Forward Momentum in the Blocks

In an article from early April of this year titled “Forward Lean,” I argued the importance of maintaining a deep forward lean throughout hurdle clearance, and of continuing to stay forward while sprinting between the hurdles. I would like to take that point one step further in this article by arguing that forward momentum must begin even prior to taking the first step. It must begin in the starting blocks.

The start has never been the part of the race that I’ve been most adept at coaching, but as I continue to embrace this idea that forward momentum is paramount to generating speed and maintaining it, this philosophy has helped me to develop a clearer grasp on the principles that make for an effective start. So, here’s what I’ve come up with in the past couple months:

The most important thing to do in order to create forward momentum in the starting blocks is to raise the back leg as high as possible, but without locking the knee. If the knee locks, it will have to unlock, causing the foot to stay glued to the pedal when the gun goes off. Also, it is essential to emphasize raising the back leg, not the butt. If you raise the butt, you may come up very high, but not necessarily very forward, so there will still be the danger of “popping up” – of coming up too high when you leave the blocks, as opposed to driving out low, with a lot of forward momentum.

When you raise the back leg, that motion creates a forward “tilt,” if you will. For the longest, I’ve always instructed athletes to avoid popping up out of the blocks, and I’ve heard and observed other coaches urging the same thing to their athletes. But I’ve always wondered if there were a way to ensure that the athlete can’t pop up. And to me, this raising of the back leg serves this purpose. With the back leg raised high, your momentum is so forward that you feel like you’re about to run down a hill. And that’s exactly the effect I like for my athletes to create when going over hurdles. In the hurdling motion, I urge my athletes to push off the back leg with force, put themselves in a position where they are looking down on the hurdle. Then when they come off the hurdle and return to sprinting, they feel like they are running faster coming off the hurdle than they were going into it. Why? Because the downhill effect makes you run faster, just like, when you sprint down an actual hill, the speed you generate will continue to carry you once you reach the bottom and transition back to flat land.

So, apply that idea to the blocks, to set position. When you raise your back leg and create that downhill angle, there’s nowhere to go but forward. You couldn’t pop up if you wanted to.

In order for this raise-the-back-leg thing to work, a couple other factors come into play. Firstly, the eyes must be looking straight down, the same as a 100m sprinter’s would. Hurdlers like to look ahead slightly so they can quickly get their eyes on the first hurdle after the gun goes off. Ladjii Doucoure used to look at the first hurdle while he was in the blocks. But if your head is up, and your eyes are looking up, then you won’t be able to raise the back leg but so high, and it will feel very uncomfortable to do so. You won’t be able to put your body at a downhill angle.

The other factor has to do with pedal spacing. If the front pedal is too far away from the starting line, then trying to raise the back leg will make you very “long” and stretched out in the blocks, so you won’t be able to generate any power coming out. If the two pedals are two close to each other, then raising the back leg will make you feel like you’re scrunching yourself into a little ball, so again, you won’t be able to generate any power. So I’ve found myself doing a lot of tinkering with my athletes, trying to find the optimal pedal spacing to allow them to raise the back leg, create that forward angle, and have the power to push off both pedals.

With the hurdlers I’ve taught this start to, my observation has been that the issue of popping up goes away instantly. Many of them stumble slightly at first on the first step or two because they’re not used to being so forward, and they’re not used to having so much of their upper body weight pressing down on their fingers in set position. But they get used to it. To me, a stumble out of the blocks is a good sign. It’s something you want to fix,  but it’s a good sign because it indicates that the athlete is instantly moving toward the finish line. From there, it’s just a matter of teaching the athlete to catch up to his or her speed, so to speak, so that the stumble goes away but the forward momentum remains.

With this start, I have found that my athletes are moving at a faster speed in their initial three steps than ever before, they’re getting faster touchdown times to the first hurdle, and they’re able to run faster off hurdle one than ever before. To put it simply, they’re more aggressive. One of my girls – a four-stepper who has been struggling to three-step – was finally able to consistently three-step to hurdle two once she got the hang of this start. So I’m going to stick with it and continue to develop it into the foreseeable future.

© 2011 Steve McGill

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