Running fast while playing football involves a lot of variables that need to be addressed during training. Unlike a sprinter in track running a race, football players must deal with the opposition in a multitude of ways, ie; change direction, be deceptive, deal with contact, change levels, change speeds, etc... Despite this, it still can be extremely beneficial if the training of football players include some sprint training considerations.
Although that much of football features competition within small spaces and within relatively short distances, it can be very helpful to many players, especially those in skill positions, to be conditioned to be able to use their speed effectively over the entire length and width of the field. We all have seen running backs quickly burst into the open field and then get run down. Great examples of players that have command of the entire field can be seen in this Top Ten Fastest NFL Players of All Time video.
For starters, coaches and athletes should have a basic understanding of the phases of a sprint race when the athletes are running 40-100 yards; without starting blocks, from a standing start stance, as well as with one or two hands on the ground.
Sprint Phase 1 (First three steps) - Includes having a good starting stance followed up by good execution of the start and beginning of the acceleration. Hips and body are at a forward angle similar to the image below the title to this blog. Knees pump toward the chest, with feet traveling pretty low to the ground with shins at a forward angle for these first few strides. Arm action is vigorous. Watch Christian Coleman's 4.12 forty yard dash (scroll down to video and the forty is after the race on the track) and note how he executes his first few strides from a 3 point stance. I don't believe it is necessary to drag the foot on the second step as he does, but that is a common technique for track athletes. When using a standing start, the feet won't travel as low to the ground and shins won't be as forward for those initial strides as they are when 1 or 2 hands are on the ground. For more details of starting stances check out my Starting and Acceleration blog.
Sprint Phase 2 (After the third step) - A transition where acceleration continues as the hips/pelvis and rest of the body prepare to become more upright, then begins becoming more upright as speed builds. Vigorous striding and arm action continue. Once again, See Coleman.
Sprint Phase 3 - Approaching top speed, achieving and maintaining top speed with the hips/pelvis, shoulders, and chest, pretty much in their most upright position. In a 100 meter race the plan will be for top speed to occur at about mid race, but on a football field, typically the situation will dictate top speed happening sooner. If running far enough, there will be some slowing down, but conditioning and learning to relax can help minimize that. Note how relaxed Coleman is.
Most of football is played within phases one and two, but a major point I'd like to make is that doing training that properly addresses phase three elements conditions the body, ie; musculature and joints, to an extent where phase one and two performance benefit as well! Often times, however; football players warm up and condition with sprints of very short distances, so the body doesn't have the opportunity to run fast while in the top speed body position, and joints and the musculature aren't subjected to the range of motion, angles, and degree of relaxation during intense effort that is necessary to truly maximize running at top speed. Waiting until the game and/or competitive practice activities to run at top speeds over a good distance without properly training for that, also can eventually result in injuries, typically muscle strains and pulls, especially when dealing with more mature athletes.
More technical factors to consider is the athlete's core and posture. Without going into too much detail, lifestyle activities, ie; a lot of sitting in front of a computer or television, overuse of certain muscle groups, etc..., can impact core function and affect posture, making some areas of the body short and tight and others long and loose (weak). This, obviously can negatively affect the ranges of motion, body positions, and performance as the athlete is trying to run fast, as well as use his body in the most effective fashion when playing football!
During training and pre-game; warming up and stretching properly, doing conditioning activities at the appropriate intensity, and cooling down properly are basics. Mistakes here can result in injuries sooner or later. I like finishing warm ups with runs of 40-100 yards, allowing the athletes to move or roll into the runs in various ways to go easy on the legs, not requiring explosive starts from a perfectly stationary stance. For the first warm up run, I suggest the athlete running at 60-70% effort or so, and go from there. With younger athletes its hard to get them not to race each other so starting them at different times may help. After "getting out" (starting) and building speed during warm up and training runs, if the athlete feels he is going too fast, I believe it is ok for him to back off and decelerate some if necessary to avoid over-stressing legs that are not yet in sprinting shape.
As for conditioning, along with typical football training, mixing in repeated runs of 100 to 300 yards or so at 70-85% effort can help build a good conditioning base for sprinting, then gradually increase the intensity over time. At some point (after a good warm up and stretch) the athlete should be in shape enough to sprint the whole length of the field and experience all three phases. Keep in mind, however; that it is not often that a player is required in a game to sprint the whole length of the field, and if he does, he is allowed to come out of the game for a rest. Conditioning runs that don't have much recovery time before the next run work on stamina and muscle endurance, not speed, which is fine if that is what you want. For a thorough explanation of how to condition a speed athlete check out my Speed Coach page.
When the athlete is ready for intense efforts, when practicing starts from whatever stance is being used, the athlete should be poised to get out explosively. A lot of details are in my Starting and Acceleration blog. Things happen very quickly when sprinting and the coach needs to be very skillful when teaching technique so as not to disrupt the things the athlete is doing well. Drills of various types can help remind athletes of various things, but competition is what helps hone skills properly.
When feet are staggered and one or two hands are on the ground, both feet push off at the same time (double leg drive) during the initial step. See video to note the double leg drive as well as the phases of the sprint. During a standing start, however; a double leg drive usually doesn't occur in the same way. During a start from the standing stance, as the athlete is starting, the rear foot begins to push while the front foot may very slightly drift forward while staying behind the knee of that leg. Go to the 3 minute 15 second mark of this video to see some standing starts of world class athletes. Some athletes still are able to have a very brief double leg drive during the standing start even after the front foot drifts forward, but once again, through competition with others, the athlete will figure it out. Various aspects of technique in sprinting happen so fast, some things the athlete may vaguely be aware of, and somethings, not so much. Through competition the athlete will learn what is best to focus on.
A common mistake many football players make during execution of the first step from a staggered stance, is for the back foot to step backwards to push off. The feet should be far enough apart (one foot forward and the other back far enough) with the body positioned so it is poised to "get out", so when starting, the back foot should not step backwards. In some cases, depending on how the body is balanced, the back foot may either move slightly up in the air before going straight back down to the ground before pushing off, or the back foot may even step forward a little bit before pushing off, and I don't consider these to be mistakes.
In a sprint race, although the starting actions are very explosive, there still is a degree of relaxation, and there is such a thing as trying to have too fast of a stride cadence. Sprinting is a combination of stride length and stride frequency, and the athlete needs to find his best combination. Once again, through competition in practice and games, the athlete will figure it out.
Sprinters keep their head down during the early portion of the race, and their head comes up as the rest of the body comes up. Once again, see Coleman. This, of course is not going to occur like this for football players as they are executing skills and responsibilities specific to their position, ie; running backs looking at the line prior to receiving a hand off, receivers executing a release vs a DB at the line of scrimmage, etc... Some other elements of the sprint phases, however; often are part of good football technique when speed is primary.
So in conclusion, the focus should definitely be on properly executing the fundamentals of football, but good speed training can help a player to take his game to it's highest level.