Practicing the Start

Practicing the start of a race is an art form unto itself. It requires much concentration on the part of the athlete and a hands-on approach from the coach. This article will offer suggestions on how to organize a practice session that emphasizes the start of the race. I will not be giving tips to hurdlers on how to improve their start or fix their start. This article is geared toward coaches who are looking to do more than just tell the athletes, “Go work on your start.” Here are some ideas that I’ve used or borrowed over the years:

1. For a beginning hurdler, it’s important to do a lot of three-point stance approaches to the first hurdle before ever even using the blocks. A lot of times, beginning hurdlers practice hurdling from a standing start. The first step is therefore very long, which makes it easy for the hurdler to reach the first hurdle comfortably. Because the athlete gets so used to the long first stride, transitioning from a standing start to a block start creates a lot of problems. Suddenly, the athlete cannot reach the first hurdle in rhythm anymore, but has to stretch and strain to reach it, or has to even add an extra step. The three-point stance more closely mimics the actual block start – coming out low, horizontally, rising gradually – so that the transition to the blocks is quite smooth.

2. For beginners, and also for experienced hurdlers who are just starting up again at the beginning of a new season, it helps to put a hurdle in the lane next to the hurdler, and to place a cone where the eighth step (take-off step) should be. So, if the blocks are in lane five, put the hurdle in lane four. Have the hurdler come out of the blocks, with the goal being to be even with the cone at the eighth step. If the step is too far back, experiment and make adjustments until the step is even with the cone. Once the eighth step is consistently even with the cone (3 or 4 reps in a row), then the hurdler will be confident that he or she can clear the hurdle in rhythm.

3. At this point, it’s time to move the hurdle into the lane with the blocks, but if fear is still a factor, put the hurdle at a lower height. For a female hurdler or a beginning age-group male hurdler, move it down to 30”. For a high school hurdler, move it down to 36”. There’s no shame in even a collegiate hurdle practicing the start at a lower height, like at 39” or even 36”. Overcoming fear isn’t the only reason to lower the hurdle. Lowering the hurdle also enables the athlete to feel faster, so that once the hurdle is raised to race height, the same speed and aggression established over the lower height will be easy to maintain.

4. Now raise the hurdle to full height, and work on mastering the first eight steps through the first hurdle. While working over only the first hurdle creates the danger of the hurdler developing the habit of subconsciously easing up after touchdown, I think it’s important to get the approach to the first hurdle to where it’s near-perfect before adding a second hurdle. Having a cone to mark the take-off step into the hurdle is crucial. Also, for more advanced athletes who are looking to shave off every hundredth and thousandth of a second they can find, it helps to use athletic tape to mark where each of the first eight steps should land. What you’ll find is, as the season goes on and the athlete’s speed increases, the optimal take-off distance will move further back, so the coach needs to be aware of that so that the athlete can adjust to his or her increased speed.

5. Once the hurdler is consistently looking sharp in the sprint through the first hurdle, it’s time to add a second hurdle and a third hurdle. If you’re working strictly on the start, three hurdles is as many as you’ll need. If you also want to work on accelerating to top speed, then five hurdles or even seven hurdles is not too many. My personal preference is to always move in all hurdles after the first one, even if by only an inch, simply because the adrenaline the athlete has in a race cannot be duplicated in practice.

6. Keep in mind that in practicing the start, quality matters more than quantity. Really, you want to do as few reps as possible. The explosive act of pushing off the blocks and sprinting over the hurdles at full speed over and over again will wear down the muscles rapidly. A long warm-up is essential on days when practicing the start, so that the early reps don’t end up becoming an extension of the warm-up. The last thing you want to do when practicing the start is waste reps.

7. It’s always important that the coach or a similarly reliable person give commands to the athlete for each start. If the athlete has no commands to answer to, he or she will develop his or her own rhythm, and it will be the same every time. Therefore, the athlete won’t learn to listen for the commands, to adjust to different starters’ styles, and to react to a sound.

8. It’s often useful to have hurdling teammates practice their start together, as opponents. This tactic is essential when big races are on the horizon. Often, an athlete may do everything right when practicing the start alone, but then everything goes out the window when the gun goes off in a race. That’s because you don’t get a true “race feel” when practicing your start by yourself. When someone is next to you in practice, you learn to transition from “practice mode” into “race mode.” Not all reps in a workout should necessarily be done beside a teammate, but the later reps should be. Particularly in the latter stages of the season.

9. Recording touchdowns is very useful when practicing the start. So is recording the practice session. Touchdowns and footage provide both coach and athlete with tangible evidence of what is working well and what needs to be improved.

10. When practicing the start, it is the coach’s job to eliminate potential distractions. Complete focus is required. Practice the start on a day when the distance runners are off on a long training run and the sprinters can do something on the other side of the track. The last thing you want while practicing starts is a “playtime” atmosphere, which can very easily occur when too many people are around and the hurdlers themselves aren’t dealing with major fatigue factors like they do in interval workouts.

11. A final note of advice would be to always practice the start in the beginning of a workout, when legs are still fresh. Say, for instance, the workout is to do five starts over three hurdles and 3×200. Do the 200s after the starts. A hurdler who practices the start with tired legs is wasting his or her time.

© 2007 Steve McGill

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