Sprinting – The art of the start – The first few steps

This will by no means be a full description of block starts, that will be beyond the scope of this post, but I will instead focus on the first few steps you take out of the blocks as they are some of the most important steps and sets you up for the rest of the race. If you get ‘em right the rest will come a lot easier. But easy is not a word to describe the path to mastering this. It can be hard to explain and even harder to implement as some of it seems counterintuitive and even feels slower when you do it compared to “normal” starts.

First of let’s look at a guy that masters this; Mr. Justin Gatlin. He’s in the middle in light blue.

Right – did you notice what he perfects that gives him the edge over the others?

The “usual/normal/old” advice about starts is to take short and quick steps – I had that reinforced by my first coach – not to take anything away from her, that’s what she’s been taught and now teaches on. But the thought behind this is that you build speed by a lot of small quick steps and then go on through the acceleration phase switching to longer steps. On the face of it this makes good sense – it even feels fast when you do it as you get to stomp away with violent high frequency. And this CAN be very effective – Kim Collins one of the best 60m runners still to an extent does this.

But one of the caveats of this method is that stomping away with short frequent steps you get more and more tight trying to apply even more steps at a higher frequency, lifting your knees and heels (as is taught and correct later in the race) to stomp harder, this leads to tensioning the entire body which then drains you of energy and the perhaps very good start you had – gets lost after 30-40 meters.

So then what should you do instead? Glad you asked!

What you want to do, and what I will show you Gatlin does, is take very long steps that almost drags the feet along the ground for the first few steps. You do NOT take short steps and you do not try to stomp hard on the ground as you should later in the race. You pull your feet forward using the shortest possible path and then apply force while “dragging” the other leg. Go back up to the video and watch Gatlin once again, focussing on his feet. They almost do not leave the ground for the first few steps, they are very close to being dragged along the ground instead of pulling his heel towards his butt.

So coming out of the block your first step is going to be long pulling with your knee from the back foot and totally extending your front leg, then as you put the first foot on the ground you now pull your other leg perpendicular to the ground in the same way – they are not going up and down but perpendicular to the ground.

If we now look at some stills from the video – starting with Gatlin’s first step:

See even though he did not pull his foot upwards he still gets as long steps as the others – on this picture it is hard to see any difference between any of them, but now look at picture number two:

Gatlin has “dragged” his foot along the ground giving him the shortest path to the next step. He is about to translate force through this leg while the others haven’t even come to put down that leg yet. Dragging the foot has given him an advantage already visible by the second step. From then on he just executes perfectly.

Apart from being very effective out of the block this also has the effect of setting you up for naturally progressing with longer steps. It is almost impossible and very counterintuitive to go from taking long steps to take short ones. Therefore doing this from the start sets you up for a much better remainder of the race.

But as I said earlier this start will look and seem slower when performed by itself. You will almost be “waiting” for your first step and the frequency of your steps will be a little slower – therefore it seems counterintuitive and most people will turn back to their “normal” high frequency starts once in competition as this “feels” quicker. But if you are really strong and keeps practicing especially competing with training partners to force the head into using this technique, then your starts and the rest of your race will come more naturally.

As I have written about earlier (Competition preparation do’s and dont’s) you of course should not change your technique on competition day. Leave it for practice and get comfortable with it before ever attempting it in competition. Competition should only be “replaying” what you have practiced.

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