January 29, 2015
The 40-yard sprint performed at combines doesn't have to be a player's worst fear. From start to finish, this event can be coached and improved.
By Chip Smith

Chip Smith, CSPS, is the Founder of Competitive Edge Sports (CES), which has locations in Atlanta, Dallas, and Houston. He has trained over 300 players currently on NFL rosters, in addition to more than 40 Olympic athletes. He can be reached through the CES Web site at: www.competitiveedgesports.com.


The 40-yard dash is the most feared, lied about, and misinterpreted four to five seconds of agony in a football player's drive to reach the next level. It also happens to be one of the most respected tests, sometimes worth millions of dollars or a college scholarship to the athlete if he runs it well.

The good news is that just like any skill, the 40-yard dash can be coached and improved upon. I have a systematic approach to coaching the players I work with on the 40, and using it has helped improve the linear speed of hundreds of athletes.

The biggest thing I've learned in my years coaching this skill is that the saying "practice makes perfect" has never been truer. An athlete who wants to get faster must practice the following five phases of the 40 over and over again.

PERFECT SET UP
The first phase is the athlete's stance. The athlete should start by placing his power foot on the starting line. If he isn't sure which foot that is, there is a simple test you can perform. Stand behind the athlete and have him close his eyes. Gently push him forward, and whichever foot he steps forward with is his power foot.

After the athlete places his power foot on the starting line, have him bend down and push his front (power) knee forward so it is in line directly above the foot. I tell my athletes to imagine they are being photographed for a group picture and they are on one knee in the front row with their arms resting on that knee. The athlete's back foot should go about four to six inches directly behind their front foot.

Keeping their head up and back straight, have the athlete position their arms next. If their right foot is back, they should place their right hand just outside their shoulder on the starting line. If their left foot is back, they would place their left hand outside of the shoulder on the line. Some coaches teach opposite hand, opposite foot, but I think it's easier to remember "right foot back, right hand on the line, left foot back, left hand on the line." The opposite arm should be cocked with about a 90 degree angle in the elbow, which should be positioned slightly higher than the plane of their back.

The athlete's back leg should be bent slightly, with 80 percent of their weight on the ball of their front foot. Their hips should be cocked slightly higher than their head.

At this point, athletes have two choices for head position. Some prefer to look down at the start line, while others prefer to be looking up. If they like to have their head up, have them fix their eyes on a point 20 yards down the field.

I suggest that athletes try to stay relaxed because tense muscles tend to make them run stiffly. This is definitely a challenge for a lot of players on combine day because they are often very anxious, but it is something they can practice beforehand. I tell my athletes to take lots of deep breaths, inhaling slowly, and to visualize themselves running their best time.

One of the things I am always telling the players I train is that we want to run 39 yards, not 40 or 41. This means they should crowd the starting line as much as possible.

Any athlete preparing to run the 40 should practice getting into their stance until it becomes second nature. Getting into position should eventually be something their body is able to do without much thought.

OFF THE LINE
Some say that the first step of a sprint is the most important. It's also the toughest to coach. I tend to do a lot of explaining when it comes to the first step, and I've learned that imagery is a good teaching tool for this stage of the sprint.

With 80 percent of their weight already on their front foot, the athlete should transfer their remaining weight onto their front foot just before they take off. They will have the sensation of falling forward on their face, but just before that happens, they will explode off the line with both feet. It's an innate reaction to keep themselves from falling forward.

I like to illustrate this idea by comparing the first step to the cocking of a double-barreled shotgun. By cocking both hammers of the shotgun instead of just one, you get twice the explosive power. By exploding off the line with both feet, it's a more violent explosion from their stance. I've had players jump forward off one foot, then both, to show them how much further they can go when using both feet.

Pushing off the ground with both feet on your first step is a perfect illustration of Newton's law of motion, which states that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. When starting a sprint, the more force that goes into the ground, the faster and more explosive the athlete is propelled into forward motion.

I routinely videotape my players' 10-yard starts and it's proven to be a great way to get them to improve their first step. By using video, I can show the player exactly what I'm talking about and he can make the necessary adjustments.

There are two things I look for in a 10-yard start. The first is whether the athlete is stepping out laterally. If he is stepping out to the sides, he is covering more ground and will be slower. The second is if he is using his heels to apply force to the ground. If he is pushing off with his heels and not the balls of his feet, he won't get as much explosive power off the line.

One often-overlooked aspect of a player's start is proper breathing technique. I tell the athletes I work with to use a breathing technique called the Valsalva maneuver just before they push off. Here's how I explain the technique:

"Has your mother or grandmother ever come to you and asked you to open a stubborn jar of pickles for her? You grabbed the jar, held your breath, and twisted the lid until it came off, right? This is an example of the Valsalva maneuver. By holding your breath, you raised your blood pressure and intra thoracic pressure, which gave you added strength and explosion. You can use this same principle to gain an edge in your 40-yard dash takeoff."

DRIVE PHASE
After exploding off the start line, the first 10 yards are what I dub the "drive phase." I believe that the first 10 yards of the 40 are the most crucial. It's the slowest portion of the race because it's the segment in which athletes generate the power and momentum that will allow them to achieve the fastest speed possible by the time they cross the finish.

I break down each phase of the 40 into strides, or optimal foot strikes. Most of my athletes have had success with six to seven steps in the first 10 yards. Less than six strides likely means that an athlete is over-striding and his foot is striking the ground in front of their center of gravity, causing a braking effect and slowing the running motion. More than seven strides likely means an athlete is "spinning their wheels" and could benefit from taking longer strides.

When they are running, I coach my athletes to maintain a straight line as they drive their lead leg straight up toward their chest, then straight down under their hips. Just like their first step off the start line, they should continue to keep their feet moving forward and landing under their hips (center of gravity). Staying close to the sideline or hash marks can help them maintain a straight line because they can use the line(s) as visual references.

It's also important to remain in an aerodynamic posture to decrease wind drag. The athlete should stay low with a forward lean, and keep their head down throughout the drive phase. I teach my players to focus on an object about 20 yards down the field or track. They are to stay low until they reach that mark, when they should be in an upright position.

Moving to the upper body, I stress that the optimal hand position is one that is relaxed. I coach players to hold their index finger and thumb lightly together, keeping their arms moving cheek to cheek, coming across the body just slightly--as if zipping up their coat. Driving the back arm forward from the shoulder and through the elbow also helps with acceleration. The faster a runner moves his arms, the faster his feet will go.

TRANSITIONING
The athlete should be very close to maximum stride length between the 10- and 30-yard marks, meaning they complete 10 to 11 strides over these 20 yards. Turnover rate--the time it takes an athlete to complete a stride--should be nearing peak levels. To help athletes with this phase, I tell them to maintain good butt kick by "cycling" their legs as if they are on a bicycle.

Much of the mechanics started in the drive phase should continue throughout these next 20 yards, including arm drive from the shoulder through the elbow. At this point, arm drive should be in sync with knee drive. As the athlete drives their left arm up toward their cheek, their right leg should be firing toward the hip. It should be a natural motion to move opposite hand, opposite leg.

During the first half of the transition phase, the athlete should continue leaning forward like they did over the first 10 yards, but by the time they hit the 20-yard mark, they should be upright. It is also important to maintain relaxed hands and a relaxed upper body since a tight upper body can slow a runner's turnover rate.

TO THE FINISH
The last 10 yards can make or break an athlete's 40 time. If an athlete has not worked on increasing his strength base, this is the phase of the race in which he will begin to decelerate. Ideally, the entire 40 yards are pure acceleration. Sprinters don't generally reach their top speed until they've covered 60 to 65 yards, so athletes should never decelerate when running the 40.

One way to counter this is to train with resistance (parachutes, resistance cords, and/or weighted vests). Another is by practicing longer sprints of 50 to 60 yards. This allows the athlete to increase their speed endurance and delay the onset of muscle fatigue. It also helps produce more powerful strides that maintain a faster turnover rate over the duration of the race.

Maintaining proper running mechanics that include explosive knee drive, fast arm action, and the ability to stay relaxed remain paramount through the finish line. I coach my athletes to accelerate through the finish line. Most pro scouts stop their timers when the player's back foot comes across the finish line, and not when they break the surface of the line with their front foot. Players must make sure they sprint all the way through, 10 yards past the finish line.

At top speed, an athlete's stride rate should be about two strides per five yards traveled. So when they hit the last 10 yards, an athlete should only take four more strides to the finish. As a general rule, I try to keep the players I train within 18 to 20 strides over the full 40 yards. But I also keep in mind that each athlete's striding depends on their body, and especially its flexibility.

One of the most effective things I can do for players who want to increase their speed is make sure that they continue to work on their overall flexibility. Dynamic and static flexibility increases range of motion, joint mobility, and tendon strength. If I train a player who has little flexibility, I can probably decrease his 40 time by at least .01 to .02 seconds simply by making him more flexible.

Finally, if an athlete knows he'll be running on a grass field, turf field, or track at a combine, he should practice on that surface so he is comfortable with it. The overall key to a great 40-yard time is to practice, practice, practice.


Sidebar: WORTH FIXING?
Over the last 25 years, I have seen just about every form of bad running mechanics that exists, from improper arm action to bad posture, from running flat-footed to over striding, and from sitting back on the haunches to running too tense. But after years of trying to fix all these bad habits, I learned that it's not always worth it.

The fact is, I teach very little technique. Most of the clients I take on are between 23 and 25 years old and their running mechanics are permanently embedded into their muscle memory. The way they run now is the way they have run since they were young. This could mean two decades of proper running mechanics and positive reinforcement, or two decades of poor mechanics and negative reinforcement.

In the case of bad mechanics, it's almost impossible to change running style at this point. Even if we spent the time to try to force positive motor patterns, when sprinting, athletes often end up reverting back to what they learned when they were younger because it feels natural.

However, if the athlete is younger--12 to 13 years old--I will spend time working with them on improving their mechanics. I believe this is young enough to be able to make permanent changes in how an athlete moves.

Champ Bailey is one of the best players in the NFL, and is certainly one of the greatest athletes I have trained. When I first started working with Champ, I thought his running gait was terrible. He barely picked his feet up off the ground, would swing his arms across his body in an ice skating motion, remained bent over at the waist, and overall, had an incredibly inefficient running style.

But somehow, that unconventional running style worked for Champ. I trained him without trying to change his natural running mechanics. Instead, I concentrated on making him more explosive in his natural running style. That's what my training philosophy is all about: taking great athletes and helping them maximize their potential.

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