I am often asked as I tour the country conducting speed clinics and camps what my thoughts are on speed training for football players.
Although the answer should be obvious to any player, coach or person who has ever watched the game of football, we still see a great majority of football teams at all levels of play speed training incorrectly.
Speed Training In Football
The first thing we must do is define football in terms of speed. Is it an endurance sport or is it a speed sport? Let me help you out here. Football is a sport of speed, power and explosiveness. Period. There is no other answer.
Having said that, it's important that we speed train accordingly. And yet we have football players everywhere doing distance running to get in shape for the fourth quarter.
The sad part is that most of these athletes are under the direction of their coaches and/or trainers. They don't know any better. Let's shed some light on the misconception of building endurance for the game of football.
Five Second Plays:
In the game of football, the average play lasts about 5 seconds after which you get approximately 25 seconds of rest. The 5 seconds that are in play consist of explosive, powerful, quick, fast movements that lead to a collision at the end of the play. Football players are moving at a very high rate of speed for short durations of time.
Wouldn't it make sense to train the athlete in the manner in which he will be moving on game day? Of course it would. So where does distance running endurance come into play here? It doesn't.
Whenever you set forth in creating a training program, especially a speed program, you must study the sport for which you are preparing. You must understand the energy systems involved. By studying the speed, movement and rest periods, you can effectively design a program that will be conducive to the particular sport.
In the sport of football, one does not need an aerobic base - which is what distance running provides us. A football player taps into the ATP energy system, which gives them about 6 seconds of fuel.
| What Is ATP?
Otherwise known as Adenosine TriPhosphate, ATP is critical to the release of energy. ATP is an adenosine-derived nucleotide that supplies large amounts of energy to cells for various biochemical processes, including muscle contraction and sugar metabolism, through its hydrolysis to ADP.
That is the energy system that football players utilize. There is another system in the body that wrestlers and middle-distance runners utilize called the lactic acid system.
And long-distance, cross-country runners tap into yet another system, and that is the aerobic system. Now that we have determined the various energy systems we can design a speed program accordingly.
| Energy Systems Recap
1. ATP Energy System: for football players and short-distance sprinters.
2. Lactic Acid System: for wrestlers and middle-distance runners.
3. Aerobic System: for cross-country/long-distance runners.
Yet we still have coaches and trainers that don't fully understand how the body operates.
In training for football, fast-twitch muscle is called upon every second during a play.
So we must program the athlete from a fast twitch perspective, meaning training bursts that are short in duration with rest interval ratios that mimic game situations. We must train fast at all times, whether it's 10, 20 or 40-yard increments.
We then work on a short recovery time before starting again. But we have football players running long distances unaware of the fact that they are patterning slow response and training slow-twitch muscle fiber that is oxidative, and gets energy from the aerobic system.
Over time, they can convert their fast-twitch fiber to slow twitch, and lose size and power in the process. If you question this, look at the difference in body types between a football player and a distance runner. Thus, I repeat: football players do not need an aerobic base.
So, now that we understand energy systems and movement that apply to the sport of football, how exactly should we train for speed in football? Let's look at a typical football practice.
Typical Football Practice
We should start with a dynamic warm-up... no static stretching at the beginning of practice. The dynamic warm-up should consist of active stretching followed by rhythmic-paced agilities. For example, high knees, butt kicks, etc. Once the athlete is warm, we move to some speed drills.
You can incorporate speed, or what we call ballistic-paced movement, in the same rhythmic exercises in the warm-up. We now are working at a high rate of speed, hence the utilization and conditioning of the fast-twitch muscle fiber.
Speed ladders, ropes and cone drills are all excellent ways of getting the football player to move at a high rate of speed in patterns conducive to his specific position.
Individual Position Drills:
The agilities and drills that position coaches employ have been around forever ... Just crank up the speed and intensity and you create a speed drill and at the same time will program the athlete's muscle fiber in the manner in which you want it to behave.
From an offensive lineman firing out of his stance to a defensive back's backpedal - these are movements that are always performed in a ballistic nature in a game. Thus, train them that way on the practice field.
Unless there is a walk-through, most teams will hit in a scrimmage format. Again - coming at each other in a fast, powerful manner. You don't have to tell the player to go fast, he already will be. In all three of these segments, the football player is moving at a high rate of speed and conditioning his body in the process. Just like game time.
Keep in mind that if you train the player like the above, he is going to get in shape merely by playing. You are controlling the speed, and he is concentrating on his position reads, etc. Conditioning should follow the same mantra. Fast, with short periods of rest.
If you follow the way in which this is laid out, you won't have to do much conditioning. 40-yard dashes at full speed will build the speed. How many? That would depend on the intensity of the practice. You want to read your team and condition them accordingly. Don't run them into the ground if they're beat up. You'll never get anything out of them the following day.
If you have an intense practice, back off the numbers. After a walk-through, run them fast and increase the repetitions. A good rule of thumb is: if they start to tail off in speed, shut it down, because you will start to pattern slow response. Use your intuition as coaches in judging their fatigue factor.
A Forty Yard Game
Football is a 40-yard game, so 40 is plenty during the season. Anything longer is okay, as long as you remember the energy system employed by football players and train fast. You never move slowly on a football field. Don't do it in practice. One last thing to consider: football players are racehorses, so train them like one. Don't train a racehorse like a plow horse.
Good luck in your speed training for football. I wish you the best of luck, and remember when it comes to football ... slow fails, and speed really does kill!
About The Author:
Rick Hagedorn is a Nike SPARQ-Certified Speed Coach operating his company, Speedburners, out of Orange County, California. He is a former high school football coach and currently coaches track and field at the high school level.
He trains all athletes from young kids to high school, college, and professional athletes. He travels the U.S. conducting speed camps and clinics. You can contact him at speedburners.net.