As a high school athlete, I was clueless. I ate all the wrong things, almost never warmed up properly, and didn’t push myself nearly hard enough in practice. Despite these realities, I was a fixture in both hurdle events and the 4×200 and 4×400 meter relay teams during my junior and senior years.
As a young coach, I wasn’t a whole lot better; however, I’ve been lucky to have great mentors who have taught me a lot and given me opportunities to lead. I’ve had some decent success teaching kids how to hurdle, developed a race plan for the 300-meter hurdles, and evolved in my sprint training, becoming heavily influenced by Tony Holler’s Feed the Cats philosophy for everything from the 60 to the 400.
But as much as I’ve grown, for the first 15 years of my career, there was one nut I couldn’t seem to crack: the best way to get the stick around the track in the 4×200 meter relay.For the first 15 years of my career, there was one nut I couldn’t seem to crack: the best way to get the stick around the track in the 4x200 meter relay. Enter the fly-by exchange, says @TrackCoachTG. Click To Tweet
The 4×200 is not the 4×100. And while this is an almost insultingly obvious statement, along with many other coaches, I’ve been guilty of running those two exchanges in very similar fashion—as a blind exchange with a push pass from the incoming to the outgoing runner. Simply cut the outgoing runner’s “go-mark” a little shorter than in the 4×100, I thought, and the stick should get around the track safely. But this led to all kinds of problems that I would be willing to bet almost every coach has experienced:
- The outgoing runner leaves early.
- The outgoing runner leaves on time but leaves too fast.
- The incoming runner is inexplicably tired at the end of their leg.
- The incoming runner is running well but is so nervous about not being able to catch their teammate, they shout “go slow!”
- The outgoing runner is so nervous that the incoming runner is tired that they barely move at all.
All these problems mean one thing: The outgoing runner must stop or slow down to keep from running away from their teammate and get the stick inside the zone. This brings your race progress to a standstill (or at least a massive deceleration).
The 4×200 is also not the 4×400. I know you know this. But another approach to the 4×200 exchange is to treat it like a sped-up 4×400 with an open exchange, or a hybrid approach where the outgoing runner takes off, then turns and looks back to get the baton from the incoming runner. In my opinion, this is a much safer option than the blind exchange, but it still leaves something to be desired, since running sideways is slower than sprinting straight ahead—also, turning back to look for the baton doesn’t help acceleration.
Many teams run variations of these exchanges. And while they are reasonably safe, if well-executed, consider this question: What is the goal of your relay exchanges—to play it safe or to be fast?
I think every coach would agree: It doesn’t matter how fast your kids are. A slow stick destroys relay times. But the same is also true of a dropped baton, and given the choice between a slow baton and one that’s bouncing on the track, many coaches will opt for the safest exchange. After all, a slow baton is a bummer, but a dropped baton or a zone violation is a death sentence.
But what if I told you that you don’t have to choose between safety and speed?What is the goal of your relay exchanges—to play it safe or to be fast? What if I told you that you don’t have to choose between safety and speed? asks @TrackCoachTG. Click To Tweet
You can have it all. You can ensure that your outgoing runner will never leave your incoming runner in the dust, and the baton will move fast through the entire zone without any slowdowns, turn-arounds, or (heaven forbid) screeching halts at the end of the zone. All you have to do is implement the fly-by exchange.
Learning the Fly-By Exchange
Like so many good ideas in coaching, the fly-by exchange is one that I stole. Several years back, I was coaching in Illinois at Monticello High School, and I saw something at a meet I’d never seen before. I watched the sprint relay teams from Champaign Centennial destroy the field using a goofy handoff where the incoming runner actually ran past the outgoing runner. I watched those sprint relay teams every chance I got for the next two seasons, and I loved the efficiency with which the stick moved through the zone. They never had a bad exchange. At the IHSA State Meet in 2015, the Centennial boys ran 1:29.22 in the 4×200, good enough for a seventh-place finish. The seed had been planted. The idea has been growing inside of me ever since.
In 2021, I took over as the Head Track and Field Coach at Kalamazoo Central High School. It was a COVID-19-impacted year, and our first practice of the season was April 5, with the MHSAA State Finals exactly two months later. We had some talented athletes on that squad, but we certainly weren’t world-beaters. Still, I felt like we had enough depth that we could find some modest success in the sprint relays.
But it wouldn’t come easily: The last time we had a sprint relay team qualify for the state meet was in 2014. After seeing our first attempt in the 4×200 fall victim to the relay-killing issues I mentioned earlier, I knew we couldn’t afford to have poor handoffs and sniff success. So, I got to work.
I used my old Illinois connections to learn that the mad scientist behind Champaign Centennial’s unorthodox exchanges was Mike Shine. An assistant at Centennial, Mike previously had collegiate coaching stints at West Point, Penn State, and the University of Illinois before joining the high school ranks and forever changing my perspective on relay handoffs. Not only that, but he was a silver medalist in the 1976 Olympics in the 400-meter hurdles. I am almost embarrassed to admit that I knew none of this at the time—I just knew I needed to talk to him.
With the help of a former colleague from Monticello, I was eventually able to get Mike’s number and pick his brain. To be clear, Mike happily agreed to pass his number along and was just as happy to talk to me. I’m not a stalker. He may never read this, but I have to give him credit regardless. After talking to him a couple of times, I knew it was time to implement the fly-by exchange in our sprint program. We haven’t looked back since.
But enough about my escapades as an amateur sleuth. Let’s talk about relays.
What Is a Fly-By Exchange, Why Does It Work, and How Can You Implement It?
A fly-by exchange inverts the standard operating procedure for a sprint relay. In normal circumstances, the outgoing runner takes off sprinting when the incoming runner hits a specific “go-mark.” The incoming runner then chases the outgoing runner and places the baton in their hand in any number of ways, be it via push-pass, upsweep, or some other technique. The idea is that the incoming runner will be able to catch the outgoing runner simply by virtue of the fact that the outgoing runner is starting from a static position as the incoming runner is flying toward the exchange zone. But in a fly-by exchange, the incoming runner overtakes the outgoing runner and finishes through the end of the zone; it is the outgoing runner who must chase the baton and retrieve it from the incoming runner before the exchange zone expires.In a fly-by exchange, it is the outgoing runner who must chase the baton and retrieve it from the incoming runner before the exchange zone expires, says @TrackCoachTG. Click To Tweet
Given this definition, you either think I’m bonkers, or you might be starting to see why this exchange is effective. Let’s go with the latter.
Here’s why it works. For starters, since the incoming runner passes by the outgoing runner, you will never have to worry about the outgoing runner leaving too early or too fast, causing them to run away from the baton. Next, it doesn’t allow for feelings of panic from the incoming runner. If they’re tired at the end of the race, so what? The outgoing runner cannot possibly escape them. The incoming runner’s only job is to run as fast as they can for as long as they possess the stick. That’s it.
Finally, because the incoming runner is sprinting hard and the outgoing runner is trying to catch up, it encourages an exchange that will take place at the end of the 30-meter zone. This is a good thing, because it allows a full 20 meters of acceleration for the outgoing runner, meaning that by the time they take the stick, they’re already moving fast. An exchange that occurs in the first half of the exchange zone is safe but slow, since most sprinters do not get close to top speed in the first 10 or 15 meters of any sprint. We want our handoff to occur in the second half of the zone—or, even better, the final third of the zone, passing from one fast runner to another.
To implement the fly-by exchange in your 4×200 meter relay, have the outgoing runner start by creating a go-mark. We use chalk in Michigan, so for us that means drawing a box that is 5 to 7 feet from the exchange zone. Video 1 shows our second leg measuring and drawing his go-mark at a dual meet earlier this season.
Video 1. Starting from the beginning of the exchange zone, have the athletes measure back five of their feet and draw a line. Then measure two more and draw another. Use those lines to draw a box on the track. Squigglies are optional.
Bada-bing, bada-boom, you’ve got yourself a go-mark. I should mention that these marks are drawn in chalk, not etched in stone. You can adjust, if need be, but this is a good starting point for your experimentation. Our anchor leg, for example, uses a mark that’s just 3 to 5 feet from the zone. At any rate, upon finishing their sidewalk art, the runner will then go stand just inside the exchange zone on the outside half of the lane.
That last part—the outside half of the lane—is critical. For the incoming runner to overtake the outgoing runner, there has to be enough room to do so. We imagine that the lane is split in two. The outgoing runner moves all the way to the outside, so the incoming runner has enough room inside to sprint past.
Given this positioning, the next important bit is that runners are carrying the baton in the correct hand. The incoming runner will always have the baton in their right hand. The outgoing runner will then take the baton in their left hand before transferring the stick to their right. This allows for the exact same exchange to happen in every zone—the incoming runner, with the stick in the right hand, sprinting on the inner half of the lane and through the end of the zone while the outgoing runner chases in the outer half and takes it with their left.
For the baton to pass safely from one runner to the next, as soon as the incoming runner passes their teammate, they continue sprinting as hard as they’re able (which will certainly be submaximal at the end of a 200-meter race) and hold the baton out in front of them like a candlestick. The outgoing runner, who is accelerating as fast as possible, eventually catches their teammate, grabs the candlestick baton, and keeps on truckin’.
I’m going to show you a few examples of the fly-by exchange in action. Before you watch, know that we were not happy with the exchange below—after the video, I’ll explain why and offer some coaching points. I’ll show you a better example a little later.
Video 2. Here’s the first exchange from the same meet as video 1. While not a perfect example, there are a few things that work well here.
As I mentioned, this handoff leaves something to be desired. It’s early in the season, and the incoming runner is coming in a bit slower than we’d like. He lets off the gas as the exchange gets nearer. Our outgoing runner takes the baton about 12 meters into the zone—not our happy place! But let’s focus on what works well here, even in a less-than-ideal example.
If we run this traditionally, and the incoming runner comes in slowly due to fatigue, the outgoing runner will either leave them entirely or have to run very slowly just to get the stick. That means that if they get the stick at all, they’re crawling when they do. But here, even though the incoming runner doesn’t execute perfectly, the outgoing runner is still sprinting hard when he takes the baton. Even in a bad exchange, I find this to be better than running blind.
To correct the issues seen in the video, I’ve hammered home two points for the incoming runner.
- “Finish your race”: The distance from the starting line to the beginning of the first exchange in the 4×200 relay is 180 meters. With a 30-meter zone, that means the end of the exchange represents 210 meters of sprinting for the first leg. The distances for the rest of the runners depend upon where they receive the baton, but the significant takeaway is this: If the baton leaves your hand in the beginning of the zone, you didn’t finish your race.
It is vitally important that each runner sprints their full 200 meters (I actually tell them to sprint 210 meters) to ensure that the stick makes it to the end of the zone with speed. Running less than 200 meters with a fly-by exchange means the incoming runner has slowed down, and the result is that the outgoing runner takes the baton early before coming close to their top speed. No bueno.
- “Make them chase you”: We want the outgoing runner to feel some pressure to catch the teammate that just ran by. I’ve yet to find a runner at the end of a 200 who could outrun a similarly fast but infinitely fresher athlete over 30 meters. The fresh athlete will always catch up, but we want them to have to chase hard to do so. The result? The incoming runner sprints with as much gas as they have left through the zone, and the outgoing runner sprints their tail off to catch them. Fast kids running fast means a fast stick and a fast relay time.
As for the outgoing runner, there aren’t a lot of cues. As long as this athlete leaves on time and runs the outer half of the lane, the only job they have is to chase their teammate down and grab the stick. Then, it’s their turn to sprint a full 200, finish their race, and make their teammates chase them.
To practice this exchange, I’ve done a couple different things. One option is to incorporate 4×200 relay exchanges into a lactate workout. Simply run a full 4×200-meter relay, then after an eight-minute rest period, do it all over again. During the rest period is a good time to coach and correct any exchange issues you may have noticed in the first rep.
You could probably do even more reps of this given a longer rest period if you so choose. But if you’re working your handoffs in as part of an already difficult workout, you can’t really do very many reps in total, no matter the amount of rest. That’s why we practice handoffs in isolation most of the time. To do this, I send the incoming runner back about 20–30 meters and instruct them to come into the zone at around 90% intensity, maintaining that intensity all the way through the exchange zone. This forces the outgoing runner to practice chasing.
Here are a couple examples of what that looks like in practice.
Video 3. Our first and second runners from the start of the exchange zone.
Video 4. Our third and fourth runners from the end of the exchange zone.
Since implementing the fly-by exchange, our boys 4×200 meter teams have qualified for the MHSAA State Finals in consecutive years. In 2021, we took a varsity team that ran an abysmal 1:37.25 in their first attempt (with a blind exchange) to a season-best time of 1:31.77 and a 15th place finish at the state meet. In 2022, we opened the season by improving upon our previous year’s best and running 1:31.74, then continued to improve all season long before running our best time of 1:29.15 at our regional competition. Unfortunately, at this year’s finals we ran .86 seconds slower than our season’s best time to run 1:30.01 and finish tenth overall.
Video 5. Here is the video of our 4×200 run from State Finals. While a couple of our legs did not have their best splits, the handoffs were executed as well as any we ran all season. We’re in lane three.
A week or so ago, as I was in the process of writing this, a freshman on our relay team asked me, “Coach, how come we do the exchanges this way and not like other schools?” It was something I had taken for granted, since all the other guys on our team had been around since last season. I saw the opportunity to not only teach this kid the method to my madness but also to reaffirm for the rest of the team why we do things a little differently. After I got done explaining, one of our senior relay members turned to him and said, “It’s made a huge difference, bro. We were sorry before we started doing this.”The fly-by exchange will be a big reason why we’re able to maximize the potential from our relays and squeeze every ounce of juice out of our athletes, says @TrackCoachTG. Click To Tweet
A couple days removed from our State Finals appearance, I know there is still work to be done, but I also know we will be back. And the fly-by exchange will be a big reason why we’re able to maximize the potential from our relays and squeeze every ounce of juice out of our athletes. We’ll never have a sorry 4×200 relay team again.
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