Scene: The triple jump competition at a high school near you.
An athlete prepares to take his third triple jump attempt. His previous jumps were fouls. He needs to meet or better his personal record to get an additional three jumps in finals. He raises his hands and begins a slow clap. The crowd complies. The jumper begins his acceleration down the runway, building speed. He takes off at the 40-foot board. The hop looks good. The step is solid. And the jump…leaves him short of the sand. The crowd reacts with a gasp at the awkward landing on his right foot. His leg crumbles, and he rotates forward. The result is a faceplant in the sand.
I have been to more than 400 track competitions in my lifetime, and finishing a triple jump short of the pit is something that happens at the vast majority of them. As an “event official,” I have regularly observed triple jumpers “fouling out”—not due to being over the foul line at take-off, but because they fail to reach the sand. This unpleasant and embarrassing event, which could result in an injury, simply does not have to happen as often as it does.
What could have preceded what occurred in the scenario above? Let’s say that the jumper had a personal record of 42 feet that he attained at the previous meet, where he took off from the 36-foot board (which he had been doing all season). Before that, his typical performance at competitions was between 39 and 41 feet. After his PR performance of 42 feet, he finally felt like he “graduated” to being able to go from the 40-foot board.
Why do high school jumpers have a desire to go from a longer board? The answer is simple: status. I equate it to a similar occurrence in the weight room.Why do high school jumpers have a desire to go from a longer board? The answer is simple: status, says @HFJumps. Click To Tweet
I remember the first time I could bench press 135 pounds in a workout. The sets were 120, 125, 130, 135. Even though it would have been simpler to just add a 10 to each side for the final set, I made sure to strip the bar and throw on 45s. I wanted to showcase that I was capable of handling them.
The difference in this situation is 135 pounds is 135 pounds. There is no additional risk in getting to 135 pounds with the 35/10 combo or a single 45. There is additional risk when one chooses to take off from a further board, as the example clearly shows. If you have witnessed the failure of a jumper to enter the pit in their third phase, you know that it often looks (and is) painful. In an event where there is already an extreme amount of force, there is no need to add to what an athlete needs to deal with, especially when it is unnecessary.
By the Numbers
The best male triple jumpers in the world have performances close to 60 feet, and the board they often jump from is 42.65 feet (13 meters). If the world-class triple jumper jumps 58 feet, the pit penetration of their jump (amount of the jump that is over the sand) is 15.35 feet (58 feet – 42.65 feet). The percentage of the jump that is over the sand can be found by dividing the pit penetration by their performance. In this case, 15.35 feet/58 feet = 26.47%.
The table below shows common board lengths, performances, pit penetration, and percentage of jump in the pit at various levels.
The outlier in the table above is High School Athlete 1, with 4.76% of his jump occurring over the pit. In my experience, this situation is a regular occurrence at high school meets and invitationals. To be honest, I think if an athlete consistently performs below 10% of pit penetration, the coach is being irresponsible, or the athlete is blatantly ignoring the coach’s advice.
Of course, there are exceptions to every situation. Years ago, I had an athlete who was undergoing a stretch of bad competitions. He was consistently underperforming and getting really down on himself. We were in our last competition of the indoor season, and his first three attempts were under 40 feet from the 36-foot board.
He and I had battled as to which board he should use for most of the indoor season, and we compromised on the 36-foot board even though I would have preferred the 32-foot board, with his previous personal record being just over 40 feet. For his last attempt, he requested to jump from the 40-foot board. I conceded because I felt the danger of him being mentally damaged heading into the outdoor season was greater than the potential of physical damage. He needed a win, and I was out of other options. To my surprise, he ended up jumping a season best by nearly 2 feet on his final attempt.
The positives from this situation were that he left the competition in a positive state of mind for the first time in six weeks, and it strengthened the trust he had in me as his coach. (I listened to his request.) The negative was that the technique he utilized to get into the pit was not sustainable.
The threat of not making it into the pit can certainly cause an athlete to access temporary “superhero” abilities, but many times, it comes at a cost. In this case, there was excessive reaching coming off the step phase into the jump, creating an excessive amount of braking force (the foot contacts the ground too far in front of the center of mass). This is common when an athlete is faced with the threat of not landing in the pit, probably due to the brain telling them to do whatever is possible to get closer to the sand.
So, while he did not pay the cost of landing short of the pit, there was still a cost of dealing with too much force between phase two and phase three. If he were to continue to perform in this manner, eventually, the body would break down. Just because a person can eat a diet of tater tots and Swedish fish every day does not mean they should. There will be a price to pay at some point.
I like to keep things simple. Instead of me or my athletes calculating the numbers in the table above, I have athletes do some incredibly simple subtraction. Note that I use feet in this situation because that is typically what triple jump board systems are at the high school level in Illinois, even though event results are metric. In general, I prefer pit penetration to be between 6 feet and 10 feet.
The average performance can be data built over the year (we usually ignore the inches in calculating the average). I am generally more interested in the average over time than the athlete’s personal record. Utilizing the personal record can lead to the situation outlined at the beginning of the article.
- I instruct the athletes to perform the following arithmetic to attain a range of values:
- Average performance (in feet) – 6 feet
- Average performance (in feet) – 8 feet
- Average performance (in feet) – 10 feet
- Athlete’s performance over two competitions:
- 41-6, 40-5, 39-7, 40-0
- 42-0, 40-11, 40-3, 43-6
- Average Performance:
- (41 + 40 + 39 + 40 + 42 + 40 + 40 + 43)/8 = 40.625
- Average Performance – Pit Penetration = Board Possibility
- 40.625 – 6 = 34.625
- 40.625 – 8 = 32.625
- 40.625 – 10 = 30.625
Heading into the next meet, I would still advise this athlete to utilize the 32-foot board. In my opinion, despite a definite improvement, there is not enough data to support moving to the 36-foot board. If he continued to progress and add more data with jumps that were 42 feet and above, we would progress to the 36-foot board.
Coaches should also be aware of the conditions in which results occur. I may throw out data from a meet that occurred in extreme weather or facility conditions (cold, wind, rain, heat, and/or a pit with sand 8 inches below the runway are all on the table here). In general, be conservative heading into a meet with poor weather conditions (maybe go down a board) and be consistent in a meet with ideal weather conditions (use the board you typically use).In general, be conservative heading into a meet with poor weather conditions (maybe go down a board) and consistent in a meet with ideal weather conditions (use the board you typically use). Click To Tweet
This also connects to another important point. While athletes may prefer a particular triple jump board, they need to be adaptable. In Illinois, the standard board system is 24/28/32/36/40. However, not all facilities have this setup (or the condition of one or more of the boards may not be safe to take off from). Early in my career, I heard athletes say something like, “I would have jumped better, but they did not have a 40-foot board, so I had to jump from a 38-foot board.” While my initial thought was to say, “You need to be more athletic than that,” I held my tongue. I realized that I needed to create situations and deliver messages to enhance their adaptability.
First, I change up take-off positions during short approach work throughout the year and emphasize that board distance does not impact our ability to do the job. From there, if I know we are going to head to a meet that has a different board setup than ours (I keep extensive notes of each facility we visit), I say something simple like: “Their board system is different than ours, but we have practiced executing from a range of take-off positions all year. You are ready.” In conjunction with this, I may also try to replicate what they will see at a facility to the best of my ability. Athletes who are comfortable tend to perform better.I change up take-off positions during short approach work throughout the year and emphasize that board distance does not impact our ability to do the job, says @HFJumps. Click To Tweet
Finish in the Pit!
In Illinois in 2023, there were 1,860 athletes with a triple jump mark. One hundred forty of them were 42 feet or farther. Could some of the 1,720 under 42 feet go from a board longer than 32 feet? Sure. Do they need to? No!
One common ratio for triple jump phases is 35%–30%–35% (percentage of the total jump distance for phase 1–phase 2–phase 3). If we combine the first two phases’ percentages (65%) and multiply that by a 42-foot performance, we get 27.3 feet. So, if a 42-foot triple jumper took off from a 32-foot board, they would be 4.7 feet (32-27.3) from the start of the pit heading into their final phase.
This jumper could consistently jump from the 36-foot board but does not need to—there probably is not much of a chance that they would land in the sand coming off their second phase from the 32-foot board. In my opinion, this jumper should not consistently jump from the 40-foot board. The risk is not worth the reward.
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