Instantly Improve Your Sprint Starts: The Complete Guide

athlete on a track in a sprint start position

We all know that sprint events can be won or lost by the smallest of margins. This means that every millisecond counts, and is the reason why athletes spend so much time trying to perfect their sprint starts 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 who can execute a great track 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 therefore begins accelerating first. 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, they could still cross the finish line first because they are able to reach their top speed before anyone else.

This is why practicing all elements of your track starts is so crucial. 

We saw what can happen when you you have a poor start during the 2017 World Championships in London, when Usain Bolt finished 3rd in the final of the men's 100m.

Usain Bolt actually covered the distance quicker than any of his opponents. However, his reaction time to the gun was one of the worst (it was significantly slower than Coleman's and Gatlin's). In the end, Bolt just had too much work to do to catch them. 

Take a look for yourself. You can see from the table below that Bolt's reaction time was 0.183 (second slowest in the race) compared to Gatlin's 0.138 and Coleman's 0.123. 

Then look to the mark column and you'll see Bolt finished in 9.95 with Gatlin winning in 9.92 seconds. If Usain Bolt had a better start, he probably would have won!

So the importance of a good start can't be stressed enough. Obviously it is not the only aspect of a sprint race, but a good a start could potentially make all the difference.

Keep reading to learn how to perfect your starts and use the blocks correctly.

Article Overview

  • Variations of sprint starts and how to perform them
  • How to set up and use track starting blocks correctly
  • How to execute sprint starts effectively

Different Types of Sprint Start Techniques

There are actually a few different sprint start techniques that you can use. Usually in competition you will be accelerating out of the track starting blocks, but this is not always the case when you are training. 

We use a variation of sprint starting techniques in our training which are often based on the percentage at which we are working.

We use track blocks when running at a high intensity where we want to create race like situations, work at maximum effort, or simply to practice our block starts.

The other types of starts we use are the 2 point standing start, the 3 point start and the 4 point start without starting blocks.   

You may have seen these type of start techniques used in other track and field races or sporting situations.  

For example, long-distance runners adopt a 2 point start technique.

Getting off to an explosive start is not important for long-distance runners as they have to pace themselves, whereas in a sprint you want to reach your top speed quickly.

The shorter the distance, the more important it is to be explosive out of the blocks.

Some athletes are extremely powerful coming out of the blocks and are therefore better suited to running the 60m or 100m rather than the 200m. 

Dwain Chambers comes to mind as being an extremely good 60m runner due to his power and exploviness, but he failed to challenge the worlds elite over the 100m.

How to Perform a 2 Point Standing Start

As already stated, the 2 point start is used during competitions for long distance races but I often use it with my 100m athletes during training when doing series greater than 120m. 

Here are the cues for the 2 point start:

Athlete performing a 2 point start
  • From the “on your marks” call, place your front foot just behind the starting line. 
  • Keep feet shoulder width/just within shoulder width apart (wherever you feel the most balanced) and split the feet.  
  • At the “set” position, bend at the hips whilst maintaining a neutral spine/head and shift your weight onto your front foot.
  • Split the arms so that they are opposite to your feet placement.

How to Perform a 3 Point Start

This start is similar to the 4 point start but as the name suggests there are only 3 points of contact with the ground. 

That means one of your arms is raised. 

You may have seen athletes using a 3 point start in other sports. For example, athletes adopt a 3 point start in American football NFL Combine 40-yard dash and in baseball when performing a 60-yard dash

We also use this type of start a lot during training.

Here are the cues for the 3 point start:

Athlete in 3 point start position
Athlete performing a 3 point start in set position
  • Use your feet to measure about 2 feet spaces from the start line. 
  • Place your strong leg forward and your quick leg behind (I’ll show you how to determine this later). 
  • Get into a crouch position so that your back leg/knee is on the ground. The knee of your back leg should be in front of your front foot. 
  • Alternate your arms with your feet. So if your right foot was forward then you would place your left hand before the start line. 
  • The other hand will not be placed on the floor but raised to the side of your body.
  • On the “set” call, raise your hips so that your back leg forms about a 120 degree angle and slightly raise the loose arm behind you.
  • Don't shift your weight from you legs or put pressure on the holding arm as you will be off balanced and possibly stumble which will lead to a poor start.

How to Perform A 4 Point Start Without Blocks

The 4 point start without blocks is performed exactly as you would think. 

Continuing our instructions from the 3 point start, here are the cues for the 4 point start without blocks:

athlete in 4 point start without blocks
athlete doing a 4 point start without blocks in set position
  • Same steps as the 3 point start but now place both hands before the starting line so that you are balanced. 
  • Place fingers before the line and form a bridge with the hands. 
  • Keep hands slightly wider than shoulder width. A good tip is to keep the thumb in line with the shoulder.
  • Keep the arms straight but not fully locked out.
  • When “set” is called, raise your hips so that your back leg forms about a 120 degree angle.
  • Don’t lean too far forward over the line as you don't want the majority of your weight transferred to your hands. 
  • Hold until “go.”

How to Perform a Block Start

Blocks are used not only to help the athletes accelerate more effectively, but also to determine false starts and timings

The block start is used in all sprinting events and is the most technically challenging type of start that you can do. 

I've found that a lot of beginner athletes worry about using starting blocks or do not feel entirely comfortable when 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.

For these reasons we will look at how to set up the blocks, as well as how to execute good block starts in more detail than the other types.

Which Foot Goes in the Front Pedal?

athletes feet and pedal angles for a sprint start

You’ll notice that not every sprinter starts with the same foot in the front pedal.

To determine your feet positions you could go through a process of trial and error.  

Run a series of timed accelerations over 10-20m leading off of each foot and see which times were the best.

If there is a significant time difference between leading feet, then it makes sense to go with what produces the faster times. 

However, when you are starting out, an easy tip is to simply put the foot that you jump off of in the front pedal. 

Imagine you were taking a running jump to reach as high as you could, jumping off one leg.

The foot that comes up first is your quick leg (leg that wants to get away first) and therefore should be placed in the back pedal as this is the leg that comes away first during your acceleration out of the blocks. 

The leg that you jump off of stays in position for longer, therefore will go in the front pedal. 

Another thing you can do is stand with your back to someone and have them push you lightly in the back. Not excessively, but enough to make you move forward.

The leg that you put out to stop yourself from falling is the leg that will go in the back pedal. 

Don't stress too much about this when starting out. If you feel more comfortable with your feet the other way around after implementing the suggestions I just gave, then do what works best for you.

But if you have no idea, then follow the above instructions. You can always make adjustments where needed later on after analysis.

NOTE: Make sure that any adjustments are always made during training. Never trial something new at a competition as there is a higher risk of something going wrong and under-performing as a result.

How to Set-Up Your Starting Blocks

So now you've worked out which foot will be in which pedal. You now need to set up your track blocks.

Use two feet spaces from the start line to determine the position of the first pedal and three feet from the line to determine the second pedal.

There is no rule as to the exact spacing of the pedals but this is a great guideline that allows for good positioning in the set position.

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 then you will struggle to generate power. 

Likewise, if your feet are too close, you're likely to stumble onto your face! So if in doubt, use the guidelines i've suggested.

Once you are more experienced you can start making adjustments if you feel it is necessary.  

Make sure the blocks are firmly located into the track as you don't want them to move once you push off the pedals during the race. 

This is the block set up for running the 100m. If you are running the the 200m or 400m then you can use the same process but make sure you place the track blocks at a tangent to the curve. 

Starting Track Blocks Set-Up Demonstration

Starting Block Pedal Angles

As a guideline, use a 45 degree angle for the first pedal and 55 degree for the second. 

It’s important however that once you have your track 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  your training and competitions.

Even the slightest changes can lead to variations in your drive phase so this is important. 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.

How to Position Your Hands on the Start Line

athlete hand position for sprint start

It's important that your hands are placed as close to (but behind) the line as possible.

The width of your hands will be determined by where you feel most comfortable.

Some athletes prefer just outside shoulder width (which I would suggest - use my earlier tip of keeping your thumb in line with your shoulder).

Other athletes 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 effectively, so you better incorporate strength training into your program if you don't want to end up falling flat on your face! 

Also, you don't want to have your hands too close together...definitely not inside shoulder width.

This will make you sit in a high position which makes it more difficult for you to explode from the blocks. You also don't want your arms to collide with your legs!

Now that you're all set up, let's move on.

Reacting to the Starters Gun

sprinters 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 starter's pistol.

Remember, it's 1 strike and you're out!

When training, it's a good idea to have your coach or another athlete call the command out for you when practising your sprint starts.

You can go by voice alone, or use a tool (or clap of the hands) to imitate the bang. This may be better than having someone shout, as it will be closer to what you will experience in competition. 

For you coaches reading (or disciplined athletes) I like to give my athletes a forfeit if they false start during training (a round of push-ups for example).   

This will hopefully help discourage this action.

It's is especially effective if you have an athlete with a tendency to false start.

How to Execute a Block Start

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 training) as you don't want anything to affect your acceleration.

Nerves, the competition stakes, and the crowd watching will give you enough to worry about, so it's vital that you are well prepared for your competition and eliminate as many limiting factors as possible..

Through continuous practice your blocks routine should become second nature. 

athlete sprinting out of starting blocks

Once your blocks are set up how you want them and you've made sure that they are securely pressed into the track, have a few practice starts, accelerating 10-20m.

Go through your routine which will allow you to clear your mind and focus solely on the race.

I get my athletes to picture themselves running the perfect race before they get in the blocks. Any kind of positive imagery can help. 

Getting into the Blocks Start Position

To get into the blocks, lower yourself into a crouch position and slowly back into the blocks until your feet are positioned where you want them on the pedals.

Position your hands at the line.

Get comfortable in the blocks and imagine yourself as  a coiled spring thats ready to pop!

In competition, if you are unhappy with any of the conditions regarding your race after the "on your marks call," you can raise your hand and see to the issue. 

This must be done before the announcer says "set." If you move after this command, you will be disqualified. 

NOTE: Make sure that your reason is valid. If the official deems your reason to be invalid then you will be issued with a yellow card.  Two yellow cards also leads to disqualification. 

athlete in block start position

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 your acceleration will suffer. You will not be able to generate as much power off the pedals and you'll end up in an upright position much sooner, missing out on your speed build up during the drive phase.

sprinter in set position of the starting blocks

NEVER try and anticipate the gun!

You're more likely to false start and could end up being disqualified.

Wait for the ‘B’ of the bang and launch yourself out of the blocks, pushing off the pedals with both feet whilst pumping the arms rapidly.

sprinter accelerating from blocks
athlete performing a sprint acceleration from starting blocks

It's important that you begin aggressively. Failing to do this will reduce your momentum during your drive phase.

Drive forward for the first 10m, then from 10-30m you should gradually begin to come up into an upright position where you should be nearing full flow and approaching maximum velocity.

Note: The distances of the drive phase can vary depending on how quickly and powerfully you can accelerate. 

Block Start Demonstration

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