Besides what a sprinter wears to the starting line for a race, there is no piece of equipment they carry out to the track that’s more important than a set of starting blocks, says @Zoom1Ken. Click To Tweet
Aside from what a sprinter wears as they report to the starting line for a race, there is no piece of equipment they carry out to the track that’s more important than a set of starting blocks. Yet, despite blocks being used in the Olympics for more than 70 years, how best to set these blocks remains a conundrum. Just go to any junior high school meet—or even many high school meets—and you are sure to find athletes completely perplexed by how best to set up two angled pedals attached to a single metal rail.
Many sprinters simply look to the athletes next to them, set their blocks the same way, and hope they don’t stumble on the start. If they do stumble, their coaches get upset, point out that their poor start cost them a good time, and feel obligated to give them some kind of quick lesson—not just how to place their blocks, but how to slide the pedals to their proper locations along the rail.
Then, right when athletes appear to figure it out, they go to meets where the pedals are not locked into the rail and, sure enough, at least one of those pedals falls out of its slot and bounces on the track (or on the sprinter’s foot). Or course, the sprinter can’t remember what slot the pedal came out of. Watching the perplexed sprinters trying to figure it out, you’d think they were being asked to line up colors on a Rubik’s Cube!
History of the Starting Block
But that wasn’t always the case. There were no starting blocks when Harold Abrahams won the 100-meter gold medal in the 1924 Olympics. Back then, the only piece of equipment sprinters carried onto the track was a trowel for digging two holes to place their feet in. Sprinters took meticulous care making those starting holes, concerned about precisely where their first foot out of the holes would place them. In fact, Abrahams once mentioned how he also carried a piece of string cut to the length of his first stride, put the string down on the track, extended it forward, and then made a mark in the track where he focused his eyes when he heard the “set” command.
George Simpson, a 20-year-old star from Ohio State, set the 100-yard world record at 9.4 in 1929, but the IAAF did not recognize that mark because Simpson had used a piece of equipment: starting blocks. Until 1948, the best “carry on” item sprinters brought to the track remained that trowel for digging holes at the spots where they wanted to place their feet. Such holes were not only unstable, but they were also a “groundskeeper’s nightmare” on dirt, grass, or cinder tracks. Track and field historians believe that the trowel was still in use in the 1970s and early ’80s before the newer, rubberized surfaces became more affordable.
Even though starting blocks were used in the ’48 Olympics for the first time, sprinters still struggled with them. In the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, U.S. sprinter Thane Baker put down his starting blocks pointing in the wrong direction. In yet another piece of bizarre starting block trivia, 1980 Olympic gold medalist Alan Wells of Britain didn’t want to use starting blocks, but they were then required by the IAAF for the Olympic Games. Just three months before the Moscow Games, Wells had not even used blocks in competition because he “preferred to start with his feet firmly on the track.”
Finding the Right Positioning
Starting blocks have evolved over the years, but not without controversy. In the 1930s, the generally accepted orthodox position was often called the “Duffy” start because that’s the way Georgetown champion Arthur Duffy set his blocks. His feet were 17 inches apart, and his front foot 8 inches from the starting line. Duffy believed this position resulted in a primary push from both legs and not just the front leg.
Much of the thinking at the time centered on the belief that it was best to place the feet as close to the starting line as possible. For example, Coach Larry Snyder noted that if an athlete’s foot is 8 inches from the starting line, that athlete would be ahead of the sprinter whose front foot was 18 or more inches behind the line. This is one of the reasons why the Australian or “kangaroo” style start was not accepted at first. The front pedal was set 17–19 inches behind the starting line, with the back foot pedal 10–12 inches behind the front one. Coaches believed this position put the feet too far behind the starting line. Again, this notion of sprinters losing too much ground to sprinters who crowded the line was a major concern.
Sprinters like the great Jesse Owens did not do much to change coaches’ minds. Owens moved both feet closer to the line, believing that being nearer to the starting line put him nearer to the finish line. Larry Snyder’s insights clearly had an influence on Owens, but he never crowded the line by the 2 or 3 inches that Snyder believed optimal.
Research in the early ’50s cast some doubt on the benefit of “hugging the line” as much as coaches had advocated. The highly respected Franklin Henry noted that a 16- to 21-inch difference from toe to toe is the best distance, and that the 11-inch bunch start was the poorest. Though the bunch was effective at getting the sprinter off the blocks quickly, slower times were the result because the spacing did not put sprinters in a good running position. With a bunch start, Henry believed that sprinters would not be able to recover from that disadvantage.Though the bunch start was effective at getting the sprinter off the blocks quickly, slower times were the result because the spacing didn’t put sprinters in a good running position. Click To Tweet
Ken Doherty said it best: “Undoubtedly, in the United States since 1890, there have been more speeches, more arguments, more try-this-try-that, and more research on the placement of starting blocks than on any other track and field problem.”
What about the blocks themselves? Some have pedals fixed in the rails; other designs have easily detachable pedals. Many blocks now allow the sprinters to adjust the angle of each of the pedals. Doherty notes that “there are numerous papers discussing the optimum position for creating maximum drive from power generated, but using blocks is much more about comfort and control than exact science.”
However, thanks to a rather unique Excel file created by Brian Mackenzie, a Level 4 performance coach with British Athletics, coaches and athletes can take five specific measurements and then plug them into his chart to determine the most effective pedal angles and spacing.
With Mackenzie’s easy-to-use (and free) formula, sprinters can set their blocks based on the numbers that are provided after they have inputted their limb segment data. Mackenzie doesn’t try to “sell” the benefits of his formula. In fact, he begins by explaining that block setting is really a simple process. “Place the front block two foot-lengths from the starting line and the rear block another foot length between the front and rear block. From that point, spacing can be adjusted based on performance over the first several strides.” In other words, athletes can try this simple method to see if the setting feels good or, more importantly, results in faster starts.
This is really how most sprinters approach block setting, and that’s probably all they need to do. In terms of ideal angles of the leg in the “set” position, Mackenzie notes that the leading knee angle should be 90–110 degrees, and the rear knee angle 120–135 degrees. Again, nothing controversial here, but for those who follow the old carpenter’s rule of “measure twice, cut once,” there is value in a personal assessment like the one Mackenzie presents.
Each sprinter gets a personalized sheet, which serves as a simple instruction manual. This means they adjust the blocks on their own without a coach hovering over them, says @Zoom1Ken. Click To Tweet
I have had assistant coaches ask if taking these measurements was really necessary, and if the recommendation from the data actually suggested a placement that would be much different from what the athlete would have determined on their own, just based on the above simple guidelines—or “trial and error” based on feel. My response is always the same: Each sprinter gets a personalized sheet, and that sheet serves as a simple instruction manual. This means they adjust the blocks on their own without a coach hovering over them.
Unconventional Blocks and Starts
So, an interesting question: Why are they even called “blocks”? This may have been related to the 1927 starting block patent that George Bresnahan of Iowa filed as a “foot support,” which he then described as “what might be termed a starting block.” As you can see in this image of the patent, they are basically hinged blocks of wood with butterfly screws to create a solid base of support and angle.
In general, starting blocks have evolved slowly. The rail or platform for the angled pedals has been progressively shortened, but some manufacturers have had to modify their design to accommodate sprinters and hurdlers with longer legs. It makes you wonder if they should have used Mackenzie’s formula with various sprinters before determining that a shorter rail length was better.
Blocks were actually approved by the IAAF in 1937, but because of World War II, they were not used in competition until the ’48 Games.
A final note: What inspired me to take block setting this seriously? It was an image of the starting technique of ’72 Olympic champion Valery Borzov. His start so impressed Ken Doherty that he developed a sketch just to make Borzov’s start a point of special analysis in his Track and Field Omnibook. Borzov’s block spacing appears to be as little as 10 inches apart—what would be considered more like the questionable “bunch” spacing in standard block setting terms. His front block was 25 inches to the starting line. His eyes are straight down, hands spread wide, and arms above 110 degrees. This position placed his center of gravity low and far ahead of his feet.
This position was intended to aid forward drive, but it appeared problematic because of the increased risk of stumbling and causing a much shorter first step. But note how Borzov compensated. His foot is placed low in the front pedal, and the front of his spikes is actually on the track and not against the block itself. This allowed for greater flexion and extension, and that front-of-the-foot contact with the track apparently increased his application of force and basically prevented him from stumbling.
This prompted Doherty to claim that the result, “may well be an improvement over the best possible on-your-marks placement.” Jimson Lee, in an excellent blog post on Borzov’s mechanics, said something similar: “He has one of the greatest sprinting techniques out of the blocks and running at top speed.”
Interesting in that, competing indoors following his gold-medal Olympic performance in Munich, Borzov was seen starting indoor races from a three-point stance. This prompted many coaches to wonder if the Ukrainian Express had developed an even faster technique for block starting. It turned out he had a hand injury painful enough for him to avoid taking a risk with his typical “unconventional” start!
More Than a Thought: The Best Possible Block Setting
Give Brian Mackenzie’s calculator a try. The five measurements he recommends that we take of a sprinter while in the “set” position give us another way to test what we assume may be the best possible block setting for each of our athletes. It gives us something more to think about during our thinking process.
In “Hamlet,” when a probing Rosencrantz disagrees with Hamlet about Denmark being a prison, Hamlet says, “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”
In the debate over what is the best block setting for sprinters, I offer a somewhat different twist on Hamlet’s insight: There is nothing like good data from sound research to cure what might be bad thinking.
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Doherty, Ken. Track and Field Omnibook; a Complete Guide for Coach and Athlete. Tafmop Publishers, 1976.
Mackenzie, B. (2001) Sprint Starting Block Settings [WWW] Available from: https://www.brianmac.co.uk/sprints/blockset.htm [Accessed 11/9/2019].
Duncanson, N. The Fastest Men on Earth: The Story of the Men’s 100 Metre Champions. Andre Deutsch Publishers, 2011.
Brewer, John. Running Science: Optimizing Training and Performance. University of Chicago Press, 2017.