Top 3 Block Start Mistakes
Within the sprint events, optimization of the block start is imperative for athletes to run as fast as they can. While the race is not won or lost at the block start, the start sets you up for effective or ineffective acceleration, and the efficiency of this acceleration will dictate the following phases of the sprint. By avoiding these top three block start mistakes, you or your athletes will be in a better position to avoid injury and run fast.
Though any number of issues may be present in the start, there are three glaring mistakes that athletes make which will hurt their ability to perform optimally:
- Inefficient block stance
- Inefficient angle of projection out of the blocks
- Reaching with the foot
There are many layers to the block start onion, but to truly get the most out of your start, these three block start mistakes need to be avoided at all costs.
1. Inefficient block stance
Often times, people see an issue and cannot figure out why the issue has arisen. With sprinting, or any movement, one should always look at the moment preceding the issue to see if they can find the core root of the problem. With block start mistakes, we need to always look at what happened in the stance, the exit, and all points in between.
When people come out of the blocks and look as awkward as a baby giraffe coming out of the womb, chances are they were set up in a poor position in the blocks themselves.
Common issues with the block stance:
- Being too bunched (too close to the line)
- In this case, athletes and their block positioning is too close to the line. Not only will this cause a lack of balance because their weight is not distributed onto their 4 points of contact, but they are in an inefficient position to apply force to the blocks.
- Most people are far stronger in a quarter squat than they are in a deep squat, and the same idea transcends to the block start. If you are too bunched, your legs will be deeper in hip flexion than is optimal, and your ability to produce high amounts of force in a short amount of time will be hindered.
- Being too bunched will also cause you to exit the blocks at a higher than optimal angle, as your shin angle of the front leg will be high and there is no way to avoid this in a bunched position.
- Being too long (too far from the line)
- As with being too close, being too far from the line is ineffective as well.
- In this position, athletes do not have deep enough hip and knee flexion to be able to apply force to the blocks for long enough, reducing the propulsive impulse (Force X Time) that they can apply to the blocks. Lower impulse leads to lower exit velocity from the blocks.
- Longer block stances also leave athletes prone to projecting out of the blocks at too low of an angle. The further back your front leg is in the blocks, the lower your shin angle will be. If this is too low, your exit out of the blocks will be sabotaged.
Block Start Mistakes – Solution #1:
Just like the three bears and their porridge, you need to find out which block stance feels “just right.” Ultimately, you will want to be in a position which is comfortable, which allows you to leave the blocks forcefully, and end up in an effective posture on your first step out of the blocks. If you stumble or pop straight up out of the blocks, chances are your position is not optimal and you need to make some changes.
2. Inefficient angle of projection
Why do we use blocks anyways? So that we can launch (aka project – proh-ject, not praw-ject) ourselves out into space with enough time to reposition our limbs and then strike the ground forcefully at an optimal angle or vector of force. One of the block start mistakes people commonly make is to fire out of the blocks at a bad angle.
When I’ve mentioned on social media that people should not try to fire out as low as humanly possible out of the blocks, the ignorance brigade comes out and bashes me saying lower is better. While yes, 3rd grade geometry tells us the fastest path between two points is a straight line, the human body is a complex multi-joint system which is battling various forces such as gravity and air resistance, all of which make an impact on what is the most effective path from point A (a crouched starting position) and point B, the finish line.
When you fire out too low or too high, you sabotage your ability to accelerate efficiently. The lower your center of mass is to the ground, the less space and time you have to reposition your limbs for the next ground contact. When you fire out too high, you will be in the air too long and your center of mass will lose horizontal velocity while in the air, leading to a lag time or latency period between steps.
Common issues with projection angle:
- Firing too low
- When you fire low, you will eventually be overcome by gravity and end up stumbling or falling on your face.
- When too low, you do not have the time or space to reorient your limbs for succesive, successful ground contacts.
- Most people are not strong enough or quick enough to be able to handle excessively low starting positions, and being too low will increase your injury risk due to the clunky nature of stumbling.
- Firing too high
- When you fire too high, you are sending a bunch of energy up into the air without moving toward the finish line as fast as possible.
- Once you return to the ground, your center of mass will have begun to decelerate and fall vertically toward the ground. We want to go up and toward the finish line, not up and down like a bouncy ball.
- Not letting the angle rise through acceleration
- Though not totally specific to the block start, the athlete’s center of mass, projection angle, and posture must slowly but surely rise throughout the entire acceleration.
- When people try to “stay low” and keep their chest down through acceleration, they are getting out of the natural flow and progression of a proper acceleration, and will inhibit their ability to accelerate as efficiently as possible.
- Not only does keeping the chest down change the physics of your movement by changing where your center of mass is, it is also inefficient from an energetic standpoint. It takes energy to try and keep your chest down, and that energy could’ve been used by your legs to propel yourself down the track.
Block Start Mistakes – Solution #2:
Exit the blocks, aiming for angles and positions similar to the picture posted above. We want to achieve a straight line through the entire body from head to toe (of the pushing leg), and keep this alignment as the angle of the body rises each step. If you are too low, you will stumble and crash, decelerating while on the ground. If you are too high, you will decelerate in-air between each step and look like you are floating in mid-air. We want each step to build upon the previous step, allowing us accelerate each step without any significant deceleration in the air or on the ground.
3. Reaching with the foot
Last but definitely not least is the one of the most common block start mistakes I see – reaching with the foot (a.k.a. casting out). When we sprint, we want to reach forward with the knee, but not allow the foot to swing out forward to an excessive degree. The easiest way to snap your hamstrings like twigs is to contact the ground with your foot out in front of the knee during acceleration. Not only does this positioning lead to injury, it also puts you in the least effective position possible for force production.
The angle of your shin at ground contact during acceleration is generally the angle through which you are able to apply force. If we want to go forward, we need to strike the ground in a direction which sends us where we want to go (think striking back to push you forward). When we cast the the foot out, we are in a braking position, slowing ourselves down and applying force in a manner which is counterproductive to our goal of sprinting toward the finish line.
Common issues with striking the ground:
- Casting the foot out or reaching
- When we do this, we set ourselves up for injury and poor force production in the direction we want to go.
- By reaching forward, you will crash into the ground and be in an open knee position.
- This position leads to excessive forces going through your ankle, shin, and hamstrings, leading to both acute and chronic injury patters in the lower leg as well as the hip.
Block Start Mistakes – Solution #3:
Aim for something similar to the video above. While in the air, ensure that your foot is coming backwards as it moves down toward the ground. The only way to go forward is to push the ground away from us in a backward fashion, and this can only be achieved by preventing the foot from casting out in front of the knee.
For some athletes, this will require technical changes, while others will need increased eccentric, isometric, and concentric hamstring strength to allow them to decelerate the foot and reaccelerate the foot backward toward the ground. A good cue for this is to “attack back” at the ground. Another one is to push the ground away behind them. Get them to FEEL the foot’s movement through space, and as they become more aware they will be able to better control this movement.
Before getting into anything fancy, make sure that you or your athletes are not making these common block start mistakes. They need to start in an effective position which allows them to fully utilize the blocks and exit with an optimal projection angle. Beyond that, ensure that once leaving the blocks, the athletes strike back at the ground, and that they do not allow their foot to reach or cast out in front of them.
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