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Breaking Down the Forty

The forty-yard dash has become the standard for measuring speed. The difference between success and failure can be measured by a hundredth of a second. Athlete’s stock can rise and fall in less than five seconds.

Any experienced coach will tell you, there’s track speed and then there’s playing speed. Unfortunately too many coaches place more emphasis on track speed than skill and playing speed. Knowing this, it is the player’s responsibility to have a forty-yard dash time that is comparable to his/her ability on the field. The consequences for not preparing can be detrimental to their future.

For amateurs it can be the difference between making a team or getting cut. In the pros, one ten of a second can be the difference between a multimillion-dollar contract and not getting drafted at all. With such a heavy emphasis placed on the forty, it is imperative that all athletes learn the proper mechanics and techniques to maximize potential.

Considering the forty is such a short distance, nailing the start is crucial to running a good time. The key is learning proper mechanics and getting comfortable it. This is where most people screw up. I can’t emphasis the importance repetition. Learn the proper mechanics and practice every day.

Three Point Stance

  1. The first step is placing your stronger leg in front (usually the same leg you jump with). The front foot should be approximately 6 inches from the starting line and bent at a 90-degree angle. Standing too close the line will cause you to pop up too early instead of out.
  2. Place your hand opposite of the front leg down at shoulder width. Your thumb and forefinger should be parallel and directly on the starting line high on fingertips.
  3. Your back foot should be approximately 12 inches from the heel of the front foot. The back leg should be bent at a 135-degree angle. Keep in mind that the distances for the front leg and back leg are approximations. Every athlete may vary slightly from these distances. Limb length and flexibility may alter an athlete’s stance.
  4. Make sure you keep your feet underneath your hips as you find your stance.
  5. Your backhand should be aligned with the hip of the front leg and the elbow should be up.
  6. Raise your hips slightly above your shoulders and maintain a forward lean with your bodyweight evenly distributed over the three points.
  7. Align your head with your torso and focus eyes on the ground while relaxing your neck and shoulders.


  1. Explosively push off with both legs, emphasizing the front leg drive. This may feel a bit awkward at first, but it is crucial for initiating force.
  2. Drive front leg as explosively and as long as possible extending to form a straight line with both leg and trunk.
  3. Drive rear knee straight through until it forms 90-degree angles with thigh and torso and thigh and lower leg.
  4. Rear arm should drive forward and up while locked at 90-degree angle with forward arm driving elbow backwards.
  5. Starting angle should be approximately 45 degrees from ground, similar to the angle of pushing a car.

The drive is emphasized during the start and acceleration phase, which takes place during the first 20-30 yards. Too often athletes rush this phase and end up at full speed within 15 yards of the start. The problem is most athletes cannot maintain full speed sprinting for more than 10 yards and end up running out of gas before the finish line. Athletes should try to accelerate for as long as possible. . The drive action should mimic an airplane taking off (starting at a 45-degree angle and slowing raising up).


  1. After first two strides, forward lean decreases with increasing stride length and turnover.
  2. Continue to use powerful arm action, emphasizing the elbow drive (backwards).
  3. Focus on driving the knees with exaggerated lift and pushing into the ground as hard and as long as possible.
  4. Head remains aligned with torso and eyes focused forward
  5. Normal sprinting position is achieved between 20-25 yards.

Once the athlete has reached maxim velocity the goal is to try to maintain through the finish line. This is done so by using proper head position, body lean, leg action and arm action. The key is running through the finish line, not to the finish line. Imagine a finish line 3 yards past the actual finish line. Avoid the last minute lean.

Head Position

  1. Head should be in line with torso.
  2. Maintain a relaxed and loose jaw.
  3. Eyes should focus on the finish line.

Body Lean

  1. Torso should be tall and erect.
  2. Lean should be less than 5 degrees.

Leg Action

  1. Rapid knee lift until thigh is almost parallel to ground.
  2. Dorsiflex foot (toes up) and follow a path straight towards buttock.
  3. Once thigh reaches maximum knee lift, begin to lower leg forward in a relaxed motion.
  4. Sweep lowering leg backward and down in “pawing/clawing” action.
  5. Dorsiflexed foot lightly meets ground directly under center of gravity.
  6. Spend as little time on the ground as possible.

Arm Action

  1. Locked Elbows - Elbows should be locked at 90 degrees throughout arm swing.
  2. Firm Wrists - Wrists should be firm as well.
  3. Through Hips - Hands should come through and past hips during arm swing.
  4. Tight Elbows – During arm swing elbows should remain tight and close to the body.
  5. Pull Back - During back swing focus on pulling back elbows as opposed to bring up hands. Forward swing will naturally happen.
  6. Relax Shoulders – Shoulders should be relaxed throughout sprint. Often your grip determines your upper body tension. Relax your grip by pinching thumb and index finger.

As you can see, for such a short sprint the forty-yard dash can be fairly complex. It is easy to see why playing speed doesn’t always translate to track speed (or visa versa). Breaking down in one area of the forty can be detrimental to your time. When training for the forty, train smart. Spend time on each phase (start, drive and finish). At the end of each workout put all three phases together.

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