Football Speed vs. Track Speed: Part 1

I was watching a recent rendition of Sunday Night Football when I decided to write this blog to address a topic which should have relatively obvious answers but it seems as though even those in the know seem to forget quite often. This game featured one of the faster players in the NFL, Jamaal Charles. Throughout the night, the commentators continued to highlight his extraordinary top-end speed exhibited by the 10.18 second 100m times that Charles ran while a collegiate sprinter.

Charles track pic 1

However, these same commentators seemed flabbergasted that the opposing team’s linebacker corps (the Denver Broncos), not nearly as athletic on paper as Charles, continued to move efficiently enough to get to the point of attack routinely and not allow the Chiefs star to impose his will on the outside. Throughout this process, it was apparent that these individuals were astonishingly oblivious that Charles’s speed that contributed to his crazy-fast collegiate track times would have little bearing here on a football field when trying to set the edge. Their analysis did two things for me: 1). Reminded me why I usually mute commentators anytime I watch an NFL game. 2). Showed me just how blinded some appear to be when evaluating the movement characteristics that reign supreme by the game’s best.

Collinsworth & Michaels

I am here to tell you this; on a football field, just like on a track, the age-old adage most definitely is true…speed kills. Thus, it’s no wonder that our ears immediately perk up when someone’s quantitative speed values are muttered. However, it’s time to realize that the two motor tasks & patterns (as well as the two athletes who can be successful during the tasks) are not two in the same in regards to their displayed biodynamic structure. In fact, they are actually very different from the start to completion. Meaning: a particular athlete who excels at running very fast linearly on a track will not necessarily be an athlete who will display blazing movement speed on a football field (even if we are just talking about running in a straight-line on the gridiron which is what we are going to do today). With this being the case, it then becomes safe to say that the most optimal physical preparation for the athlete concerned with going as fast as possible on a track will differ greatly from the program directed towards developing linear speed on a football field (at least in many cases).

Charles FB accel 1

Now, I will also say this; in Charles’s case, he is one of the best moving backs in the league when on a field including a multitude of movement patterns and directions. In addition, there are numerous examples of those individuals who have world-class speed while simultaneously possessing other characteristics that allow them to be very successful on Sundays. I am speaking of the rare breed of athletes such as Trindon Holliday and Chris Johnson. And of course there are also very fast all-time greats such as Deion Sanders and Bo Jackson who fit in this category. However, there are also plenty of instances in which this level of world-class speed, either displayed on a track or in a straight-line during a 40-yard dash against a clock, never ended up translating to football movement speed. We have witnessed countless individuals who have been deemed as the work-out warriors or the paper tigers that reside neatly in this area.

When presenting at conferences, I am often asked questions regarding Usain Bolt’s superhuman speed and how incredible it would be if he would have the opportunity to be placed on a football field. At first glance, one would salivate at the idea of the world’s fastest human to be playing America’s most popular power-based sport. Well, due to the differences in desired outcomes and biodynamic structures of the two tasks, it is likely that he wouldn’t succeed nearly as much as the inquisitive asker would like to believe. This seems counterintuitive to many to hear this stance so you will have to hear me out as this unfolds.

usain bolt speed

Though this will be a 3-part blog, I have decided that in an attempt to keep the information to be the most applicable for the sport of football (being that that is what this blog page is about), we will limit our discussion of maximum speed development. Instead I chose to focus on outlining some of the key differences between the motor patterns associated with linear acceleration on a track versus a football field as well as some general training recommendations geared towards each. I believe that this will provide be the best use of our time. Though maximum speed development for any athlete is important, it should be obvious as to why acceleration trumps it in the priority department for a football athlete. It should also be obvious that the key parameters for success regarding the biomechanics, motor potential, and technical execution will be drastically different between optimal acceleration and maximum speed. That said, after reading my stance on acceleration, it is my hope that you will also have a greater understanding regarding how to think about some of the primary considerations as it pertains to maximum speed development and even other movement qualities, as well.

Differences in Environmental Conditions

Track VS. Football field

Footwear; track spike VS. Football cleat

Apparel/Equipment; tight spandex VS. Jersey with a cumbersome helmet and shoulder pads (up to 15lb depending on the level of play) as well as other pads on thighs and possibly hips

Surface; super tacky track VS. Grass or field turf

Start notification; on a gun after a set-point VS. Variable depending on tactical approach of the play and your position being played

Start situation; blocks in three point sprint stance vs. Non-aided in respective position stance

Acceleration phase duration; 0-30 meters (track coaches will break this down to ‘drive phase’ & ‘acceleration phase’) VS. Variable but usually as short as humanly possible (in as few as steps as one can make happen)

Opponents; 7 other guys or gals lined up next to you racing eye to eye all, relatively speaking, running one’s own race VS. 11 large and in charge, angry dudes chasing after you wanting to take your head off

Context; closed/repeatable VS. Open/variable

100 meter mens start 2

Optimizing Technical Execution for Linear Acceleration

I believe it’s important to note that the exact technical execution deemed optimal for each task will differ from athlete to athlete. Put another way; there is not one singular technical execution that will be best for all parties even with the same outcome goal. Though accepted concepts of biomechanics will dictate the general approach to be taken there will still be (or at least there should be) slight differences between individuals. Meaning, Usain Bolt’s acceleration execution characteristics may be drastically different from that of Justin Gatlin.

bolt 2nd step

The same thing applies on the football field; Jamaal Charles’s acceleration mechanics should not be the same as Adrian Peterson’s even though they play the same position and will endure the same relative demands. That said any mention here regarding task specifics will be speaking in a general sense with some deviation one way or another based on individual strengths and weaknesses, anthropometric features, trainability, level of mastery, etc. Factors such as range of motion, associated muscle synergies, muscle work regime efficiency levels, joint angles, lines of force, working mechanism contributions, etc, will be individual-specific and should be treated as such by both the coach and the athlete. Athletes must strive to find their optimal execution based on their personal considerations. In fact, a working definition of technical mastery is an athlete’s full and effective utilization of his/her available motor potential.

Adrian Peterson, Charles Woodson

Differences in the Biodynamic Structure of the Movement Action

When we look at the biodynamic structure (BDS) of any sport movement action, we will find that the important criterion for physical preparation may present unique challenges depending on which task goal we have simply because of the vast differences of each task. For those that are unfamiliar with this terminology, the BDS of a movement is essentially a complete investigation of the specific conditions of a particular movement action in regards to the expected display of how the human movement system will modify its kinetics, kinematics, and kinesiological input around the elements being presented by the demands of the task. Furthermore, it shows us how the athlete is utilizing his specific motor potential in the technical execution of the problem to be solved in the sport. This particular structure is essential as it will give us insight into the deterministic factors and peculiarities of the key movements such as muscle synergies, character/development/expression of forces, important working mechanism involvement, and how the CNS will manipulate around these factors and the environment. Yes; that is a mouthful of complexity…hmm…a lot like movement in sport! So, let’s discuss a little more.

The kinetic structure is concerned with movement based on the forces (both active by the body and reactive from the environment) produced during a movement action. It is displayed by the working effect of that particular movement action. That working effect is further indicative of the Force-Time Relationship and the mechanical work being produced during the movement as a result of the interaction between the body and the environment. This relationship will then govern more of the dynamics of the movement action and will determine the needed strength capabilities which will correlate specifically to the particular movement action. The kinetics will enlighten us more on the amplitude, direction, and application of force that the body will endure in order to most effectively accomplish each action of the particular movement pattern.

The kinematic structure refers to the observed spatial-temporal motions throughout the kinematic chain without truly investigating the forces causing them (i.e. the kinetics). These kinematics will pertain to the optimization of the body’s biomechanics to include the working mechanisms important for the production of the movement we see occurring. The working mechanisms can include:

-adequate recruitment and contraction of the agonist and synergist muscle groups in proper sequence while attaining effective co-contraction and/or relaxation (this is dependent on the nature of the action) of the antagonist muscle groups

-dampening efficiency/elastic energy utilization through an effective relationship between muscles and connective tissue (specifically the tendons)

-proper function and involvement of appropriate neuromuscular reflexes such as the stretch reflex, the

-proper tonus and stabilization of the entire muscular system (important for force transmission as well as balance and mobility)

This aspect is sometimes referred to as the kinesiological pattern of a sport movement (for those who are avid ‘Supertraining’ readers). It essentially pertains to the cause and effect of a sport movement’s individual elements based on conditional demands. Essentially, we are talking here about the actual behavior present and how it changes the control of the movement and its efficiency level. This could probably be looked at as the mind-body connection to where the body and its parts are positioned in space and time based on how the environment may continually change. Here, the body will consistently aim for better ways to allow its kinetics and kinematics to most accurately be put to use with the least amount of variability as possible (which is much more difficult for football compared to track acceleration). That said a change to even the smallest aspect of either one (kinetics or kinematics) could directly impact all other aspects important to the display of the movement.

A perfect example of this is when we have an athlete accustomed to accelerating in a straight line on a field with no opponents we will see their force development (kinetics) and biomechanical efficiency (kinematics) be displayed one way (kinesiological pattern). But when the situation changes and they must read opponents (the environment changes), each of the above-mentioned factors of movement perfection will be drastically changed and will have a different optimal solution from that of the opposite situation. It is for this reason that running fast linearly without concerning one’s self with other stimuli that makes you change your patterning (i.e. track sprints) is much more about optimizing the biomechanics involved in the display of the movement.

This concludes Part 1. In Part 2 (which I will likely release later this week or next), I will continue to expand on some of the biomechanical differences between the two distinct sporting tasks as well as the differences in coaching/task-intention from the track to the field. Finally, in Part 3, I plan to address the specific training techniques to use depending on your task goals.

6 thoughts on “Football Speed vs. Track Speed: Part 1

    • Thank you so much, my friend! Hopefully Part 2 & 3 will continue to bridge the gap between some of the technical mumbo jumbo spoke on in Part 1 and the application of the training methods geared towards football acceleration.

  1. It’s funny that in football such a premium is based on straight line speed. Some of the all time greats didn’t blaze speed charts. W.Payton J.Rice, C Carter, T.Davs, S. Largent, A. Monk, just to name a few of many greats who were average 40 timers who caught balls deep, ran past people

    • 100%, Doug! As you noted with those performers, true football speed exhibited by the best of the best isn’t so much about measurables as it is about the nuances of how they position and pattern their movement actions in order to positively accommodate to overcome to the problems commonly found on a field on Sundays…which those guys that you mentioned all showed the capability of doing…even if it didn’t necessarily show up on a stopwatch or on a track!

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