In football, speed is generally measured by a player’s time in running the 40-yard dash. This distance was likely established because the average play lasts about as long as it takes to run a 40-yard dash. How much speed a player needs to be successful depends on his position and his level of play. For example, at the college level, an offensive lineman who can run a 40-yard dash in the low 5 seconds can be successful. At the high school level, this time can increase slightly and still lead to success.
These speeds help players perform their position skills more efficiently. In general, the faster a player is, the better. A player can never be too fast!
We are born with the majority of our running speed potential. Muscle fiber makeup has a great deal to do with speed and endurance. We all have two basic types of muscle fibers: fast twitch and slow twitch. Fast-twitch fibers are associated with muscle contraction speed. The higher the percentage of fast-twitch fibers we have, the faster we can move. Slow-twitch fibers are associated with a muscle’s ability to contract repeatedly. The higher percentage of slow-twitch fibers we have, the longer we can work.
We cannot change the percentage of fast-twitch or slow-twitch fibers we are born with, but we can develop those that we do have. In general, to develop fast-twitch fibers, we need to work the muscles involved in shorter, more powerful movements. Running short sprints (10, 20, 30, 40 yards) repeatedly can help develop fast-twitch fibers (see speed drill 1, described later in the chapter). Track athletes are usually adept at this type of training. For more information on fast-twitch fibers, refer to a good book on training for track and field.
Another way to develop speed is to work on running form. The basic tenets of running form include leg movement, arm movement, and body angle. Leg movement refers to both the angle at which you move your legs and the rate at which you take strides. In reference to the angle, the important factors to remember include knee height when striding, foot and leg extension prior to bringing the foot down to the ground, and the pull exerted on the ground by the foot as the body passes over it. Many drills will develop good form, but one of the best is the claw drill described later in the chapter.
For best efficiency, keep legs moving in a straight line in the direction you are moving. In other words, try to point the toe and knee in that direction. As you finish driving the leg back and begin to lift it to come forward for another stride, bring your foot up to your butt as you drive the knee forward to approximately parallel to the ground in front. As your knee approaches that parallel position, your foot reaches ahead as far as possible prior to coming down on the ground again. As your foot contacts the ground in front, pull the foot backward powerfully. This is called the claw action because you are trying to “claw” at the ground quickly by pulling your foot back behind your body.
The upper body is important to running speed in several ways. The arms need to swing forward and back in close to a straight line in the direction being run. Any side-to-side rotation of the arms causes rotation of the entire body and reduces forward movement.
Arm swing is also critical to running speed. The rate at which you swing your arms affects your stride length. The shorter the arm swing, the shorter the stride length. The longer the arm swing, the longer the stride length. The general rule is to swing the arms so the hand is even with the shoulders in front and with the back pocket in back. Arms should stay at about a 90-degree angle as they swing. The elbow should not straighten during the arm swing because this can shorten the arm swing and thus shorten the stride length. A good mental picture for the arm swing is to drive the elbows on the backswing as if trying to punch a bag behind the body.
Body angle is important in that you need a slight forward body lean to enable the stride length to remain long. When you lean back, you tend to take shorter strides, causing you to slow down.
Each of these core skills works in conjunction with other skills. A player may lack one skill but make up for it with another stronger one. One skill that can help make up for a lack of running speed is change-of-direction speed, also called agility.
Speed Drill 1 Repeated 10-Yard Sprints
This simple drill emphasizes explosive movement (fast-twitch fibers) and is also a good conditioning drill.
Players start in a three-point stance. On command, they sprint 10 yards as fast as they can. They immediately turn around, assume the three-point stance again, and sprint back 10 yards as fast they can. The focus is on explosive movement out of the stance and through the 10 yards to develop fast-twitch response. For conditioning, run this drill 3 to 5 times in a row (a total of 6 to 10 sprints), rest briefly, and then repeat, running 5 or 6 sets (a total of 10 to 12 sprints).
- Focus on exploding out of the three-point stance.
- Sprint hard through the 10 yards.
Speed Drill 2 Claw Drill
Players stand with one hand on a wall, chair, or partner for balance. They work one leg at a time—the leg opposite the support leg.
Players raise knees waist high. Using a quick, circular motion, they claw at the ground with the foot, brushing the foot across the ground with toe pulled up. They then pull the heel as close to the butt as possible. From this point, they pull the knee forward and up, and repeat the motion. They make one continuous circular motion, emphasizing the powerful and quick clawing of the ground. Run 8 to 10 repetitions of the drill on one leg, switch legs, and repeat. Do several sets on each leg.
- Perform one continuous circular motion.
- Focus on powerfully clawing the ground with the foot.