It’s Not All About the Start

One of my favorite questions to answer no to is, “Coach, can we work on our starts today?” The reason I enjoy answering no is because I’m usually being asked by an athlete who is trying to avoid doing the grunt work needed to get in shape. Lazy athletes will always try to avoid hard work by “working on their start.” Still, there can be no doubt that the start is a very important part of a hurdle race, as that is where tempo, rhythm, and confidence are established. But just how important is the start in reference to the other parts of a race? That’s the question this article will address.

For me, as a high school coach, the time element is a huge factor in determining how much time I’ll devote to block work. There are only so many hours in a day to do all that needs to be done, and only so many weeks and months in which to do it all. For basically 90% or so of the year, I don’t feel I can sacrifice conditioning work, strength work, speed-endurance training, and especially hurdling technique work in favor of working on the start. I’ve always looked upon the start as the final piece of the puzzle, as the aspect of the race you lock into only after all the other components are firmly in place. I generally won’t focus on the start until the athletes’ conditioning is where it needs to be, until the time of year when working on conditioning won’t make any difference in performance level anyway. Same thing with hurdling technique – if there are still glaring technical problems that need to be corrected, then those must be corrected before specific block work becomes a priority. But once those problems are corrected, then practice time can be better spent working on improving the start than on trying to correct a barely perceptible technical flaw.

Let’s face it: athletes often want to work on starts because it’s easier than most other workouts. What would you rather do, clear 200 hurdles worth of back-and-forths or work on your start? Run twelve 200’s or work on your start? But a coach can’t give in to the wishes of the athletes before the athletes have first built the necessary conditioning, speed-endurance, and technical foundations. Just like you don’t want to do any speed-edurance work until you’ve built a cardiovascular base, just like you don’t want to hurdle until you’ve built a speed-endurance base, and just like you don’t want to hurdle at full speed with the spikes on until you’ve established your hurdle-endurance base, you don’t want to work on your start until you know that all of the other elements are in place. Only then can you be sure that working specifically on your start will really make the type of difference that you would like for it to.

While I’ll have my athletes work on their start about once a week throughout most of the winter and spring months, not until about two or three weeks before a major championship meet will I really start honing in on perfecting the start. By that point in the season, there is no speed-endurance work that can make the athletes any stronger. If they haven’t done the grunt work already, then it’s too late to make up for lost time; they’ll just have to go with what they’ve got. Technique work is pretty much pointless as well, as there is not enough time to internalize any corrections that need to be made. So, again, they’ll just have to go with what they’ve got. This is the time of the year when the start is of paramount importance. Knowing that a hundredth of a second, or, these days, even a thousandth of a second, can be the difference between moving on to the next round and going home for good, between earning a medal and going home without any hardware, between winning a gold medal and settling for the silver, it becomes essential not to let the start be the part of the race that causes you to fall short of your dreams or goals. Hurdle workouts will generally involve no more than two or three hurdles, and all of them will be done out of the blocks, with spikes on, sometimes against a teammate, sometimes not.

Although block workouts are easier, physically, on the athlete’s body, they’re very demanding mentally, because of the technical precision involved, and the need to maintain a high level of concentration throughout the workout, even though the number of reps being performed and the number of hurdles being cleared is going to be low. Too often, athletes will use block workouts as a time to horse around. You can’t work on your start in a relaxed atmosphere, because the real deal, when you’re in the blocks in an actual meet, is not a relaxed atmosphere at all. It is important, therefore, for the coach to try to mimmick race conditions as closely as possible, and to emphasize to the athletes the level of urgency involved in this seemingly “light” workout. Sometimes pairing athletes together who are of similar speed is good to get the competitive juices flowing and to get the athletes to get serious about the workout. Sometimes, though, that can cause over-competitiveness, which can lead to injury, so you have to know your athletes well when it comes to making such a decision. As long as you set the tone in the beginning of practice that we’re here to get some important work done, the workout should be productive. Actually, that’s another reason to not work too heavily on the start too early in the season – until the big meets come around, it’s hard to bring the athletes’ level of focus to where it needs to be for a productive workout out of the blocks.

In block work, especially for a hurdler, it is very important to work on placement of foot-strikes more so than just power. Uncontrolled, unchannelled power can lead to overstriding, which can lead to potentially crashing into the first hurdle, or at least taking off from a distance that is too close to the hurdle, forcing you to jump over it, which causes you to decelerate and lose ground on the other competitors between the first and second hurdles before re-accelerating after touching down off the third hurdle. The most important thing in the space between the starting blocks and the first hurdle is that you take off into the first hurdle at a distance that will allow you to accelerate through the hurdle, so that your touchdown time off the second hurdle doesn’t end up being slower than your touchdown time off the third hurdle. For confidence purposes, obviously, it always helps to be the first one to the first hurdle, to put the competition in a position where they must chase you, thus making them more vulnerable to making mistakes. But the danger, from a mental/emotional standpoint, lies in believing, or hoping, that being the first one to the first hurdle can assure victory, can assure that you will qualify for the next round, or whatever the case may be. There are no assurances in a hurdle race; let’s get that straight right now. Hoping for them will cause you to press, to become over-anxious, and to possibly even give up on yourself before the race is over if the start doesn’t go as you had anticipated.

In terms of the placement of foot-strikes, it might become necessary to put down tape in the athlete’s lane during practice to mark where you want each of his or her first eight steps to land. In my observations of elite athletes’ workout sessions, this is a fairly common tactic to employ, for 100m runners and sprint hurdlers alike. I have found it to be beneficial in the times I have tried it. Especially for athletes who run both the 100 meter dash and the 100m/110m hurdles, the tape becomes necessary because the 100m start is all about power and explosion, so that first step is going to be pretty far out there, which means that such an athlete using the same type of start in the hurdles is usually going to have the most difficulty with fitting in his or her eight steps comfortably, without having to chop the last two or three of them. For those who have the opposite problem – of not being able to reach the first hurdle in eight steps (a problem for many beginning hurdlers and/or hurdlers who are new to using starting blocks), putting the tape down serves the same purpose of giving the athlete a visual guide for where their foot-strikes need to be in order to get close enough to the first hurdle without stretching for it.

Food for thought: in the 100m hurdle final in the 2005 World Championships in Helsinki, Michele Perry had the sixth-fastest reaction time to the gun, but crossed the finish line in first place. In the semi-finals, the only heat winner who had the fastest reaction time in her heat was Jamaica’s Brigitte Foster-Hylton. In the men’s 110’s, gold-medal winner Ladji Doucoure of France had the fifth-fastest reaction time of the eight finalists. In the semi-final round, of the three heat winners, Terrence Trammell tied for the fifth-fastest reaction time in his heat, Doucoure had the seventh-fastest reaction time in his heat, and Allen Johnson had the slowest reaction time in his heat. That’s at least fairly shocking, wouldn’t you say? Even in the open sprints, where there are no hurdles in the way to slow people down and knock people off-balance, those with the fastest reaction times were not the eventual winners. Lauryn Williams had the sixth-fastest reaction time in the women’s 100m final, but ended up capturing the gold medal. Justin Gatlin had the seventh-fastest reaction time in the men’s 100m final, but also wound up with the victory. I’m not saying that these numbers prove anything that should revolutionize anyone’s training methods. What I am saying is that being the first one out of the blocks provides no guarantee of being the first one to the finish line.

As for indoor meets, many would argue that block work is very important in the winter months for the purposes of preparation for indoor competition. I’ll speak strictly for myself on this one and say indoor meets be damned. There’s no way I’m going to interrupt the conditioning work, the technique work, and the hurdle-endurance work for the sake of preparing for indoor races. I don’t like indoor meets. There’s too many people crowded into too little space, the meets last forever, there’s no room for the athletes to warm-up, there’s no intermediate hurdle race (how can you call a track meet a track meet if there’s no intermediate hurdle race?), and the sprint hurdles are chopped in half; by the time you really get rolling, the race is already over. Track is an outdoor sport; it’s a sport meant for open spaces and the necessity of learning how to deal with the elements and the varying weather conditions. Man was not meant to run indoors.

Hey, it’s my website and I can preach if I want to. Keep working on your start, but make sure you do the grunt work first.

© 2005 Steve McGill

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