Short and sweet – why all sportsmen and women should consider 40m sprinting!

The relevance and potential benefits of 40m sprinting

Article at a glance:
  • The relevance and potential benefits of 40m sprinting are discussed;
  • Recent research on improving 40m sprint times is presented;
  • Tips for testing 40m sprint times are given;
  • A sample 40m sprint training programme is outlined.

Many team sports athletes will go through a battery of fitness tests throughout their career. One of the most widely used is the 40m sprint (the 40-yard dash in the USA), which is used to test speed. James Marshall explains how you can benefit from 40m sprint training

While it’s true that there are other speed tests that are relatively easy to administer and which provide immediate feedback to coaches and athletes, the 40m test is so prevalent in sporting circles that athletes may benefit from training plans that improve their 40m sprinting, as well as their linear speed, to assist their sporting performance. Indeed, in the USA, whole training programmes, websites and camps are devoted to ‘improving your 40’.

This data is relevant to sports such as field hockey, football and rugby, where players are not only required to run bursts of similar distances during the game, but also need to have high top speeds and good acceleration, eg being first to a ball or racing back to get into defensive position; 40m sprinting can also be relevant in sports such as ice hockey (which has no running in it) as a measure of power and leg speed(1). One study showed a high correlation between ice hockey players’ 40yd times and their shooting performance within matches(2).

Running, jumping or squatting?

In order to improve running speed over 40m shouldn’t you just practise running 40m? Inevitably, practising any skill that is going to be tested will result in improvements in untrained subjects as a learning effect takes place. However, developing strength through weight training exercises such as the squat, or power through exercises such as plyometrics or jump squats has also been advocated as an alternative to just running.

As usual, research is not 100% clear on the answer, mainly due to the design of the studies and the use of ‘recreationally trained’ or ‘untrained’ subjects (such as university students) who are usually male, instead of well trained athletes. The training effect demonstrated in these studies may therefore not be especially relevant for those who are better trained or are female.

The NFL Combine

The National Football League holds a scouting combine in Indianapolis each year in which the top 300 college players are invited to perform a battery of physical and skill related tests. This six-day event is an opportunity for the 32 professional teams to assess the capabilities of players at each position. The college draft takes place two months later in which teams select players by rounds. The earlier a player is selected, the more money he will make. The 40yd dash (36.9m) is one of the physical tests, alongside vertical jump, how many times a player can bench press 100kg and others.

Players across all positions have to perform the same tests, so 159kg offensive linemen and 81kg defensive backs all do the 40yd dash, but are compared by position. The results of all these tests provide a high correlation with draft position only for running backs, wide receivers and defensive backs – strangely enough, exactly the positions that frequently have to cover 40yds in the game at top speed(11)!

The 40yd dash times receive immense coverage in the US media, mainly because it is an easy to understand figure; every fan wants to know what their favourite player can ‘do the 40 in’. The fastest time at this year’s combine was by 79.5kg Yamon Figurs who ran the 40yds in 4.30 seconds. Figurs was drafted by the Baltimore Ravens in the third round and was the 74th player taken overall, coming from a small college, with limited prospects. His position was definitely augmented by his 40yd time.

What is clear, however, is that running the 40m requires acceleration over the first 15m, which is improved by forward body lean and short but quick strides with minimal ground contact time and with a large force(3). From 15m to 40m, stride length increases, with the fully extended rear leg pushing off the track with the toes and the leg driving forward with a high knee action. Squatting and jumping exercises that reproduce either a quick ground contact time or allow the triple extension of the hip, knee and ankle are most commonly used. These include jump squats, cleans and bounding drills.

Decreasing the ground contact time without enhancing the ability to increase force proportionately will result in slower linear speed because the acceleration produced will be less. Developing power with resistance training is usually achieved by either using heavy weights (70-90% 1RM) and low velocity or lighter weights (30-50% 1RM) and high-velocity movements. Both have been found to be effective when using squat, hip extension and hip flexion movements in improving 20m acceleration time(4).

Improving maximal leg strength may prove to be crucial in improving speed in untrained subjects, but less so in experienced athletes. This is due to the fact that a large increase is needed in leg strength before a corresponding increase in speed is seen. A large strength increase is easier to achieve in untrained subjects than those who have been training for 10 or more years.

In trained subjects, squatting immediately before sprinting may produce an acute effect over 40m due to postactivation potentiation (PAP)(5). One set of three heavy squats at 90% 1RM were effective in reducing 40m sprint time in college American football players compared with three squat jumps with a 30% 1RM load. A four-minute rest period was enforced between the exercise and the sprint. However, this is not recommended for untrained subjects as the squats would have an unduly fatiguing effect and reduce the ability to produce power.

Jargonbuster

Postactivation potentiation
An increase in the contractile property of muscle after a series of previous contractions due to a combination of chemical, neuromuscular and mechanical changes in the muscle(13)
Phosphocreatine energy system
Generates ATP for immediate efforts of activity from two to seven seconds in duration

The recovery phase

Most studies have looked at training the drive phase of the sprint action; however, training the recovery phase could be just as important. One study using untrained subjects improved 40yd times over eight weeks by using elastic bands to improve hip flexor strength for the recovery phase(6). The subjects tied the elastic band around their ankles and then reproduced the high knee lift against the resistance of the band. The subjects improved hip flexor strength by 12% and decreased their 40yd time by 9%.

The idea of reproducing this action under load is sound, but it is unlikely to work in trained subjects due to the limitations of using elastic bands. Unlike using free weights or cables, which require a large initial force to overcome inertia, bands have little inertia at the beginning of the movement, but resistance increases towards the end of range. This results in early deceleration, which is counterproductive in most athletic movements.

Sprint training protocols

As the 40m is a very specific running test, and most training time is limited, the running drills need to be very effective. Running a series of 40m sprints, with ‘walk back recovery,’ which is common in team environments, may not produce the best results. Instead, carefully managed rest times that allow recovery of the phosphocreatine energy system should be used. This will then help the athlete run at their top speed for each sprint in the training session. Rather than run the same set of drills in each session, it may be best to include some over-speed and uphill sessions as well as normal sessions.

Incline or running with resistance is designed to increase ground contact time and reduce stride length, which may be useful in the initial 15m of acceleration. Downhill running or overspeed training is designed to increase stride length and reduce ground contact time, important in the 15-40m phase of the sprint. When using inclines, declines, resisted or overspeed training methods, it is important to observe running mechanics. Too much incline or resistance will result in severely altered running styles and poor posture, which then has a detrimental effect when the resistance is removed. The same is true for decline or overspeed training (being towed).

Testing 'the 40'

While testing the 40 is theoretically quick and easy to administer, experience shows that it can’t always be done. One major problem is the weather. Indoor facilities that have a 50m space in a straight line (you have to allow at least 10m for safe deceleration at the end) are rare. Outdoors, the surface has to be dry to allow foot purchase and should be consistent between tests to establish reliability. Athletic tracks that have surface water on them become very slippery and injuries could occur.

Wind is also a factor, with tail, head or cross winds all affecting the times. If you are just conducting one test to establish who is quickest on your team, then wind is not a problem because the conditions are the same for everyone. But, if you are using the data to monitor progress over time or comparing with players from other parts of the country, then conditions become important.

Equipment used could be handheld stopwatches or electronic light gates. If using handheld times, then up to three testers should be used and an average between the three scores recorded(12). If using electronic gates, make sure you have spare batteries, as they can become depleted quite quickly. Mark out the distance with an accurate tape measure and ensure you get metres and yards correct – I have seen the two confused and some very fast scores recorded!

Allow athletes sufficient time to warm up, providing a general and then specific warm up with speed drills. Then allow each athlete three attempts to run their quickest score, with rest time between each attempt. The starting position is important, from a two-point or three-point stationary start; on the line or 75cm behind the first electronic gate. The times recorded will be different for each protocol, but the consistency between tests is crucial – everyone must follow the same protocol. There’s no evidence that athletes competing against each other over 40yds run faster than when running against the clock (or vice versa), so whichever method is easier for you to administer should be used(12).

Two recent studies had different views on this.  The first used a protocol of towing (over-speed sprints), pushing (resisted sprints) and normal sprints and compared the three groups over 22m(7). The subjects were untrained college students and the sprint sessions were conducted three times a week for six weeks and consisted of sprinting 22m five times.

All three groups improved their times at their own protocol (ie the resisted group got better at running against resistance) but the transference to flat speed was greatest in the normal sprint group and then by the overspeed group. The short-term nature of this study indicates that the adaptations to the training were neuromuscular in nature; the subjects became more efficient at their drills. This may not have transference to sport specificity, but if you are trying to get good at a one-off 40m test, then training at that speed for six weeks may help. However, in the longer term, you are unlikely to get better results by just doing that.

The second study combined uphill, flat and downhill running into the same session to provide resisted, tempo and overspeed stimulation to the subjects and compared that to just uphill, flat or downhill sessions (without resistance or towing)(8).

Sample 40m sprint training programme for football

Concentrating on four areas: technique, strength, sprinting, plyometric training (energy system conditioning is assumed to be done as part of the team training sessions thought the use of small-sided games)

A – Off-season
Technical drills to be done for 10 minutes as part of football team training warm-ups.

Strength (two sessions per week)

  • Squats 4 sets of 3 reps @ 90% 1RM 2 mins rest between sets
  • Jump squats 4 sets of 5 reps @ 30% 1RM 2 mins rest between sets
  • Cable leg drive 4 sets of 5 reps @ 30% 1RM 2 mins rest between sets

Plyometrics (two sessions per week)

  • Double-leg bounds 10m; progress to 20m
  • Tuck jumps continuous 2 sets of 10 reps
  • Single-leg bounds for distance 10m; progress to 20m
  • Single-leg bounds for speed 10m; progress to 20m

Sprints (two sessions per week)

  • Session 1
    Alternate each week between resisted sprints towing a 10kg weight or an uphill run of 40m at 3 degrees. 4 resisted/uphill sprints, 3 mins rest between reps. 4 flat 40m sprints at full speed, 5 mins rest between reps.
  •  
  • Session 2
    4 downhill sprints for 40m at 3-degree decline, 3 mins rest between reps. 4 flat 40m sprints at full speed, 5 mins rest between reps.


Sample week for a player who does two team sessions in the off season; player does two sprint sessions, two plyometric sessions and two strength sessions each week

Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
Session1 Rest Sprint1 Plyo1 Rest Plyo2 Rest Strength2
Session2 Rest Rest Team Strength1 Team Sprint2 Rest

B – In-season
Sample week for in-season training; only one strength, plyometric and sprint session per week in order to avoid fatigue (because of the high number of matches being played)

Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
Session1 Rest Sprint1 Rest Match Rest Plyo Match
Session2 Strength Team Team Rest

The researchers designed and built a wooden platform that had a 20m flat portion, a 20m incline at 3 degrees, a 10m flat portion at the top, a 20m decline at 3 degrees and then a flat 10m at the end.  The combined uphill/downhill group ran this 80m total six times with 10 minutes’ rest between sprints, three times a week for six weeks. The other groups ran the same total distance, but in shorter bursts using the same platform, so they ran 12 sets of 40m combining the flat and either the down or the up portion of the platform.

At the end of the six weeks training, the subjects were tested over 35m and the combined uphill/ downhill group showed a 3.4% increase in top speed with the downhill group showing a smaller 1.1% increase. The flat and uphill training groups made no significant changes to running speed after six weeks of training.

The key factor distinguishing between the downhill only group and the combined uphill/downhill group is that the latter had their neuromuscular system overloaded, then unloaded and then assisted. This loading and unloading in the same session could be the difference and is worth trying in training.

Other benefits of practising 'the 40&'

Regular sprint training can lead to better sprint times, but could it also be used as a training tool in itself leading to other physiological improvements.  Plyometrics are often used as an effective training method to help reduce ground contact time for sprinters and jumpers. A Croatian study compared a sprint training protocol with a plyometric protocol over 10 weeks and looked at the effects on drop jumps, countermovement jumps, squat jumps and squat strength as well as 20m sprint time and 20yd shuttle runs(9).

Both groups improved their jumps but the sprint group also improved their isometric squat strength and their speed and agility scores. This study showed that sprinting could be used as a training tool that has similar or better effects than plyometrics. The same researchers also analysed anthropometric characteristics of the two groups and found that the only significant change was a 6.1% reduction in body fat in the sprint group(10).

Summary

Assumptions may be have to be made in designing training protocols for well trained athletes due to the paucity of research using trained subjects. However, it does appear that once a well developed strength base is in place with sound sprint mechanics, the use of different sprint speeds and drills followed by normal mechanics at top speed is more effective than running just flat speed drills.

In untrained subjects the most effective way to improve 40m speed over the short term (circa six weeks) is to practise the test and coach the running style well. This will be effective once, but for those athletes who are tested regularly, a solid strength base needs to be developed in combination with power exercises either in the gym or using plyometrics.

It’s worth commenting on the use of time spent on sprint drills. Most coaches who have limited access to their players will not allow players to spend even 10 minutes doing nothing in their training session; taking up a whole evening doing six maximal sprints over 40m with 10 minutes’ recovery will not therefore go down well. Try doing that on a rainy night in January and your players won’t like it much either! Doing 20 sets of 40m sprints with ‘walk back recovery’ may look busier and the players will be tired, but it won’t help their 40m speed either!
Working on lower body strength and power in the gym, however, will have the two-fold effect of improving both sprint speed and overall conditioning, which will help in contact and collision sports.

James Marshall MSc, CSCS, ACSM/HFI, runs Excelsior, a sports training company

References

  1. JSCResearch 2006; 20(3):500-505
  2. JSCR 2005; 19(2):326-331
  3. Journal of Sports Science and Medicine 2003; 2: 144-150
  4. Journal of Sports Science 2002; 20:981-990
  5. JSCR 2005; 19(4):893-897
  6. JSCR 2005; 19(3):615-621
  7. JSCR 2006; 20(4):833-837
  8. JSCR 2006; 20(3):767-777
  9. JSCR 2007; 21(2):543-549
  10. Kinesiology 2005; 37(1):32-39
  11. JSCR 2003; 17(1):6-11
  12. JSCR 2007; 21(2):385-388
  13. Exercise and Sports Science Review 2002; 30: 138-143

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