An effective start and initial acceleration can set the table for the rest of the run. Optimizing force application, the switching of limbs, and maximizing momentum early on can allow a seamless transition to max velocity (top speed) and an optimal balance between stride length and stride frequency.
Improving skills in these areas when using a standing start can provide valuable stepping stones to success with other starting positions: i.e., three-point, four-point without starting blocks, and four-point with blocks.
I know it can be tempting for athletes to want to try out new things that are learned, but if they’re not in sufficient condition, intense sprinting can result in injury. There are many fine programs out there that feature a variety of exercises and methods to prepare the body for the rigors of sprinting, and it goes without saying that paying sufficient attention to proper warm-ups, stretching, and cooling down is vital. After the next section, however, the focus of this blog post will be on technique.
A Word About Physical Development and Strength Training
In our society, we can get away with not having to do very much physical labor and exercise. Contrast this with our ancestors, whose survival included a necessity to perform manual labor, walking, etc.—this obviously provided our forefathers with a better fitness base than we typically have today. I like to keep this in mind when I advise and train athletes in strength training. My thoughts go toward contributing to their general fitness base and letting it benefit sprinting as it will.
Having said that, I also believe it is valuable to be aware of the muscles that are more directly related to sprinting success and give them the attention they are due. Admittedly, since I coach middle school and high school athletes, strength work is addressed mainly with bodyweight exercises, medicine balls, lifting tires, and doing hills in various ways.
Lastly, learning to recruit the glutes effectively is universally understood as a key aspect. This glute recruitment video is worth looking at, as it references external and internal pelvic rotation and the big toe being in contact with the ground—aspects that relate to various exercises used in training, as well as to sprinting. In addition, the book Running by Frans Bosch and Ronald Klomp also details how the glutes work with the quads, hamstrings, and calf muscles through each stage of the sprint.
Learning and Teaching
This blog article is directed toward coaches, as well as athletes who are mature enough to receive instruction on technique and effectively apply it. The ways that athletes receive information and apply it may differ. Coaches and athletes need to realize this.
Stu McMillan made a great observation of the types of cues his athletes benefited from. He said, “Athletes generally fit into two categories, ones that can feel the foot on the ground really well, as opposed to the ones that feel the limbs in space really well.” So, for upright running, some may respond better to cues similar to “pushing down into the ground,” while others relate better to “driving the thigh into space or their hand up into space.” So the cue, “drive the hand up up up up, and that may bring the entire system up,” may work for some athletes, while “feel the foot go straight down, straight down, step down, recover up, straight down,” may work better for others.Athletes trying to focus on cues they aren’t good at receiving can disrupt their rhythm and timing. In short, it’s important to choose words carefully, says @TheYouthTrainer. Click To Tweet
There are also athletes who, at top speed, feel their feet on the ground and others who don’t. Rhythm and timing are important parts of sprinting, and athletes trying to focus on cues they aren’t good at receiving can disrupt their rhythm and timing. In short, it’s important to choose words carefully—ALTIS coaches even talk about how “mood words can significantly enhance outcomes for coaches and athletes alike.”
The following quote is from a course I took with ALTIS, and speaks to much of what I’ve said to this point and what I’ll be saying afterward: “As it relates to our key words as an efficient retrieval of a technical concept, power is important only during early acceleration—when time on the ground is in excess of time in the air. Once flight time exceeds ground contact time (in most elite sprinters, somewhere around the sixth to ninth step), the word ‘power’ is no longer effective, and we should move on to words that more accurately describe our technical objective for the remainder of the run. However, because the speed reached in the initial steps highly correlates with the speed reached at maximum velocity, it is important that the athlete maximize this portion of the run. Power is a word that resonates with most athletes, and when they have the time required to feel a horizontal push during initial acceleration, power is most useful in reminding the athlete of the specific objective and feel.”
I also think something easily relatable to athletes is Jonas Dodoo’s statement describing the section of the race where the feeling of power is more prevalent: “Most of the effort is at the end of the push.” However, as described earlier, some athletes may be more aware of the pump of the knees during this time.
The Start Defined
In his book, The Mechanics of Sprinting and Hurdling, Ralph Mann said the start consists of three steps. In the context of using starting blocks, he refers to the start as “Block Clearance,” “Step One,” and “Step Two.”
I like to refer to the start as part of “Getting Out,” with the understanding that a big enough force and big enough movements will be used and directed up the track (explained later).
Since I believe that the performances and skills demonstrated out of a standing start can be looked at as a prerequisite to success with other starting positions, as well as having carry-over value, I get pretty detailed in my approach. I believe standing start practice has particular value when wearing training shoes or racing flats on a surface that offers a reasonable degree of traction. Obviously, wet grass and sand on a track are not good choices.
With a standing start and without spikes, the athlete must use a high level of skill to master body positioning, balancing strategies, force application, and directions of force to be able to start explosively and effectively move up the track. “Effectively moving up the track” includes success in dealing with the landing forces associated with the standing start, which, in my opinion, won’t be as great as those encountered from aggressive three- and four-point starts and those with starting blocks. In my mind, this constitutes a step in the process of developing eccentric strength, as well as improving coordination, timing, balance, etc.
A fundamental element of sprinting is establishing and maintaining a large split at the knees during acceleration, as you can see in this Carmelita Jeter video. Addressing hip mobility and strength supports this. The large split is also an essential part of the “knee lift motor pattern,” which is necessary to produce the powerful vertical force into the track, a key to max velocity (explained later). Once again, standing starts provide the ultimate specific “lead-up” activity.
Ideally, at the end of the day, this progression will lead to how world-renowned sprint coach John Smith described the start and initial portion of a sprint: “It isn’t about thrust as much as it is about balance—about each step being so perfectly placed that it sets the stage for optimizing the power of the next step.”
Standing Start Basics
While positioning the body to get out to a good start, it is important to assume a starting stance at an appropriate position in relation to the starting line. Novices often assume a position where their center of mass is too much to the rear of the starting line.
For the “set” position in the standing start, there should be a hip hinge movement at some point, where the torso goes forward, the hips move back some, and the back is straight. Ideally, bending skillfully and being poised to start explosively include preparing the glutes to be recruited in anticipation of taking the body forward and upward during the starting action.Ideally, bending skillfully and being poised to start explosively includes preparing the glutes to be recruited in anticipation of taking the body forward and upward during the starting action. Click To Tweet
The head should be ahead of the starting line, and the shoulders should at least be up to the line but probably ahead of the line to some extent. The hips should feel close enough to the line, with the feet aligned with the knees and hips. The knee and shin of the forward leg in the starting stance should feel close enough to the line, with the body bent to some degree while anticipating the push-off. About two-thirds of the weight is centered over the position of the front leg in the starting stance.
FYI—I do not like the standing start method of “stand up straight with little or no bend at the knees, lean forward, then collapse at the joints” in response to the starting command. This will not serve as an effective lead-up to other starts, as trying to simulate this with three- and four-point starts can—as Dan Pfaff points out—result in projection angles that are too low and balance issues that athletes try to correct with zigzag running.
There is a quote related to standing starts from the article “What is the Drive Phase in Sprinting, Part 3” that may also be helpful: “You can’t push from your toes as toes are meant to grip. The gripping toes create stability for the push off. This is the key to force application and push mechanics when starting from a standstill (traction).”
Soft Standing Starts
To lessen the wear and tear on the legs during warm-up runs and many training runs, I often allow athletes to do “soft starts.” This means the athletes are allowed to move to the line and roll, skip, and otherwise move into the starts as they wish. Requiring the athletes to be completely stationary before starting can be pretty stressful for the legs. Stu McMillan of ALTIS also explains and shows athletes moving into starts in this video.
When running any distance, it is important to pay attention to how to slow down. If the athlete simply turns off their concentration and lets gravity slow the body down after crossing the finish line, injuries can occur—i.e., hamstring injuries. This video does a great job of explaining this.
Inertia is a quality that lets something stay still if it is still or keeps it moving if it is moving. In the context of a race, the starter/official wants the athletes to be still when in the “Set” position so as not to gain an unfair advantage, but as you see very often, sprinters get away with subtle movements before the gun.
Overcoming inertia requires applying a force, but in a race, it is also important to be able to apply the force quickly to get out with or ahead of the competition. So, one of the challenges in starting is to come up with a way to be ready both to react quickly and begin moving powerfully up the track.
There are numerous ways to be effective, related to being coiled and ready to uncoil like a spring, along with the athlete focusing on how the body or body part will move in response to the gun rather than focusing on the starter’s gun. It is no different when using a standing start, although certain details will be specific to that particular starting position.
When in the standing start position, typically, the shin of the front leg is not angled forward in any noticeable way. During the starting action after being required to be stationary, however, there is a subtle movement of the front foot off its spot, and a forward shin angle occurs as the front leg joins the rear leg for the push-off as the body moves forward. Note that in this video below (this is also clearly evident in football wide receivers).
For three- and four-point starts, where the movement of the front foot off of the spot does not occur, and the front shin is already at a forward angle when in the “Set” position, 45 degrees to the ground is suggested; this is closely related to the departure trajectory.
In my mind, an athlete, recognizing these differences, can increase body awareness, coordination, and timing by learning how to achieve an optimal level of power for the push-off for each starting position.
Although the shin is angled at the intended departure trajectory for three- and four-point starts, there is at least a little reduction in the angle between the shin and the ground during the push-off. This is evident in this slow-motion start video; however, a sprinter with good leg stiffness qualities should not exhibit much of a reduction in shin angle during three- and four-point starts. The slow-motion start video features former world record holder Asafa Powell. He obviously has good leg stiffness, and you can see that his shin angle doesn’t reduce very much.
More on Standing Start Footwork
A foot movement that is not acceptable is one in which the rear foot steps backward to initiate the push-off. I believe this is often done when the feet are not sufficiently spread initially, but also if the athlete just isn’t aware of what I described above or is not able to effectively pull it off. Regardless, I feel that this negatively affects hip height, among other things.A foot movement that is not acceptable is one in which the rear foot steps backward to initiate the push-off, says @TheYouthTrainer. Click To Tweet
When athletes doing a standing start are allowed to roll or fall into the start, the subtle movement of the front foot off the spot typically won’t occur since the rolling forward creates the forward shin angle. Note this when watching this athlete subtly roll into his start.
Three-Point and Four-Point Starts
So that this blog article isn’t overly long, I won’t give step-by-step details about three-point and four-point starts, but I will first point to a few vital considerations and then to specific areas where standing start skills can carry over.
When using blocks, having sufficient spacing for the positions of the pedals, as well as allowing part of each foot to be on the track, are important aspects benefiting from the learning progression I’m describing. Some high-level athletes may be able to be effective with their feet off the track and up on the block pedals, but this isn’t suggested for most athletes.
The suggested spacing for starting blocks—two shoes from the line for the front block and three shoes from the line for the back block—is too far from the starting line for four-point starts without blocks. Conversely, many high schoolers who are not allowed to use blocks during prelims in a track meet, but do have good spacing for the feet without blocks, try to use the same foot placements when they are allowed to use blocks during the finals. The result is a position that is too close to the line and cramped.
The bottom line is that when doing standing starts, it is pretty easy to figure out how to be positioned at the line, including how to space the feet, so that obstacle is easily negotiated, and the focus can be on improving body positioning, balance, etc. However, when trying to do three- and four-point starts, if the feet are not in a good position, the start will never be a great one, and a lot of practice will be in vain. Another important starting block basic element is described in #3 below.
Six Areas Where Standing Start Excellence Can Carry Over
- Being in the right position in relation to the starting line.
- Properly centering weight over the position of the front leg.
- An athlete able to position, balance, and explode out of a standing start position should be able to do so from a three- and four-point stance without it being a strain on the hands and arms. Often, the athlete will need to learn how to skillfully rise from the “On Your Marks” position, letting the hips go up and back some at an angle so that too much weight won’t be on the hands. Having said this, the athlete has to be careful not to have the hips move backward in such a way as to have the momentum going backward when ready to respond to the gun.
- A major aim is to be able to aggressively and powerfully project up the track into a high post with the first step, as seen in the photo below. There should be a punching-type knee action, with the first stride being completed by dropping/pulling the leg back down aggressively as the body moves forward and the trailing leg called into action rapidly and as linearly as possible. Again, pulling this off from the standing start position provides a great stepping stone toward the future.
- With great starting skill, a goal should be, as Maurice Greene said, to “use as much power as possible, but use as little energy as possible.”
- Seamless transition to max velocity, with a great balance of stride length and stride frequency
(Photo Courtesy of ALTIS)
Important Arm Movement Detail of the Three- and Four-Point Starts
To properly involve the arms during the start, instead of just picking the hand(s) off the track, the arms should make a sweeping motion through a good range of motion, with the hand opposite the front leg sweeping back and up. This is demonstrated at about the 2-minute 20-second mark of this video, featuring Olympic gold medalist Justin Gatlin and Coach Brooks Johnson.
For three-point starts, the same goes for the action of the hand that is on the ground; the only difference is that the hand going forward comes from a different position.
If the arms don’t move properly in coordination with the legs, the push may be shortened or premature. Arm action needs to continue to be in sync with the legs and general running movements to maximize performance.
Importance of Max Velocity
Although the start and initial acceleration are important, the crucial aspect for sprinters to develop is max velocity (top speed). What we covered previously helps put the athlete in a position to maximize max velocity, and each detail explained below relates strongly to max velocity development.
(Photo by Daniel A. Anderson/ZUMA Wire/Icon Sportswire)
Linear and Rotational Aspects of Sprinting
Although there are definitely linear aspects to sprinting—i.e., the athlete is trying to travel a straight line up the track from point A to point B—and side sway running actions are inefficient, it is important to understand that running features rotational actions that counterbalance one another. Dan Pfaff explains in this video how the hips and shoulders coordinate in this way. Again, relating to the athletes, how they feel the rotation is key and an essential part of their ability to continue to effectively apply force as the feet spend less and less time on the ground.
Go to the 27-minute and 40-second point of this video for a nice description by Jonas Dodoo about force application during upright sprinting at high speeds. When you have time, I suggest checking out the whole video.
Understanding the Effects of Horizontal and Vertical Ground Forces
Sprinting is a combination of horizontal and vertical ground forces. Mann states, “The amount of Vertical force produced during the Block portion of the start, as well as the next two steps, is actually virtually the same as the Horizontal force.” This may sound surprising to many coaches who equate vertical force with “popping up.”
It is important to keep in mind that the objective is to direct the combined forces at an ideal trajectory. Sometimes, it takes watching film to see how close an athlete came to the suggested “High Post” position with the first step, again, shown in the image from ALTIS above.
Critical First 10 Meters
After the first three steps, Mann states, “The Mechanics of the Sprint begin a transition from a powerful Horizontally directed drive to a more Vertically directed effort seen in the Maximum Velocity Sprint Mechanics.” This is not, however, to minimize the importance of horizontal forces. Alluding to the first 10 meters, Mann states this is where “the production of Horizontal ground force is of critical importance.”
Although this should have the effect of having the athlete move through space in a relatively low-to-the-ground, leaning-forward posture, it is a mistake to tell the athlete to try to stay low.
The hips and torso should rise together, and there are different cues to help the athlete rise correctly. Dan Pfaff likes to say “hips climbing” and some may say “rise through the hips” since one effect is that the legs will exhibit less bend at the knees as the hips rise. Two of John Smith’s drive phase cues that I got from some of his materials are “simulate running downhill” and “Keep arms in front (reach out—don’t overdo it though).”
After the First 10 Meters Through Maximum Velocity
As the athlete continues to accelerate, and once again, with vertical forces becoming more and more primary, there will come a time to transition into what I like to refer to as a “pelvic repositioning” and the “top speed gear.” In the book Running, Bosch and Klomp describe this by stating, “At the moment when velocity is nearly maximum, the trunk is then directed more upright while the pelvis is pushed farther forward.” Again, I also refer you back to the “knee lift motor pattern” as being essential for powerful vertical force production.
Mann adds, “The maximum velocity that the athlete can produce is dependent upon how long productive Horizontal forces can be applied. Once Maximum Velocity is reached, the goal must be to produce the large level of Vertical force required to maintain proper Mechanics while continuing to produce the small amount of positive Horizontal force needed to maintain Maximum Velocity.”
In other words, there is a bounciness that has the athlete moving forward at top speed. During the bounciness, the feet are pushing up, not lifting the head and chest. Describing the posture, Lorenes Seagrav likes to say, “tummy tight, back flat, hips facing up (butt tucked).” John Smith likes the cue “chin down.” I also like the cue of “imagining that there is a string from the sky attached to the top of the head, pulling upward.”
Important Max Velocity Technical Aspects
When transitioning into the top speed gear, B skip drill dynamics become more of a part of the strides. This awesome video explains critical do’s and don’ts for the strides during this phase. The whole video is great, but you can forward to the 27-minute, 30-second mark for what I’m specifically referencing.
I also like Usain Bolt’s max velocity cues, “shoulders down and knees up, swinging from the hips.”
Applied to the 40-Yard Dash
Unlike a 100-meter dash, for the 40-yard dash, it is possible to accelerate from the starting line all the way through the finish line without any deceleration. In fact, the acceleration phases are abbreviated to try to arrive at top speed more quickly and take that top speed to the finish line. This means that the rhythm of running a 40-yard dash should be a little quicker than the rhythm of running a 100-meter dash.Unlike a 100-meter dash, for the 40-yard dash, it is possible to accelerate from the starting line all the way through the finish line without any deceleration, says @TheYouthTrainer. Click To Tweet
The Standing Start Is a Skill
Although I don’t believe it necessary for the athlete to feel that they have perfected the standing start before moving on to other positions, I do feel it helpful that the athlete recognizes attempts to be skillful with the standing start can give them a deeper understanding of how to utilize the early portions of the race to maximize performance.
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