This article is written by Dr Martin Lynch
The start of a sprint race is that part of the race from the firing of the gun to the
departure from the starting blocks and the term usually includes the first strides
out of the blocks.
James C. Hay in "Biomechanics of Sports Techniques" (1994) describes:
"At the starter's command 'on your marks' the athlete moves forward and adopts a
position with his hands just behind the starting line, the feet on the starting
blocks and the knee of the back leg resting on the ground. On the 'set' the athlete
lifts the knee of the back leg off the ground, thereby elevating the hips and shifting
the centre of gravity forward. Finally, when the gun is fired, the athlete lifts his
hands from the track, swings the arms vigorously (one forward and one backwards), and
with a forceful extension of both legs drives the body forward away from the blocks and
into the running strides."
The above describes the motion of the athlete from the time he prepares for the start
until he leaves the blocks in the first phase of the race.
In preparing for the start the athlete must consider a range of variables from where to
position his blocks in relation to the starting line and each other, what angles he
should have his blocks set, the position he assumes before and after the gun is fired,
and the force he applies as he leaves the blocks. In this paper I would like to consider
some of these variables and their effect in improving the start, with reference to some
of the literature written on the subject.
The principal purpose of the sprint start is to facilitate rapid clearance from
the blocks and acceleration to maximum speed. There are a number of broad objectives
of the sprint start.
Firstly, the athlete must establish a balanced position in the starting blocks.
He must also make sure that suitable force is applied to the blocks. There must
be correct positioning of the body in the blocks to ensure that the hips rise to
the same height each time. The athlete must establish a foot position which enables
him to come out of the blocks well balanced and with the greatest possible velocity,
as he moves into full sprinting position. Finally the athlete must attempt to
clear the starting blocks in the shortest possible time after the firing of the
TYPES OF STARTS
There are three main types of starting positions for the sprint start. The
principle difference between these starts is basically the horizontal distance
between the front and back feet of the athlete.
1. The Bunch Start :
(Sometimes referred to as the Bullet start) This is where
the feet are close together with the toes of the back foot opposite the heel of
the front foot. Sometimes the feet are even closer together. This would usually
involve a block spacing of less than 30cm.
2. The Medium Start :
the feet are further apart. The knee of the back leg is
placed opposite a point towards the toes of the front foot. The inter-block
distance of this start has been described as approximately shin length apart.
Arnold (1992) describes a position many athletes use these days which is slightly
less than shin length apart, but not so close as to call a Bunch or Bullet start.
This position could be referred to as a 'Short Medium Position'. An inter-block
distance of somewhere between 30 to 50cm could be described as a medium start.
3. Elongated Start :
the knee of the back leg is placed level or slightly behind
the heel of the front foot. It has been described as a position where the inter-block
distance is well in excess of shin length. An inter-block distance in excess of 50cm
could be described as an elongated start.
The most common factor studied has been the effect of block spacing on the start.
The major research studies support the use of a medium anteroposteior spacing between
the feet. ( Henry 1952, Menely & Rosemier 1968, Sigerseth & Grinaker 1962 ).
In some very early studies, ( Dickson 1932) it was found the bunch start ( foot
spacing 10 inches apart ) yielded faster starting times than the medium or
elongated starts. This study, like a number of other early studies was conducted
under the belief that the start was a distinct division of the race and disregarded
the influence of the start on the complete race. Henry (1952) presented evidence
that the use of the 11 inch bunch start resulted in the faster block clearance,
but with less velocity than those achieved from the medium position, resulting in
significantly slower times for the 10 and 50 yards. The highest proportion of best
runs were from the 16 inch block spacing, which would be classified as a medium start.
Sigerseth & Grinaker (1962) findings after studying times for 10, 20, 30, 40 and 50
yards supports those reported by Henry. The medium start offers the greatest advantage
to the sprinter.
Much has been written and discussed about distance between front and back blocks, but
ignores the effect of differing block angles.
A recent study by Guissard, Duchateau & Hainaut 1992 has shown that variation in block
angles can have a profound effect on starting velocities. In the study 17 athletes
used their own preferred distance between blocks and starting line. They all used a
rear block angle of 70 degrees, but tested three angles with the front block : 30,
50 & 70 degrees.
It is concluded that decreasing front block obliquity increase the start velocity
of a sprinter without any prolongation of the push-off. The effect of reducing the
front block angle induces both neural and mechanical changes in relation to the
recorded increase in starting velocity when block angles are decreased. However it
is predominantly mechanical changes in relation to the recorded increase in starting
velocity when block angles are decreased.
The explanation for this improvement is that the ankle joint is in a more effective
position in that the ankle is dorsiflexed. Dorsiflexion of the ankle pre-stretches
the calf muscle and the Achilles tendon. The lower the block angle ( down to 30
degrees ), the greater the Achilles and calf muscle stretch and the greater the force
the ankle joint can generate.
Tellez & Doolittle suggest that angles in both ankles should be close to at least 90
degrees, helping the athlete to feel pressure in the rear block to a greater degree.
Mero, Komi & Gregor 1992 report
In order to get more pre-tension in the calf muscles, the first spikes of both feet
should be positioned on the track. With pre-stretched calf muscles, it is possible
to get a more efficient start. If the body mass is centred more on the legs than on
the arms, pre-tension may be increased.
Tellez & Doolittle (1984) recommend a similar foot position in the front block with
the toes on the track surface, while in rear block, they suggest the tip of the toes
of the shoe touching the track. This variation of rear toe position may emphasise
the speed of departure of the rear foot from the block.
DISTANCE FROM STARTING LINE
In deciding the distance between the front foot and the starting line, ( Barbaro 1983)
mentions that weight distribution, hip position and the effect of foot drive must be
considered. If the front foot is too close to the starting line, much of the body
weight will rest on it and the knee angle will be less than 90 degrees.
This will result in an inefficient front foot drive. If the body mass is centred
more on the legs than
arms, pre-tension of the calf can be increased. ( Mero ).
In a study by Schot & Knutzen (1992) four sprint start positions were analysed with
particular attention to ground reaction forces, horizontal forces and velocity. It
was found that those with a greater distance between the front foot and starting
line resulted in a greater propelling impulse, first step toe off velocity and a
greater average velocity through a 2 metre speed trap.
An important factor in determining the power and momentum developed in the sprint
start is the angle of the front leg in the set position. Most literature accepts
that an angle close to 90 degrees is the ideal angle in this position. It allows
the knee extensors to work best at the correct time for maximum power and momentum
to be developed. An angle in excess of 90 degrees may allow a faster leg speed out
of the blocks but will not develop the same power and momentum.
Borzov (1980) in his investigations into an optimal starting position, varies a
little, with a suggested ideal front leg angle of 100 degrees. Opinions on rear
leg angle vary between 110 degrees and 135 degrees. Tellez & Doolittle (1984)
suggest an optimal angle of about 135 degrees for the rear leg because it allows the
lever to move more quickly and allows greater impulse from a static position. They
also suggest that an early body velocity provided by the rear leg drive past the
front leg is a better mechanical position to accelerate through a more prolonged
application of force.
The height of the hips and the amount of forward lean in the set position is of
paramount importance. This is obviously interrelated with the leg angles. If the
hip height is too low the leg angles are too closed and the centre of mass is not
in a good position to displace in the direction of the run. If they are too high the
angles are too open affecting the optimal force against the blocks. Barbaro suggests
the hips should be 6-12cm higher than shoulders. The degree of forward lean should
be such that it is not too far to put pronounced pressure on the hands or too little
that it inhibits forward displacement of the centre of gravity. If the hips are too
far forward it will diminish front fast drive. If they are just above or behind the
front foot their will be more vertical component instead of horizontal component in
the drive out. The hips should be therefore just in front of the foot in the set
The arm should be shoulder width or slightly wider. If they are too narrow the set
position becomes unstable. If they are too wide, the head and shoulders drop too
far below hip height.
Reaction time has been described as the time elapsed between the firing of the
starters gun, and the first reaction of the athlete.
When automatic blocks are used in major championships it is deemed an athlete cannot
react faster than 0.1 of a second.
(Mero, Komi & Gregor 1992) defines reaction time as the time between the sound of
the starter's gun and the moment the athlete is able to exert a certain pressure
against the starting blocks.
Reaction time measurement currently includes the time it takes for the sound of the
gun to reach the athlete, the time it takes for an athlete to react to the sound and
the mechanical delay of measurements inherent in the starting blocks.
Reaction time can be divided into:
Premotor time: the time from the gun until the onset of EMG activity in
Motor time: delay between the onset of electrical activity and force
production by the muscle.
(Payne & Blader 1971) described an average Reaction time of about 0.09 seconds from
the sound of the gun and the first rise by the force trace - this time was
considerably faster than reaction times of the same athletes obtained by conventional
methods. Possibly indicating a measurement of ' Pre-motor ' period of total
reaction time. This theory was supported by the fact that this first rise in the
trace did not coincide with perceptible movement of athlete.
Various conclusions have been made regarding reaction times, they include:
In all sprint events, reaction times of best athletes is less than 200m/sec.
In the same events, reaction times of females is greater than those of males.
Reaction times grow in proportion to the length of the race.
Reaction time plays only a very small part in the overall race performance.
As the athlete drives from the blocks, the rear leg is pulled through fast; the
front leg fully extends; the arms drive vigorously in a short arm action; while
the head remains in a natural line with the trunk.
Tellez & Doolittle suggest that as a result of the drive from the blocks, the
force that has been applied through the front block travels in one direct line
through the body. An angle of 45 degrees being suggested as the optimum angle for
the most efficient drive from the blocks. It would appear that an angle much
greater than 45 degrees would lend itself to too much vertical component and thus
sacrificing some early acceleration. An angle of less than 40 degrees may cause a
stumbling effect necessitating short strides to correct the imbalance. However,
Payne & Blader (1971) suggest that provided the athlete does not trip or interfere
too much with subsequent running, it would seem that on the whole, as much
horizontal impulse as possible should be striven for during the start.
It was found that when athletes complained of stumbling out of the blocks, they had
the best starts as measured by the mean horizontal acceleration and mean velocity
over 20 feet.
Payne & Blader (1971) also found that in general both rear and front feet started to
exert forces on the blocks at the same instant. Athletes with the best starts
usually had strong rear leg action. However, it was the front foot with its much
longer contact time which provided the greater part of the acceleration of the body.
Arnold (1992) decries how, after the firing of the gun, the focus of attention
should be trained on a particular thought. Five basic thoughts were suggested (but
concentrating on only one at a time). They include driving hard with the front leg,
moving the rear leg as quickly as possible into the first stride, driving the arms
into the first stride, keeping the shoulders low for the first few strides, and
driving hard, without overstriding for the first few strides.
After the blocks are cleared the first couple of strides set up the pattern of
acceleration. The athlete needs pronounced body lean when the acceleration is
greatest in the first strides. Each successive stride in the acceleration phase will
be slightly longer than the previous one while the athlete is accelerating from the
In a recent study (1995) conducted by Martin Harland of the University of
Wollongong, Australia, 26 athletes were filmed and recorded by instrumented
starting blocks. From the moment force was exerted on the blocks until they passed
the 2.5 metre mark (about three strides from the blocks.) A variety of data was
recorded, the athletes were split into fast and slow groups depending on the time
taken to pass the 2.5 metre mark. Harland found that higher speeds the faster
starters could produce was due to the fact that the faster starters applied more
force in a horizontal direction than the slower ones while pushing off the blocks.
Time taken for the fast group to produce this force was less, and the average
acceleration attained for this group when leaving the blocks was higher.
Harland also found once the athletes had left the blocks, the faster athletes were
able to position their centre of gravity significantly further ahead of the toe of
their support foot at the moment of contact of the first step than the slower
athletes, thus greater horizontal forces could be applied.
Harland concluded that faster starters were able to exert a greater average
horizontal force while on the blocks, in less time than the slower starters. This
enabled the faster starters to leave the blocks with higher acceleration combined
with a more effective alignment of their body at first contact. This created a
As can be seen there are a whole range of variables that effect the sprint start.
As a coach it is wise to consider the studies described and apply any information
gained to the benefit of your own athletes.
All too often we find athletes may observe a block position or technique of a
particular elite athlete, and apply it to themselves unsuccessfully. An obvious case
is the number of young athletes attempting to copy the starting position of Ben
Johnson. This athlete had incredibly fast reaction times and very high strength
levels that assisted in his particular start being so succesful.
Johnson used a relatively high block angle and a short interblock distance (about
28cm), which would be classified as a Bunch start. With this type of start problems
can arise in the push off because of the small angle of flexion in the knee joints.
Johnson solved this problem by increasing the distance between his hands on the
track and lifting his hips on set to give an optimal knee-joint angle.
This type of start technique would be unsuitable for most elite athletes and not an
advised technique for developing athletes who would have much lower strength
levels than Johnson.
The technique of athletes such as Linford Christie or Colin Jackson, who use
lower block angles and a wider interblock distance would be more suitable as
models for developing athletes. These athletes have a more balanced starting
position and use the start very effectively to set themselves up for the rest of the
With my own athletes I have a preference for low block angles and a medium
interblock distance. This type of position appears to be supported by much of
the research described.
When I have had occasion to modify an athletes starting position from a higher
block angle and closer interblock distance, I have found that once the athlete
becomes used to the new position, although their block clearance is no faster,
their twenty metres times have improved.
However it must be remembered that there is no one block position or starting
technique that suits every athlete, and a coach must take into consideration the
individual characteristics of the athlete.
As Barbaro states "A coach can do no worse than start with the best mechanical position
and then modify if necessary, to suit the characteristics of his athletes."
As can be seen , there are a whole range of variables that affect the sprint
start. Each of these variables can play a signifigant role in the overall
performance of the sprint start.It can also be seen that some of these variables
are directly related with others.
As a coach , it is wise to consider the studies described in this paper and
apply any information gained to the benefit of your athletes.
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