Speed kills. Christian McCaffrey is living proof.
McCaffrey’s production has taken a quantum leap forward this season, an extraordinary feat when you consider he was a second-team All-Pro in 2018.
Eight games into 2019, the star running back has already scored as many touchdowns as he did all last season.
But for all his eye-popping numbers, one figure might stand out most: 21.95.
That’s how many miles per hour McCaffrey hit on his 84-yard touchdown run in Week 5.
It’s tied for the fourth-fastest speed achieved by any ballcarrier so far this season. Last year, McCaffrey didn’t even crack the top 20.
That enhanced speed is helping him turn would-be losses into solid gains, and would-be solid gains into 6 points. McCaffrey’s three touchdown runs of 50-plus yards this season has already tied a Carolina franchise record.
McCaffrey was never slow, as he was a standout sprinter in high school and he clocked a 4.48 at the 2017 NFL Combine. Yet he believes he’s “absolutely” gotten faster in each of his three NFL seasons.
Intelligent program design has helped McCaffrey enhance his power and maximize his fast-twitch muscle fibers without adding unnecessary mass, but refinements in his sprinting form have also made a crucial difference.
McCaffrey’s personal trainer is Brian Kula, owner of Kula Sports Performance and the head track and field coach at Valor Christian High School (Highlands Ranch, Colorado). McCaffrey, a Valor alum, was on the 4x200m relay team that set a Colorado state record under Kula’s guidance. After McCaffrey’s rookie NFL season, he came to Kula looking to get faster.
The results speak volumes. While Kula’s program centers around increasing McCaffrey’s “mass-specific force,” which is the amount of force he can produce and functionally apply to athletic actions, the two have also spent many hours sharpening his sprint mechanics via a collection of carefully-selected drills.
“We spent an inordinate amount of time on sprint mechanics. We’ve kind of developed a system of sprint drills that we do that work the mechanics of sprinting,” says Kula. “We video everything he does. After almost every rep, we’ll come back and look at it and say we need more arm swing here or better recovery here. He’s super conscious and aware of (his form).”
McCaffrey’s breaking more long runs than ever this season, a sign that both his top speed has improved and that he’s learned to transition into it more efficiently. Both were specific goals for him this offseason.
“We spend most of our time in acceleration, because a football player spends 98% of their time, even the wide receivers, in the acceleration phase,” says Kula. “But we did some intentional top-end speed work and worked on the (transition from) acceleration to top-end speed this offseason, which I think really paid dividends.”
When McCaffrey rips through a seam in the defense, he looks like he could have a baton in his hand rather than a football under his arm:
During their sessions together, Kula videotapes nearly every rep McCaffrey performs, allowing him to provide instant visual feedback.
“It’s similar to how I do it for a track kid at practice,” says Kula.
During the season, he’ll pick out specific clips from games and send them to McCaffrey with certain notes.
“I will break down film for him just even from a game,” says Kula. “Say, ‘OK, your body position is here, you’re leaning back a little bit too much, or you’re having some braking forces, or if you can get that off-arm going you’ll have that much more power.’ I think it’s all very intentional. There’s not much Christian does that’s happenstance.”
While McCaffrey is on pace to to total an absurd 414 touches this season, Kula believes it’s important for him to master his sprinting mechanics without a football in his hand. After all, he’ll have plenty of chances to run with the ball during practice.
“We don’t do a lot of stuff with the football in hand. I try to stay away from that in the training. Performance coaches will talk about sport-specificity in (training)—to me, that’s called practice. My job is to make him faster and stronger,” says Kula.
One frequent critique of football players utilizing track-style drills and workouts is that football “isn’t played in a lane.” While this is true, Kula says addressing the issue is as simple as applying the same principles that help athletes develop straight-line speed to other planes of motion.
“It’s the same principles we do for the linear training, we just apply it to lateral change of direction. So I’ll give you one example. If we’re working on acceleration, we might do a Banded Acceleration Walk, where he’s walking and he’s working on pushing and triple extension and really accelerating away as I’m holding the band. Well, we do the same thing laterally. Or at a 45-degree angle. So we just train in 360-degree planes,” says Kula. “We don’t work a ton of making somebody miss—some of that stuff for Christian is his God-given ability. But what we do is when he puts his foot in the ground and decides to change direction, I think we’ve done a pretty good job of enhancing that power output, whether he’s going forwards or backwards or sideways. We train in all those different planes, but the principles are the same. That’s something I learned a long time ago.”
If you’re curious how McCaffrey is training in the midst of this record-breaking season, read STACK’s article on his in-season training plan.
Photo Credit: Brian Kula, Panthers.com/Brandon Todd