This is an excerpt from All-Pro Performance Training by Loren Landow & Christopher Jarmon.
The 40-yard dash (figure 3.3) is regarded as the crown jewel of combine testing, and for good reason. The test contains several valuable metrics that football teams rely on to gauge a prospect’s general athleticism.
The split recorded at 10 yards—indicative of lower-body explosiveness and pure acceleration—is critical across all position groups. The 20-yard split reveals how long an athlete can continue to accelerate, and at what point he begins to transition into top-end speed mechanics. The back end of the 40-yard dash indicates the athlete’s ability to maintain his speed.
The athlete approaches the starting line with both feet together and pointing straight ahead. From this position, he steps back with one foot so that his feet are in a heel-to-toe relationship, then brings his other foot back to meet it so he is standing a full shoe’s length behind the starting line. The athlete again moves one foot back, creating the same heel-to-toe relationship with his front foot. Next, he moves his back foot out to the side so that he is standing with his feet hip-width apart, with his front foot’s heel and back foot’s toes still aligned. He wiggles his back foot on the ground back about 3 to 4 inches and drops to a kneeling position with the toes of both feet remaining in place.
Now in a kneeling position with one leg back and one forward, the athlete places the arm opposite his front leg—referred to here as the lead arm—rotating his hand so that his biceps points toward the finish line. His lead hand should take the full starting line by placing the inside of his thumb and index finger as far forward as possible, right along the very edge of the line. The athlete then raises his hips, maintaining only three points of contact with the ground: front foot, rear foot, and lead hand. His weight shifts forward, but he maintains some weight on his rear leg, a distribution of 75 percent weight forward and 25 percent on his back leg.
Shifting his body weight forward allows the athlete’s shin to move forward over his toes, a term referred to hereafter as shin angle. This forward lean should result in the hips being in a higher position than his shoulders in the starting stance. The forward body weight is evenly distributed between the athlete’s front leg and lead hand so that if he were to pick up his lead hand from the ground, he would fall. His other arm, referred to here as the up arm, reaches back to hip height with a slight elbow bend. (See figure 7.8 on page 108 for a photo of this position.)
The 40-yard dash start is an orchestration of several movements occurring at once. The athlete simultaneously pushes off both feet, punching his back leg forward as the front leg drives back into the ground, fully extending. This push creates an aggressive split of the legs, which he mirrors by concurrently splitting his arms the opposite way. He swings his up arm forward into a “block” position, elevating his forearm and bending at his elbow so that his forearm crosses in front of his head. The block position shortens the athlete’s arm, allowing him to quickly move it from a somewhat awkward starting position to synchronize with extension of that same-side leg. From there, the athlete focuses on driving his arms back, swinging at the shoulders and aiming his hands for just outside hip level. As he picks up speed and his stride quickens, the athlete’s elbow will bend slightly more so that his arm swing speed can match the turnover rate of his legs.
An athlete’s vertical and broad jump numbers are generally predictive of performance in the 10-yard split, but sometimes these results differ. When athletes run a slower 10-yard split than their jump numbers forecast, the disparity typically is due to a mechanical breakdown in the setup of the sprint. Restrictions in lower-extremity ranges of motion can prevent an athlete from setting up at the right angles to execute his start; improper limb positioning coming out of the start may also negatively affect his sprint times.
Many athletes crowd too close to the line when taking the starting position. Although it is helpful to place the hand as far forward on the starting line as possible, the rest of the body need not follow suit. A cramped starting position forces the athlete’s front shin angle to remain vertical. The thigh will move to wherever an athlete’s shin angle points. If he pushes into the ground with a vertical shin angle, his thigh will follow, and he will pop straight up out of his stance. Too much or too little forward lean causes an unbalanced start, which disrupts acceleration mechanics.
At combine and pro day events, the back hand often is seen positioned high above the hip in the starting stance because that is where countless athletes are taught to place it. For coaches or scouts standing 10 to 40 yards away, that hand movement will be the first movement they see to start their stopwatches. The same goes for lifting up one’s front hand from the ground before the rest of the body begins moving; every movement in the start should happen all at once.
Coaches commonly cue athletes to “stay low” as they accelerate. Although acceleration position is indeed based on a leaning torso angle, the torso should come up naturally. Attempting to hold body lean for too long generally results in a slumped chest and head, which diminishes speed. Coaches should never tell athletes when they should or should not be in an upright position. Ankle range of mobility, trunk stability, and lower-body explosiveness (estimated using vertical jump height) are all indicators of the body angle an athlete can find and maintain as he accelerates.
Cyclical leg motion in the acceleration phase is another common error in the 40-yard dash. As discussed in chapters 7 and 9, the technical model for acceleration mechanics differs from that of top-end speed; the former requires a piston-like movement of the legs, whereas the latter is a cyclical motion. Athletes who accelerate cyclically will not be able to produce optimal force into the ground, and this will produce slower 10-, 20-, and 40-yard dash times.
During the second half of the 40-yard dash, athletes often begin to display sloppy recovery mechanics, delaying their back-side recovery, which then results in a lower thigh position upon front-side recovery. This places great strain on the hip flexors and adductors, which could eventually cause injuries. Sometimes athletes lack dorsiflexion in the foot as they recover. Similarly, suboptimal strike patterns—casting the foot out to strike in front of their hips, or striking on the fourth and fifth metatarsal rather than the ball of the foot—will not only slow athletes’ times but also put them at risk for hamstring injuries.
One fundamental error seen in the 40-yard dash may seem to be the most obvious and the easiest to fix, but it must be stated because of how prevalent it is: athletes who do not finish the test. Sadly, many players clock a slower time than they are capable of running because they begin to slow down before reaching the finish line. At Landow Performance, this is known as “running 38” instead of the full 40 yards.
Methods to Improve
Simply positioning the back arm correctly in an athlete’s starting stance can shave substantial time off his measured 40-yard dash time. Landow Performance coaches teach combine athletes to keep their back hand hidden right at their hip so that it does not serve as a flag for scouts to start their watches.
Improving total body strength and lower body explosiveness in the weight room will certainly produce a faster 40-yard dash time. Yet many coaches and athletes overlook the dedicated practice of movement mechanics because they don’t know how to go about it properly. Practitioners who study, practice, and coach the preeminent technical models for acceleration and top-end speed will help their athletes make significant improvements not only in this test but also on the football field.
Prep Like a Pro: 40-Yard Dash
Moving back from the line an adequate distance can significantly aid the athlete’s mechanical ability to accelerate. Many athletes crowd the line with their stance in a seemingly logical attempt to start as close as possible to the finish line. However, for the 40-yard dash, consider “trading inches for angles.” This means to sacrifice a small bit of distance to the finish line so the athlete can have a greater forward shin angle on his lead leg, thereby creating a better position from which to accelerate. He should not try to create more of an angle than he can hold in acceleration, however, or he will begin to stumble forward out of his start. If the athlete can execute an excellent first three acceleration steps, he stands a chance to run a great 40-yard dash.