One of the most underdeveloped skills, especially if the high school and grassroots level of track and field is the sprint start. Many young athletes do not set up your blocks correctly and are in an inefficient position to optimize force application at the gun.

While there are many factors that come into play when trying to achieve an efficient start, for the purposes of this article we’re going to focus on two main areas. First, we need to discuss proper sprint posture and mechanics, which are the foundation for all related sprint skills. Second, we’ll talk about foot placement in the blocks and the proper way to execute the start.

 POSTURE
As I am often told my athletes running fast is about being able to apply as much force as possible into the ground and get an efficient return on that force application propelling you forward with each stride. In order to run efficiently, sprinters must first master correct body posture. When sprinting, athletes must keep the hips tall. The pelvis should be turned out, which will rotate the butt underneath the body. This will make the mid-section rigid and place the athlete in a stable position to apply optimal force into the ground.

A sprinter should have a slight forward lean from the ground, not the waist. The lean will be in proportion to the rate of acceleration. The greater the athletes acceleration, the greater the forward lean. Once the sprinter has completed the acceleration phase and reaches maximum velocity, the forward lean should not be noticeable.

The sprinter should be up on the balls of their feet, and the head must be held level with the eyes focused on the finish line. Dropping the head forward or backward changes the center of gravity and compromise correct sprinting posture. Shoulder should be kept down, relax and slightly forward, but not hunched. The sprinter should run in a  straight-line throughout the race with very little lateral movement.

We use the cues “toe up, heel up, knee up, active plant, step over opposite knee, hips forward, tummy tight, good arms, “ to reinforce posture an sprint mechanics with our athletes.

MAXIMUM VELOCITY
While at maximum velocity (running at top speed), the sprinter’s main goal is to reduce breaking forces that work against the body. In order to do this we instruct our athletes to run with their toes curled up toward their shin or dorsiflexed. The opposite of dorsiflexion is plantarflexion which causes a long, inefficient lever. The sprinter must dorsiflex the toe immediately after the foot leaves the ground. The toe remains in this pulled up position all the way through the recovery cycle.

This toe up heel up position (as we call it) serves several functions. First, pulling the toe up effectively makes the leg shorter, allowing it to move more quickly and be back on the ground sooner. Second, if the toe is up at touchdown, the foot will land under the body. If the toe is down, there is a greater likelihood that the foot will touch down in front of the center of gravity, causing a breaking action that as we mentioned earlier, we are trying to avoid.

 When the toe one is down or plantar-flexed the hamstring must be used to flex the knee. This increases strain on the hamstring and can lead to premature fatigue and often injury. Keeping the toe dorsiflexed allows the gastrocnemius to work as the prime knee flexor. Thus, the hamstring is able to rest through the recovery cycle and can be used to apply large force it to the track at touchdown.

At touchdown, the support foot should be moving backwards as in a “pawing action”, which we call an “active plant.” Sprinters shouldn’t just allow the foot to drop to the track ahead of the center of gravity. If they don’t actively pull the foot under the body, the foot will remain on the ground too long and again deceleration will occur. As the foot leaves the ground on the backside, the sprinter must strive to immediately dorsiflex the foot and pull the heel to a high recovery position against gluteous maximus.

As we’ve discussed in previous articles proper arm action is an important part of sprinting technique. The sprinters arm should swing forward to the chin-high position into the mid-line of the torso but not cross the mid-line of the body. The arms should be bent at the elbows, with hands in front, and shoulders swing backward as if reaching for the hip pocket. Sprinters should not straighten their arms on the backswing (beat the drum) but should strive to keep the arms and a 90° angle in front of the hip and 120° angle behind the body.

Some sprinters like to extend their fingers, which creates a longer lever and a larger moment of inertia, helping put more force into the ground as they drive off. Many coaches however, and I have a tendency to agree, feel that this position often creates tension, especially for an inexperienced sprinter.

There is a school of thought among the coaching fraternity that advocates a cupped hand arm drive with the palm up facing the body. If the athlete allows their palms to drop, with the thumbs next to the body, they will run with a “dog paddle” motion. The elbow will rotate away from their body and cause them to lose power. We don’t subscribe to any particular hand placement with our athletes as long as they don’t do anything with their hands that prevents them from having a relaxed arm drive. What is important is that they focus on driving the arms in one direction – backwards across the vertical plane and not the mid-line of the body. Newton’s third law states that for every action there is an opposite but equal reaction. If athlete drives right elbow back, left knee will come up and vice versa. If the elbow drives comes across the body the tendency is to bring the hips with it. This impacts stride length and causes the sprinter to run less efficiently.

THE STRAIGHT-AWAY START
Once our athletes have been taught correct posture and maximum velocity technique, we introduce the blocks start. Too often, block starts are overlooked or under emphasized. We try to practice block starts at least twice a week and always work on starts during sessions that emphasize speedwork.

The first step in teaching sprint starts is to determine which leg goes in the front block and which one goes in the rear block. Generally speaking everyone has one side of the body that responds quicker than the other. There are a  number of ways to determine what side responds quicker, a new one that I’ve come across is to have your athletes stand with their hands down at their side.  On “go” have them quickly crosses their arms at the chest. As a general rule the arm closest to the body corresponds to the side whose foot goes in the back block. This is referred to as the “quick side” and the quick side foot is the foot that should be placed in the back block. Once the correct leg has been identified the next step is to find the correct spacing between the front and rear blocks.

In a previous article we discussed how we try to have our more advanced sprinters set up their blocks so that their first step allows for near triple extension of the back leg upon block clearance. This helps the sprinter achieve maximum power out of the blocks. In terms of how the blocks are set, Scott Roberts, the Women’s Sprint, Hurdles and Jumps coach at the University of Alabama suggest that using what he refers to as a medium start. According to Coach Roberts, “to determine the proper position of the front foot, identify the little ball just below the knee called the tibial tuberosity. Ask the athlete to place the tibial tuberosity on the starting line with the front foot fully extended or plantar-flexed.” This is where the front block should be placed. The athlete then takes the back knee and places it midway between the front knee and the front ankle with the toe of the rear foot curled up or dorsiflexed.

From here, athletes will have an approximate starting point and can make small adjustments in the block spacing as needed. It is important that the upper leg-to-lower-leg angle of the front leg be about 90°and that angle of the back leg be between 120°and 130°.

Many inexperienced sprinters will place the front foot too close to the line, and their front knee against the chest at the set position. This is an inefficient position to drive from the blocks. Athletes must have the lead ankle behind the lead hip in order to produce enough power to efficiently overcome inertia.

Once the blocks are properly set, measure the distance from the starting line to the front block and from the starting line to the rear block. Roberts suggests that sprinters carry a measuring tape with them in their shoe bag so they can set up their blocks properly prior to a race. “The more variables that can be controlled, the more confident athlete will become.” Once proper block spacing has been determined, you can now start to teach the starting progression.

 When teaching the start, it is critical to emphasize the importance of driving out of the blocks and not just pulling the feet off the petals. Once athletes are ready to start out of the blocks, they need to practice putting pressure against the back block.

To teach setup, have your athletes stand behind the blocks. At the on-your mark” command, the sprinter should step to the front of the block and immediately execute some type of physical activity that will wake up the nervous system. It might be tuck jumps, running in place, sprint outs, whenever-but some sort of dynamic activity that again stimulates the nervous system. Then the sprinter should do some stretches and then back their feet into the blocks. The balls of their feet should be placed where the block meets the track and spaced as widely as possible on the block pad.

After the feet are one on the pads, the sprinter should walk their hands back to a position just behind the starting line. The sprinters weight should be resting on the thumb and index finger in a high bridge, the elbows rotated in and unlocked. The rear side knee should be on the track and the front side knee should be elevated.

The sprinters’ shoulders should be set over their hands, not hanging over the line. At the “set” command, the sprinter should forcefully push the rear leg back into the block with the entire sole of the foot, including the heel, primarily in contact with the rear pad. This pressing will push the hips to a position just above the shoulder.

The sprinter should avoid using the quadriceps to elevate the hips. Instead, the sprinter should push into the back block with their gluteous and hamstring muscles, using the hands to aid them in pushing back. They should make sure their shoulders remain over the hands or even slightly behind them ( and behind the line).

Many coaches advocate putting the shoulders in front of the hands (and the line) in order to gain a little distance, but by keeping the shoulders above the hands, more pressure will be placed in the rear block, helping the sprinter feel like a coiled spring ready to be released.

It’s important for the sprinter to place most of the pressure on the back foot. This will set the feet in the blocks. When the gun is fired, the sprinter will push off, predominately with the front foot, and with the added pressure in the rear block will get a strong push with both legs.

Once the gun is fired, the sprinter should push back into both blocks. It is critical that then back knee is driven forward, creating a wide split between the quadriceps. Sprinters should be trained to keep the ankle of the drive foot behind the knee. This will prevent sprinter from “stepping out” and creating a first step that is too long. For an effective drive phase, the lead foot must land with the ankle under or even behind the hip.

You have to imagine that the feet are like pistons driving behind the body. The sprinter must strive to keep the back flat. Forward lean will be dependent upon acceleration. As the back foot leaves the rear pad, the head, shoulders, center of mass, and feet should align at a 45° angle to the ground.

In order again to overcome inertia, the heel should be driven low. This low heel recovery allows the foot to quickly accelerate back into the ground to aid impulsion (forward motion). With each stride, the sprinters’ heel and torso will rise. When top speed is achieved posture will be erect and maximum velocity technique will apply.

One with some exceptions, arm drive during the acceleration phase is similar to that in the maximum velocity phase. On the initial drive out of the blocks, the lead arm extended high and in front of the body. The lead hand comes to forehead height with the thumb pointed down as if shading the eyes of from the sun. This is the only time the arm should cross the midline of the body.

 Just as in the maximum velocity phase, the rear arm is driven back, with the backward thrust initiated by the elbow. The hand comes behind the hip, but the wrist does not escape behind the elbow. The upper-to-lower arm angle is about 130°. With each step as the sprinter approaches maximum velocity, the hands will lower from a forehead high position to and to a normal cheek-to-hip running position.

When starting on the curve, basic rules for straightaway starting apply, but the blocks must be set up differently. Although the blocks must be angled into the curve, too many athletes try to angle blocks too steeply, causing them to run into the lane line veer back to the right, and interrupt the acceleration pattern. The angle should be subtle enough for the blocks to fall on a line tangent to the curve at its most distant point from the starting line. This placement requires the sprinter to place their left hand a short distance behind the starting line in order to keep their shoulders squared to the legs in the “on-your- mark” and “set” positions.

Mastering the sprint start is definitely a complex skill. Once proper sprint technique is mastered through the use of a progression of specialized skills and constant speed feedback from coaches, sprinters’ can progress to proper starting procedures. Coaches can make significant contributions to young sprinters’ development by sharing technical knowledge and devising proper training approaches from the start.

For more information feel free to contact me via email at jmurdock@flight101ssd.com.

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Comments
  1. This is a very comprehensive article on sprint technique. You should make a video explaining all this!

    Paul Graham

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