For years people have compared football players and sprinters and mused over who would win in a race, but we’ve had very few opportunities to actually put this to the test. Last weekend we finally got that chance when DK Metcalf, an All-Pro receiver for the Seattle Seahawks, lined up for the 100m at the USATF Golden Games. The NFL superstar entered the race with confidence, but left humbled, calling his competitors “world class athletes.”
The footballer versus sprinter match-up created a lot of noise, mostly because of speculation that he was aiming to run the Olympic standard of 10.05. Given that he is one of the fastest receivers in the NFL (he exceeded 22 miles per hour at a game last October), some fans thought it might be possible. Most track fans, however, were skeptical.
Track fans were proven right on Sunday, when Metcalf finished last in his heat, running 10.363 seconds. While this is a solid time for a football player, it is by no means world-class for a professional sprinter. In fact, according to the New York Times, his performance doesn’t rank among the fastest 20,000 100m runs in history. After only training for the event for a few months, his lack of experience showed, proving that there is more strategy and skill involved in running the 100m than may appear.
“These are world-class athletes; they do this for a living,” Metcalf said after his race. “It’s very different from football speed, from what I just realized.”
While there have been some very fast football players throughout history, football speed and 100m speed are very different. As U.S. sprinter Noah Lyles (who owns a PB of 9.86 seconds) explained in an interview with the New York Times, “there is as much strategy running 100 meters as running a marathon.”
The reason is that no one can maintain their top speed for 100m, so athletes need to be strategic with how they accelerate. Most runners hit their maximum speed between the 60 and 80 metre mark, and the athlete who wins is the one who manages to slow down the least until they reach the finish line. Olivier Girard, an exercise physiologist who studies sprinting at the University of Western Australia, explained that this is because you can only produce maximum contraction of your muscles for five or six seconds.
“After that, the energy-producing system is not as efficient. That’s why we cannot maintain the top speed and have to slow down,” he said.
This strategy takes time to learn and perfect, which is where football players fall short. Additionally, in a race that’s only seconds long, your start can often dictate how you finish, and this, again, requires years of practice. Football players rarely (if ever) start running from a completely still position, so while they may have raw speed, they haven’t developed the skill to compete at the elite level.
So will we see Metcalf on another start line any time soon? It appears not. When asked what was next for him in a post-race interview, he replied “Football. It’s time for minicamp.”