Recognized as one of the most well-known sprints (and test of speed and acceleration), in the world is the 40-yard dash. It is a true measure of how quickly an athlete can explode off of the line and reach top speed.
“It may not seem immediately evident, but the 40-yard dash is one of the most technical foot races in all of sports, including the Olympic short sprints,” says Bryce Johnston, PCA classic bodybuilding pro, and sprinting expert who recorded a 6.44-second 60-yard dash in baseball, and a 4.42-second 40-yard dash at 220 pounds while playing football at Georgia Southern College.
“The reason for this is due to the short distance involved in the sprint; even a minor mistake can cost you 0.1 (one tenth) of a second which may spell the difference between a first or a third-round pick.” He explains.
A natural sprinter his whole life, Johnston, while in High School, worked with and was mentored by a well-respected combine prep and Olympic coach, Rich Lansky, who developed many techniques which Johnston uses to this day with his own clients.
“My sprinting times were made possible through both my natural God-given foot speed along with the methods I will be diving into here.” He says.
So, let’s break it down and get moving. Here, Johnston simplifies and focuses on the four primary stages of the 40-yard dash: Start, acceleration, transition, and sustain (or finish).
Hint: You don’t have to be in the NFL to successfully run the 40-yard dash!
Time to crank up the speed!
Sprinting: Every Athlete’s Tool to Becoming Powerful and Explosive
“Sprinting, along with various plyometric movements, horizontal and vertical leaping, may very well be the most dynamic test of a person’s ability to produce power with their lower body muscles,” says Johnston.
And while this may be true, Johnston explains the ability to sprint is a skill that must be practiced and does not come naturally to a large segment of the population.
“There is a strong distinction between sprinting, running or jogging, and that distinction lies in the acceleration phase and the ultimate energy output required to reach top speed for the individual,” he says.
To simplify: Think of sprinting in terms of weight training; A sprint is akin to a max effort squat which will test your ability to produce the most force physically possible for a brief period. Contrast that with a bodyweight squat or a bout of 30-minutes on the stair climber.
Those exercises require far less nervous system activity and only cause fatigue after a sustained, lower level of effort and strength output. Ultimately becoming a more powerful and “explosive” athlete demands the use of sprinting alongside your program to increase that force production threshold.
Reach 40-Yards Fast with Johnston’s Pro-Tips
First, Breathe: Proper breathing techniques can either make or break your sprinting experience.
Johnston’s rule of thumb for breathing is taking one lungful of air every 4-6 strides. “That means you will leave the line with a full breath, before taking your second breath around the 10-yard mark and taking only 3-5 more deliberate breaths over the entire 40-yard distance.” He says, and explains this takes practice so don’t stress it on day one – you’ll get it.
First is the start. We will assume a three-point stance at the starting line in order to have a low center of gravity. To set up your starting position, you have to determine your lead (dominant/power) leg.
- A simple way to test this is to place feet side-by-side and lean forward until you fall. You will naturally stride out with your dominant leg to catch your fall. Just be careful not to fall on your face.
Kneel at the starting line with your lead leg – Now that we know your lead leg, you will kneel at the starting line with that leg forward.
- Place your lead leg knee directly on the line with your toe planted firmly on the turf.
- You will then place your opposite knee even with the front of your lead leg toes. (This position will feel like a very cramped kneeling position.) The purpose is to coil up your lower body with potential energy that is released all at once at the whistle.
Hand positioning – The last part of this setup involves the hands.
- You want to place both thumbs along with the index and middle fingers directly behind the starting line.
- Your hands will form a sort of C-shape when doing so.
Time to start – Now that both hands, both feet, and both knees will be contacting the ground, it’s time to start.
- To start, raise your legs each to approximately 45 degrees while placing 60 percent of your weight on your hands with your chin tucked.
- In 3, 2, 1 push off your lead leg hard while striding the rear leg, and powerfully reaching your lead leg side arm to the sky. You’re off to the races!
Acceleration – This phase begins up until 10-yards and continues through the 20-yard mark.
- For those initial 10 yards, the goal is to stay low, use long bounding strides, and keep your head down.
- Once you’ve passed 10 yards, you will begin to stand upright, raise your eye level, and use shorter, more rapid strides.
Lengthen your stride – You’re now halfway through the 40. You’re almost done with the initial acceleration and are now beginning to lengthen strides again as inertia drives your forward toward the finish line.
Back to the sprint – From 20-30 yards in, you’ve stood fully upright now. Strides are lengthened to the max, and arms are pumping like pistons with each step.
- You want to continue acceleration; however, most athletes decelerate slightly before they finish this race.
- Staying loose and fluid will help to maintain your speed as much as possible through the end.
The finish (Sustain Phase) – You’ve done all the work now you need to complete the job.
- Fix your eyes far into the distance, not on the finish line or cones themselves.
- Keep your strides and arms pumping hard and stay tall well through the line.
- The objective is to run 5- yards, rather than slow down through the 40- yard, so keep it up well past the mark before shifting down to slow back to a stop.
- The old adage, “Finish Strong” certainly applies here.
Congrats, you’ve now run a successful 40-yard dash!
Should Everyone Have the Same Form When Sprinting?
The short answer, according to Johnston? No. “Like snowflakes, no two people are exactly alike and the same can be said when it comes to your sprinting form,” he explains. However, there are a few things that will always be consistent to be the fastest runner you can be.
- We are fastest running on our toes: When you run flat-footed, or worse yet heel-to-toe, you are unable to take advantage of the incredible spring-like capacity of your midfoot, Achilles tendon, and leverage of the large calcaneus bone of the heel.
TIP: Sometimes, jumping rope is an effective way to train yourself to spring off your toes when running and jumping. It will also develop the connective tissues of the foot and ankles to reduce injury risk.
- Arm swing matters: Your arms should swing in equal and opposite relation to your legs. That means the left leg strides out, the right arm pumps forward, and vice versa.
TIP: A useful drill for effective arm action is to sit down with your feet out in front and pump your arms as if you were sprinting, all while practicing that vital breathing part we discussed earlier. One breath every four to six arm pumps.
Tips to Becoming a Better Sprinter
Want to get faster? Johnston stresses placing your focus on those first 10-20 yards and repeating the steps to an optimal acceleration phase. “Additionally, performing high box jumps, standing broad jumps, and regular jumping rope will all contribute well to improving the necessary skills and strength needed to be the fastest you can possibly be.” He says, and like anything else in fitness, practice, repetition, proper rest and recovery will get you closer to any goal you have.
Avoid Doing This When Sprinting
- Failing to Run on Your Toes: Having naturally flat feet or a ‘duck-footed’ stance makes it difficult to stay on the toes.
- Failing to Relax When Reaching Top Speed: It’s a bit of a catch-22. Yes, we want to run hard and fast, however, we don’t want to sacrifice stride length and fluidity of movement by clenching our fists, straining our necks, or holding our breath and turning purple.
You Can Now Sprint the 40- Yard Dash, Let’s Shoot for the 100-Yard Dash
Here, Johnstons’ pro-tips will have you sprinting the 100-yard dash with ease!
Now that you’ve mastered the complex 40-yard dash, you may want to try your hand at the next most notable short sprint: 100 meters. Fortunately, Johnston explains there are many similarities between the two races, despite the 50-yard difference in distance.
“The biggest change is in the duration of those four phases mentioned for the 40.” He says.” Start, acceleration, transition, sustain.
Start: Your start will remain virtually unchanged, however in some cases you may have access to a set of starting blocks that act as a device to push off enabling an even more powerful first stride.
Acceleration: Rather than a 10-yard, head-down long striding posture, you will extend this out to 15 or even 20 yards (meters) to accumulate as much kinetic energy as possible.
Transition: Next, the transition to an upright sprint will continue from 20 to 50 or even the 60-meter mark. All the while gaining stride length and utilizing your forward momentum.
Sustain: The final 40 meters now become the new sustain phase which is better described as a maintenance phase at this distance. Maintain a relaxed body, powerful arm-pumping action, and long strides with as much rapid turnover as you can manage.
TIP: When you feel yourself losing speed, simply relax and revert to those fundamentals. Toes, arms, controlled breathing. Put that together and you will find success.