Deceleration Training: The Secret Ingredient to Making You Faster

How Deceleration Training Makes You Faster

Deceleration training is the secret ingredient to skyrocketing your athletic potential and fortifying your body against injury. If you’ve been looking for that one area of training ignored by most athletes that will set you apart from your competition, deceleration training is that missing link.

This article breaks down everything you need to know about deceleration in sports, why it’s a crucial factor in your athletic development, and the tools and exercises to take your deceleration training to the next level.

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Acceleration vs. Deceleration in Sports

“Speed has never killed anyone. Suddenly becoming stationary, that’s what gets you.”  

– Jeremy Clarkson

Acceleration gets most of the attention in sports and athletic development. And for well-deserved reasons. Seeing an athlete blast past their opponents on a breakaway or a photo finish sprint in the Olympics is exhilarating for athletes and spectators alike. 

But the faster you can move your body means needing additional stopping power, and for many sports, more capacity to shift your forward momentum to change directions rapidly. 

Think of your body as a high-performance Formula One car. Without a robust braking system, you can’t set up the rest of the car to maximize its speed. Your engine power, steering, and aerodynamics are all limited by the car’s reliable ability to decelerate.

Your speed and acceleration would be incredible if you put a Formula One engine into a stock 1980 Honda Civic. But without a massive upgrade to your brakes, setting a fast lap time around the track would be a nightmare. And worse, it wouldn’t be long until you find yourself making a trip to the emergency room.

The Importance of Deceleration Training for Athletes

Your body is a lot like that high-performance racecar. You need to think of the system as a whole to maximize your performance and safety as an athlete.

Making upgrades to your top speed and acceleration are both excellent ways to improve your athletic performance. But neglecting to also develop your deceleration in the process means leaving a ton of untapped potential still on the table and only increases your risk of game-ending injury.

Deceleration for Improved Athletic Performance

The key for multi-directional speed and agility is a combination of your ability to reduce force through deceleration and produce force through acceleration.

There’s more to speed than your ability to run fast in a straight line for sports with dynamic motion. Success (and speed) on the field means having the ability to transfer momentum more effectively than your opponent.

Imagine a running back who breaks through the line on a play. Straight-line speed is crucial, but what happens when he sees the safety heading directly towards him? Success at that moment relies on his ability to transfer his forward momentum to move laterally into an open gap more quickly than the safety.

This transfer of momentum is determined by your ability to decelerate. And is the deciding factor between outmaneuvering the safety for a touchdown or getting laid-out flat on your back. 

Acceleration and deceleration are inseparably linked. Just like you need acceleration to be a successful athlete, deceleration is the glue tieing every aspect of your capabilities together. A well-developed balance of the two is what separates good athletes from great athletes.

Deceleration for Injury Reduction

Most severe non-contact injuries like tendon tears and joint damage occur during sudden deceleration and rapid changes in motion.

Just like an engine that is more powerful than its brakes will result in a crash, having more speed than capacity for deceleration can put your body in significantly compromising positions.

Deceleration training combines strengthening the supporting muscles of joints used in changing direction (like your ankles, knees, and hips) and proper technique to ensure those muscles are correctly activated and to full effect.

When you strengthen the capacity of these muscles and train them to engage properly, you begin to develop a framework for understanding the thresholds of your movements. These thresholds are the line between successful execution and injury. 

Deceleration training helps you move that line up to increase your capability as an athlete while keeping your risk of game-ending injury as low as possible.

Muscles Used in Deceleration and Change of Direction

The key to deceleration and changing direction is the capacity of your ankles, knees, and hips as your foot makes contact with the ground. 

Having strength in the key muscle groups that enable these joints to function is what determines your ability to decelerate. 

The key muscles involved in deceleration are:

  • Hamstrings
  • Glutes
  • Vastus Medialis
  • Tibialis Anterior
  • Soleus
  • Abductors
  • Adductors
  • Calves
  • Erector Spinae
  • Abdominals

Just like strength in these muscle groups allow you to more effectively decelerate, if your rate of deceleration exceeds your muscle’s ability to support the joints – that is when you find yourself in situations of increased injury risk.

Deceleration Training and Exercises

The key to improving your deceleration is by enhancing your muscle’s ability to absorb force in the movements necessary for your sport.

Think about the phases of the squat exercise. When you are exploding upwards, you are creating acceleration. When you return back down into the squatted position in a controlled motion, you are absorbing the force of gravity through deceleration. This phase of the squat is called the eccentric phase.

Deceleration training can be thought of in three categories:

  1. Strengthening the muscles used to support the joints and rapidly slow down.
  2. Focusing on the eccentric phase of movements to improve force absorption.
  3. Improving technique and ground contact.

Each of the tools and exercises we’re going to cover will fall into at least one or more of these categories to round out your deceleration training.

Reverse Sled Drag

The reverse sled drag is the holy grail of bulletproofing your knees and building stability in your hips and ankles.

If you sprint at full speed and then stop, your body naturally falls into the same position you use for a proper reverse sled drag.

The reverse sled drag is a powerhouse for strengthening the primary muscles used in deceleration (the glutes, quads, hamstrings, hip flexors, and calves.) But where the sled drag really shines is its ability to target your vastus medialis oblique muscle.

The vastus medialis oblique (the VMO) is responsible for properly tracking the motion of the knee joint. And it’s a notoriously challenging muscle to develop since it is most active past 30 degrees of the knees extension.  

Incorporating sled drags into your training program gives you a tool for progressive overload. Allowing you to strengthen the primary muscles used in deceleration and giving you a stable foundation of improving joint tracking to dramatically improve your deceleration technique in other drills and exercises.

Many gyms and fitness clubs don’t have the equipment or turf tracks for sled drags. But investing in your own to toss in your garage and spend some quality time pulling it in your backyard is a worthwhile investment that has the potential to transform your athletic potential and help keep you injury-free.

Skater Squats and Pistol Squats

You’re far more likely to see athletes doing standard squats than single-leg squats whenever you walk into the gym. 

Why? Single leg squats are hard, even with just your body weight. It’s quite a lot more fun to load up the bar in the squat rack and move some heavy weight around.

But whenever you run, jump, or cut in sports, these movements happen on one leg. To improve the performance of these movements, you need to have the stability, strength, and explosivity developed in the same unilateral (single leg) motions you’ll use in the game.

While bilateral exercises like the standard squat are great for developing strength and muscle symmetry, they aren’t very good at developing single-leg stability at all.

Single leg exercises like skater squats and pistol squats help enhance the knee, ankle, and hip stability required for powerful deceleration and agility.

If they’re hard, that’s a good thing. It means you’ve identified muscle weaknesses in an area that will allow you to tap into massive athletic potential still right there for you to grab.

Plyometric Box Drops

Box drops are an underrated exercise for developing deceleration and force absorption. 

Whether you’re running, jumping, changing direction, or a combination of all three, every time your foot makes contact with the ground, your body has to absorb and transfer energy.

One misstep or improper tracking of a joint either means ineffective movement execution or increased probability of injury. 

Box drops give your body the opportunity to engage the correct muscles during ground contact, strengthen your stabilizers, and develop muscle memory so you can execute properly when it counts.

When doing box drops, focus on eccentric control in an athletic position during the landing. The goal is to perfect your technique to engage the right muscles. Take a look at this video here to get an idea of proper landing mechanics.

Eccentric Training

Eccentric contraction is the motion of a muscle while it is lengthening under load. For strength training, this is the phase of a movement where you are lowering the weight (or your body.)

Deceleration in sports is all about controlling the force of your body against momentum and gravity. Training the eccentric phase of an exercise develops strength and control in the deceleration phase of any athletic movement.

Let’s use squats as an example. During a standard squat, you may let gravity do most of the work on the way down and then explode on the way back up. 

An eccentric focused squat means slowly lowering the weight down into the squat position, keeping the muscles of your legs actively engaged in maintaining a controlled descent.

You can use eccentric training for nearly any exercise. Squats, lunges, deadlifts – even upper body exercises like bench press, lat pulldowns, or bicep curls can incorporate a controlled eccentric phase to develop better deceleration.

The best way to approach exercise selection is to examine the deceleration movement patterns that are most critical in your sport of choice, identify the resistance exercises that best simulate those movements, and then put an eccentric focus on those exercises in training.

Isometric Training

Isometric contractions are exercises where you create a muscle contraction without changing the length of the contracting muscle.

Typically, an isometric exercise is holding a position under load for a determined period of time, usually focusing on holding the weight at a weak point in the exercise’s movement.

Again using squats as an example, an isometric squat exercise would mean descending normally (without eccentric control) then at the bottom of the range of motion rapidly decelerating the weight in the squat position and holding the weight in place for five seconds before accelerating back up through the squat.

Isometrics are great for overcoming weak points in an exercise’s range of motion. And for athletes looking to improve their deceleration, isometric training can give you added strength and capacity at the most vulnerable points in critical movements. 

Combining Deceleration With Change in Direction Agility

Now that you’ve begun to develop strength and control in the muscle groups responsible for powerful deceleration. It’s time to tie it all together with the proper technique to make you more agile and a more effective athlete.

Here are a few different tools and drills you can use to start translating muscle strength to athletic technique.

Agility Ladders

Agility ladders are a powerful training tool to help you tie together foot placement, coordination, and the newly developed strength in your legs.

The combination of drills you can perform using the ladder allows for development in deceleration, acceleration, and lightning-fast changes in direction. 

Most importantly, you’ll begin to feel the changes in muscle and foot control as you progress through your deceleration resistance training. It’s the perfect tool for revealing the improvements as they happen and translating those improvements into athletic performance.

Since the variety of agility ladder exercises is nearly endless, take a look at the video above to help you develop an agility ladder regimen that you can begin incorporating into your training.

Forwards – Backwards Cone Drill

Here is a simple cone drill to help you measure your progress in deceleration and give you the opportunity to perfect your technique and biomechanics:

  1. Take two cones and set them 10-20 yards apart.
  2. Starting at one cone from a standstill, sprint as fast as you can towards the second cone.
  3. Decelerate as quickly as possible without crossing the second cone.
  4. Transition from deceleration to a backpedal, running backward to return to the first cone.

3 Cone L-Drill

The 3 cone L-Drill is a commonly used test for acceleration, deceleration, and change in direction for athletes.

  1. Set up three cones 5-10 yards apart from each other in the shape of an ‘L.’
  2. From the starting cone, sprint to the first cone and touch the line with your hand.
  3. Return to the starting cone and touch that line with the same hand.
  4. Quickly accelerate back towards the middle cone, turning at the outside towards the far cone in the L.
  5. Figure-eight around the far cone and sprint back towards the middle cone.
  6. Make a turn around the outside of the middle cone to sprint back to the start cone.

Improve Your Speed By Improving Your Deceleration

Everything you do as an athlete requires balance. Speed and agility are a balance of both acceleration and deceleration combined.

Focusing only on acceleration while neglecting deceleration means leaving a lot of your full potential locked away. And since measuring ‘how fast you can decelerate’ may never be measured by coaches and trainers to the same degree that acceleration is. Your deceleration capabilities can be your secret weapon in unlocking your athletic performance.

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