Maximize Your Acceleration to Increase Your 40-Yard Dash
By: Bill Parisi, BBA, C.S.C.S
Founder, Parisi Speed School
Acceleration is the most important aspect of improving your 40-yard dash time. Acceleration is defined in physics, as the rate of change of velocity over time. This is an attribute many athletes don’t fully understand.
An athlete’s ability to accelerate is determined by their “pushing ability,” or more specifically their technical ability to apply backward force into the ground. A greater and faster force pushed into the ground going in the backward direction produces faster acceleration.
Relative Body Strength
Relative body strength plays a major role in these abilities, as it measures an athlete’s strength in relation to body weight. A simple way to test relative body strength is pull-ups and squats. High School Athletes that perform 15 or more pull-ups and squat 2.2 times their body weight have a high level of relative body strength. This plays a key role in determining acceleration and change-of-direction abilities.
Relative body-weight strength is not the only component necessary for improved acceleration. Consider that weight training by itself performed over long periods of time without any speed work, may actually slow you down. On the other hand, those who don’t weight-train will never reach their speed and quickness potential and have a higher risk of injury. So, to improve your 40 Time, work on getting stronger. Focus on deadlifts, and single leg strength exercises such as Lunges, Step-Ups and Single Leg Squats.
The Importance of a Great Start
Next, you must learn proper acceleration technique. One of the most common mistakes young athletes make is they don’t understand how to get into the three point starting position. Your stance is the first step in determining how well you are able to accelerate, so let’s talk about how to get into the starting position to run a great 40-yard dash.
First, the foot closest to the starting line should be the foot you normally jump off of when you try and grab a basketball rim or touch the backboard. This would be your “jumping leg.” This front foot should be about 6-12 inches behind the starting line. This distance is dependent on your height and leg length. Taller athletes should be 9-12 inches back and shorter athletes 6-9 inches back.
Next, your back foot should be placed “One Foot’s Length,” behind your front foot and three to six inches to the side. (Use you own personal foot length when measuring “One Foot’s Length” distance).
Now that your feet are placed in the right position you should get down on all fours, on your hands and knees at the starting line. Your front knee should be slightly in front of the starting line with your chest and upper body well past the starting line. From this position, raise your hips and walk both hands back and load your body up by pushing yourself back into the starting position, just as if you were loading a “human spring.” Think about pushing your hips back into position as if you were cocking a gun. Let your hips rise slightly higher than your shoulders and keep your back flat. Be sure not to round your back. Feel the power in your legs being created.
Keep your head down and then bring the hand (on the same side as your front foot) off the ground to your back hip,. From this position, inhale and brace your core as if someone was going to punch you in the stomach. This last phase of taking in a breath and bracing your core should not take more than 2-3 seconds before you sprint out. Be sure to hold your breath and keep your core braced throughout the first 20 yards of the sprint. This will allow for maximum muscle recruitment and force production. Lastly, be sure not to wait more than 2-3 seconds once you get into the set position. If you wait any longer, you will begin to fatigue out and not produce a good start.
If you watch world-class sprinters accelerate, you see their first three strides are long, as if they were actually striding in front of their body. Athletes at this level have higher ratios of relative body strength and power, which allows them to take longer strides. This is because they create a great “backside push.” Their drive leg shoots their center of gravity forward out of the blocks more than the average person. The challenge is if you try and take long strides out of the start and you do not have the strength to displace your center of mass forward enough, it will cause you to over stride and actually cause a “breaking force” and hinder performance. The first stride is dependent on individual strength levels of the athlete. It has been shown that the first 3 strides in a 100-meter dash has up to a 75% impact on the final time of the race. So in the 40-yard dash, this percentage is even higher and more important.
Stronger athletes that employ sound technique create longer initial strides and “push the ground away”. They thrust their feet backward, down into the ground during each stride while coming out of the start at a 45 degree body angle. This action catapults their bodies to the subsequent stride. Most middle school and many high school athletes do not possess the high levels of strength and power needed to take long strides when accelerating. Athletes with low levels of relative body strength can actually slow themselves down with longer strides because each stride initially causes a “breaking force” when the foot initially makes contact with the ground. It isn’t until the body’s center of gravity is above the plant leg that the athlete can apply force into the ground, in the proper direction to propel forward.
Let the “Force Application” Be With You
Newton’s Third Law states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. So, if an athlete wishes to accelerate in one direction, he or she needs to apply forces in the opposite direction. When you accelerate, be sure your foot makes contact with the ground while moving in a backward direction and your shin is at a 45 degree angle. Your knee should be slightly in front of the big toe. For younger or weaker athletes, they will not have as much body lean and will be closer to a 50 degree (or greater) body angle. Their foot should land slightly behind the hip. With skilled and stronger athletes their feet should land under or slightly in front of the hip while coming out at a 45 degree body angle. These stronger athletes have the strength and skill to land in this position while driving their leg backward.
Cross Country Skiing Provides the Ultimate Analogy
Imagine you are cross-country skiing and driving the poles into the ground. If you reach out to far in front of your body with the poles, you will need a tremendous amount of upper-body strength to propel your body forward forcefully. If you take shorter stabs into the ground near your hips, you would require less strength to move forward forcefully because you have better leverage. The same biomechanics hold true when accelerating with your legs into the ground. The only difference is that your legs act as the poles. So specific individual strength levels and lower body limb lengths play an important role in acceleration technique.
Another concept the athlete needs to be familiar with is joint angles, with the shin being the most important angle to consider. The shin acts as the pole for the cross-country skier. The lower leg should hit the ground at a 45-degree angle, with the knee slightly in front of the foot, just as the hand would be in front of the pole’s bottom when sticking it into the ground. This angle creates tremendous leverage to apply force into the ground to move forward.
I hope this article makes you think about acceleration a little bit differently and helps you to run your fastest 40-yard dash ever. As with any sport skill, movement technique combined with dynamic and elastic strength are vital elements that produce specific sport speed. In this case, the skill of acceleration technique and the strength needed to execute it, both play important roles to improve it.