Speed Training for Football

My understanding of speed and acceleration is deeply rooted in my track and field background. I was blessed with the inherit ability to run fast. At a young age, everything I did was based around the concept of speed. Every game that I played growing up had a speed component to it.

Now that I have been coaching for over 35 years in performance enhancement, as a coach of physical preparation, I look back on those years of long ago and realize that during those formative years I was training for speed with a multitude of means.

The jumps, throws and sprinting I did enabled me to cultivate that motor ability without even knowing it!

To put it simply, SPEED is the ultimate weapon in athletics.

Ask any athlete what bio-motor ability they would most like to possess-and it’s SPEED! Speed makes the difference between an average, good and great player!

Before I begin to explain improving speed and acceleration for the sport of football, it’s important that you understand a few goals of training that are the foundation of every program I write…

The Fundamentals of Physical Preparation

B & R 8
To start, I am among the fortunate coaches to be in the NFL; and at the Arizona Cardinals our physical preparation is based around the following goals:

1. It is our goal to help our athletes achieve the highest level of physical preparation using methods and means that yield the highest possible results with the lowest cost.

Side note: I started my career in 1980 and was one of the very first “strength coaches” hired to run a major college football program at the University of Pittsburgh under then Head Coach Jackie Sherrill-whom at the time had the vision to realize the importance of role training played for his athletes.

In my first 10 years of coaching I did NOT have an assistant and did everything myself. So for you young aspiring coaches out there, you have it easy.

As an aspiring coach, the only issue you really have is that this profession is over-saturated! How you choose to do the aforementioned is up to you and your knowledge. All roads lead to Rome and nothing is set in stone (Credit to my good friend and former assistant, James “The Thinker” Smith).

2. Increase the biological output of the organism, or in other words, improve the working ability of the body’s systems as a whole.

No system in the human body works independent of the others, as I have said before we are an interdependent working matrix system.

3. Improve the force/power output of the competitive exercise, movement or activity.

We are either working to improve the output (best performance) or the capacity (work capacity) of the specific task (exercise, movement, or activity). In the sport of football, each position has a specific output and capacity required to optimally perform.

As a physical preparation coach, you should not be writing the same program for each position.  A “one size fits all” or cookie-cutter program does not exist!

It is especially important to understand that when you talk about speed and acceleration training, the volume of work that each position is capable of withstanding is different.

In no way can a lineman handle the volume of work for speed or tempo training that a skill position can.

“To expand the alactic envelope you must train in the alactic environment!”-Charlie Francis

tweet this

Running 300 yd. shuttles or even 150’s borderlines on pure stupidity, especially when you consider football is an alactic/aerobic sport and there is also no speed endurance component in our sport!

As Charlie Francis has said, “To expand the alactic envelope you must train in the alactic environment!”

Football is a game of repeated, short duration, and high intensity bursts! All of the above goals were formulated from reading, studying and talking to great coaches like (the late) Charlie Francis, whose vertical integration periodization concept is the “best” scheme I have seen for the development of the speed/power athlete!

One of the greatest advantages to living in Arizona is it is the home of WAC and Dan Pfaff, who like Charlie, is an outstanding conservationist, problem solver and stress manager.

It is inconceivable to me that if you coach in this state and and not reach out to Coach Pfaff and ask to visit him, Stuart McMillian and all the other great coaches and athletes at WAC. The only explanation I can fathom is that you have no desire to help your athletes.

That may seem harsh, but these coaches are just that good.

The same goes if you live in North Carolina where James Smith resides. When we played in Carolina for the first round of the playoffs, James and I got together to visit and talk shop. I still learn something every time we talk!

His book on Applied Sprint Training should be on every physical preparation coach’s desk!

Only those who think they know it all don’t stand a chance at being the best.

I have had to acknowledge that there are so many people out there who know more than I do. To give you a leg-up, here is the list of those who have impacted my own knowledge of speed:

There is a never-ending acquisition of knowledge needed to be successful, and the art of applying it to your environment, athletes and circumstances should drive you as a physical preparation coach.

tweet this

Derek Hansen, Henk Kraaijenhof, Ralph Mann, Boo Schexnayder, Al Vermeil, Loren Seagrave, Michael Young, Ryan Flaherty, and even Louie Simmons, (who, in 1997, made me realize how much reading I need to do).

There is a never-ending acquisition of knowledge needed to be successful, and the art of applying it to your environment, athletes and circumstances should drive you as a physical preparation coach.

Concepts of speed development

Now that you have a basic understanding of where I am coming from, let me enlighten you on some facts about speed:

  • Speed is a hind brain activity, meaning it is fast and reactive. Fore brain is slow and analytical!
  • Sprinting requires the most neuromuscular synchronization and has the highest dynamic muscular activity
  • One of the most overlooked components needed for speed is coordination
  • The fastest sprinters spend more time in the air due to more force being applied. Usain Bolt spends around 20% of his time on the ground and covers 100 meters in 41 steps, whereas others cover it in 46 steps.
  • The highest sprinting measurements ever taken are: max velocity of 12.8m/sec., 5x ground reaction forces and muscle forces in excess of 7x bodyweight, ground contact time of .08 sec., stride velocity of 300 deg./sec., and stride length of 2.25-2.7 m/sec.
  • Acceleration is a skill and can be improved
  • The nervous system is the most plastic and sensitive between ages 14-20. There exists a “window of opportunity” for speed enhancement for females (between ages 6-8 and 11-13) and males (between ages 7-9 and 13-16)! The optimal window for skill training for males is between ages 9-12 and females between ages 8-11. By age 22 the reactive response has peaked!
  • Rhythm and relaxation are huge keys to speed/running fast. Charlie always told me, “let it happen, don’t force it….”
  • With an untrained, beginning athlete, the best gains are achieved from increasing general fitness, doing accelerations to 30 meters and performing medicine ball throws. They do NOT need advanced or personalized programs.
  • The sprint action is influenced strongly by the arms. The arms are closer to the brain and therefore receive the signal first.
  • Sprinting technique has not changed much since the days of Jesse Owens. Sprinting is still sprinting and there are no new techniques.
  • Technical skill will vary amongst the best because everybody has different physical properties and every nervous system is different. There is as much a “perfect style” as there is a “perfect human being.”
  • Don’t try to sprint like Usain Bolt; you are not Usain Bolt! What works for him may not work for you and, in fact, may be your downfall!
  • There is no one best exercise to improve speed. What may be my go-to exercise may be your downfall, just like trying to sprint like Usain Bolt.
  • In other words, one style, one exercise does not fit all!
  • All the great coaches I have learned from may achieve results by using different means and methods, but there are biomechanical and physiological truths that they adhere to.
  • To sprint faster you must sprint! Running at sub-max intensities will NOT improve speed!

Lets expand on this last point:

To go faster you need more force! The more force the athlete can apply, the higher you will rise off the ground. This force applied to the ground is the most important determinant of sprinting speed and will unequivocally increase stride length and frequency.

The best sprinters apply more force in shorter periods of time. The long-standing misconception of increasing either stride length or frequency is false, as Peter Weyland and others have proven repeatedly.

Length and frequency are an effect, not a cause. Pure stride length helps only if you are freakishly gifted or crazily under trained with weights.

If you want to run faster, you must apply more mass-specific force, in the proper biomechanical positions, in ever-decreasing amounts of time!

It’s like riding a bike: if you want the bike to go faster, do you push down on the pedals, or pull up? You push down! Push into the ground.

Lastly, as a physical preparation coach, you need to understand that when your athlete goes through training, their absolute outputs do not change significantly. What changes is their usable amount of absolute, or operational, output.

Getting faster is hard work and takes time. However, if you have properly planned then you will eventually get what you’ve train for.

In the next article, I will outline the weekly template we use and give examples of our acceleration programs.

I’ll leave off with a personal quote you may have heard me say before, but it’s one to live by:

“If you limit your knowledge, you limit your abilities, and if you limit your abilities you limit the development of your athletes.”


Join the Conversation