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.

“Nailing” perfect sprint technique; high knee, quick recovery and toes up with one simple tip

I absolutely do not consider myself an expert on sprinting as it, at least by track & field terms, is not something I have done my entire life. But what I do consider myself quite an expert on is biomechanics and applying well researched concepts to actual sports specific training. And with the title of the blog containing “Keep It Simple Stupid” I am quite a sucker for simple tips and tricks, which is exactly what this is.

I have never been a particularly bad sprinter, meaning that I was always able to run rather fast and accelerate very quickly. Having always been fascinated by sprinters this ability has somewhat stuck with me through all my different sports and training methodologies. But starting track and field sprinting really opened my eyes to how much specific technique and applied methodologies that are to a great 100m race.

I can pinpoint numerous things I am working on to reduce my 100m times, but one of the things that I really found hard to comprehend was the notion of the high knee lift. How could lifting my knee higher in any way improve my speed? For all I could see it would take longer for me to lift the knee meaning a reduction in frequency – the knee lift in itself did not from my view yield any result. The high knee lift had to come from something else. Adding to my skepticism I think that I had read somewhere that the high knee lift came as a result of the force production on the ground – meaning more force production = higher knee lift and not that the knee lift in itself “did anything”. This sort of made sense to me until I read a piece that totally shattered that view.

Another common advice getting thrown around is to recover your leg quickly and keep your heel close to your butt when recovering your leg. What this advice ends up doing is mimicking “butt-kicks” which is actually not what we are looking for. We are not trying to recover the heel all the way up to the back of the butt, but we are trying to make the lever as short as possible to quickly recover the leg and have it ready for the next step. A better analogy is keeping the heel close to the hamstring which is actually closer to what we are trying to obtain.

Finally there is the “toes pointing up” that comes together with the high knee lift – this puts tension on the calves and enables for a more explosive force-development through the ankle by way of the “stretch reflex”. These three things along with numerous other techniques is what the new athlete has to think about while sprinting max effort – and oh – remember to relax while you’re doing it…

There is actually great debate as to exactly what makes for the perfect sprinting technique. All scientific papers seems to have a very hard time really pinpointing what the “right” technique is, but one thing that seems to stand out across all scientific papers is the fact that all great sprinters have very short ground contact in common. Thereby saying that they are able to produce tremendous amount of force in a very short timeframe and then quickly recover the leg.

What I was not able to comprehend was as said earlier how lifting my knees higher could help achieve any of this. But luckily someone explained it to me in a way that made biomechanical sense to me.

Getting your knees higher achieves a longer travel for your foot to enable it to punch the ground harder. This is the same analogy as if you were to punch a sandbag really hard, you would not start with your hand 1 inch away from it – you would pull it back and then punch. The same goes for high knee lift – what you are doing is pulling your knee higher in order to explosively and violently punch the ground harder.

When this was explained to me, it suddenly made sense. The reason for teaching high knee lift is that it has been found to be the way you can punch the ground hardest and produce the most amount of force. Now my brain was on track with why – then the next step was how?

Luckily there is a little tip that at least for me made everything just click. High knees, quick recovery close to the hamstring and toes pointing up. The very simple tip is to imagine that there is a long nail sticking out of your opposite knee that you need to step over each time you recover your leg. If you do this, even just walking slowly you will realize that in order to do so your toes will automatically point upwards to get over “the nail” and you automatically pull your heel close to your hamstring and not back up towards your butt and finally in order to get “all the way over” this imaginary nail you need to pull your knee high – in short everything that is taught as good sprinting technique. Try it out for yourself – for me i just sort of made everything click – so hopefully it can do the same for you.

Just try it

If you have followed my instagram account you will probably know that I have started sprinting at a local track & field club. At age 29 this sure is a little late to win the olympics, but I have always been extremely fascinated by sprinters and wanted to try and actually train like them under supervision of someone with real experience in this field.

The fascination of sprinters is both due to their lean muscular look, but also due to their beautiful aesthetic explosiveness. Just seeing these athletes during warm-up is a study in elegant display of fitness. The way they shoot forward with absolute ease and jump high into the air just to loosen up the muscles is to me very fascinating to watch. It displays human performance at its peak, like few other sports can match.

This is not the first time I started square one at a new sport, in a relative late age. At 23 I started doing gymnastics or more precise the branch of gymnastics known as teamgym. This fascination with flic-flacs and backflips roots back to a film known as Ninja Kids where one of the main characters does flic-flacs on the last stretch of a baseball pitch to celebrate and win the match. Since I saw this movie at probably 10-12 years old I always wanted to be able to do that. But I knew of no one who did gymnastics and therefore no easy way to start. And at that time I was too afraid to start from scratch.

Fast forward to the age of 23. I loosely get to know some gymnasts through riding motorcycles and low and behold – now I had the courage to start. As a total rookie, un-flexible as 9-10 years of strength training and general certainty that I was going to make a big fool of myself for quite some time – I started. One of the best decisions of my life! I have made so many friends, transformed my body from un-flexible/unuseable to quite flexible and very useable. And generally just had so much fun learning something new.

Now the time has come to try out sprinting. The first few sessions has been a lot of fun. So many instructions on how to run correctly, so much soreness the following days and generally just a feeling of happiness from the fact that once again I am a total rookie and has so much to learn.

If you have something you were always fascinated by and wanted to try, then do not use age as an excuse. Never say it is too late. Just try it and see if it is something you like or not. Beginners are generally received with open arms. If not, then perhaps try another club, persist or pad yourself on the back for actually trying and showing up in the first place. Find somewhere with good instructors – gymnastic elements in crossfit is not the same as doing gymnastics – HIIT running on your days of from strength training is not the same as sprinting under supervision of an experienced coach. Find a good coach/club and embrace the steep climb paved with failures.

Just try it!