Start Mechanics

My question relates to the correct mechanics when exiting the blocks from the start. There seems to be two schools of thought regarding the block exit and acceleration phase. Obviously there is the ‘drive phase’ method ala John Smith; exaggerated first movement, head down, prolonged acceleration period. However I am sceptical as it would appear that prolonging a foward lean would simply shorten the stride of the athlete, wasting generated power. Also I am not quite sure why keeping the head in a downward position is beneficial other than as a cue to maintain foward lean? I must admit, whilst I accept that a foward leans allows for the fastest acceleration, I am not entirely sure why this is so. My thoughts run along the lines of allowing the optimal level of force to be applied in a backward direction, with less emphasis on stride length, since significant foward velocity has not yet been reached.
On the other hand, I have heard several coaches who recommend the use of a ‘jump’ start technique. This involves a close setting of the blocks, and the dual application of force from each leg. The cue is for the athlete to ‘jump’ out of the blocks, and then focus on driving the arms back hard, as one coach has put it ‘as if you were pushing a bobsled’. This method appears logical, as it would result in a greater backward application of force. My knowlege of physics is limited so I am merely speculating. Head position during set is also disputed. Most will recommend looking straight down at the line, whilst some I know recommend looking backwards at the feet, and others, like Charlie who recommend eyes up, looking foward.
What are the pros/cons of each method?

Good acceleration results in foward lean, not the other way around. Also, if you allow the back to control the head you can focus the eyes where you please.
No good sprinter jumps from the blocks. Trying to jump would cause you to wind up to deliver force instead of reacting. When sprinters leave the back leg in the blocks for a long time it gives the illusion they are jumping.

‘Jump’ is merely a cue, I refer to a closer setting of the blocks with dual hip/knee extension of both legs - rather than pushing with the lead leg and pulling the trailing leg to the chest.

good sprinters always push with both legs. it makes exiting the blocks faster.

This is my take on things, the drive phase is important for a number of reasons, not the least of which is to accelerate you into the best possible sprinting position as quickly and economically as possible.

That being said, you definitely do NOT want to cut your drive phase short because

a) it’s not condusive to a relaxed and powerful stride (you’ll tend to chop your stride, increase your frequency at the expense of good mechanics and amplitude) and

b) the longer you can maintain that forward lean (and I don’t mean from the waist up, I mean a good 45 degree angle from neck to rear foot) the longer you’ll be able to keep your glutes and hamstrings unfatigued during the race.

My coach always preaches (and this makes good sense to me) your quads are basically free energy at the start of a race, use them until they’re completely exhausted at which point you’ll be transitioned into a more upright posture where you can use your calves/hamstrings/glutes to their maximum potential over the last half of the race.

This is only a portion of what I’ve been told, but I’ve found it works immeasurably well. You can apply this same technique to a 200 and save yourself a lot of pain in the final 3rd of the race by using the free energy in your quads.

I like this free energy idea. It really drives the message home. Thanks for that.

TC

Great post Janic

A couple of quick questions… Wouldn’t long strides activate the glutes and hamstrings, followed by the quads? Or by long do you mean, basically not short? I have spoken to some coaches who advocate a quick step/‘hot feet’ 0-10, however this is more of a cue to progressively increase stride length. If I am interpreting what you are saying correctly, it is more important to start slower, with more efficiency - in order to save the hamstrings/glutes for maximum speed retention after max velocity is reached? Does this result in more gradual acceleration with a delayed critical velocity, leaving less time to decelerate, or does it as you said, save the hamstrings for the latter part of the race?
From what I have heard, the technique employed for the start is vastly dependent on the strengths/weakness’s of the athlete - for example your typical 200/400 youth, with relatively high max. velocity, and exceptional speed endurance, but an explosive deficit leaving them in the blocks when they run a 100. Would it be advantageous for someone of this nature to focus on accelerating as fast as possible, at the expense of saving the hamstrings for the latter part of the stage - which there speed endurance compensates for anyway? Also, what are your thoughts on arm mechanics? I do not agree with those who say you should ‘sweep’ your arms during acceleration, likewise I see no benefit in an exaggerated split at the first movement; bringing the forearm well above the head simply creates more air time, and induces an upright running position.
Surely the focus should be to drive the elbows back hard, which increases force application and also assists in maintaining a forward lean? Would you agree that prolonging a forward lean beyond a period of acceleration creates the potential to limit stride length, fatiguing the body more, and ‘exhausting your quads’ would limit downward ground application, further shortening the stride, and limiting speed endurance?

Not trying to be over critical, just want to clarify my understanding.

Thanks.

Hey no worries, questions mean you’re actually reading it and trying to think about it, so ask away. I’ll also appologize in advance for the length of this post, but there’s no use explaining things halfway.

As for an answer try to keep in mind this is also fairly new to me and the more I explain it the more I internalize it, that being said I’ve already seen a massive change in my running.

Ok so when I say Long strides out of the blocks I don’t mean cyclic running strides. For your first let’s say 5-10 your strides will be long and powerful, piston like NOT cyclic. Starting means that first movement out of the blocks is driving your knee to your chest, foot dorsi-flexed as far UP and OUT as possible. I’m still referring to your knee, there need not be any lower leg extension at this phase. It’s all about applied power into the track via quads and hip flexors. This allows for your hips to “clear” the blocks quickly and prevents that feeling of digging yourself out of a hole. It also eases the load on your legs and allows for more efficient acceleration.

The only way you’ll be able to achieve this position is with the knee drive, your feet dorsi flexed and driving the heels down and be hind you and your first arm action being above your head, otherwise you’ll pop forward and kinda fall over, or stumble which obviously isn’t fast.

The key here is to maintain a straight line from kneck to rear foot at ~45 degrees off the track. If you can clear your hips and continue to drive UP and out after every step, this basically happens naturally. It’s when your hips are too low, or your lean is too pronounces (leaning from your waist instead of the whole body lean) that you begin to feel like you’re almost tripping after every step. Again this is a result of driving forward instead of UP and forward.

I think you slightly misinterpret the starting slower aspect of things. This by no means is a slow process, it just means that instead of going for psychotic frequency from the blocks (IE: 3 to 5 powerful-ish steps then stand straight up and start cycling) your aim is to overcome inertia via powerful driving action. Just wanted to clear that up before continuing.

Another thing to bear in mind is this driving will eventually be impossible to maintain (if you’re doing it correctly.) When you begin you’re driving knee to chest with like you said, the elbows being driven back for balance. This along with correct dorsi-flexed foot plant will propel you up and out of the blocks in a MUCH more efficient and powerful position. You should aim to start the transition at around 30m from the blocks. When you drive for that long, your legs will begin to make very small cyclic strides around 25m and they’ll just increase from there. Again this is an ideal thing to aim for, but you should try and get an 8 degree shift in posture over every stride from 0-30m. So you start at 45 and then every stride after you increase the angle by 8 degrees until you’ve reached correct posture (this will happen at or around 30m) do not rush this phase, the transition will almost feel like you’ve been slingshot down the track, because you’ve got all this power and you’re moving forward and then your legs start to continue and increase that velocity.

Another thing you must keep in mind is world class sprinters do NOT run on their toes, despite what everyone and their mother has taught you up until now. They run on the balls of their feet, there is a MASSIVE difference. When you drive out of the blocks (knee to chest) and begin the downstroke it’s almost as if you’re driving your heel into the track underneath and behind you, if that makes any sense. Your foot should never leave the dorsi’d position. Ankle locked at all times. Think about it, how are you going to apply maximum force into the track if you run “tippy toed”? Answer: you can’t. Even when sprinting at max velocity around 60-70m into the race your heels will “kiss” off the ground after every footstrike. If you run on your toes you’ll run into problems where your foot plant is too far in front of your center of mass, you’ll be “breaking” and unintentionally slowing yourself down, not to mention the ridiculous strain this puts on your hamstrings to try and PULL you foward. Running is all about pushing, there is no pulling in running.

Sorry I’ve rambled a bit and left your question behind, let me try again.

Question: If I am interpreting what you are saying correctly, it is more important to start slower, with more efficiency - in order to save the hamstrings/glutes for maximum speed retention after max velocity is reached? Does this result in more gradual acceleration with a delayed critical velocity, leaving less time to decelerate, or does it as you said, save the hamstrings for the latter part of the race?

Basically what you’re trying to do, over 100, 200 even 400m is to delay the onset of muscle fatigue as long as possible. If you can drive off your quads for 50m in a 400, this means you’ll transition over the next 10 or 20 (because you won’ t be able to stay in that 45 degree lean for 50m I’m just giving you an idea why this is) You basically only have to run the last 300m of the race fully upright, and there is no struggle to get into the correct running position. As a result of your drive phase, you’re already there with very little energy wasted in reaching it.

As for the slightly slower acceleration yes you’ll probably not be in 1st place after 30m, but let’s be honest, wouldn’t you rather pass someone in the final 30m of the race, than in the first 30? There’s far more chance you’ll win if you pass them at the end of the race than if you do it at the beginning. The 100 is all about who slows down the slowest, and if you’ve managed to put 30m of the race behind you before you even start using your hamstrings, well I 'll tell you who has a better chance of finishing fast

In regards to your question of forward lean, I’ve basically answered it, of course it would limit stride length if you’re forcing it beyond 30 or 40m, but the key is the gradual 8 degree shift towards upright. This, coupled with your driving legs will automatically push your hips up and underneath you until you’re running normally, albeit 30m further into the race than you would normally be. Once this happens you look for good open hip extension off each stride, anticipate the ground contact and explode off of it. Arms should be VERY large at this point, elbows way behind you, allowing your hips to open in front and getting good overall extension.

One thing I would caution against is going for a big “reach” with the front leg. This isn’t what you’re looking for. What you want is a reach with the front knee almost and good openness through the hips. That coupled with good rear side extension will give you the large stride amplitude you see in world class runners, that and good core and leg strength. Otherwise if you look for foward REACH with your legs, you’ll end up “breaking” and planting too far in front of your center of mass to do any good.

Well I think that’s enough for right now, any more questions I’d be glad to answer. Hope this helps.

Good post. The only thing I don’t agree with is:

“When you drive out of the blocks (knee to chest) and begin the downstroke it’s almost as if you’re driving your heel into the track underneath and behind you, if that makes any sense. Your foot should never leave the dorsi’d position.”

I agree that your foot must be dorsiflexed before ground contact in your drive phase (and in all phases…) but it’s going to plantar flex along with your hip & knee extension when you leave the ground.

If there is an 8 degree change in posture on each step, and you leave the blocks at 45 degrees, how are you driving and changing posture to 30m. An 8 degree change puts me at 90 degrees after 5-6 strides. Am I missing something?

Hey Janic, what would your reccomend then for starting w/o blocks for a short distance race, esp in terms of starting technique and drive phase (races anywhere between 40-60 m)?

Janic wrote: Starting means that first movement out of the blocks is driving your knee to your chest, foot dorsi-flexed as far UP and OUT as possible. I’m still referring to your knee, there need not be any lower leg extension at this phase. It’s all about applied power into the track via quads and hip flexors.

What do you mean by that above? (see bold)
Thanks!

Agreed to a point, but that’s going to happen naturally unless you’re running completely flat footed, so it’s generally easier to get someone to perform the correct mechanics as most sprinters will be thinking dorsi flex at all times and naturally have the correct amount of plantar flex by default if your feet hit the ground in the correct position.

Yeah I had trouble with this too, doing the quick math means you’re standing upright like you said after 5 knee hits, however I think it’s a basic guideline or something to think about. A stride in this case would mean around 2 knee touches to chest. So for example every time your (arbitrarily) right knee hits you move a bit towards vertical.

Well when you setup for a rollover start (which is what I’d recommend, hell they do it in the olympics for a 100m relay start I’m sure it’ll work for your 40s or 60s :D)

I can’t comment on the 40 I’ve never had to run one, I’m WAY too skinny to play football but as far as the 60, it’s the same principle. When you rollover you try to mimic the same feeling and motions you’d have out of the blocks. This means above all, keeping your hips good and high when you’re set to go. For me I’ve started going through the same routine for setting my feet as I would for setting my block plates. So if I’m going to do a series of rollovers, I’d have my front foot 2 feet lengths behind the line and my back foot 3 (this is rough, you can get away with having them a bit closer than normal if it feels too awkward)

Kneeling down in the on your marks position, I’d come to set as close as possible to how I’d do it out of blocks, then just take 1 arm off the track and put it up behind you and give er hell.

Ok yeah I re-read that portion and it would be confusing, I’m used to explaining things and miming it out while I’m doing it

So let’s see, when I say lower leg, I mean from the knee down to the ankle.

Ok I’m probably going to offend any biomechanic experts who look at that, but it’s an explanation aid I can do what I want

So in the picture, the red indicates (more or less) which muscle group is being taxed. The black arrows show basically the motion of the legs and feet. In the good picture, the lines of force are straight up and down with little to no arc. The quads and hips are being taxed which leaves the hamstrings relatively stress free.

In the 2nd pic, the hamstrings and glutes are the big losers, and the Lower Leg the bit from the knee to the foot, is extending outwards for no reason. Keep in mind this is still the initial few steps, after about 4 or 5 you’ll gradually introduce more of a cycling action into the stride.

Yes, it does, thanks!
Although I don’t think there is/should be such a thing at any point in your running anyway (i.e., overstriding/“over-reaching”)…

I see you point though!
Thanks!

Janic,
after those “good teatching” i can´t avoid this question
How your times for short distances ( under 50m ) are improving after you started to practice this ?

Well I’ve been a 7.11 60m runner for 3 years now, and without telling you any times, as I haven’t been told them directly, I’ve been assured that “You’re well below 7.11 right now” so yes I’ve seen improvement, but I’ll know for sure on the 8th as I’m running a 100 at least and possibly a 200 for the first time since I’ve changed things.

For reference my 100m pb is 11.31 and my 200 is 22.76.

To be honest though I’m not concerned with times at this point as I’m still trying to internalize all this stuff like I mentioned. I mean it’s one thing to tweak your running style, and another thing entirely to learn “how” to run about 10 years after you started really sprinting. Anyway I’m comfortable knowing that once this becoms habitual I’ll consistently be in a far better position and able to more fully realize my potential.

That being said, I have to make some fairly large gains in the weight room before I start to really see my times drop. Especially now that I know what I’m supposed to be doing after I reach top speed.

I´m in the opposite,
as i was injuried for 4 weeks, i did lot of weights and became very strong but the track work was droped aside.
So, my PB was around 11 too but my 200m PB was far from that, about 25s, probabily because of those long period of just weights work without track work.
Oterwise, my starts are very very good at this point, but i can improve much more using your tips about drive phase.