It’s often repeated that speed kills and speed is king. But what effect does the speed to win a 100-meter track race have on the speed used in football and other field sports? More specifically, what phases of acceleration and max velocity from track should speed training for field sports focus on?
While I agree that fast is fast, we need to examine the drastic differences in the way speed is attained and used on the track versus on the field of play. I want to break this discussion into two parts:
- 40-yard dash performance.
- On-field game speed performance.
For field sports like football, the golden norm for testing speed is the 40-yard dash and not the 100-meter race. I won’t get too bogged down here, but most of us know that to run a fast 40-yard dash, an athlete must be accelerating the entire 40 yards. There is also limited time spent in the max velocity zone as compared with a 100-meter race. This has led me to ask whether athletes could focus only on the acceleration phase during training and drastically improve their 40-yard dash times?
I say yes (and others do as well).
Combine Success with XPE
In 2010, I had the opportunity to train WR Jacoby Ford and then, seven years later, speedster DB Jalen Myrick. At the NFL Combine for their respective years, Ford and Myrick ran official 4.28 laser 40 times, the fastest ever for their positions at that time.
When they arrived to work with me for an eight-week NFL Combine training program, Ford was pre-timed at 4.46 seconds and Myrick at 4.47 seconds (using the same method as the NFL Combine, a hand start and laser finish). Both experienced almost a two-tenth of a second improvement, and both focused primarily on acceleration—we spent maybe 10-15% of our speed training time on Max V and only enough time to work on Max V basic mechanic drills. We never ran a sprint farther than 40 yards in training, and most of the time they only worked on sprinting 10 and 20 yards in an overload/deload fashion.
I’ve had this same success—by focusing primarily on acceleration—not only with skill position guys like Ford and Myrick, but also in 2015 when Vic Beasley was the fastest DE/OLB, Stephone Anthony was the fastest ILB, and Jeremy Langford was the fastest RB.
- Vic Beasley’s pre-test was 4.68 (at 228 pounds) and post-test at Combine was 4.53 (at 246 pounds), a .15-second improvement.
- Stephone Anthony’s pre-test was 4.78 and post-test at Combine was 4.56, for an improvement of .22 seconds.
- Jeremy Langford’s pre-test was 4.63 and post-test at Combine was 4.41, for an improvement of .22 seconds.
These gains were attained with 6-7 weeks of training, and again, running 40 yards in a sprint fashion only in pre-testing and at the Combine. The majority of speed training was spent on acceleration—more specifically, making sure power was used in the acceleration phase—over any time spent on Max V sprints. This has continued to be our approach at XPE Sports.The majority of speed training was spent on acceleration—more specifically, making sure power was used in the acceleration phrase—over any time spent on Max V sprints, says @xpe_sports. Click To Tweet
Our basic NFL Combine Week for speed training for speed gains looks like:
- Top-speed mechanic warm-up – active flexibility, stiff leg bounds, high knees, skips, butt kicks, and clawing/cycling drills for a total of 15-20 minutes.
- Powerful leg training accompanied by resisted running for acceleration with basic prowler sleds and SHREDmills (mimics sled training) for 45-55 minutes. Limited sets and adequate rest periods of 3-4 minutes before bouts of work.
- Light agility work to get soreness out of legs.
- Pool workout.
- Acceleration warm-up – lunges, wall drills, skips, bounds, 3 step get-offs.
- Powerful leg training accompanied by resisted running (very similar to Monday) for 45-55 minutes.
- Two to four sets of running focusing on Max V track mechanics for 25-40 yards.
- Position work not having to do with speed training.
More Combine Success Speed at XPE with Matt Gates
This type of 40-yard dash success has been furthered by Matt Gates of XPE Sports since 2018. In 2018, he had WR Jeff Badet run a 4.27 FAT electric time at Oklahoma Pro Day (which was the fastest of the entire NFL Draft class), Parry Nickerson be the fastest at the NFL Combine with a 4.32 laser, and Troy Apke as the fastest Safety with a 4.34 laser. To follow that up, he also has trained DB Jamel Dean, who ran a 4.30 laser, and WR Terry McLaurin, who ran a 4.35 laser in subsequent years.
Amazingly, Dean and McLaurin had 20-40 laser splits at the NFL Combine of 1.76 seconds. This means they were averaging 23.2 mph in the “Max V” portion of the event. If you ask Matt Gates how much Max V work he did in training, he will tell you 0%. While I believe training max velocity would not have a negative effect on the 40-yard dash, it seems that, based on these results, a focus on mainly acceleration training was very beneficial.While I believe training max velocity would not have a negative effect on the 40-yard dash, it seems that, based on these results, a focus on mainly acceleration training was very beneficial. Click To Tweet
Similar to Matt Gates above, Les Spellman has dedicated an entire training system to acceleration and uses it to improve 40-yard dash performance. One of his main goals is to assess and prescribe drills based on requiring the athlete to stay in the acceleration phase as much as possible and always be increasing speed. Some would say Tony Holler takes the opposite approach with Feed the Cats. While he is not anti-acceleration, he feels targeting Max V correctly does address acceleration.
After much discussion with all the above, I conclude it as such for 40-yard dash training:
- Matt Gates says he does not target Max V to improve the 40-yard dash even 1%. He stresses acceleration so much that he coaches his athletes to try to hit a top speed even before they get to 40 yards. I have to convince Matt, as we now work together, that we do actually target max velocity with technique training and the occasional stride-out runs focusing on form.
- I say we do target Max V about 10-15% to teach athletes about form with the goal being to allow momentum with the acceleration phase to carry over into Max V gains.
- Les Spellman focuses much more time on working on techniques to always be accelerating than he does on Max V training.
- Tony Holler from Feed the Cats feels that Max V training is a great approach to also target acceleration.
What is right? You choose. I just simply believe the longer the race or run, the more Max V comes into play. And if you can get great 40-yard dash gains by targeting acceleration, it is the best bang for your buck. This is not a negative on “max velocity track speed” one bit! I believe in many of the training philosophies track has taught me and have applied those principles throughout the years.
I am just showing a viewpoint of how much acceleration can and will improve the speed required for timed events of 40 yards or less. We work leg strength to power gains with acceleration together on the same day, and even in the same session, to get the transfer of weight training exercises into the acceleration phase. This also allows our legs to rest 48 hours before stressing high-intensity training again. This method has drastically improved 40-yard dash gains with very minimal, if any, training targeting Max V.
From the 40 to the Field
If acceleration can be used as the main ingredient for 40-yard dash performance, it should even be more of a focus for on-field game speed performance. Why? While on the field, athletes are rarely in a straight line run for 4-5 continuous seconds. The acceleration phase is much shorter and immediate, and their eyes must be up and not down. Athletes on the field cannot feel like they are out of control and seldom have adequate time to properly accelerate on the field like they do in the 40-yard dash. These top players in the NFL have explained their lack of desire to train as much in max velocity or high speeds:
WR Anquan Boldin
“Obviously, when guys come in and train for the Combine, they are training for speed and not for football. You allow them to train and give them the ability to get out of control. After Combine training is over, you have to tell the kids to scrap everything they just learned.
As a WR, if you can’t control your speed, you cannot cut properly, you cannot get in and out of breaks properly, so my thing with teaching receivers, is to always be under control. Not running too fast does not mean it appears to the DB that I am running slow—it can appear I am running fast but still be under control.
Guys change directions outside of their body because they are out of control with their speed. When young, you can get away with it. But the higher level you go, this speed can be a detriment.”
TE Travis Kelce
“Out of five gears, I normally play around Gear 3. I like to stay around 15-17 miles per hour for the majority of time on the field.”
RB Mark Ingram
“You can get to 15-16 miles per hour in 3-4 forceful steps. You can just drive off the ground, 1-2-3 and get to game speed. But once I get to 20 miles per hour, it’s almost impossible to change directions. You can’t efficiently and effectively change directions. But if you stay at 15-17 miles per hour, I can change directions efficiently at the top of the route, I can break this way, or break that way, and get that one step of separation.
I can get to 20 miles per hour, but then I can’t change directions. But being able to have adequate game speed and change directions, that is what football is.”
DB Kareem Jackson
Question posed to Kareem Jackson: “Can any amount of speed training make up for technique stuff you mentioned before?”
His reply: “None of it. For me, at this point of my career, I rely on everything else. If I get to a point where I am blasting into speed, that is normally a bad thing for me.”
Rethinking Training Based on the Game
Realizing how important acceleration is to the 40-yard dash— and even having it increase the “Max V” phase as a by-product—along with listening to top NFL players, has forced me to rethink and retool our speed training. Instead of rapidly increasing acceleration to the highest Max V possible, we would rather get to an adequate speed as fast as possible and in as few steps as possible.Instead of rapidly increasing acceleration to the highest Max V possible, we would rather get to an adequate speed as fast as possible and in as few steps as possible. We call this ‘game speed,’ says @xpe_sports. Click To Tweet
We call this “game speed,” and it is much different than “track speed” and even “40-yard dash speed.”
With the initial part of “game speed,” force into the ground is the goal. Instead of “speed is king,” we say force production is. An elite athlete must learn how to get to 12-14 mph within 3-4 steps—and instead of hitting the gas with more acceleration, coast and allow momentum and form to carry them to 14-17 miles per hour, or more if the distance dictates it. This 14-17 mph is called the “game speed zone,” which many of the NFL players already touched on.
In fact, if you truly listen to the pros and look at game speeds, it may even be slower than that. But I am already being controversial enough by saying Max V is rarely needed. I can’t tell you that elite NFL athletes truly want to run at 12-14 mph on the field (but the data may actually show that, and they may say the same!). It is in the “game speed zone” that athletes can choose to decelerate to change directions to make a play or hit the gas and get to speeds of 18-21 mph or more. Are Max V mechanics needed to reach speeds of more 20 mph? Yes. But how often?
Again, we have tailored our speed training approach around what the best NFL players have told us they need. And we want the younger athletes to learn the same. Work on speed still? Yes! Learn track mechanics and touch Max V occasionally? Yes! But also start teaching game speed and proper agility as soon as they are ready.
A typical game speed session should always include acceleration along with agility. Instead of 40-yard or track starts to uncontrollably blast into the acceleration phase, agility takes its place as the starting point for speed. Because of this, we changed our program design for field sports to have much more agility training than many think.A typical game speed session should always include acceleration along with agility. We changed our program design for field sports to have much more agility training than many think. Click To Tweet
Game speed sessions focus on the speed that can be attained from the 5- to 15-yard distance of a 20-yard run. Various cues are given on how to attain speed so athletes can feel and get feedback on the miles per hour they are attaining. They are coached and taught what is an adequate speed. Then they are asked to add in deceleration and stops at this speed along with different change of direction patterns at this speed.
This type of training allows the athlete to learn what speeds they can run at and still be able to change directions. This type of “game speed” training has opened our eyes, and the eyes of many of the athletes we have trained.
Lead photo by Daniel Gluskoter/Icon Sportswire.
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