A popular question every February is how fast can Usain Bolt run the 40 yard dash if he was to partake in the NFL Combine? What seems like a simple and straightforward question at first is actually still a little bit of a mystery as some unknowns exist with the differences in extrapolating 100 m track performances to those at Indianapolis. To the average person, the 100 meters and the 40 yard dash are basically running in a straight line with the shorter distance being the gold standard for sport testing. Unfortunately, even the most straightforward of tests, the 40 yard dash has a few curveballs with how one actually times the event, creating a lot of confusion and assumptions on how fast athletes are now currently, and especially the tales of Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders from the past. In this article we will define and explain the differences in the 100 m track event and share the very specific nuances of the NFL combine, a performance event that still has validity issues on how fast athletes are really running.
World’s Fastest Man
Every four years we see some of the best athletes in the world line up and run the 100 meters at the Olympic Games. Everyone wants to see who the world’s fastest man, and so far we know based on both placing at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, that man is Usain Bolt of Jamaica. Usain won both the 100 m and 200 m events at both Olympics and contributed to both gold medal wins on the 4 x 100m relays. During that Olympiad, a period of four years, Usain Bolt won the 100 m at the World Championships in Berlin, setting a world record in the process. His time of 9.58 seconds stands as the fastest time any man has gone, regardless of wind, a factor that can sometimes help or hinder a performance since the 100 m is nearly always outdoors. We will use his performance from Berlin as a model to compare how fast the most successful sprinter of all time and compare it to the combine 40 yard dash to see not only how fast Bolt could have ran if he was begin scouted, but why athletes running at other scouting events may be running better because the difference in how the NFL combine actually times their athletes.
Sprint Rounds – Making the Finals
The 100 m dash event is not just one race, but three rounds of races over two days to funnel the fastest men in the world into one final race in the evening during the early part of week of major track meets such as World Championships and Olympic Games. One should know the 100 m event is not just one race, but a series of rounds of sprinting, sometimes the addition to relay duties and possibly other events like the 200 m or a horizontal jumping event will be added to the athlete’s plate. All of this is important to understand, since the information from major championships has some hidden or contextual factors that should be carefully reviewed before assumption of the findings. Data or statistics can be misleading if the details behind the numbers are not shared. We will come back to the significance of running rounds and other events later in this article.
The best sprinters in the 100m move through the rounds and the top eight reach the finals, and if the conditions are right, a breakthrough performance will be possible. Before looking at a world record we need to see that while the Olympic sport is very clear and extremely objective. The rules of the sporting event will create some interpretation between what their performance time (race results) and their actually running speeds during the race when compared to combine testing. The most obvious difference to track coaches but is often missed by some notable strength coaches when comparing the first part of the 100m to the 40 yard dash. That difference between combine testing and the 100 meters is the reaction time. The reaction time is the period between when the starting gun goes off and when the athlete first initiates movement. This period of time is added to the entire running of the 100 meters and the first man to cross wins. Sometimes when races are close, like the final of the women’s 100m at the USA Olympic trails, a “photo finish” is used to see who not only won, but how fast they finished to the thousandths of a second. The Olympic Games and other major tack meets, even high school competitions now use what is called fully automatic timing (FAT), be it a camera or some sort of sensor to accurately get times of the event. To remind you, the timing equipment will time the event from when to gun goes off to when the athletes cross the finish line. This means all times in track and field include reaction times. It doesn’t matter who has the fastest reaction time as that usually contributes a little more than a tenth of a second to basically a ten second event, but in the 40 yard dash a tenth of a second is far more valuable- as less distance and therefore less margin of error exists due to the brevity of the test. Here lies the biggest difference, the 40 yard dash is a test, not a race, since each athlete runs when they are “ready”, something completely different than the 100m in track and field. The 40 yard dash includes just the running, with no reaction time including in the performance test. So to compare fairly, one should subtract reaction times from the sprinters in track and review their running speeds to 40 yard dash running times, provided that the methods and equipment used to time are the same.
Timing Technology and Methodology
Now that we have a basic understanding of the difference between the 100m and 40 yard dash besides the obvious length and units (yards versus meters), let’s look at timing in more detail. Timing is a combination of technology and methodology, and different equipment and approaches will produce different times, even if the athlete is running the exact same speed and distance. Many athletes are often disappointed when they run a 40 yard dash for the first time and see a time much slower than the soon to be NFL athletes, and that is for many reasons. One is the most obvious, an athlete preparing for the NFL draft is not only one of the best athletes in the world, they are supported by an agent investing into preparation for the 40 yard dash with coaches, nutrition, recovery techniques, and just practicing the test. They may not be faster on the field, but practicing tests such as the SAT will improve the scores, not make you smarter, or in this case faster. Technique in the 40 is about learning to put your body in a position to accelerate efficiently from a crouched position called a three point start, something not often is repeated in the game, especially with many of the skill positions are standing. Another reason athletes in the NFL combine are performing faster in general is the way they time. Mentioned earlier, fully automatic timing in track and field starts capturing the duration of the race from the starting gun going off until the athletes chest passes through the line. The NFL combine uses a person, Mark Gorsack, to be specific, to estimate the first movement of the athlete and then using the timing gates to get the splits, each 10 yard segment, and the cessation of the test at the 40 yard mark. In essence the 100m track event adds the athlete’s reaction time making event accurate in duration but not showing how fast the running was. The 40 yard dash uses a human that is reacting to when the athlete starts, thus not starting when they move, but when the starter reacts to their movement. To clarify, the NFL combine uses a human start, imperfect and not repeatable, to initiate the recording of the time, thus subtracting a reaction time of the starter from the running performance. When athletes get hand timed (using a stop watch) for both start and finish from a high school or middle school coach, they are benefiting from two moments that are about a tenth of a second off, resulting in about .24 being subtracted to their actual performance. You can see why a high school athlete looking to get recruited from a college experiences a rude awakening when the local performance facility uses electronic timing for both start and finish, with times appearing much slower. It’s likely the athlete had the same running performance, but they were simply timed differently. So many times football players think they are at the level Chris Johnson is, but wind up closer to Tom Brady speed.
Types of Electronic Timing
When electronic timing is mentioned, the general public assumes that a universal standard of measurement exists since all equipment is the same. This is not the case. Timing in track and field is about reacting from a gun, but during practice or testing, sports that measure speed usually rely on photo cells or “laser timing”. A beam of light being crossed at the finish makes sense, but at the start it’s hard to truly say when movement is initiated with equipment. First movement is technically very subtle, as the true definition is down to the fraction of an inch or even less than a millimeter. Measuring that isn’t easy, so many systems use a small pad near the line for the hand to rest. Soon as the hand moves, common with most starting positions, the timing is triggered and the athlete is on the clock. Another option is having the beam or light sensor close to the line, and when the athlete passes the timing gate it signals to the display or computer that clock is running as well. Having different options of triggering the initiation of timing means that different equipment yields different times. With the use of high speed film and starting blocks with sensors, world class track and field has arguably the most precise and accurate timing available. For the sake of getting the valid data, we will use Usain Bolt’s time from 2009 and the research conducted after his world record by the Germans. The scientific research project captured the entire race, and the data really illustrates how fast how fast bolt was running the race through every step.
Velocity Analysis of 100 meter Sprint
Interpreting the chart isn’t hard, but at first glance is looks a little busy with the blue line being fuzzy due to the laser timing getting estimated readings on the athlete because of the movement generated at each stride. The red line is the average speed to smooth out the running velocity (vertical) over the 100m dash (horizontal). What you see is a steep curve flatting out around 30-40 meters and then slowing down slightly from 80-100 meters, the most common pattern with elite sprinters. I explained earlier that I would share why we needed to talk about the need to elaborate more about the previous rounds and the race itself to understand fatigue in the event, since a comparison between the 40 yard dash and 100m requires some important factors and details. Current sprinters must have a complete race to be competitive. In the past some would be great starters or finishers, but now everyone is more well-rounded. In 1996 Michael Green, another Jamaican, ran 3.77 seconds through 30 meters while bolt ran 3.78, the only man to out accelerate the world’s greatest sprinter. Not only was his total time faster, but his reaction time was 0.147, a hundredth or 0.01 seconds slower, sill placing his running faster than Usain Bolt. Subtracting his reaction time, Greene his run was 3.62 compared to Bolt, who attended the same High School nearly 20 years later, ran a 3.63 for the same distance. At 40m Bolt past Greene considerably, and by 50 meters it was not even close.
Looking at the same graph with a dimmed background of the distance past 36.6 meters, or 40 yards, you can see that most of the distance is acceleration, but the first third of the race most of the work is done going from a stationary position to gaining as much speed as possible. When people talk about fast athletes, the specifics should explain what type of speed the athlete has. Speed can be maximal, their ability to accelerate or overcome inertia, or their ability to even decelerate and accelerate again (change of direction). Some athletes have one or two strengths and are average in one, but some excel in all three abilities. In Track usually the fastest athletes win the races, but at high levels the genetic playing field is rather even, so all components of the race distance, including specific speed endurance at the end comes to play. While an NFL athlete may sometimes run the length of a field in rare occasions, track athletes always run the length of the race barring injury or false starting. It’s important to know that while Bolt may have the best 40m in the world, he is focusing on having the best 200m as well. Time, energy, and focus is on not only the 100, so it should be noted that track athletes are excelling in a distance that is part of their race, no the entirety of a test. While a 60m event is available during the indoor season to elite sprinters, some don’t compete at all during that time period. If a 40 yard dash was the Olympic event, we would see times faster than the splits we are seeing in the first 36.6 meters of the 100m.
Predicting NFL Combine Performance
To recreate what Bolt could most likely do if he was to be participating in the NFL combine, we would need to take his running times performed historically and convert that performance to the timing methods that they are using, such as human start and electronic finish. So instead of adding a reaction time at the end, we will subtract the time that the starter. Reaction times are highly individual and ranges exist to what is average. The problem with giving a specific time, say a tenth, is that Mark Gorsack has all the cards to the fate of the end time if he is incredibly sharp or should have had his morning cup of coffee. Let’s for the sake of argument assign a tenth of a second, something close to what the research says, to the reaction time of Mark. This means, after the time is calculated from the 30-40m acceleration curve, we subtract 0.1 to get Bolt’s “NFL Combine Performance” in order to replicate the timing conditions.
Usain Bolt 100 meter Splits
Above are the 100m splits of Usain Bolt from Berlin at the 2009 World Championships. At 30m he is about 3.78 and at 40 he was estimated to be 4.64. The fastest 40m ever run is by Usain Bolt, so while at 30m Michael Green may have had a step (actually a toe) on Usain, 6.6 meters later he was caught and passed slightly. No to get too complicated with the mathematics, each step the athlete is accelerating faster and faster, but not perfectly, so we can only estimate what Usain bolt was doing based on calculations. The most logical approach is to use the data from Berlin and create a model that has a line similar to one of best fit. Even the most advanced calculations are only going to be an estimate, and we will be only rounding to the nearest hundredth. Based on the data, it’s estimated that Bolt ran a 3.63 for his 30m minus the reaction time. Now the real question is what was he at 40 yards exactly. Splits every ten meters appear linear, but even the small segment of ten meters still has a curve. Even if one calculates the time at 36.6 meters it’s still an estimate, and most conclude 0.556 to 0.582 is realistic based on the time segment from 30m to 40m.
Adding 0.571 to the 3.63 time segment to get a 40 yard dash running time is about 4.20, and that includes no reaction time subtraction of the timer from the combine. While it hard to know what the true reaction time of the timer is, conservative estimate is about 4.10 by removing 0.1 or a tenth. If the timing was completely hand time, meaning a stop watch, removing the accepted 0.24 from 4.20 would equate to about 3.96, or a sub 4, a level no football player would match. All of this is accepting that the same fast track surface, spikes, and blocks are used. What about other surfaces, footwear, and starting without blocks?
The most obvious question people have is running on grass versus running on a hard fast track, such as the most recognized Mondo surface. While tracks are faster, the surface at the NFL combine has gone from AstroTurf to a rolled surface. Showing they wanted to preserve the speed at Indianapolis. We can assume that the slope is zero, since some surfaces reportedly have been a degree or more to artificially inflate times. We will give Indianapolis a level playing field literally. The next question is spikes versus a small cleat or trainer. The athletes are using a specialized running shoe, and the advantage spikes have compared are hardly measurable but for the sake of argument we can add a few hundredths to bolts time. While blocks add an advantage, the research on difference between blocks and no blocks is murky and several videos of sprinters accelerating very effectively. In fact Alan Wells, a gold medalist from 1980, who until the Olympic Games was successful without starting blocks as he was not using them until a rule change forced him to use the equipment. The three variables may decrease the performance of Usain Bolt slightly, but one counter is the fact that no sprinter is specializing in the first 30-40 meters only, and if so that would likely offset the performance slightly, perhaps neutralizing the blocks. For argument sake I will add in a few hundredths, but still, a sub 4 second performance is possible with hand timing on a non-grass surface.
In conclusion, the specific method and equipment clearly has an impact with the times athletes will produce in 40 yard dash testing, and the uniqueness of the NFL combine creates a controversy in the true speed of athletes. After sharing the evidence of what Usain is capable, we should give credit to both sets of athletes, track sprinters as well as NFL players.
A special thanks to PJ Vazel for his vast knowledge on split times and historical details with the championship performances.
Please share this article so others may benefit.