Track Coach

TC239 Editorial Column

From the Editor – RUSS EBBETS


There is a “law” in motor learning called Fitt’s Law. Even if you are not familiar with Fitt’s Law by name there is a good chance you’ve experienced the law in your daily life. Fitt’s Law states that the more quickly we try to do a physical task the more inaccurate or sloppy we become. This seems to hold true whether we’re putting round pegs in little holes, stacking plastic cups upside-down on YouTube or quickly typing a Track Coach editorial.

In almost all competitive endeavors quicker actions though yield better results. After all the Olde English word “sped” meant success. Certainly, practice is one way to improve accuracy, but in truth that only works to a point. Speed is the enemy of accuracy. There inevitably comes a point where, as they say, “something’s gotta give.”

Speed and accuracy comes into play in the relays, particularly the 4x100m. The 4×1 involves a more complex set of challenges as we are now dealing with four people with different skills, abilities, sizes and shapes, not to mention psychological qualities that can also be as different as they are similar. Yet that becomes one of the beauties of the race as the successful teams somehow raise complementary actions to an artform.

What needs to be established for success in the 4×1 relay is a philosophy of the relay that is simple to understand, simple to implement and meticulously executed by all. Maybe the first tenet of this philosophy should be the general agreement that the baton should travel the shortest path from start to finish. This builds on the old adage that the shortest path between two points is a straight line. The obvious problem here is that the 4×1 is contested around two unstraight turns.

Once the “shortest path” point is accepted the hands carrying the baton can be determined. The shortest path for the baton will dictate a right-left-right-left hand carrying pattern. Why? Simply put if sprinter #1 carries the baton in the right hand he can hug the inside of his lane around the first curve (the shortest distance around the curve) and hand off to sprinter #2’s left hand. Number 2 should be stationed to the outside of the lane for the backstretch straightaway run.

Sprinter #2 can stay to the “outside” of the lane down the backstretch and enter the second curve making a pass to the right hand of sprinter #3. Number 3 should also hug the inside of the curve, again running the shortest distance around the curve.

Sprinter #4 is to the outside of the lane and receives the baton with the left hand and it is on to the finish. Using the right-left-right-left carrying pattern gives the baton the shortest course over the full loop of the track.

A second important factor in relay success is the speed of the baton over the course of the race. Theoretically the baton with the fastest average velocity should win the race. Although I have never seen stats that prove this one way or the other it makes sense, but that being said I am sure that there are individual anchor legs such as Usain Bolt, Bob Hayes or Evelyn Ashford that may prove that exceptions are “the rule.”

The reason why the baton speed is problematic is that the intersect of the incoming/outgoing  exchange happens during two different phases of the 100m sprint action. The incoming sprinter is in the deceleration phase of the 100m where there is a gradual slowing of the runner the farther he gets into the race. Complicating this fact is that sprinters #1, #2 and #3 are all decelerating into (or out of) a curve.

For the outgoing sprinter he is in an acceleration phase where he is approaching top end velocity (maximum velocity) that is further fueled by the excitement of finally getting the opportunity to “go.” Passing the baton too soon or too late would graphically present with a stop/start pattern that compromises the whole process, loses races and drives coaches to distraction.

Step patterns, go marks and a steady hand for passing or receiving all become equally important considerations that go into the mix of a successful exchange.

The last things to consider in one’s relay philosophy of the 4×1 is that “little things count.” By no means am I suggesting that “nit pickers” make great relayists. What I am saying is that the race demands identification and attention to details.

Relays can be won or lost by as little as 1/100th of a second. Sprint-wise 1/100th of a second is about the width of your pinkie finger. Look at that for a second. Four people, 170-190 steps, 40ish seconds and the winner gets decided by the width of the smallest finger. Recognition and attention to the smallest details is what gives an added advantage to the collective speed and accuracy of four people.

Phew. It was never that complicated in elementary school. Passes were visual with a crash exchange pattern, staying in your lane was desirable and the team with the fastest anchor always seemed to win. Times change for everyone.

In this issue we have some real experts who will share their expertise on what has worked for them and what should work for you. While there are some slight differences of opinion on the correct “how-to’s” I think you’ll find enough of a consensus that your successes this spring will be due to a consistent relay philosophy, exacting practice and a creative mix of both speed and accuracy.