It’s NFL Combine time and that can only mean one thing:
My email inbox is filling up with coaches and athletes asking
how to improve 40 yard dash times.
There’s something about hearing fast 40 times that gets football
There’s only one problem.
You can’t believe 99% of the times you hear even at the highest
levels of the game.
Why not you ask.
That can’t be true you say.
After all you saw so-and-so from such-and-such high school run
a 4.5 last year.
You timed it yourself…
I believe one of the things about the 40 yard dash that make it
such an enigma is the fact that it’s really one of the only
objective facets of football that can be universally understood
by everyone involved in the game.
You can rush for 300 yards against a terrible team and look like
Barry Sanders. But against a great defense you get stuffed for
30 yards. Those totals are subjective based on the competition.
So human nature and therefore Ego takes over and we see 40 times
creeping down ever so slowly.
That 4.7 your best player ran last year has magically become a
4.6 in this year’s conversations and would have been a 4.5 if
he hadn’t been sick that day…
So now guess who’s 40 time seems to have magically improved.
(Don’t get me wrong, I see the same mysterious improvements with
track sprinters ALL the time.)
If we ignore the fact that the 40 has no bearing on football skill
whatsoever, it doesn’t matter what level you play at or how
competitive your conference is. A 4.5 is a 4.5 is a 4.5.
Let’s take a look at how and why the 40 time is arguably the most
inaccurate number in all of sports.
We’ll start with a base time like 4.6. I hear this time a lot.
When I do I’m never sure whether to laugh or cry.
Sometimes I do both.
So Johnny ran the 40 yesterday at his camp or practice.
Well, chances are it was hand timed. That means there was no
electronic equipment used. Just a coach with a stopwatch.
So let’s say Johnny’s coach has him at 4.61.
The rule with a hand time/stopwatch time is that you MUST ROUND
UP to the next tenth even if it’s a 4.61. Now Johnny’s coach
probably told him he ran a 4.6 but the fact is he ran a 4.7.
Now, if a stopwatch was involved anywhere in the process, the
time isn’t accurate. Once the gun goes off there is a delay in
the amount of time before the coach starts the watch. At the finish
the coach doesn’t accurately stop the watch at the exact moment
the athlete crosses the line.
So the rule is that you must add .24 seconds to compensate for
the difference between a manual/hand time and an accurate fully
Where does this ‘rule’ come from?
Track and Field where accurate timing is critically important.
So if you have any interest in accuracy Johnny’s 4.7 has now
become a 4.94.
Now let’s be generous and say that Johnny used one of those
timing pads that starts the clock as soon as his hand lifts off
Since the clock starts at his first movement and not the sound of
a gun connected to a computer connected to a laserbeam at the
finish line, his 40 time is not accounting for the reaction time
between the gun and his start.
If you look at reaction time of a quality sprinter, they’re looking
at a delay of between .2 and .3 seconds between the start of
the clock and when they actually start moving.
So since the vast, vast majority of 40s and combines don’t use
a track and field start (aka an accurate start) you’ll have to
add (let’s be nice) another .2 seconds to that 4.94.
So Johnny’s accurate 40 time is 5.14 seconds even though his
coach had him at ‘4.6’.
The truth hurts my friends and I doubt many people, even if they
knew this, would actually take it into account when handing out
times to their athletes or telling their peers about their times.
What fun is it to know that you’re not as fast as you think you
are or that your athletes aren’t as fast as you thought they were?
So when you hear about that high school kid who runs a 4.4, he
When you hear about how Deion Sanders ran a 4.29 in the 40, he
didn’t. (It was run in 1989 and the NFL didn’t start using any
electronic timing until 1990.)
Even at that, the timing used in these combines isn’t as accurate
as the timing that dictates official times and world records
in track and field.
So that means a couple of things if we want to truly talk in
terms of equality.
The only people who can run times approaching sub 4 seconds are
elite track and field sprinters.
Asafa Powell (the world record holder at 100 meters) would make
a mockery of the fastest NFL guys on their best days.
If you applied typical 40 yard dash timing rules to elite sprinters,
Powell’s 9.77 second world record at 100m would be something
in the range of 9.2.
Let me give you one more example to prove my point. In 1988 Ben
Johnson ran a then world record of 9.79 seconds to win the Olympic
Well it turns out that he was on steroids at the time and was
stripped of his title.
Subsequent breakdowns of his ‘roid induced run timed him as he
reached the 40 yard mark. (By the way his times at 50 and 60
meters were faster than the current world records at that
Mark Zeigler sums this up perfectly:
“He was running in spikes . . . on a warm afternoon perfectly
suited for sprinting . . . with a slight tailwind . . . with
years of training from arguably track’s top coach, Charlie
Francis . . . with Carl Lewis and six others of the fastest men
on the planet chasing him . . . with 69,000 people roaring at
Seoul’s Olympic Stadium . . . with hundreds of millions of
people watching on TV . . . with the ultimate prize in sports,
an Olympic gold medal, at stake.”
Yet he only ran a 4.38 40 yard dash?
Knowing that, can you really believe any of the 40 times you
hear? Does it seem likely that any high school kid can run a 4.6?
You have people claiming 260 pound linebackers have 4.5 speed.
Well they don’t. These times aren’t real and you just shouldn’t
After reading this article, I hope you look at all the 40 times
you’ve been hearing about with a healthy dose of skepticism.
If you want to build athletes who run fast times in real
life, not just made up times from a stop watch you have to make
sure you’re teaching them proven speed training techniques.
Focus on creating better overall athletes.
Educate yourself on what top coaches do to train their athletes
who have legitimate speed.
You don’t want your athletes getting exposed as frauds because
the results of their training turned out to be, literally, a
slight of hand.