How to Perfect Your Sprint Start

We all know that sprint events can be won or lost by the smallest of margins right? This means that every millisecond counts and is the reason why athletes spend so much time trying to perfect their start technique and reaction time. When it comes to sprint starts, athletes with the best reaction time, greatest power, and ability to accelerate most rapidly, will excel more than simply the strongest athlete. Therefore, an athlete with a great start may be able to win a race even if he or she is not the fastest athlete in the field. Here's why...

An athlete with a super quick start leaves the blocks first and starts accelerating. The athlete is then able to reach their top speed before the other athletes. So although their top speed may not be as quick as another competitor, because they are able to reach their top speed before anyone else, this could be enough to take them across the finish line in the number one position.

So the importance of a great sprint start can't be stressed enough. Obviously it is not as basic as that, and there are other components of the race that must be accounted for, but a good a start could potentially make all the difference.

I've found that a lot of athletes worry about using blocks and do not feel entirely comfortable using them. Questions like “how far away should the blocks be from the starting line” and “which foot should I have in the front pedal” always come up. These are all things that can be addressed during training, so lets jump straight in and look at how we can go about answering these questions, improving your sprint start and increasing your sprint times.

How To Start: 

Sprint King Usain Bolt Demonstrates How to Improve Your Start 

Usain Bolt speaks about he uses blocks and the technique you want to implement to ensure you can get an explosive start to your 100m race. 

Dominant Leg

sprinter dominant leg

You’ll notice that not every sprinter starts with the same foot forward. It is down to the athlete and coach to determine which leg is the dominant leg simply through trial and error. Some athletes go with the leg they feel is stronger or even do some tests with their coach to determine which one is more dominant. If I have an athlete who is unsure, or just starting out, I get them to practice with both and we can assess which position feels most comfortable and allows for a greater acceleration.

 This is ultimately what it comes down to; where you feel more comfortable and which position allows you to generate the most power and get out of the blocks quicker. Essentially that's what your training is for, to see what works well and what doesn't. You can always make adjustments where needed later on after analysis. One thing I will say, make sure that any adjustments are always made during training. Never trial something new at a competition or meet as you risk breaking your routine and under-performing as a result. 

Block Spacing

The dominant leg will be placed in the first pedal (closest to the line) and the second pedal will be placed slightly behind that. I use two feet spaces from the line to determine the position of the first pedal and three feet from the line to determine the second. There is no rule as to the exact spacing of the pedals but I’ve found that this is a good guideline. Again,  it will come down to where you feel most comfortable but bare in mind, if your feet are too far away from the start line, you will struggle to generate any power, and if your feet are too close, you're likely to stumble onto your face! So if in doubt, use the guidelines i've suggested. Use time during training to get this right!

And I suggest you do the same with the pedal angles. If you want a guideline, I use a 45 degree angle for the first pedal and 55 degree for the second but again, play around with it during training to see what best suits you. It’s very important however that once you have your blocks in a good position where you feel comfortable that you take a note of the positioning or remember it exactly. This will allow you to have the same setup every time during training and competition. This is important as even the slightest changes can lead to variations in your drive phase. It will also  give you one less thing to focus on when it comes to race day. Once you get more confident and can determine your strengths and weaknesses, you can trial tweaks during training to make improvements. 

Hand Placement 

athlete starting blocks hand position

It's important that your hands are placed as close to but behind the line. If your fingers are on the start line then this is grounds for disqualification, and trust me, you'd be kicking yourself if that's the reason you weren't able to race. As with the other points, the width of your hands again will be determined by where you feel most comfortable. Some athletes prefer just outside shoulder width, whereas others, who are perhaps more powerful choose to go even wider so they can get their bodies lower to the ground and generate more power. You have to be extremely strong to do this if you don't want to end up falling flat on your face. I will say however, don't have your hands too close together...definitely not inside shoulder width. This will make you sit in a very high position and make it more difficult for you to explode from the blocks and your drive phase will suffer due to your angles.

Now that your all set up, lets move on.

Reacting To The Gun

reacting to start gun

It's important to develop your reaction time to get off to a flying start. You need to make sure that you react ONLY to the gun. You don't want to have all your hard work in training be for nothing by being kicked out of the race for jumping the gun. It can also  be very distracting for the other racers (which is one of the reasons it's now 1 strike and out!) so don’t be that guy (or girl) just don’t.

When training, it's a good idea to have your coach or someone call the command out for you when practising your sprint starts. You can go by voice alone, or use a tool to imitate the bang. For you coaches (or disciplined athletes) I like to give my athletes a forfeit if they false start during training. This will help discourage this action, which is especially good if you have an athlete with a tendency to false start.

How To Execute

As mentioned already, it's vital that you go through the same routine and set up each and every time you use your blocks (unless you are trying out something new during train) as you don't want anything to affect your acceleration through your drive phase. Nerves, the competition, the crowd watching and the possibility of a false start will give you enough to worry about, your blocks routine should be second nature ( and yes these factors are things that should not be focused on, but let's be honest, we’ve all thought about them at one time or another, and the pressure only increases as the competition gets higher) so it's important to erase as many limiting factors as possible.

Once your blocks are set up how you want them, make sure that they are securely pressed into the track so that they do not move once you start. Have a few practice starts to test this and go through a routine that allows you to clear your mind and focus solely on the race. I like to picture myself running the perfect race (and winning, obviously) before I get in the blocks.

how to execute sprint start

To get into the sprint start position, crouch down and slowly back yourself into the blocks until your feet are positioned where you want them on the pedals. Get comfortable in the blocks first, as once the announcer says ‘set’ you could end up being disqualified if you move. Begin in the crouched position with your back knee on the ground and resting on the fingertips. During set, take a deep breath in and bring the hips up into a loaded position. Don’t come up too high with the back leg, otherwise you will not be able to generate much power and you will end up in an upright position much sooner and miss out on your speed build up during the drive phase. DON'T try and anticipate the gun! You could end up being disqualified or missing the actual gun and have an even slower reaction. Wait for the ‘B’ of the bang and launch yourself out of the blocks, pushing off the pedals with both feet and really pumping the arms rapidly.

 It's important that you begin aggressively as failing to do this will reduce your speed during your drive phase of the race. Drive forward for the first 10m then from 10-30m you should gradually begin to come up into an upright position where you should then be nearing full flow and full speed. I should add, the distances of the drive phase can vary depending on how quickly you can accelerate.