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From ATA World Volume 20, Number 2 Summer 2013

By Linda Formicelli | Photos by Travis Anderson & Sarah Blancett

Your weapons are a blur of precise, quick movements. During drills, your moves are like lightning, and you recover between rounds in seconds instead of minutes. The attribute that lets you accomplish all those feats is speed. We all want to blow everyone away with our speed in martial arts, but many of us think of speed as merely the time it takes to move from point A to point B. We focus our training on running and sprinting. While that aspect (technically “execution time”) is a part of speed, there are other elements to consider and train for.

Perceptual speed: the time it takes for you to perceive the need to take action. For example, if you’re sparring, you must recognize the need to strike when your opponent leaves an opening – and not realize it only once the opening has closed up.

Reaction time: the ability to take action before the window of opportunity expires. For example, once you’ve perceived an opening, you need to make your body react.

Execution time: what we think of as going from point A to point B as quickly as possible. This is how long it takes you to actually chamber your leg, perform a kick, and bring the leg back in, ready for the next one.

Recovery time: how long it takes you to recover your strength and stamina enough to repeat a movement or exercise with full force. You want it to be as short as possible, but it’s important not to skimp. You need to take the time to fully recover between exercises to keep your performance from deteriorating over time, and to prevent injury.

The Genetic Connection

Much of speed is genetic and depends on the makeup of your muscles. Slow twitch muscle fibers are, well, slow, but are good for continuous muscle contractions over a long period of time, meaning they can go a while without fatiguing. Fast twitch muscle fibers are the opposite: They fatigue quickly but are good for short bursts of movement.

Faster athletes boast more fast twitch muscle fibers. According to some sources, Olympic sprinters have about 80 percent fast twitch fibers, while marathoners tend to have 80 percent slow twitch fibers.

You’re probably asking yourself: “Can I change the makeup of my muscles by training?” No one knows for sure exactly, but what you can do is build more speed, no matter what your genes say.

Tuning Your Body for Speed

Developing the attributes of speed takes hard work: speed drills, strength workouts, flexibility training, and overall good care of your body. “It’s kind of like a supercharger or turbocharger on a car,” says Chief Master Todd Droege, the ATA’s international director for training. “If you press it all the way down and expect that supercharger to kick in, you’d better have good maintenance on your car, or you’re just going to blow your engine. It’s the same thing with your body.”

ATA World talked about cardio in the Winter 2012 issue, and strength and power in the Winter 2011 issue. We also offer an ATA-approved speed workout here.

What’s left is flexibility, an important component of speed training that’s often overlooked. Working on your flexibility can improve your performance, and it also lowers your risk of injury when you’re working fast and furious on speed drills.

Here’s a surprise: Studies show that doing static stretching before a workout – that’s where you get into a stretch position and hold the stretch for 30 seconds or longer – can actually reduce your reaction time, balance, and overall performance in the workout that follows.

But dynamic stretching, where your body is in motion the whole time, can improve your performance, safety, and speed. In a study by researchers at the Department of Physical Therapy at Wichita State University, subjects who did dynamic stretching before performing vertical jumps showed a significant boost in performance compared to those who did static stretching or who didn’t stretch at all.

So after your warm-up and before your main workout, try some dynamic stretches and save the static stretches for after the workout.