Evaluating The 40 yard dash - Part II

In the 1st installment of this series we talked about testing the 10 and 40 yard dash and looking at the difference. Some people are faster off the line while some people are faster further into the race. I talked about improving the 2nd half of the 40, or flying 20, being key for the first group. That's what I'll talk about how to do in this article, but first I'd like to make a clarification:

Top Speed vs Top Speed

In part 1 I talked about top speed in the 40 being a limiting factor for some people, but in reality the fastest athletes in the 40 don't ever actually hit true top speed. Ideally you should be accelerating most, if not the entire, race. The goal is really to increase the length that you can accelerate. By doing this the top speed you hit IN THE 40 will be faster, which is key. Your overall 40 will be faster, and your flying 20 will be faster. The problem is a lot of people DON'T accelerate long enough in the race. That's what we're trying to improve.

2 Types of Acceleration

There are 2 types of acceleration, initial and transitional:

Initial acceleration Involves roughly the first 10 yards

Transitional acceleration Is from 10 yards to however far out you hit top speed, typically 30-60 meters.

So, you obviously want to improve transitional acceleration.

Let's start by identifying the physiological differences between initial and transitional acceleration:

The initial acceleration phase (the 10) involves a significant degree of knee bend. You start out in what is called a positive shin angle where your knees go out over the toes.

The position of your limbs makes the initial 10 yards more quad dominant than the rest of the race.

Identifying The Problem

As you come out of your initial acceleration, your legs inherently begin to straighten more and more with each foot strike. The further you accelerate the more your hips and hamstrings inherently should contribute. Quad dominant individuals are usually strong and often have a good 10, but they don't always transition as well into transitional acceleration because their quads continue to "try" to assume the role as prime mover because their posterior chain isn't powerful or efficient enough to take over. Thus, they tend to get relatively slower and slower the deeper they get into the race. They tend to push or 'chop' their stride and reach top speed very early. You can identify them because they tend to bounce up and down and are often back on their heels.

In contrast, guys who are fast the entire 40 seem to float smoothly most of the race without any up and down motion. They're nice and smooth.

Push Runners vs Pull Runners

Chris Korfist has written several nice articles on the topic of push runners vs pull runners. Push runners are the quad dominant type that might be good at initial acceleration but slow everywhere else. Pull runners are the ideal. The reason he calls them "push" and "pull" respectively is because the push runner primarily uses his pushing muscles, the quadriceps, while the pull runner primarily uses his posterior chain, the glutes and hamstrings.

Sprinter Problems and Solutions by Chris Korfist

A Simple Assessment

If the assessments in part 1 don't give you enough of an idea what type you are, you you can get a fairly accurate gauge as to whether you're transitioning well by running a few repeat 40's and identifying where you feel it. If your butt and hamstrings cramp up (or at least pump up) chances are you're a balanced pull runner. If your quads cramp up and you feel nothing in your posterior chain you're probably a push runner.

When you are moving properly with the correct muscles you'll most likely feel a burst somewhere between 10 and 25 yards that wasn't there before. It's sorta like taking off in a jet airplane - the power throws you back into your seat.

Fixing The Problem

So, now that we've identified the problem how do you fix it? You have to train yourself to more efficiently utilize hip extension and hip hyperextension when you sprint.

Hip hyperextension naturally occurs when we sprint when the foot is placed under the center of mass and pushed back. It occurs when we're facing resistance horizontally on our lower body. Think of a reverse hyperextension. You're on your stomach and the resistance is forcing your legs down...you lift them up by extending your legs up, engaging your hip extensors. That's hip hyperextension.

Reverse Hyper Exercise

The key is these muscles have to be powerful and efficient enough to naturally take over in the transitional acceleration phase without any conscious input on your part.

Hip Hyperextension and Sprinting

Let me quote Mike Boyle on the topic of hip hyperextension as it relates to sprinting:

Many athletes can squat large amounts of weight. Far fewer athletes seem to be able to run fast. Any student of speed will tell you that many of the strength exercises commonly recommended for speed development work hip extension but, not hip hyperextension. In running speed all of the force production is from hip hyperextension. The ability to apply force to the ground and create forward movement can only occur when the foot is placed under the center of mass and pushed back. Although squats etc. will train the muscles involved, the training is not specific to the act of sprinting.

This is particularly true for the mid-acceleration phase. So, what's the solution? Fortunately there is a great tool for the task.

Enter The Sled

Working with a weighted sled can help teach strong athletes how to produce the type of force that naturally occurs in the transitional acceleration phase.

The sled is a specific form of horizontal resistance. It pulls on you horizontally and to counter that it forces you to utilize hip hyperextension in a way that is fairly specific to the act of sprinting. This makes it great for improving the length of your acceleration phase.

In my experience the results are even better when combined with top speed runs like flying 20's and regular 40's, which help teach relaxation.

The sled is often looked at as only an early acceleration training device but in my experience it will improve your entire 40.

Their are 3 ways to utilize the sled in a speed development program:

1. As a special strength training method: Here you load the sled up and do an assortment of pulls and marches with a fairly heavy sled. The goal is to load your legs in a manner that emphasizes the action you're trying to improve in a similar manner to sprinting. An extreme form of special strength training would be a lineman pushing a blocking sled. For special strength training you don't have to go THAT heavy but the idea is similar. How much weight you use depends on the type of sled you use, the surface, and your size and strength. It's hard to screw up so feel free to experiment a little. If in doubt let technique be your guide. You should be able to move without flailing all over the place and you should be able to get full extension of your stride. Some people may use a sled weighted to their bodyweight while others may use more than double that.

2. As a specific loading method: Here you do max speed sprints with the sled. You load it up heavy enough to give you a bit of resistance, but light enough that your running technique is not detrimentally affected. Typically you'd put enough load on it to cause about a 10% drop-off in your normal sprint times over a given distance. So if you normally run a 2.5 second 20 yard dash you might sprint with a sled heavy enough to cause you to run about a 2.75 20 yard dash (2.50 + 10 percent).

3. As a potentiation or contrast method: You can alternate both heavy and lighter sleds with normal unweighted sprints to stimulate immediate muscle recruitment and immediately improve sprint times . The effect is the same as a baseball player swinging a heavier bat before stepping into the batters box with a lighter bat.

A Sample Workout

Here is an example of a 4 week sled phase that utilizes uses all 3 variations of sled work:

Phase 1: 2 weeks (do the workout twice per week)

Section A:

Sled pulls x 150-400 lbs x 20 yards x 2 reps followed by 20 yard sled sprint x 45 lbs x 2 reps (use enough resistance on the sled sprints to cause about a 10% drop in your normal 20 yd time) – Go thru the series 2 times for a total of 8 sprints. Rest after each pull and sprint

Section B:

50 yard sprints x 5: Gradually accelerate to 90% of top speed over the course of 50 yards

Phase 2: 2 weeks (do twice a week)

Section A:

Sled sprint x 45 lbs. X 40 yards (or enough resistance to cause about a 10% drop in normal times) x 2 reps followed by bodyweight flying 20 yard sprints (accelerate smoothly to top speed and hold for 20 yards) x 20 yards x 2 reps. Repeat 3 x resting after each rep

Section B:

Sled pull x 150-400 lbs x 30 yards x 4-5 reps

Sled pulls are a cross between a sled march and sprint. You should be able to move faster than a march, but not really sprint.


Their are a variety of different sleds that can be utilized for the heavier form of sled pushing and marching. You can use a regular sled, a prowler, a football blocking sled, or a sled dawg.

For sled sprinting it's hard to run properly without a regular speed sled:

(click on the pics for more info.)

Don't have a sled available? Make your own. All you need is an old tire and a rope and you can turn it into a viable training aid. I even know people who've used snow sleds weighted down with weights.

As long as you have a solid strength base you should find training with the sled allows you to extend the length of your acceleration phase the result being you accelerate longer, run a faster 40, run a faster flying 20, and have an overall greater top speed.

For further reading on the subject of the sled check out Mike Boyle's article on utilizing the sled.

Also be sure to check out my No Bull Speed Development Manual for specific routines for the 40 as well as a ton more about assessing the athlete and developing speed.

Good luck with it!