How To Improve Your 40 Time (Tips, Drills & Speed Program)


How To Improve Your 40 Time

I’ve never met an athlete that didn’t want to learn how to improve their 40 time.

For better or worse, the 40 is still the most discussed and highlighted performance metric that most athletes will have off the field. You can even watch 40s being ran now on prime time from the NFL Combine.

This manual is designed to give coaching tips, drills, and techniques on how to help athletes improve their straight-ahead speed. Also included is specific drills and techniques that teach how to improve your 40 time.

I’ve even included a speed program that you can start using right now.

Note that this manual is in the context of speaking towards Coaches. However, if you are an athlete, you can still easily follow along and incorporate everything included here into your training.

Overview of Speed Training

Cheetah Sprinting
The best sprinter on the planet, the cheetah.

Running at its simplest form is a series of bounds. The knee drives the leg up and then drives the ball of the foot into the ground. This action is repeated over and over as the athlete moves down the field.

There are two ways to improve the running speed of an athlete.

One is to teach the athlete to be able to create more force with every drive of the foot into the ground. The more force an athlete can create, the farther he will propel him or herself down the field with each step.

Two is teaching the athlete to be able to quickly “recover” the leg from the point of the foot striking the ground to having the knee up and ready to strike the ground again.

All the speed drills contained in this manual will in some way touch on one of these two areas, creating force and recovery.

In order to run faster, an athlete needs to train running fast. That sounds like a simple enough concept, but possibly the most overlooked aspect while training speed is recovery. That is, giving the athlete enough time to rest between repetitions so that they are fully recovered from the previous rep.

Sometimes coaches make speed training rapid fire drills, believing that if the athlete is not gassed at the end of the session than they were not worked hard enough. This is a mistake. Once the athlete begins to fatigue than effective speed training is not possible. The athlete needs to be able to run at 100% or very close to it, to get the desired effects of speed training.

In addition to this, it is also important to make sure speed training is done first in a workout, when the athlete is fresh. Do not try to train after weight training, agilities, or any conditioning drill. In a larger sense, try to keep speed training towards the beginning of the week. Athletes will fatigue over the course of the week, making the front end of the week a more effective time to train speed.

Speed Mechanics Drills

Let’s start by looking at Speed Mechanic drills can that help improve your 40 time by improving your overall straight line speed. Most, if not all, of these drills are taken directly from track sprinting where the only goal is sprinting faster straight ahead.

Beginner Drills

Beginner is probably a bad term for these drills because I still perform these drills even with highest trained athletes. These drills are all basic fundamental speed drills that can be performed over and over again. Having said that, I would say that mastery of these drills are recommended before progressing on to the advanced drills.

Remember all of these drills should be done at full speed with maximum effort from your athletes, and give them proper recovery time between each drill.

Seated Arm Swings – In the seated position with legs outstretched in the front of the body, perform the proper arm technique. 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 must not cross the body but stay in line with the shoulder.

High Knees – The athlete will move for the specified yards lifting their knees as high as possible. Make sure the athlete does not cover too much ground. On average, there should be 2 to 3 strides per yard.

The arm action should remain consistent as with all the other drills. The body posture will remain vertical, do not let the athlete lean back since this is inconsistent with proper running form.

Ham Kicks – Start the drill by having a slight body lean forward, move forward by bringing the knee up and kicking the heel to the hamstring. Make sure to use proper arm action. This drill will look similar to high knees, but there is an emphasis on the ‘heel to the hamstring’ motion.

A-March – The athlete will march the specified number of yards using proper arm, body, leg and foot position. The reps are slow and nearly mechanical.

Emphasize upright body position, proper arm swing, knee up, heel up, toe up. The knee will be over emphasized as it comes up to a parallel postion (perpendicular to the body). The toe will be flexed up towards the shin. The heel will move to the hamstring and then the floor (with the ball of the foot being driven into the ground.

A cycling action will occur naturally. Do not overstride or reach out with the foot. (known as casting the foot)

Ankling – 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. The ankle must be very elastic.

Falling Start – The athlete begins by standing with feet staggered toe to instep. Have them lean forward until they lose their balance. As soon as this happens they accelerate at full speed to catch themself.

Stiff Leg Bounds – The athlete will travel down the field with the knee joint bending only during the recovery phase of the run. The athlete will use a bounding action, which will cause the hip to pop over the foot as the athlete proceeds. The toe will be drawn back so the toe does not strike the ground first, but the ball of the foot will contact the ground first.

The arm swing must remain fluid. The toe up position must be maintained to cause a popping and pulling action and also teach the body not to overstride. The ball of the foot must strike as near under the hip as possible. This action also helps in the stretching of the hamstring.

Fast Claw – The athlete will stand and hold onto a stationary object, whether it be a wall, partner, etc. Stand with one side towards the wall, and place the hand of that side against the wall for balance.

Now raise the leg of the same side up into a good knee up, toe up, heel up position.

Next, strike the ground with the ball of the foot under and the hip and recover the leg as fast as possible to the starting position by driving the heel towards the hamstring and driving the knee back up in front.

Advanced Drills

A-Skip – The athlete will expand upon the A-March through the addition of a hop step during the running sequence. The athlete will powerfully apply force back into the ground and quickly recover his opposite foot, working the knee up, heel up, toe up. Work on keeping the body upright and emphasize foot position and arm action.

The athlete must not overstride (cast out) during the drill. The foot must claw the ground in a powerful manner. The recovery of the driving leg is a powerful cycling of the foot, with the leg returning to a near parallel level.

Prime Times – This drill is a progression of stiff leg bounds. The athlete will keep all the mechanics of the stiff leg bounds, but decrease the stride length and increase the stride frequency. In other words, where the stiff leg bounds will be long bounding strides, primetimes will be short, quick strides.

Fast Leg – This drill will incorporate two of the basic speed mechanics drills. The athlete will begin moving down the field by ankling. After every three or four ‘pops’ of each ankle, drive the right leg up in a violent fast claw type motion. Replace the foot back under the hip and continue ankling.

Repeat this every three or four ankling steps.

The movement from ankling to driving the knee up and replacing should be fluid. The drill can be done focusing on one leg at a time, or to increase the difficulty alternating from one leg to other.

Resistance Drills/Speed Drills

The reasoning behind resistance drills is to force the legs and hips to produce more power by adding some form of extra resistance than what the body is used to. It is very important when doing resistance drills to always end with something ‘free’. That is performing a drill with no resistance. For example, following sled pulls with 20 yd sprints with no weight.

Partner Resistance – This drill is great because the coach doesn’t need any training apparatuses to get the job done. Athletes will partner up with one partner being the runner and one giving the resistance. The resistance partner will stand in front of their partner with their hands up on their shoulders.

The runner will now lean forward using the resistance from their partner to keep them from falling forward. The runner will then begin running forward by driving their knees up, driving the balls of the feet slightly behind their hips and driving their arms back as fast and violent as possible while maintaining their forward body lean.

The resistance partner gives the runner resistance by holding them back from the shoulders and walking backward allowing the runner to advance.

Sled Pulls – The athlete will put on a harness attached to a sled by some form of rope or strap. The athletes can begin the drill either out of a 3 point stance or a falling start.

The athlete should 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. It is important to note that during sled pulls use a light enough weight so that the athlete can maintain proper running form.

Too heavy a weight will cause the running mechanics to break down, and the result will be wasted repetitions.

Incline Sprints – Using an incline is another way to add resistance to a sprint without having any fancy equipment. The greater the incline the greater resistance that will placed on the athlete.

Have the athlete start at the bottom of the incline and sprint up using good running technique. Once the athlete reaches the top of the incline, or the finish of the drill, let them walk back down to the bottom and repeat.

Weighted Vest – Using weighted vests is another good way to add resistance to any sprint. Simply perform any of the drills you would normally perform with the weighted vests.

Again, make sure the weight of the vest is not too much to affect the running form of the athlete. A twenty pound weighted vest would work well with a 200lb athlete, but might hinder the running ability of a smaller 100lb athlete.

Knee Drives on wall – Have the athlete lean forward against a wall at about a 30 degree angle with their body in a straight line. The athlete should be up on the balls of their feet. On the ‘up’ command from the coach, the athlete will drive their right knee up as high and as hard as possible.

They will hold this position until they get the ‘down’ command from the coach. When given the ‘down’ command the athlete will drive the ball of their foot down slightly behind the hip with as much force as possible. Repeat for the desired amount of reps for each leg.

Make sure the athlete focuses on keeping their body in a straight line and not letting their hips stick back in the air.

Single Leg Drive on wall – The athlete assumes the same position on the wall as with the knee drives on wall. Instead of driving the knee and holding, the athlete will drive the knee in a more rapid fire manner.

Do not allow the athlete to become sloppy with their form because of the increased speed of the drill. Still emphasize keeping the hips tucked, not stuck out, high knee drive, and applying force into the ground.

4 Step Wall Walk – The athlete assumes the same position on the wall as with the knee drives on the wall. The athlete will drive the knee up, but instead of driving it back behind the hip where it started, the athlete will now drive the ball of the foot under the hip. This should bring the athlete’s foot closer to the wall.

Repeat three more steps, alternating legs, each step bringing the athlete closer to the wall until after the fourth step the athlete should be standing up tall next to the wall.

Partner Reaction Sprints – Two athletes will partner up both laying on their stomachs with their arms straight out to their sides. The first partner will start five yards ahead of the second partner. On partner one’s movement, both athletes will drive themselves up and sprint forward, with partner two trying to catch partner one.

Emphasize staying low and driving the knees when coming off the ground.

Ins/Outs – Place cones twenty yards apart on a football field, or equivalent. The athlete will begin the drill on the goalline. The first twenty yards the athlete will accelerate trying to reach top speed.

The second twenty yards the athlete will maintain top end speed.

The third twenty yards the athlete will decelerate, but NOT by changing his running mechanics. Have the athlete focus on applying less force to the ground on each step and keeping his running form the same.

The fourth twenty yards the athlete will try to accelerate again by regaining forward body lean and applying more force to the ground with each step. The last twenty yards allow the athlete to decelerate slowly and come to a stop.

Downhill Sprints – Using a decline is a great way to add assistance to a sprint. Emphasize perfect running mechanics. Only a slight decline is necessary (no more than 10 degrees) to achieve overspeed training in this way. Any more than 10 degrees will give a greater tendency for overstriding and could lead to injury.

Bullet Belts – Bullet Belts are a piece of equipment used to help increase an athlete’s acceleration. A belt is attached to the athlete’s waist and a Velcro strap is held by the coach, or partner. The strap is attached to the back of the belt by another piece of Velcro. The athlete will come out of their three point starting stance and begin to accelerate down the field.

The coach will hold onto the strap and provide resistance for the first twelve yards. At the twelve yard mark the coach will pull a release cord that detaches the Velcro strap from the belt. The athlete is now free to finish running without resistance.

This drill can be performed without the belts, by manually resisting the athlete just as was discussed in the partner resistance runs, then simply letting go of the athlete and allowing to them to finish the run freely.

Pop Belts – Pop belts are a piece of equipment that will help improve the athlete’s zero step and explosiveness out of the start. A belt is attached to the athlete’s waist and a Velcro strap is held by the coach, or partner. The strap is attached to the back of the belt by another piece of Velcro.

The athlete will come out of their three point stance. The coach will stand firm with their end of the strap. This will give the athlete a small resistance from the start, forcing them to come low out of their stance and be very explosive. Make sure the resistance isn’t too great to alter starting form.

Plyometrics

Incorporating plyometrics into a speed program will help improve the explosive power of the athlete. The more explosive the athlete becomes the more force they will be able to apply to the ground when running. Being able to apply more force into the ground is one of the best possible ways to improve your 40 yard dash time.

Keep repetitions on the low to medium side and keep effort at maximum. Too much plyo work, especially with larger athletes, can lead to ankle, shin, and knee problems.

Bounding – The athlete will begin by pushing off forcefully with the front leg. Simultaneously drive the back leg’s knee up and out to develop maximal hang time. When leg contacts the ground, immediately push off forcefully and drive through with the other leg.

Make sure the athlete drives their knees high so that their thighs are parallel with the ground and make their strides as long as possible.

Bounding
Bounding is one the best drills to help improve your 40 time. It teaches how to apply maximum force to the ground, knee drive and shin angles.

Power Skips for Height – The athlete begins by skipping, pushing explosively with the back leg. Opposite leg drives knee up as high as possible, trying to achieve maximal height. Prepare for contact with the ground and repeat with opposite leg immediately upon landing.

Make sure the athlete attains triple extension of the back leg and drives the opposite knee to their chest while maintaining good arm action.

Power Skips for Distance – The athlete begins skipping by pushing off explosively with their back leg. Opposite knee drives up and out as far as possible trying to achieve maximal distance. Prepare for contact with the ground and repeat with opposite leg immediately upon landing.

Single Leg Bounding – The athlete begins by driving forward and up on one leg. Completely extend the leg as the athlete drives off of it, and bring their heel to their buttocks and quickly swing their knee forward as they land. Make sure not to pause in between reps, it should be continuous movement.

Jump Tucks – Start with feet shoulder width apart with the body in a vertical position with knees slightly bent. Jump up bringing the knees to the chest. Land in a standing vertical position. As soon as the athlete lands they will immediately go right into the next jump in a rapid fire manner.

Squat Jumps – Start in a squat position with feet shoulder-width apart and hands placed behind the head. Jump vertically and upon landing resume at the starting position and repeat.

40 Yard Dash Technique

So far this manual has given you drills and exercises to use to increase your athletes straight-ahead speed. Increasing your athletes straight-ahead speed will no doubt help decrease his 40 time. But now, let’s break down the 40-yard dash and discuss techniques that can help your time specifically for the 40.

Starting Stance

An athletes starting stance is crucial to their 40 time. A good starting stance will put the athlete into a position where they can most effectively and efficiently accelerate off the line.

Foot Placement

The athlete should begin with their toes behind the line. They will then place the toes of their left foot in line with the heel of their right foot (This is assuming the athlete is right-handed. If the athlete is left-handed the opposite would apply.)

They will place the toes of their right foot in line with their left foot. The athlete’s left foot should now be one foot length behind the line and the right foot two.

Hand Placement

Have the athlete drop his right knee down to the ground. Next, the athlete brings the tips of their thumbs together with their hands spread apart. Now have them place their hands behind the line directly in front of them.

Pull the thumb to where it touches the fingertips and then spread the hand apart again. The athlete should now be in a position where the right hand (or left hand for a lefty) is right behind the line and in a direct line with the shoulder.

Body Position

Have the athlete raise his hips to where they are higher than his knees. They should be on the balls of both feet, ready to fire out of their stance. The left arm should be at about 90 degrees with the hand next to the hip.

Now have the athlete lean forward until the right shoulder is directly over the right hand. This will be difficult and uncomfortable for some of your athletes. Just encourage them that the more they get in that position the easier it will become.

Last, make sure the athlete’s head is down with their eyes focused just behind the line.

Zero Step

Now that we have our athletes in a good stance, the next thing we want to focus on is the first step coming out of our stance, which we call our zero step. We want to be able to explode out of our stance and cover as much distance as possible, at the same time staying low and in good running posture.

Leg Drive

The reason the athlete is up on the balls of both feet is so the athlete can explode out using both legs to help drive them. The athlete should become triple extended, hip, knee, and ankle, with left leg while right leg drives up as high and as hard as possible. The higher the knee drive the more ground the athlete will be able to cover.

It is important to make sure that while the athlete is trying to cover as much ground as possible on this first step that the athlete does not overstride. The ball of the foot still has to land under the hip or two things will occur.

First, if the foot is not under the hip the athlete will not be able to create maximum force with their next step and second, overstriding will cause the athlete to stand up prevent them from staying in their acceleration phase, which will talk about coming up.

Arm Action/Body Lean

During the zero step the athlete’s left arm should drive forward while the right arm drives straight back from ground as violently as possible. Many athletes will have a tendency to pick their right hand up off the ground, then drive it back.

Zero Step - Knee Drive
Whether coming off of the starting line on a track or running a 40 or turf, the body position mechanics of the start should not change.

Make sure the athlete’s hand drives straight back from ground. The athlete should drive out low with a good forward body lean and their head down. This is probably the number one mistake made by our athletes.

Many athletes want to pop straight up tall with their head up and eyes straight ahead.

Have the athletes focus on keeping their eyes on the ground at a spot just in front of them. If their eyes and head stay down they have a better chance of keeping their shoulders down and maintaining that good forward body lean. One of my favorite sayings is, ‘The first person to see the finish line will lose the race.’

Acceleration Phase

The acceleration phase covers the first 12-15 yards. In this phase we focus on really driving the knees high and driving the balls of the feet slightly behind the hips, all while keeping that good forward body lean.

Make sure the athlete is getting full triple extension with each step and really applying as much force as possible into the ground. Good arm action is also crucial during the acceleration phase. The harder the athlete can drive their elbows back the more force they will be able to generate with their legs.

Top Speed Phase

Once the athlete clears the first 12-15 yards, they should now be at, or near, top speed. Now is when the athlete should begin raise up and begin running upright. The face and shoulders should be completely relaxed. The arms should be driving back vigorously.

The athlete should still be in good running form and now the balls of the feet should be striking under the hips.

Now is the most crucial phase for the athlete to not overstride for the sake of injury. At top speed if the athlete reaches out and the ball of the foot strikes in front of the hip, whether it be a breakdown in mechanics or trying to reach for the finish line, then the hamstring is forced to try to pull the leg through and this is where hamstrings are pulled.

Always have the athlete finish the race by running 45 yards instead of just 40. This will prevent any slowing up at the finish line and any reaching for the finish line.

Speed Program Examples

Weekly Outline

8 Week Speed Program Weekly Outline
Monday Wednesday Friday
Speed Training
Weight Workout
Speed Training
Weight Workout
Conditioning
Agilities
Weight Workout
Conditioning

Daily Outline – Monday – Weeks 1 – 3

8 Week Speed Program Daily Outline
Monday Weeks 1-3
Movement Warmup
Speed Mechanics
Seated Arm Swings 2 x 15 seconds
High Knees (in place) 2 x 20 seconds
Ham Kicks 2 x 20 yards
A-March 2 x 20 yards
Speed Drills
40 Stance and Starts 4 x 15 yards
Sled Pulls 4 x 20 yds (Big Skill 70lbs) (Skill 45lbs)
Wall Drills – Leg Drive and Hold 2 x 8 each side
Wall Drills – Single Leg Drive 2 x 8 each side
Wall Drills – Wall Walk x 2 each side

Daily Outline – Wednesday – Weeks 1 – 3

8 Week Speed Program Daily Outline
Wednesday Weeks 1-3
Movement Warmup
Speed Mechanics
Seated Arm Swings 2 x 15 seconds
High Knees 2 x 20 yards
A-March 2 x 20 yards
Fast Claw 2 x 10 reps
Speed Drills / Plyos
Jump Tucks 3 x 5 reps
Power Skips for Height 3 x 5 reps each
Incline Sprints 4 x 25 yards
Sprints (40 Starting Stance) 3 x 20 yards

Daily Outline – Monday – Weeks 4-6

8 Week Speed Program Daily Outline
Monday Weeks 4-6
Movement Warmup
Speed Mechanics
High Knees 2 x 20 yards
Ham Kicks 2 x 20 yards
A-Skips 2 x 20 yards
Fast Leg 2 x 20 yards
Speed Drills
Sled Pulls 3 x 15 yards
Pop Belt Starts 3 x 20 yards
40 Stance and Starts 3 x 20 yds

Daily Outline – Wednesday – Weeks 4-6

8 Week Speed Program Daily Outline
Wednesday Weeks 4-6
Movement Warmup
Speed Mechanics
High Knees 2 x 20 yards
Ham Kicks 2 x 20 yards
A-Skips 2 x 20 yards
Fast Leg 2 x 20 yards
Speed Drills / Plyos
Power Skips for Distance 2 x 5 reps each
Bounding 2 x 5 reps each
Sled Pulls (Weeks 4 & 5) 4 x 45 yards
Reaction Partner Sprints (Weeks 4 & 5) 3 x 45 yards
Ins and Outs (Week 6) 20 / 20 / 20 x 4
Reaction Partner Sprints 3 x 45 yards

Daily Outline – Wednesday – Weeks 7-8

8 Week Speed Program Daily Outline
Wednesday Weeks 7-8
Movement Warmup
Speed Mechanics
High Knees 2 x 20 yards
Ham Kicks 2 x 20 yards
A-Skips 2 x 20 yards
Fast Leg 2 x 20 yards
Speed Drills / Plyos
Squat Jumps 3 x 5 reps
Single Leg Bounds 3 x 5 reps each leg
40 Stance and Starts 4 x 10 yards

Final Thoughts

While being blessed with great genetics the best way to run a fast 40 time, you can improve your 40 with proper training and a lot of hard work.

I hope this article is helpful for you on your journey to a faster 40 time!

Ryan Horton

Horton Barbell was created by Ryan Horton who has served as a Sports Performance Coach for almost 20 years. My mission is to create a training resource to help as many coaches and athletes as possible maximize athletic potential.

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