Proper Sprinting Mechanics of the 40 Yard Dash
by Dr Ray Tucker
Coaches on various levels are trying to find the latest workouts to improve strength and speed in their athletes. Off-season football is the time of year when football players are going through a very strenuous workout to increase their strength and speed. One of the popular tests of speed for football players is the forty-yard dash. During my coaching career, I had the privilege of timing athletes in the forty-yard dash and shuttle run at the Army All Star Football Combine in San Antonio, Texas. During this combine, I noticed several high school football players are not utilizing the proper technique in the forty-yard dash; their times were slower at the combine.
This encouraged me to write this article on the proper sprinting technique of the 40-yard dash in order to run a fast time. The forty-yard dash is 120 feet and it is a test of explosiveness and acceleration. There is a myth, if you are not born with the right genetics, you will never be fast. This is true to some extent, but genetics is not a factor in everything. Learning the proper sprinting mechanics is a skill, and a skill can be learned.
There are two common starts used by athletes today in the forty-yard dash.
- Bunch Start – This start is called the bunch start because the athlete tries to get their body position as close to the line as possible thinking this is going to improve their forty time. However, they are mistaken. Athletes using the bunch start will find they have placed their body in a poor position because the flexion in the hips and knees are too high. On the start of the race, their body will shoot upwards, which causes the body to stand up straight. The bunch start eliminates leg power and the triple extension in the hip, knee, and ankle, which is key for leg explosion out of the start.
- Block Start – This start is called the block start because the athlete positions himself too far behind the starting line and in some cases, the back leg is one to two yards behind the line, as if he were using the starting blocks. The athlete also has poor arm position because the arm is extended in the air. If you are timing the 40-yard dash properly, once the arm moves, the clock will start. This will cost you to lose valuable time.
The Proper Start
- The drive leg should be up front with the toes 4-6 inches from the starting line.
- The rear leg (quick side) should be six inches apart from the drive leg.
- The toes of the rear leg (quick side) should be aligned with the heels of the drive leg.
- The back should be flat with the head down, and chin tucked.
- The arm on the rear leg (quick side) should be down on the line resting his weight on the fingers.
- The athletes arm should be bent at a 90-degree angle on his drive leg.
- The hand should be opened.
- The athlete should be on the balls of his feet.
- 9. The toes should be pointing in a straight line.
The First Step
The first step of the forty-yard dash is very important and it should not be a short choppy or too long of a step. If the step is to long, the athlete could be reaching and this will prevent the athlete from landing with the proper foot placement preventing him from putting force into the ground.
- Before taking the first step the athlete should inhale and hold his breath; this will help the athlete generate more power and to be more explosive out of the start.
- The first step should be a long step with the quick leg (Remember not to reach).
- The drive leg should have a triple extension at the hip, knee, and ankle during the push off out of the stance.
- The athlete should have a forceful arm drive.
- The head and chin should be tucked and in a straight line with the torso, with the eyes looking a few feet in front.
- The athlete’s body should be at a forward lean displacing his center of gravity in the direction that he is sprinting.
Acceleration Phase 1-20 Yards
- The athlete must have long powerful strides.
- The athlete should have a full arm swing at 90-140 degrees.
- The athlete should have proper foot contact. The foot should land directly under the hips. If the athlete’s foot lands too far in front of the athlete, it will decelerate the athlete.
- When the foot makes contact with the ground, the athlete should tear away at the track while putting force into the ground.
- The athlete should feel like he is falling down. His center of gravity should be over the base of support.
- The athlete’s head should be down with his eyes looking in front of him
Transition Phase 20-40 Yards
- The athlete should transition his body by bringing up the head from the tucked to the up position.
- Once the athlete transitions to the up position, he must maintain an erect torso and keep his hips in proper position.
- The athlete should continue to use a full arm swing at 90-140 degrees.
- The athlete’s shoulders should be down and he should be relaxed.
- Proper recovery leg mechanics should be used in the transition phase. The drive leg should be fully extended with an extension in the hips, knees, and ankle. The recovery leg will be shortened as it goes over the knee of the drive leg; this in return creates a shorter lever, with the recovery leg landing under the hip. (Remember, if the athlete’s foot lands anywhere in front of the center of gravity, this will cause breaking forces and will decelerate the athlete.)
- This is the portion of the race where the rate of force development takes place by increasing stride length and stride frequency. The athlete’s ankle should remain in a dorsiflexed position upon ground contact time.
- Upon ground contact time with the foot, the athlete should drive the foot down under his hip and place force into the ground.
- The athlete should concentrate on tearing away at the track by using a clawing motion, and return the leg quickly to the recovery position utilizing the recovery mechanics.
- The athlete should keep his eyes focused ahead and run all the way through. Some coaches call this the conversational plane.
Tremendous strength in the gluteus, legs, and calves are keys to having a good time in the forty-yard dash. Please remember, your athlete should be in the power and strength phase of his strength training cycle prior to testing. Doing high reps and trying to put on muscle mass will not benefit the athlete prior to testing.
Raymond Tucker holds a Doctorate in Sports Management from the United States Sports Academy. He is a certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist by the National Strength and Conditioning Association. He has been a strength and conditioning coach at Coffeyville Community College, and interned at Texas Lutheran College. He was a competitive drug free powerlifter in Texas and was a former state and regional record holder in the 220 lb class from 1985-1993, national champion in 1989, and ranked number 11 in the United States in the 220 lb weight class by the American Drug Free Powerlifting Assoc.