By Roger White
Imagine your first day of practice. More than a foot of snow on your track and temperatures below 30. You have 3 weeks to prepare for your first meet, and likely won’t even see the track for the first week. You pray for warm weather and it finally arrives. The snow melts and now you have less than 10 practice days to get your team ready. Who do you put in the relays? What order? What takeoff marks will they use? This is the situation nearly every high school coach in the northern US faces, including me here in Metro Detroit.
In 2012, I had a great group of boys, all juniors, who had shown the potential to do big things. In previous years, when it came time for relay handoffs, I backed a kid up a distance that “looked” right, told the outgoing runner where to start and made a takeoff mark, and used trial and error to determine what worked. Sometimes it quickly came together, other times we needed dozens of exchanges. Being particular about training and taking into consideration how many fast runs kids can do in a given practice, this lack of consistency irritated me. I’d often stop a session if the marks were not correct because the runners had already done half a dozen attempts.
I tweeted a US 4×100 member about how he figured out steps on short notice (I believe right after a relay in Monaco). He replied something to the effect of just knowing where to stand and when to go. I felt there had to be a better way, but what? And what happens if someone gets hurt and I need to either change the order or substitute another guy? This would require additional practice and additional fast runs that might—or might not—be helpful. Also, when our team attends weekend relay meets with odd distance combinations, we have to practice all those different exchanges too.
That 2012 season ended with my juniors missing state finals qualifying by a few tenths of a second in both the 4×100 and 4×200. I was ready to figure something out to get them there the next season.
Help from the GDR
In the off-season, I always read new books and re-read old ones. One of my all-time favorites is Track and Field: Athletics Training in the G.D.R. (East Germany) by chief editor Gerhardt Schmolinsky. Schmolinsky was the best hurdler of the newborn GDR during the 50s. He later became one of the leaders in sport education. The chapter on relays included a table to determine relay takeoff marks. Maybe the scarcity of training information from the DDR made it exciting, I’m not sure, but it was the best I had my hands on. So I decided to give the table a try.
The book credits the table to Tom Ecker in Der Leichtathletik, no 13, 1969. (I consulted Pierre-Jean Vazel for assistance, given his incredible knowledge of the history of track and field.) Der Leichtathletik was the official GDR track and field magazine. It included two pages of one or two articles about training, usually German translations of foreign papers. Ecker was the coach at Western Kentucky University and also a successful writer.
In the 60s, he was a part of the American Specialist Program, doing clinics in Finland, Sweden, and Iceland. He impressed the Swedes, who later named him national team coach. He went on to write Basic Track and Field Biomechanics. In a conversation with Coach Ecker regarding relays, he felt the fastest runners should go first and the slower ones last to take advantage of the free distance in the first leg and the shorter anchor distance in the anchor leg. In the book, he adds that consideration should also be given to those who are great starters and curve runners.
The table in the GDR book was part of Ecker’s formula for calculating the “go distance.” His formula showed takeoff distances based on the incoming runner’s last 25m speed (A) and the outgoing runner’s 26m acceleration time (B). From those times, a go distance (G) could be marked and used for 4x100m relay exchanges.
The Ecker equation for aggressive exchanges is
G = 75(B – A) / A
For safe exchanges, 75 becomes 60, B is 21m, and A is 20m.
G = 60(B – A) / A
How did I use these tables?
I teach math and anything number-related excites me. Early in the season every year, I do time trials of 30m, 60m, and 80m (I don’t like timing actual race distances, as some kids freak out when times aren’t near their race performances). I decided to use the data from these runs, find the table values, and see what happened in our first relay practice. I know studying elite athlete training theory and applying it to high school kids can be tricky. I knew there had to be some factor to account for in these numbers. So I timed the first 26m of their 30m and the last 25m of their 80m.
Originally I used hand times. Here is how things worked out. Runner “E” ran a 3.25 26m and a 2.63 25m fly time. Runner “A” ran 3.22 and 2.53. “A” handed to “E,” so I took A’s 2.53 seconds and E’s 3.25 seconds, added .24 for the hand-time factor, and that gave me 2.77 and 3.49 (rounded to 2.8 and 3.5 on the table). That gives a go distance of 6.3m (20.66 feet, or 22 shoe counts). I now use a Freelap timing system, so data is very easy to collect during these trials.
In practice for baton passes, I start the incoming runner approximately 30-40 meters away, as I feel this resembles the speed toward the end of the leg based on some hypothetical velocity curves. On our first attempt, timing was pretty much dead on in the exchange at full sprint and full reach. This worked for the other runners as well. Our kids started at the back of the acceleration zone, used the full 10 meters to accelerate into the exchange zone, and the exchange took place in the middle of the zone (after about a 20-meter sprint by the outgoing runner.)
Sometimes in the season, we run in relay-type meets that combine odd distances are run together. Often there are 100-100 exchanges and interchanging guys is relatively easy using these marks. Once the meets get going, I still use these original time trial times because I don’t have to re-run a guy or continue to update marks.It gets me within 1-2 shoes using the full zone, and that is what I’m after in exchanges—get the kids running as fast as they can with a nice reach to exchange the baton.
Since utilizing this formula, my kids have broken three school records (both boys’ relays, and girls’ 4×200). Our boys recorded the fastest 400 meter relay time in county history, the first team under 43 seconds. In preparation for big-meet environments, we practice exchanges while other kids run next to each other in other lanes at various speeds to combat the chaos of the race and pressure of all the fast teams. For example, we practice situations with other runners in front of us to simulate being behind and not wanting to take off too soon in a panic.
What about the tables for 4×200?
I have used the equations for the 4×200 as well. In races, I record each runner’s last 20 meters using video software. I find a place near one exchange zone and have another coach/athlete stand at the other side and we get video of the exchanges. Using the 20-meter mark is often easy because of the existing relay marks on the track. Since it’s easier to get the outgoing times, we time those in practice. With both numbers now calculated, I determine precise go distances and rehearse them in practice.