Following the start and acceleration phases of a sprint the athlete reaches the phase where their velocity is maximal. This usually is reached in 4-6 seconds and usually can be maintained for another 3-5 seconds. This is the phase of highest stride frequency and optimal stride length. Slower athletes reach top speed sooner and are not able to hold it as long. There are definite skills associated with this zone of sprinting. For the specialist sprinter the maximum Speed Zone is a key element to success. Maximum Speed has definite implications for the athlete seeking to improve their Forty Yard times. The maximum speed zone of the forty can be as long as twenty yards for some players. Football players are usually quite good at starting and acceleration and not real proficient at maximum speed, because it seldom comes into play in Football except for fly patterns and possibly kick returns. Traditionally in preparing to improve 40 yard dash times an inordinate emphasis has been placed on improving the start and acceleration. That is fine but it only solves part of the problem. What about the rest of the Forty? The maximum speed needs to be trained. In order to train it effectively good sprint mechanics are necessary. This entails a good upright posture, efficient arm action and control of the stride all coupled with relaxation.
The football player should train maximum speed. The skill position player should put more emphasis on this than the linemen, the reason being that the linemen are at greater risk of injury in this phase because it something they seldom if ever do in games or practice. There are three simple drills to work on improving maximum speed. One is devoted to mechanics and the other two are devoted to feeling the rhythm and relation of the sprint.
- Hit Drill – The athlete alternates periods of hitting and floating. Hitting refers to short bursts of greater intensity of effort that lead to higher stride frequencies and velocities. The ‘Hits’ are alternated with intervals of relaxed running referred to as ‘floating’. ‘Hits’ are the intense initial efforts that initiate these intense intervals. Floating in sprinting is the skill of running very fast and relaxed. When a sprinter floats they are trying to maintain their current speed with little effort. They are literally floating over the track. Skilled sprinters perform this skill to such a refined degree that only the highly skilled eye can determine the difference between floating and flying. That is the goal for the football player, when that occurs the athlete is relaxed and ready to run fast.
Use an approach run long enough to build up to top sped, usually 25 to thirty yards. Hit the start at top speed, hold this speed for ten yards and then float ten yards. Alternate this for three hits and three floats. Allow at least three minutes between sprits. Use this drill for 4 -6 repetitions one day a week. Lineman should probably not do this drill.
- Flying Sprints – Use an approach run long enough to build up to top speed, usually 25 to thirty yards. Hit the start at top speed and maintain top speed for the entire distance. Gradually slow down; do not stop abruptly as this is where you are most susceptible to muscle pulls. Start with a ten yard flying sprint and build up to 30 yards over a six week period. Do this twice a week for six repetitions; no more is necessary; remember the emphasis is on quality. Stress relaxation and feel like you are floating over the ground. You should not feel like you are pushing back against the ground. Run like the ground is hot! Rest at least three minutes between sprints, this will ensure quality.
- Stair Running – Run up a stadium hitting each stair. Use no more that ten to fifteen stairs. The time should not exceed 10 seconds. The stairs force good upright posture and the foot strike under the center of gravity. This is considered technique work. Perform ten repetitions. The linemen should do this drill twice a week and the skill positions only once a week.
Maximum speed plays a greater role than we previously thought in multidirectional field sports. Dean Benton, Performance Director with the Canberra Brumbies in Super 15 rugby states the case quite clearly: “In observation of field sports, many of the sprints appear to commence with a jogging, striding or fast-striding start. This can have a profound effect on these athletes’ velocity profiles. If sprints were commenced in such a way, then it is conceivable that maximum velocity, or near maximum velocity could occur at much shorter distances. Additionally, as a generalization, research has shown that athletes who possess a low maximum velocity (e.g. field sport athletes) tend to reach maximum velocity in less distance, than athletes who reach high maximum velocities such as track athletes. Hence, the amount of maximum velocity sprinting in field sports maybe greatly underestimated.” This certainly is an area that has potential for improvement in sports like soccer and lacrosse. Soccer, rugby and lacrosse players could certainly profit form the three previously mentioned drills.