Get faster - Joe O'Connor's guide to Power and Acceleration

By Cian O'Connell

As an endurance athlete, Joe O'Connor knows all about the value and benefits of long distance running. He cites the research carried out by the Gaelic Sports Research Centre, stating a GAA player with higher aerobic fitness has a greater tolerance to spikes in acute training load, but warns that you also have to prepare your body for the structural challenges of returning to play. Running alone will not do this.

The highly regarded fitness coach is adamant that a correct training balance needs to be attained by players. Speed and acceleration training is vital for players in so many ways according to O'Connor, who was a key part of Clare and Limerick's All Ireland winning backroom teams.

"Sprinting is an injury prevention process in itself," O'Connor explains. "The methods that we use to make people better at running fast are similar to the things we do prevent hamstring injuries. It can be a win-win scenario.

"Sometimes we isolate them and don't include sprint training enough in our preparation. That is one of my biggest fears during lockdown because players will be thinking this is a great chance to get aerobically fit, which it is, but you can’t neglect the rest of your conditioning.

"I'm not knocking distance running, but it won't prepare you structurally for the strains that will be put on your ligaments, tendons, and muscles when you go back to playing team based sports. Endless laps of your local park will give you the aerobic fitness, but it won't prepare you fully for a return to play.

"That is why we started our video series with balance, then strength, and now we are looking at acceleration and power. You shouldn't really do acceleration and power until you are strong enough and it is very hard to be strong enough unless you have got balance and co-ordination."

One of the leading experts in speed training, JB Morin, of the Université Côte d'Azur, Nice, France has stressed the value and importance of adopting speed exercises into training. "One of his biggest arguments is that we need to micro dose our high intensity sprinting. That is a thing I feel GAA players sometimes get wrong.

"They try to sprint so much in one session that half the team are broken up so they think sprinting is bad and don't do it again. One massive speed session won’t make you, but it can definitely break you. The key to good injury prevention and speed development is high intensity micro dosing. So you do a little often rather than doing any monster speed session.

Joe O'Connor is a highly regarded fitness coach.
Joe O'Connor is a highly regarded fitness coach.

"What that does is it maintains the functional tension within the ligaments and tendons. This in turn primes your neurological system to protect you while sprinting. What people sometimes don't grasp is that if you stretch and stretch you make yourself so flexible, you are actually at risk of injury when it comes to sprinting too. We need a certain degree of tension in order to run fast, safely.

"If you are too tight you are also at risk so it is about exposing yourself to this amount of tension on a regular basis making your body adapt to it. This is why I gave sample drills like the A & B Skip in video three."

O'Connor also points to valuable research carried out three years ago by Shane Malone and Mark Roe. "They looked at Gaelic Football specifically," O'Connor adds. "The work JD Morin does as a leader in the field is very much based around soccer and other sports, but we have research on this in Gaelic Football.

"Basically the players who had a high chronic training load and were regularly exposed to bouts of max velocity running, which is sprinting, got injured less."

Becoming faster is a mission most sportspeople wish to accomplish with O'Connor stressing the value of a multi factorial approach. "To improve your speed and maintain healthy hamstrings you have five key things that you need to have down," O'Connor remarks.

"They've been addressed in the videos so far. Your lumbopelvic control, think of your spine and your pelvis, how you control that is a very important thing in order to be faster, but also to prevent injuries. In video one we address balance and hip hinging which can be an easy and basic way to see if you control yourself.

"The other things are posterior strength, and we stressed the importance of the hip thrust exercise in video two. This is where some players fall down an awful lot. A good way of preventing hamstring and speed related injuries is making sure your hamstrings and glutes are strong enough.

"It sounds like a ridiculous thing to say, but fellas are mad for quad based exercises in the gym because that is obviously what they can see in the mirror. The reason a lot of these injuries come is because there isn't sufficient posterior strength, in proportion to the front of the body.

Kerry's Tom O'Sullivan on the run.
Kerry's Tom O'Sullivan on the run.

"In video two we spoke about push, pull, press, hip dominant, knee dominant, torso brace and torso rotate. Weights programs should have antagonistic balance meaning you work the whole body and not just the beach body.

"Another consideration is ankle health and ankle stiffness. For speed you need a degree of tendon stiffness and a degree of mobility in the ankle for it to be healthy. The last piece of the jigsaw then is high speed sprinting."

Ultimately, O'Connor is adamant about the need to ensure speed work is frequently used in sessions by teams.

"It is the curse and the tonic at the same time, in that there is a nonsensical belief out there - and you hear some people saying sprinting is bad for the hamstrings - so they avoid sprinting," O'Connor comments. "The irony in that the minute you sprint in a game you are going to hurt yourself if you aren't used to sprinting.

"You have a few ways of preventing hamstring injuries, one of them is to maintain regular exposure to running fast or micro dosing of speed. That is what our latest video is about. Sprinting itself is an injury prevention process, but many players get injured when they are sprinting.

"So there is a dilemma, people shouldn't fear sprinting even though its during sprinting players get injured. If they don't sprint, they increase the risk of getting injured when they do go back sprinting during training and matches.

“Strength training is a great base for speed but sprinting induces activation and contraction velocities of the hamstrings that cannot be repeated with weights. This is why we explain power as force by velocity in the video.

"You need to be strong to generate force, and you need to move fast to generate velocity. Don’t fear sprinting, prepare for it by moving well, getting stronger and sprinting on a regular basis.”