Exploiting Your 400-Meter Relay Personnel

Section: TRACK & FIELD

(Don’t Overlook the Intangibles)

The selection of your 400-meter personnel can be a difficult task for some coaches or a cut-and-dried proposition for others (especially in small schools with limited but talented personnel).

The starters may be determined by visual observation or a time trial. Speed does not necessarily guarantee a good relay runner. There are factors other than speed that may count more in the positioning of the relay team.

We look ideally, for the right runner in the right position – enabling them to function as a unit and develop the necessary confidence in one another.

Team chemistry is an intangible that cannot be stressed enough. Rather than expound one philosophy of relay selection, we would like to dwell on several concepts.

Key component: Make the decision early in the season so that the runners can begin working together early and often. Regardless of which philosophy you utilize in determining runner placement, nothing will work unless you practice, practice, practice.

What the coach has to decide upon first is which of his various quintets will produce the fastest time.

Obviously, speed will be a factor in the selection process. But the coach cannot overlook the intangibles that also play an important role. He must begin by discussing (by position) the most basic factors in the placement of the personnel.
First runner:

• Good in the blocks.

• Runs the curve well.

• Exchanges the baton well.

• Usually the 1st or 2nd fastest runner.
Second runner:

• Usually the 3rd or 4th fastest runner.

• Good with the baton.

• Good spot for the taller runner because of the straightaway.
Third runner:

• Usually the 3rd or 4th fastest runner.

• Good curve runner.

• Disciplined in the exchange zone (Tension and excitement will be building at this exchange.).

• Good position for the shorter runner because of the acceleration around curve.

• Competitor.
Fourth runner:

• Usually the 1st or 2nd fastest runner on the team.

• Disciplined in the exchange zone (Tension and excitement will be at its peak at this exchange.).

• Mentally tough.

• Enjoys running people down.

• Competitor.

Following is an eclectic compilation of the many factors that can influence the positioning of 400-meter relay runners. There may be times when the coach may have to go against conventional wisdom due to various circumstances.

  1. Perhaps your fastest man is an excellent curve runner. You may consider running him first or third to take advantage of his strength.
  2. If a runner is a very good curve runner but average out of the blocks, he could still be used on the first leg. Starting technique can always be improved and worked on in practice. Many coaches feel that the ability to run the curve well is more important than excellence in the blocks.
  3. A runner may possess excellent block technique, but is either too fast or too tall to run the curve effectively. Perhaps positions two or four would be a better fit for this runner, since those positions are run on a straightaway.
  4. You may have a runner who is definitely your fastest runner and you want to utilize his speed at the end of the race. However, he does not handle pressure well and is very inconsistent. This runner may be more effective in the early stages of the relay where the pressure may not be as great.
  5. You may have a runner who, for whatever reason, has difficulty receiving the baton in a certain hand. Move the runner into a position where he can utilize his “better” hand. This will make him more confident and his handoffs more consistent.
  6. Some coaches want their most aggressive and most competitive athlete running last, even though he’s not the fastest runner on the team. Just because an athlete is fast, doesn’t mean he’s aggressive or competitive.
  7. You may have a runner with excellent speed, but cannot exchange a baton properly. This is always a difficult predicament for a coach. Where do you put a runner with such a mixture of talent? (Where can he do the least harm?) Remember, all the speed in the world isn’t going to help if you can’t get the baton around the track.
  8. Do you have an athlete who is not well liked? Team chemistry is extremely important in the relays. A relay team will not perform up to its capability with a problem child in its midst. A slower person who meshes well with the other three runners may be a better fit.
  9. You may have a runner who runs better with a lead than from behind. This can be a difficult decision for a coach. Do you place this runner in a more favorable position or do you keep him in the same position and hope for the best?
  10. Some athletes do not perform well under pressure. This can be very frustrating for a coach: An athlete who is fast enough to run the 400-meter relay, performs well in practice, but cannot handle the pressure in a big meet, thus, performs poorly. It’s unfortunate, but in fairness to the other members of the relay team, and the entire track team in general, this runner should be replaced, if possible. Hopefully, the team will have enough depth to make this possible.
  11. You have an athlete who is talented enough to run the 400-meter relay but has a very poor attitude toward practice in general. Not only will this individual’s poor attitude affect the timing of his handoff, his poor training habits will affect the overall chemistry of the relay team. Let’s hope the coach has a runner who will be a better fit. He may not be as talented as the runner he’s replacing, but his superior practice attitude and team chemistry may produce a better overall time.
  12. A huge size differential between two runners can lead to severe difficulties when exchanging the baton. Hopefully, a coach will have other runners of comparable size to offset this problem.
  13. Here’s another thought to ponder over when placing relay personnel. Some coaches feel that the first runner has the most responsibility in the 400-meter relay and the fourth runner has the least. The first runner has to develop starting block skills, run the curve well, and master a baton exchange. The last runner must receive a baton but doesn’t have the responsibility passing the baton to the next runner, Additionally, he basically has the shortest distance to run. As we know, this running distance may not be the same in every situation. Exchange zone adjustments can be made and, therefore, running distances can vary somewhat.
  14. Do you have a runner who fatigues significantly in the latter stages of his relay leg? Remember, runners 2 and 3 will generally run the longest total distance in the 400-meter relay. They run the acceleration distance into their exchange zone and a portion of the second half of the next exchange zone. By making exchange zone adjustments, one can shorten the distance a runner carries the baton or move the runner to another position in the relay.
  15. You may have a runner who is unable to practice handoffs on a consistent basis. He may be involved in other events and practice time is compromised. Consider placing this runner in the first position where he’ll be responsible for handing off the baton, rather than receiving it.

The proper placement of runners in the 400-meter relay is an essential factor in attempting to shave off as much time as possible. In a race where hundredths of a second separate the winners from the losers, proper placement of your runners is vital.

A coach must determine each runner’s strengths and weaknesses. This may require a coach to go against conventional wisdom when making an adjustment in the relay.

When you work with athletes, the intangibles will weigh heavily in your decision.

The bottom line is not to get stuck with one strategy and don’t be afraid to experiment.


By Dennis Best, Retired Track and Field Coach, Coal City (IL) H.S.

great article. very insightful …

Suprised by the fact that they recommend the majority of the time to have the top or second guy run the first leg which has the least potential to be the longest leg of the event and as mentioned requires a good turn runner.

If anything I would tend to put a better shorter sprinter, potentially a 55/60m specialist in this position due to their typical smaller size (potentially better around the turn) and good starting speed.

Overall, a very good article and a must read, espcially for new coaches not acquainted with the relay game.

I wouldn’t recommend it to a new relay coach, too many words for what it says. it doesn’t mention which leg of the relay carries the baton in what hand so to a new coach no5 would be a bit confusing. hint: right hand carry on the bends and left hand on the straights.

DOes this article mention anything about considering how the competition lines up? This is super basic and like most things, very subjective.