Creating Break Away Speed: A How-to Guide for High School Football Coaches

I recently saw a post in a Facebook group for American Football coaches that asked a very simple question: 
 
“Anyone got something to increase speed?”
 
Being a speed coach, my interest was peaked.
 
I saw just about every answer you could think up in the comments. Plyos, heavy weights, light weights for explosiveness, the dot drill (you guys remember that one?), ladders, cone drills, 40s, drinking lots of water (seriously, this recommendation is there), foam rolling, parachutes, pulling a 18-wheeler tire…the list goes on.
 
99% of the suggestions I saw will not make an athlete faster whatsoever.
 
The one answer that did make sense? “Join the track team.” Great suggestion, but not very helpful for football coaches right now.
 
Speed seems to be this mysterious quality that, for some reason, most coaches have no clue how to train. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be complicated. In fact, it can be quite simple and easy for a coach to implement on a team-level if done well.
 
Let me shine some light on three things to do (and three not to do) to make your athletes faster. 
 

The “do’s”

1. Separate acceleration and max speed days

Here’s a surefire way to make very little improvement in speed: mix short and long sprints together willy nilly without plan, care, or purpose.

Speed gains are maximized when athletes spend an entire session focused on either explosive speed (acceleration) or top speed. Sure, you can dip your foot in and do a little bit of both, but you’re much better off going all in on one at a time.

If you’re a high school football coach, I bet you structure your practices this way too. Do you have offensive and defensive focused days? Or if you do both in the same practice, do you flip flop between an offensive-focused drill and a defensive-focused drill throughout the practice, or do you spend the first half on one and the second half on the other?

Even if you don’t—know that the best way to make your athletes faster is focus their training. Doing both in the same workout isn’t wise.

Oh…and if you’re thinking “I never even knew that acceleration and max speed training were different,” don’t worry. You’re not alone. This is one of the best kept secrets that’s not really a secret. 

Acceleration workout

So what does an acceleration workout look like?

Short sprints—nothing over 30 yards. One of my favorite is a period workout, like this:

Three 10 yard sprints

Two 20 yard sprints

One 30 yard sprint

That’s one set. Three to four sets of that. 

Top speed workout

Here’s another secret: top speed—or max velocity, as most speed coaches call it—is VERY boring to train. Nothing sexy at all. You aren’t going to believe this when you read it. In fact, if you’re anything like a traditional high school football coach, you’re going to hate it. But trust me—this is what it takes to push max speed up.

And by the way, I anticipate you saying “well football is an explosive sport, athletes rarely reach top speed, it’s mostly explosive stuff. Why do I need to train top speed?”

You’re right, most of football is acceleration based. But isn’t it also true that most games are decided by two or three big plays? And what happens on those big plays? A corner gets burnt on a fade, TD. A kick gets returned to the house. A RB takes a toss, turns upfield, hits the jets and is gone.

What’s the common denominator in each of these plays? SPEED. The winner out ran his opponent.

Ok, on to the actual workout…

Four to six 10 yard fly runs. A fly run is where an athlete starts in a jog and slowly speeds up until they hit top speed, hold it for a certain distance (in this case, 10 yards), and then slowly decelerates from there. I recommend using a 50 yard space. Twenty yards to build up to top speed, 10 yards to be at top speed, and 20 yards to slowly decelerate. 

The key to these is to SLOWLY speed up and to SLOWLY decelerate. Explosive starts and slamming on the breaks to cut or stop are fatiguing to the muscles and will make your fly runs slower. I’d rather have my guy hit all six fly runs at 95-100% top speed instead of going into it tired and hitting 98%, then 94%, 91%, 85%….you get the idea. 

2. Have a basic understanding of sprint technique, and coach it

I wrote an entire article on the “big rocks” of sprint mechanics. I encourage you to give that a read if you desire an intermediate level of understanding. But to get your feet wet, I’ll outline three basic concepts that are critical to speed.

Ball of foot strike vs. heel strike

Athletes should never strike the ground with their heel first when sprinting (jogging is a different story). When the heel hits first it acts like a brake. Imagine if the gas pedal in your car also triggered the break for a split second before actually speeding the car up. Sure, your car would still speed up, but not near as quick as it would without that brake. 

If you notice athletes heel striking, this could be a quick fix—dare I say “hack”—to instantly make them faster.

Rhythm

In the first steps of a sprint the foot should be on the ground for a relatively long time in order to push. With each step, and as speed increases, the foot will be on the ground for less and less time.

Speed coaches have a term called “spinning the wheels.” Spinning the wheels is when an athlete takes very fast, choppy steps to start their sprint as opposed to leaving the foot on the ground for a long time in the beginning.

The result is a slow start. 

The sound of the feet hitting the ground should be like:

Left…..right…..left….right….left…right..left.right.left.right.L.R.LRLRLR

Below is a video demonstration of this concept. The athlete is doing a resisted sprint, but the same concept applies to normal sprints too.

This video shows long ground contacts (amount of time the foot is on the ground).

This video shows the athlete spinning his wheels, yet moving slower.

Rise to upright posture at max speed

The first step should be accompanied with a very steep body angle, as seen in the picture below.

However, with each subsequent step athletes should smoothly rise until they are completely upright, which should happen between 15 and 20 yards for most high school football players.

It’s like a 747 jet taking off. On the runway they are pointed straight ahead, but as they pick up speed the nose slowly rises until they’re airborne. A sprinter should do the same. 

3. Rest

You tell me which bench press workout would make an athlete stronger. 

225 x 5 reps, one minute rest, 225 x 4 reps to failure, one minute rest, 225 x 3 reps to failure

Or

225 x 5 reps, three minutes rest, 225 x 5 reps, three minute rest, 225 x 5 reps

One workout is 12 total reps, the other is 15.

Let me just tell you: the 15 rep workout is the better workout.

Rest is a GOOD thing. It allows you to recharge so you can give your best effort. Don’t you take timeouts when your team is gassed and you need them for a big play?

For acceleration workouts you can get away with short rests. One minute rest after a 10 yard sprint, 90s rest after a 20, and 2 mins rest after a 30 yard, with 3-5 minutes rest between sets. 

For top speed workouts, though…you’re probably not going to like this, but I’m going to tell it to you anyway because it’s the truth. 

The 10 yard fly runs should be separated by at least four minutes rest. Yes, four, whole, minutes. 

Look, you can shorten the rests if you want…but your athletes won’t have the same speed gains. Your choice, Coach. 

The “don’ts”

1. Don’t turn speed training into conditioning

Notice how the previous pointer I gave you was “rest”, and this one is basically the same thing? That’s because I know how much high school football coaches love running their players into the dirt, and this needs to be said twice for most of you.

I’m not saying conditioning isn’t important. Of course it is. Football players need to be in shape.

But you as the coach need to make a careful decision about your workouts. If you want them to be conditioning workouts, sure, use short rest periods. Gassers all day. 110 yard striders with 45s rest. Whatever you want.

But if you’re goal is to improve SPEED…give the kids rest. To re-cap the previous section, below are the guidelines:

For acceleration workouts, 60s rest after a 10 yard sprint, 90s rest after a 20, and 2 minutes rest after a 30.

For fly runs, 4 minutes minimum rest between reps.

2. Don’t rely on the weight room

The weight room is a commodity. It’s important. Very important. Strength training makes athletes less likely to get injured and helps them overpower opponents. We need it.

But recognize that there is a limit to how much weight lifting is going to make your athletes faster. Unless your Matt Rhea or David Ballou, the Alabama strength coaches, the weight room will only get you so far.

If you want your team to be faster, you need to prioritize actual sprinting. Let me say this again: lifting is good. Lift weights. But also SPRINT.

And if speed is your priority, sprint before you lift.

3. Don’t just do sprint drills and never actually sprint

Everyone is also chasing the holy grail—that one magic drill that will make all athletes look like Tyreek Hill on a fade route.

Drills can be beneficial. They have a place—mostly for teaching proper sprint technique, in my opinion. But they absolutely do NOT replace sprinting. 

That’s like saying PVC pipe drills to teach squats and power cleans are good replacements for actual squats and cleans…not at all.

Putting it all together

The offseason is the best time to develop speed. If your athletes aren’t on the track team (which they should be), then it’s up to you. You want to be cautious with how you plan your sprint and weight room work. Acceleration days are better early in the week and pair better with a heavy lift than lighter weights for speed or a plyometric based day. Max speed days are best paired with an explosive lift. Below is a sample training week:

Monday: Acceleration sprint workout, heavy lift

Tuesday: Max speed sprint workout, explosive lift / plyos

Wednesday: recovery day / easy route running / off

Thursday: Heavy lift, acceleration sprint workout

Friday: Explosive lift, max speed sprint workout

What exactly do you do for each lift and speed workout? Well, that’s part of the art and science of coaching and too much to lay out in full in one article. That’s where you get to either learn it or hire someone to help you with it, like an actual employee to run your school’s program or a guy like me to give you advice from afar. 

Whatever you do from here is on you. My recommendation? Make speed your team’s #1 priority—even before strength. Speed kills. Squats and bench presses will only take you so far. 

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