Improving Your Start from the Block – Track Starts

Part I Track Starts

Nearly all swimmers today use a track start with one foot forward and the other back on the starting block. With the introduction of the back wedge on the top of the block in 2009, virtually all swimmers adopted the track start. Regardless of the type of start used, the favorable angle of the back wedge increases the potential force from the feet using the track start. The only swimmers that I do not recommend using the track start are older Masters swimmers that have trouble with balance and equilibrium. They are better off with both feet forward on the edge of the block.

There are two distinctly different types of track start, weight forward and weight back (or slingshot). With the weight forward start, the majority of the swimmer’s weight is placed on the front foot with the toes wrapped over the edge of the block. With the weight back start, at the command of ‘take your mark’, the swimmer shifts the majority of the body weight to the back foot by leaning backward a few degrees. In watching the Olympic Games in Rio, there appear to be a significant number of swimmers using both types of track start, weight forward and backward. Here are the advantages and disadvantages of each type.

Weight Forward

Advantages

  • Faster reaction time to get off the block quicker
  • Enables fast dolphin kickers to get in the water sooner

 

Disadvantage

  • Less propulsive force generated with nearly all force derived from front foot

 

Weight Back

Advantages

  • Potential for more propulsion from arms, back and front foot
  • May increase the coupling energy from the arm motion

 

Disadvantage

  • Slower reaction time to get off the block

 

With the weight forward start, most of the propulsion is coming from the front foot and since the weight is positioned further forward, it is the fastest way to leave the block. The center of the body’s mass is positioned directly over the hands which are either pulling upward on the front of the block or the bars on the top of the block. From that position, it is impossible to generate any meaningful propulsion from the arms. It is the front foot (leg) doing most of the propulsion, with some coming from the back foot.

With the weight back start, it is important that the body does not shift backward too far, which would require too much time for the swimmer to leave the block. Only a few degrees of motion are needed to shift the majority of weight to the back foot. From that position, with the center of mass behind the hands, one can generate some propulsion from the arms, with the hands wrapped around the front of the block or on the bars above the block, by pulling the body forward. The propulsion begins with the arms and the back foot simultaneously, then shifts to the front foot as the body moves forward. With the weight back start, there are three potential sources of propulsion, back foot, front foot and arms (hands), while with the weight forward start, the front foot does most of the work.

Deciding which track start to use is not easy. The outcome of either start, however, should not be judged by the reaction time to leave the block, but rather where the swimmer breaks out from under the water. This is influenced by the time required to leave the block, the propulsive force leaving the block (vertical leap ability), the frontal drag caused from arms, body, legs and feet upon the water entry, the mass (weight) of the swimmer, the speed of the underwater dolphin kick and the frontal drag and transitional speed at breakout.

In general, the weight forward start may be preferred by swimmers with exceptionally fast dolphin kicks, as it will enable the swimmer to enter the water sooner. The weight-back start is often preferred by swimmers that have strong upper bodies and arms, and with a bigger vertical leap (more fast twitch muscles). In order to overcome the disadvantage of the delay in leaving the block with the weight-back start, one must take advantage of using the forces from the arms and both feet.

The question of which foot goes forward is controversial. I have found that most swimmers prefer to place the dominant foot forward. Yet I have also seen some excellent swimmers that did the opposite. What is most important is that the swimmer feels comfortable in the selected position of the feet and that it results in the best start.

Regardless of which track start is used, weight forward or backward, both dives should incorporate the three coupling motions to augment the swimmer’s propulsive forces leaving the block. The three coupling motions of the start are the head lift, the arm motion and the upward kick of the rear leg. The amount of kinetic energy in those three motions can have a huge impact on the effectiveness of the dive. In the next article, we will discuss those three important coupling motions.

Yours in swimming,

Gary Sr.

Read Improving Your Start from the Block – Part II: Coupling Motions, The Head

Read Improving Your Start from the Block – Part III: Coupling Motions, The Arm Recovery

Read Improving Your Start from the Block – Part IV: Coupling Motions, The Leg Motion

Read Improving Your Start from the Block – Part V: Five Techniques to a Great Start

18 Responses to Improving Your Start from the Block – Track Starts

  1. Steve Dueball

    Have you noticed any trends in the forward/backward position by the weight/height of swimmer?

     
    • garyhallsr

      I can’t say that I notice a trend with either weight or height for either start. I would say that those that utilize all of the coupling motions well on weight back start tend to do better with the back foot plate. But the fast dolphin kickers do just fine with weight forward. Play to your strength!

       
  2. Linda Jones

    Having watched a USA swimming online clinic the said that the weight should be evenly distributed on both legs. Is this passé? The online clinic was about 3 years ago I think. Your thoughts on this. Lj

     
    • Gary Hall Sr.

      In my experience, either the majority of the weight is on the front or the back foot, but not evenly distributed. Otherwise, I think one loses the advantage of either start.

       
  3. John Bellew

    For now I’m actually choosing a weight forward start with both feet forward. My hands on ‘take your marks’ grip the blocks just enough to stop myself from falling in, as I lean as far forward as possible. I feel like this gets rid of the slow reaction time usually seen in ‘grab start’ starts, and also allows me to get a powerful propulsion with both feet as my arms are thrown forward.

    I did actually see a grab start at this Olympics by a breastroker, which I was shocked with. What was more shocking was that she came out ahead of the pack. I don’t think it’s dead yet ;)

     
    • Gary Hall Sr.

      One of the greatest starters in history was Mark Foster, a sprinter from the UK, who had a two feet forward start. For those that have a lot of fast twitch muscle..that technique still may work. It is also nicer for older Masters swimmers that may lose their balance on the blocks with a track start.

       
  4. Tim Ritchie

    I began asking my swimmers to feel like they are flattening their back on take your mark. I have noticed the head has to come up a bit to get the flat back, but the swimmers do lot appear to go so deep. Would love to hear your thoughts on flattening the back.

     
    • Gary Hall Sr.

      In the men’s 50 m freestyle final in Rio, half of the finalists had weight back (slightly) and half were weight forward. All had their bums up high (not crouched) and all the backs had some bend…but some were straighter than others. To be honest, I do not know whether extending the lumbar spine is good for either technique, but it is a good question. Perhaps it does influence the angle of entry and therefore the depth of the dive…but not sure.

       
  5. Gordon Belbin

    It’s interesting that you advise older masters swimmers to use the traditional grab start. I would have thought the opposite was true. Many times I’ve stood behind older swimmers and the ones who use the track start look much more stable on the block. The false starts, twitches or toppling over that I’ve seen have usually come from grab starts. As a (getting) older masters swimmer myself I certainly feel more stable bending over in the track position. I guess the advice is try both and see which is best (as always).

     
    • Gary Hall Sr.

      Yes…good advice. My experience has been more stability with the feet side by side…but it can be different for each swimmer. Bending over too far for the grab start can also cause an imbalance.

       
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  7. Tom Meade

    Gary,
    On the weight forward I have always kept the weight over the edge of the block with hands not grabbing but flat on the edge, head down and very relaxed as speed comes from relaxation. I find to many of my swimmers are tense at the start which equates to slower reaction time. With this start I push the block with my hands as I drive with the forward foot and throw the head up and forward.

     
    • Gary Hall Sr.

      There is no meaningful propulsion (force) that can be derived from the hands/arms on the weight forward start, as the center of mass of the body is directly over the hands (as opposed to behind the hands). So it is not so important to grab the block (or bars) intensely with the hands on this technique. However, one can still get a lot of coupling energy from the motion of the arms (and the head and back leg) on the way out, so we recommend on the weight forward start that the arms be moved toward the streamline aggressively, rather than passively forward. The reaction time (as measured on the clock) is function of nervous tension, physiology (numbers of fast twitch fibers), technique (weight back vs forward) and the length of time one is held in the spring loaded position (the longer the worse).

       
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  12. Rick Madge

    Hi Gary,
    We’ve been playing with what I can only call a lever start. It’s a weight forward start but with a twist. The hands firmly grab the block, and on the bang, they pull up hard while locking the legs and core for an instant. This creates an incredibly fast forward movement (the first time kids do it right they scream and fall in the water) that gets them in the water fast. As you mention above, getting in the water fast only works if the underwater is very good.

    Have you heard of this start?

    I’m still thinking it through, and may write a post about it. For younger kids it really helps them learn to get off the block quickly, but once they learn that some find it better to go with the more traditional weight forward start and build more power into their dive.

    Your thoughts?

     

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