Whether it’s in a car or a person, acceleration is an easy concept to grasp. Think of putting your foot down on a gas pedal or Olympic sprinters taking off from the starting blocks. Quickly increasing speed from a standing start is the goal.
The opposite skill is deceleration. Put simply, deceleration is your body’s ability to slow itself down and absorb the impact of a change in speed, direction or force. In sports, deceleration is just as important to both performance and risk of injury as acceleration is.
“Landing from a jump or changing direction quickly, like when making a cutting move in soccer or football, are examples of deceleration,” says Theresa Chiaia, PT, DPT, a physical therapist and sports rehabilitation and performance specialist at HSS. “The ability to decelerate not only minimizes your risk of injury; it also helps improve your performance.”
Non-contact injuries such as ACL tears and tendon injuries commonly occur when an athlete is decelerating on one leg—landing from a jump or sidestepping to avoid a tackle, say. To this end, says Chiaia, it is important to have the ability to decelerate safely.
To improve your ability to decelerate, start with the basics, Chiaia says: Stand on one foot. “There should be minimal sway—you don’t want to look like the character in front of a car dealership,” she says. “You also don’t want to learn forward with your torso.”
She recommends practicing standing on one leg with your knee slightly bent while brushing your teeth, looking in the mirror to check your form. “Make it harder by taking the mirror away, turning your head, raising your hands overhead or moving your other leg in and out.”
Next is single-leg strength training. “The quadriceps muscle in the front of the thigh extends the knee from a bent position, like in a kick, and controls knee flexion, like in a single-leg squat, going down a step, when landing during running or when changing direction,” she adds. “It’s very important these muscles have the ability to decelerate.”
Some examples of exercises that develop this skill include:
Finally comes plyometrics, or jump training. Vertical jumps, in which you jump straight in the air, are one form of this. But it’s also important to be able to land from horizontal jumps so that you can cut and change direction without injury. To enhance your horizontal deceleration skills: