder itself, and is a far reach from making anyone faster.
The most successful individuals on the speed ladder (i.e. the ones who don’t trip or finish sooner) are always the ones who have used this equipment the most. Like anything an athlete does in training, this exercise is a skill (see Sparta Point 7/8/09). If you’re really looking to perfect a skill and run faster or quicker, there are better options; play your sport more to improve reaction time or run faster by getting stronger.
Let’s discuss running faster first, as speed is a function of stride rate and stride length (see Sparta Point 1/6/10). Taking quick strides through a ladder will not help how long each stride covers, but will actually worsen it. One of the chief determinants of stride rate and length is strength. The stronger an athlete is, the longer a step can be taken (stride length) and the faster that step can be off the ground (stride rate).
When coaches, sports agents and parents are discussing quickness, they are generally referring to changing direction or an athlete’s agility. Like sprinting, quickness is very skill dependent, and is best achieved by getting stronger to put more force in the ground, propelling yourself in one direction sooner (see Sparta Point 10/25/09).
In 2010, researchers at Edith Cowan University in Australia, one of the top sports science programs in the world, examined 10 elite female athletes and the relationship of strength in the squat, sprint speed, and change of direction (quickness). The study found little relationship between jumping versus sprint speed or agility. However, there was a large, significant correlation between the relative squat strength to sprint speed. This relationship was even greater when strength was compared to quickness in the agility run.
The speed ladder evolved as a means of conditioning that provides a low injury risk, yet achieves little other than perfecting your ability to perform the ladder itself. The next time you want to get faster or quicker, go lift weights. Better yet, go practice or play your sport.