Is it true that you can’t teach speed? Expert Q&A on NFL Combine 40-yard dash training

4:48 | NFL
The future of the NFL combine
Thursday March 2nd, 2017

As soon as the college football season ends, NFL hopefuls begin training for the combine or for a scouting session on campus. The combine’s seven core drills—the 40-yard dash, bench press, vertical jump, broad jump, three-cone drill, and 20- and 60-yard shuttle runs—require more fitness technique than football skills, so that’s why most players often work out at facilities staffed by fitness experts and retired NFL players who focus on form and can help them maximize their performances.

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Last week, we spoke with two experts about what the combine drills purport to show. Below, Geir Gudmundsen, a former All-America tackle at Albany who had a stint with the Bills in 2005 and current owner of the Test Football Academy in Martinsville, N.J., and Dr. Michael Joyner, a physiologist and expert in human performance at the Mayo Clinic, discuss how players train to improve before the draft—and how much progress they can really make with that training. Is the old adage, "You can't teach speed" a myth or truth?

SI: How much can a player expect to cut from his 40 time in six or eight weeks, and how does he do that?

Geir Gudmundsen: We hope to shave as much as .2 of a second. A lot of it is about technique. The stance, the start and the acceleration are where they're going to make their money. It's hard to change top-end speed.

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SI: Is speed something you can teach or train? Or is it more based on genetics?

Michael Joyner: The short answer is both. The one genetic marker that is generally thought to be predictive of athletic performance—the ACTN3 variant—is more much more common in speed and power athletes. This variant is related to skeletal muscle contraction. However, there is more to sprinting than muscle alone. Things like biomechanics matter. The ACTN 3 variant only explains a small amount of what makes a natural in sprinting. The great sprint coach Bud Winter, who coached the San Jose State Spartan track and field teams from 1941 to 1974, published a handbook many years ago titled So You Want To Be A Sprinter, it has a wealth of information about form, technique and relaxation that could make anyone faster. Here is an old-school video where Winter explains some traditional sprint drills:

SI: Does starting speed matter when it comes to training? For example: Is it easier to make a slower person fast, rather than a fast person faster?

MJ: There is no hardcore data on this, but in many cases it seems like it is easier for a slow person to get faster, but that is relative. It would be easier to go from say 6.0 seconds to 5.5 seconds than 4.7 seconds to 4.2 seconds. I checked with legendary coach Vern Gambetta and he felt that in the elite player getting ready for the combine, many athletes might be able to improve by about 0.2 seconds with training.

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SI: What about the bench press? How much can a player improve?

GG: Our goal is to add about a rep per week. It's an endurance test, and kids have to understand that it's about what they put into it.

SI: What are some tried-and-true methods for increasing speed?

MJ: Strength training and plyometrics can help, but first and foremost channel Bud Winter: form and technique matter. A 40-yard dash is about the start and acceleration, and both are trainable.

SI: College football programs have emphasized performance, from high-tech weight rooms to highly paid strength coaches. Why are players not already maxing out their capabilities?

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GG: Strength-and-conditioning programs are doing a great job, but they have a different focus. They're working with 110 guys at once, and their job is to build players up and keep them healthy through the season. We work with smaller groups, and we can focus on specific tests. We can spend a whole week helping someone get better hip extension by opening his arms as he comes out of the drive phase [in the 40].

SI: That leads to the obvious question: Does the combine have anything to do with football?

GG: It gives teams a measurable test, and it shows that players are committed. We always say that film is a player's résumé, and we want the test results to be an exclamation point on that résumé. For guys who don't have much film or aren't getting their film looked at, a great combine performance can convince a scout to go back and take a longer look. I've seen an offensive linemen who could only do 10 reps on the bench press turn into a hell of a player in the league. So teams have to look at the intangibles, at how all this information fits into a bigger picture of a player's performance.

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