In the game of football, speed is king. The difference in a hundredth of a second can mean the difference between a tackle for loss and a game-breaking touchdown.
It’s why so important for football players to train speed and maximize every bit of acceleration and max speed within the player’s ability.
I’ve been working with elite players at the collegiate level for almost two decades, preparing them both for game day and for the national football league.
In this article, I’m going to give you my 8 favorite drills for speed development to help give you the edge you need this upcoming football season.
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Speed Mechanic Drills
I’m going to start with a few speed mechanic drills that focus strictly on sprinting mechanics. These are drills that I recommend doing once or twice a week in the off-season, immediately after your warmup.
By repeating each speed drill over and over again, you’ll in-grain these mechanics into your sprinting, because you definitely won’t have time to think about your mechanics when you’re in a live game situation.
Seated Arm Swings
This drill focuses completely on the arm swing, something that is often overlooked during sprint training.
Start in a seated position with legs outstretched, and feet directly in front of the body. Good posture with chest up tall and eyes focused straight ahead. Arms are relaxed and elbows are held at a 90-degree angle to the shoulder during the entire swing, alternating each arm with each swing.
Keep the hands relaxed and bring them as high as the mouth. As arms go back, turn palms out slightly so that the thumb brushes the hip. Arms should not cross the midline but stay in line with the shoulder.
Start slow, focusing on the path of the arm and then slowly build speed until your arms are pumping so fast that it may even lift your butt off the ground slightly as you drive your arms.
High Knees have three points of emphasis with lower body sprinting mechanics:
Knee up, heel up, toe up.
The knees should drive as high as possible every rep while maintaining a neutral, upright torso.
The heel should drive up so it remains underneath the hamstring.
Finally, the toe should remain dorsiflexed (pulled up).
The arm action should remain consistent just like the seated arm action drill. The body posture will remain vertical – do not lean back since this is inconsistent with proper running form.
This drill is best done in short increments. I like to set up two cones ten yards apart.
Leg turnover should be as fast as possible while maintaining a full range of motion. However, make sure to not cover too much ground too quickly. On average, there should be 2 to 3 strides per yard.
This speed drill is very taxing if done correctly so give yourself time to recover in between reps so you can perform each rep with max effort.
A walk-back recovery is a good way to get your rest time in without feeling like you’re just standing around waiting.
Once you finish the drill, slowly walk back to the first cone, take a few deep breaths and then you can move on to the next rep.
This speed drill is almost exactly the same as High Knees with one tweak.
Arm action stays exactly the same, turnover rate stays exactly the same, toe is still dorsiflexed.
Now, instead of focusing on driving the knees up as high as possible, drive the heel of the foot straight up to the top of the hamstring (bottom of the glute).
This helps work the backside leg recovery when sprinting.
Keep this drill ten yards long as well and focus on the speed of the turnover and the volume of reps in the short distance.
With the ankle cocked in the dorsiflexed position (toe up) take short quick steps. Bounce from foot to foot so that as soon as the ball of the foot hits the ground, it wants to jump off the surface.
Legs stay relatively straight, the movement is all done through the ankles.
The analogy I like to use here is jumping rope. Pretend to jump rope, but with just one foot at a time, punching the ball of the foot under the hips as you move forward. Arm action should be relaxed and controlled.
A-Skip is an upgraded version of the skip we all did as kids (assuming you skipped as a kid).
Start skipping by lifting up one leg into the knee up, toe up, heel up position.
Now powerfully apply force back into the ground and quickly drive up the opposite leg, working the knee up, heel up, toe up. When the foot strikes the ground, let it bounce off the ground into a ‘skip’.
Work on keeping the body upright and emphasize foot position and arm action.
Do not overstride (cast out or reach forward with the foot) during the drill. The foot should drive the ground in a powerful manner slightly behind the hips. The recovery of the driving leg is a powerful cycling of the foot, with the leg returning to a near parallel (quad to the ground) level.
The majority of plays in football come down to short bursts of speed. The long plays may make the highlight reel, but those are the exceptions, not the rule.
The more power you can generate to accelerate quickly the more success you’re likely to see on the football field.
Here are my two favorite drills to improve acceleration ability.
For this drill, you’ll need a speed sled. Even if you’re training on your own, speed sleds are not really that expensive and definitely worth the investment. This Speed Sled from Titan works great and will last you for years.
Put on the harness and make sure you’re properly attached to the sled. Make sure that the surface you’re running on is smooth and only use about 10% of your bodyweight. You want to sprint with the sled, not dragging it behind you.
Walk forward to take all the slack out of the strap connecting you to the sled and then double-check that the sled is in a straight line behind you.
Now lean forward until you feel like you’re going to fall and then quickly drive one leg up, strike it into the ground and accelerate out.
Maintain good forward lean while driving the driving the knees high, getting triple extension of the ankle, knee, and hip, and applying as much force as possible to the ground through the ball of the foot.
Sprint through the finish line, rest, recover and then turn around and go again.
Don’t have a sled? No problem.
Using an incline is a great way to incorporate acceleration training without having any extra equipment. The greater the incline the greater resistance that will be placed on the athlete, but it doesn’t have to be a huge incline to be effective.
Start at the bottom of the incline and sprint forward using good technique. Once you reach the top of the incline (or wherever you place your finish line) slowly walk back down to the bottom, rest and repeat.
Top Speed Training Drills
One of the best drills to focus on top-end speed is to simply sprint. Especially after doing either of the resistance drills above.
You always want to finish your speed training by going full speed.
Ins and Outs
One of my favorite top-end speed drills is Ins and Outs. This drill focuses on top-end sprinting mechanics but allows us to do it at full speed.
For this drill, place four cones on the field. The first cone should be placed at the twenty-yard line, the second cone on the forty, the third cone on the opposite forty and the fourth cone on the opposite twenty.
Start on the goalline, accelerate out, and try to build as much speed as possible through the first cone.
For the second twenty yards maintain the speed you built up during the first twenty.
Once you sprint past the second cone you’ll still maintain your speed through the next twenty yards, but focus solely on running with good form. Force being applied to the ground will be less and it may feel like you’re almost floating through this section.
You’re only priority is to be relaxed with perfect mechanics.
The fourth twenty yards try to accelerate again by regaining a slight forward body lean and applying more force to the ground with each step.
Finally, once you sprint through the last cone slowly decelerate and come to a stop. This drill is especially taxing so make sure to give yourself adequate rest time in between reps. I would recommend a minimum of three minutes between reps for full recovery.
Speed Training Sessions
Let’s now look at what a typical speed training session would look like.
First, start with a dynamic warmup that should be about 10 to 12 minutes long.
Then, follow your warmup with speed mechanic drills. Reps and sets may look something like this:
- Seated Arm Swings 2 x 15 seconds
- High Knees 2 x 10 yards
- Ham Kicks 2 x 10 yards
- Ankling 2 x 10 yards
- A-Skips 2 x 20 yards
After you finish mechanics, move on to your sprint resistance work.
Depending on the emphasis that day, the yards covered could be on the shorter 10 to 20 yards range or the longer 30 to 50 yards range.
The weight should be adjusted based on the distance you’re covering. Shorter distance sled pulls focused on acceleration can have a heavier weight, up to 30% of your bodyweight. However, longer sprints should be limited to 10% bodyweight.
This is to ensure proper mechanics can still be maintained during the reps.
Here are two training session examples, one shorter sprint day, and one longer:
- Sled Pulls 4 x 10 yards, 4 x 20 yards
- Sprints 2 x 10 yards, 2 x 20 yards
- Sled Pulls 2 x 20 yards, 2 x 30 yards, 2 x 40 yards
- Sprints 2 x 20 yards, 1 x 30 yards, 1 x 40 yards
If you don’t have a sled, you can substitute incline sprints in place of the sled pull.
Then, as I mentioned before, regardless of what resistance sprint work you’re doing – always finish the day at full speed.
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Speed is critical on the football field and, contrary to what some may want you to believe, you can improve speed.
By improving your mechanics and becoming more powerful and explosive, you’ll be able to notice a big difference once you hit the field.
Featured Image Photo Credit: Eugene Onischenko / Shutterstock.com