Research has determined that athletic agility is something that needs to be specifically trained in order to improve upon. In other words, you don’t get agility for free when training for something else like sprinting. That’s the subject of this post.
Before getting into the meat of the post, I need to elaborate a bit on the definition of athletic agility that I’m using here. From blog post # 2, athletic agility is:
“a rapid whole-body movement with change of speed or direction in response to a stimulus”
So there are really two parts to agility: 1) The brain’s ability to figure out how to respond to the stimulus and 2) The reaction itself, a quick change of movement. Researchers measure one’s ability to execute the movement in terms of Change of Direction Speed or CODS. The research I’ll be reporting on relates CODS to different training modalities.
The research shows that there is no correlation between the speed one can run at (sprint) and the speed with which one can change direction (CODS) (1). Furthermore, the research shows that training for sprinting speed does not improve your agility in terms of CODS.
Strength and Power in Leg Muscles
It seems reasonable to expect that strong, powerful legs would have a significant impact on one’s agility. However, the studies don’t entirely bear this out. In terms of shear power (strict definition of power is energy output per interval of time), the research reports a low to moderate correlation to CODS (1). This means that training for muscle strength and power will provide some improvement in agility but it’s not the whole story.
Can you think of any activity where technique doesn’t matter? Of course it matters. It’s just that the research into the best techniques to optimize one’s agility hasn’t been done. If I find some, I’ll let you know. For now, the experts reason that a low center of gravity and a forward lean is a good thing (2).
Perception and Decision Making
As I started out this post by saying, agility isn’t just about how fast you can change direction or speed. It’s also about how fast you can make a decision about what to do next. Ironically, most agility training exercises involve running around, through or between obstacles such as cones, ladders, lines, etc… in a planned, known pattern. This kind of exercise trains one’s CODS but not one’s reactive or anticipatory skills (1).
[Now, here is something that is my opinion (i.e.: not one of a fitness professional or researcher): The planned agility exercises don't train one's core or proprioceptor muscles for a quick response. Why? Because you know what's coming and so your body doesn't have to adjust to a quick change.]
The aspect of agility we are talking about here is the athlete’s ability to respond quickly to an unplanned requirement to change direction or speed. The research shows that this ability improves if the athlete can pick up cues (most likely visual information) from the field of play and use those to anticipate the change required in the next split second (3). For example, a cue could be the position of an opponents body which limits the opponents choices of action. This provides enough information that the more advanced athlete can anticipate what’s coming and has a fraction of a second to ready his/herself for the change required. Further, it is reasoned that the more closely the cues used in agility training resemble the cues of the actual athletic situation, the better will be the anticipatory response of the athlete (1).
The research shows that to improve on one’s agility, one has to train for agility specifically. This means training with exercises that challenge one’s ability to change direction and speed quickly and preferably when the change can’t be planned by the athlete. The training would be better still if it incorporated cues specific to the sport that the athlete could then use to quickly anticipate the required change.
References for this Post:
- Young, Warren and Farrow, Damian. A Review of Agility: Practical Applications for Strength and Conditioning, Strength and Conditioning Journal, October 2006, 28(5), 24-29.
- Sheppard, J.M. and Young, W.B. Agility literature review: Classifications, training and testing, Journal of Sports Sciences, September 2006; 24(9): 919 – 932.
- Abernethy, B., Wann, J., and Parks, S., Training perceptual motor skills for sport. In: Training for Sport: Applying Sport Science. B. Elliott, ed., Chichester: John Wiley, 1998. pp. 1–68.