How is the 40 yard dash timed?
The variability in the timing of the 40 yard dash in football has been the cause of many misconceptions and legends within the football world. It seems that everyone knows at least 2 people who have run a 4.3 40 yard dash, the 40/50 year old former all-state athlete reliving their glory days at the bar on Friday night and the 17 year old all-state hopeful who has dreams of going D-1 and to the NFL.
However, the crux of this problem is that they probably did run a 4.3 40 yard dash, but at the same time as of this writing only about 30 NFL players have officially run under 4.4 seconds in the 40 yard dash.
So how could these two contradictory statements about the 40 yard dash both be correct, it comes down to 40 yard dash timing standards or the lack there of.
Players have been timed using a variety of methods over the years and up to today the majority of methods used for timing the 40 yard dash are very inaccurate and have just as much to do with the skill of timer as they do with the skill of the athlete.
Up until about 20 years ago, really the only method of timing for the 40 yard dash at all levels was the hand timing. Hand timing of the 40 yard dash is, as the name sounds, where an individual stands near the finish line of the 40 yard dash, starts the clock upon the first movement of the football player and ends the timer when the football player crosses the 40 yard line.
This method of 40 yard dash timing is still very popular today, especially among high school athletes and is prone to the fastest times and the most error. The reason that 40 yard dash hand timing results in error is two fold. The first and largest point of error is the start. The average human takes about .2 seconds to react to a visual stimulus. Therefore right off the bat the average 40 yard dash time that is hand-timed is going to be around .2 seconds faster than the actual time it took the athlete to run the 40 yard dash, because the timer is not pressing start on the stopwatch until .2 seconds after the athlete started running.
You can go to the link below to play a fun game that tests your visual reaction time -
In addition, every individual is not at the average of all humans for reaction time and even for a specific individual, that individual will not react the exact same every time. Therefore this adds additional hundredths even potentially a tenth a second to the timing for a specific run.
The second area where error can creep in to a run is the timers reaction to the individual crossing the finish line. This should however be less than that of the start because the timer can anticipate the finish, here the error should be around .1 seconds or less on average, this also plays out in the analysis done by CBS Sports on electronic timing vs hand timing.
Now we are at least .3 seconds of difference between hand timing and a football player's actual 40 yard dash time. The final areas of difference are timer indifference, timer actively timing too quickly, inaccuracies in distance of run, etc. Adding all of these factors, coupled with any competitive athlete only reciting their one off fastest time and you can see where an athlete's actual 40 yard dash time can be up to or even over a full half of a second .5 slower than what is being recorded by hand timing.
This is how you can get a high school athlete of only slightly above average speed sighting elite NFL or even Olympic level times as their own.
The next level of timing that has been more recently used in the past 20 years and is the primary method of timing in the NFL combine is a hybrid method of timing where the timer starts the timing by hand but then the timing stops electronically when the athlete crosses the finish line. This eliminates error at the finish line, but does not eliminate the starting error. However, at least for the NFL combine, the starters here have some level of motivation to get the times as accurate as possible, whereas in high school timers usually have more motivation to get their athletes a fast time. That is why you will see the NFL combine numbers also more accurate than high school timing.
However, even the NFL timing using the hybrid hand held/electronic timing at their official timing metric is not the gold standard of 40 yard dash timing.
Fully electronic or fully automated timing is the gold standard of timing. Fully electronic 40 yard dash timing consists of the football player starting on a pressure plate that would start an electronic timing system once the athlete lifts their hand from the ground and would stop electronically once the athlete crosses the finish line. This eliminates nearly all types of error from the timing of the 40 yard dash.
So why isn't this method used? Because it would instantly make all 40 yard dash times of NFL athletes about .2 seconds slower and no one wants the gold standard of 40 yard dashes to be 4.5 rather than 4.3.
One additional nuance with the 40 yard dash is that it also does not easily equate to track and field sprint times. The shortest sprint that is typically recognized in competition is the 55m indoor sprint which is just over 60 yards long. Here an athlete with better top end speed can score out differently than an athlete who has good reaction time but limited top end speed. For non-track and field enthusiasts - top end speed occurs in the area where the runner is near their maximum speed, which in high school athletes usually occurs between 30 to 50 yards. This issue would be even further exacerbated with the longer 100m dash. Also unlike the 40 yard dash, track and field sprints are timed from the sound of the gun (auditory reaction is usually about .1 quicker than visual reaction) and therefore adds about another .15 - .2 seconds to a sprint/dash time.
40 Yard Dash Timing Methods Summary
Hand Timing - .3 to .6 seconds faster than actual 40 yard dash & high variability between attempts
Hybrid Timing - .15 to .4 seconds faster than actual 40 yard dash & moderate variability between attempts
Electronic Timing - <.1 seconds faster than actual 40 yard dash & limited variability between attempts
Track & Field Fully Automated Timing - ~.2 seconds slower than actual 40 yard dash time due to reaction time.
How to determine if you are running a faster 40 yard dash
With all the different types of timing, what is the correct type to use. The Wizard recommends using video tape of 40 yard dash sprint attempts and do analysis after the sprints to determine what your actual time is. The Wizard uses - https://www.kinovea.org/ a free video analysis tool to analyze individual sprints. Simply set up some cones or use other distinct markers and have someone video tape you with their phone or otherwise to get some footage to analyze, go home and view the tape in slow motion to get your actual time from first motion. Be prepared for some slow times, but using the knowledge you have gained above - when in Rome speak as the Romans speak, if you are with your high school buddies feel free to normalize your talk knowing that video timing is a lot slower than the timing most people are using so your 4.9 video time can easily pass as 4.5 in high school speak. Enjoy!