The following is excerpted from a piece I wrote previously and is used with the permission of http://www.strengthcoach.com
Training for the forty yard dash is an interesting process and has become a near obsession in football. The reality is that most athletes are looking to reduce the forty-yard dash time by as little as .1 to .2 seconds. In order to accomplish a one to two tenths of a second reduction I have always advocated training for the first ten yard segment of the forty yard, as this is the area of greatest potential change.
In fact when training athletes for the NFL Combine I have never had an athlete run longer than a twenty-yard dash. Our athletes routinely have gone to the NFL Combine without ever having run a forty-yard dash. To some this may seem foolish but I prefer to view the process as both intelligent and cautious. Athletes rarely injure themselves running a ten-yard dash but often seem to incur muscle strains from repeat forty-yard dash attempts.
In fact, in a race that takes from 4.3 seconds to 5.3 seconds to complete at the elite level, the first ten-yard segment takes the longest time and by default is the easiest to impact. Ten-yard dash times range from 1.5 seconds to 2 seconds.
Each proceeding ten yard segment taking roughly 1 to 1.1 seconds to complete. By simply improving performance in the ten-yard dash, we can easily take off the elusive .1 seconds that so many athletes are looking for. In fact for most elite athletes the forty-yard dash is actually a test of acceleration and not one of speed. I believe we mistakenly use the term speed when in fact we are referring to acceleration. When we say an athlete has great speed we actually mean that he or she has great acceleration. In the famous Ben Johnson versus Carl Lewis races top speed was not reached until the 60-meter mark. This means that the athletes continued to accelerate for a full 60 meters. An athlete that runs a 1.5 second ten yard dash may be capable of a 4.3 second forty yard dash. However, the athlete may run a 1.5 second first ten segment and 2.6 second twenty. This means that the acceleration pattern is as follows:
0-10 1.5 sec
10-20 1.1 sec
When looking at the chart above it becomes glaringly obvious that the initial segment takes 1.5 times the length of the other three. As a result it is obviously the segment most apt to be altered.
Think about this. The forty-yard dash should be run in approximately seventeen steps. Simple. An athlete with a normal stride length will measure out at about 7.5 feet. This means that a reasonably good sprinter will cover 15 feet, or five yards, every two steps. I believe the big key to the forty yard dash is to get the athlete to develop stride length in the first ten yard segment by pushing, not overreaching. Why seventeen? The first five-yard segment should take three steps; the remaining seven segments would take two steps each for a total of seventeen steps. Is seventeen the magic number? No. The key is to teach athletes to push, not reach and to minimize stutter steps. We try to get our athletes to master three steps for five yards and five steps for ten yards and, to do it without a reaching action. We continue to emphasize that stride length is a function of back-side action-reaction and not front side reach. We teach lots of push with no emphasis on stride length from the front side mechanics. In fact we never do B-skip type drills, as I believe they teach improper mechanics and are not appropriate for forty-yard sprinters.
Here are the keys to the first ten yards.
- Is the athlete moving quickly or does he look like he is moving quickly? What does this mean? Many athletes come out of the start with great turnover and go nowhere. They remind me of the Roadrunner from the cartoons. Wheels spinning and going nowhere fast. Often these guys look fast and run slow. Generally these guys are fast twitch athletes who do not like the weight room. The great accelerators often look slow coming out because they are producing great force and minimized steps. Running is all about Newton’s First Law. Action-Reaction. Force placed into the ground produces motion forward, very simple. The start is clearly not about turnover or frequency but about force into the ground. This is the reason there is such a strong correlation between vertical jump and forty-yard dash times. Vertical jump is simply a measure of Newton’s First law. When an athlete applies force into the ground, the ground applies force back in an equal and opposite manner. More force, more vertical displacement.
- Have you timed your athletes for a 10 and 20-yard dash? As I said in the previous paragraph I’ve seen slow guys with lots of turnover and very little movement? Try being objective versus subjective. Time your athletes not just in the forty, but also in the ten and twenty. 1.5 sec hand held is fast. 1.8 is average for a ten (adult male).
- Next, video the ten yard dash and the twenty yard dash. See how many steps it takes an athlete to run ten and twenty yards. Don’t tell the athlete to cut down steps, simply tell him to push the ground as hard as possible. Simply telling an athlete that you are counting steps will cause over striding. You want to see how many steps it takes. This will tell you if you have an athlete who is moving his feet but not applying any force. A good sprinter will run the 10 in 5-6 steps and the 20 in 9-10 steps.
- Also look at the video and see the first step. Does the athlete gain ground? A good indicator of a powerful start is that the foot taking the second step does not touch the ground while the front foot is still on the line. In other words, after step one you should not see two feet in contact with the ground. You will be amazed at how many guys simply step out of the start instead of pushing out of the start. Just as we confuse speed and acceleration, we often confuse first step and first push. A quick first step does nothing. It is the push that creates the action-reaction, not the step. What you want is great push, not a great step. This also relates to stride length. Stride length is accomplished by great forces placed into the ground, not by things like knee lift.
- Another great indicator that the athlete is beginning to understand powerful starts is when the athlete appears to be falling forward out of the start, almost out of control. I tell my athletes to drive themselves out of the start so aggressively that they almost fall flat on their face. I cheer if they look like they are going to fall. That shows me great aggressive push.
- Time each test three times. Either average all three or take the middle, throwing out the high and low. You don’t want to record a mistake. Electronic timers don’t make mistakes unless there is a malfunction. Throw out scores that are obviously wrong.
- Weight is on the front hand and foot. This is not track. There is no block. The back foot can be minimally helpful.
- Hips are low, don’t raise the butt. You can’t push out from straight legs.
- Never take instructions from a track coach on forty technique. They are used to blocks, you don’t have them.
- Eyes are between the hand and foot. Don’t look up. The head should be in a normal anatomical position
- Weight should be so far forward that if you don’t run, you would fall.
1. Dive Starts- have the athlete dive into a crash pad from the start position. This is a great drill for teaching first-push power
2. Timed 10’s- I love timed tens. I try to watch the start and count the steps. We use a Speed Trap timer and don’t watch the clock. We will time every week, sometimes twice a week. A few rules.
• Tell the athletes only three attempts per day. This leaves time for the athlete to ask for “one more” at least twice. I really want to time five reps but, always tell them three.
• Try to get the athletes to forget about the timer and concentrate on the technical things you want done. Big push out of the start, great hip extension etc.
• Please note: – the use of a timer is an excellent way to reduce anxiety about being timed. My athletes are very comfortable about being timed by the time the Combine or Pro Day comes around. It also should be noted that many athletes will choke and revert to old patterns as soon as a timing device is presented. Timing early and often allows the athlete to see the changes in pattern like stepping out of the start or stuttering. The timer also generally reinforces that these behaviors are slower, not faster. Frequent use of the timer does what the book The One Minute Manager calls “catching someone doing something right”. We focus on execution, not time. Great execution will lead to better times, which will ingrain proper habits.
3. 3 for 5, 5 for ten (this is a tough drill as you will constantly have to emphasize that stride length comes from push, not reach, be careful with this drill) I view this as an advanced drill and one that must be monitored constantly. Success is not accomplished by number of steps or strides but quality of strides.
4. One Leg Starts- this is another great drill to teach the athlete how to use the front foot in the start. Simply ask the athlete to run a series of timed tens using only the front foot. This will teach the athlete how to focus on exploding of the front leg. Often our athletes will move from abysmal at this drill to being able to run as fast as from a three point start.
Just a reminder, these drills will improve what you already have. They are teaching drills. The real key to speed lies in increasing force production. To really improve speed these drills and cues must be combined with a lower body strength and power program that emphasizes maximal strength. Don’t underestimate the value of force production in the forty.
Another reminder, if you really want to understand speed, pick up a copy of Charlie Francis Training for Speed. Charlie Francis hits on basic concepts in a way no one has before or after. In spite of any perceived scandal Francis is still the best sprint coach of all time.