Coach Glover has achieved good success using a 3-point start for some of his sprinters. He sets out the whys and wherefores of this controversial starting technique
for middle and high school sprinters.
By Donald Glover
Many sprinters and hurdlers in middle school and high school have difficulty generating enough power out of the crouch blocks (four point start), to maintain the proper angle during the “gun” phase of the start.
These words were published in the Athletic Journal in May of 1984. The article was written as an attempt to promote the use of the 3-point start for some athletes in middle school and high school. I am the author of that article, which was entitled Stand up Starts. The article was written because, at that time, I taught weight training in Physical Education and also coached track & field at the senior high level. This combination of duties, gave me the opportunity to observe the huge discrepancy in strength and coordination between an average 13-year-old boy/girl sprinter and a trained 18-year-old male/female sprinter.
The untrained 13-year-old boy just coming out for track usually can bench press about 50% – 60% of his body weight. A 13-year-old girl just coming out for track can probably bench press 30% – 60% of her body weight; however, trained 18-year-old boy/girl can bench press as much as 70% – 90% of his/her body weight.
I am estimating this based on observation and experience. The question I kept asking myself at that time was: If there is such a wide margin of strength and coordination between these two genders and age groups why do we train and teach them the same way to start a sprint or hurdle race?
The 1984 article did not shake up the track sprinting/hurdling world as much as I had envisioned, so I am going to add to it 35 years later.
Back in the seventies, I coached men’s track. One of my best sprinters was a tall gangly young man who could not generate enough force to come out of the crouch start smoothly. I decided to experiment with him and we tried the standing start. We did repeat 30-meter sprints on several different occasions. During these trials he did three starts from the crouch (four point start) and three 30-yard sprints from the standing position. Over a period of three weeks and 12 total starts from each position he proved to be consistently faster from the standing start position.
Years later I tried the standing start with another sprinter and he consistently turned in faster times than with the crouch start. These were the only two senior high school boys that I thought could benefit from the stand. The rest of the sprinters during that time did well with the 4-point start. Although the 4-point starts are far more common among elite sprinters, some believe the standing start may have some merit. A 2001 study conducted by the University of San Francisco found that the “standing start technique allowed athletes to reach a top speed faster and maintain it longer than crouched starting positions.” (by Steven Kelliher, Standing Start Techniques in Sprinting, AZCentral).
However, I hesitated to use the standing start as the years went by as it seemed to be quite unstable and even though some sprinters may have benefited from it I was afraid of false starts and was overly cautious about using it. Years later I took over the women’s hurdles coaching position on the local high school team. Many of my athletes had trouble using the 4-point start and I was still afraid to use the standing start. So, we again experimented and this time we tried a 3-point start. This start proved to be much more stable and the difference in the first step out of the blocks was significant. The 3-point start first step was consistently farther from the starting line than the first step using the 4-point start. Some other benefits of the 3-point start that we discovered were:
- Much easier to learn
- Much more comfortable in the “on your mark” and “set” positions
- Front drive leg much closer to the starting line
- First step at least a foot closer to the first hurdle
- Easier and quicker to get into the proper running angle.
Most of my hurdlers at that time preferred the 3-point start. However, at that time, there were not many commercially built 3-point starting blocks on the market. We only had one 3-point block and eight out of the twelve hurdlers wanted to use it. Not a good use of time standing around waiting for a turn. The answer to our problem was to make our own 3-point blocks.
Luckily, a good friend of mine was the metal shop teacher so, I gave him a design and he built two 3-point starting blocks. These blocks were great, the girls really took to them and most were consistently the first hurdler to the first hurdle. In fact, the first year we used our homemade 3-point blocks one of the hurdlers went to state. The officials at the state meet would not allow us to use these strange looking blocks; however, she still competed at state using the 4 -point start and placed 6th, Luckily, she was a junior, so, the next year we cleared our home made blocks before the state meet and she was allowed to use them. She won and set a school record in the 100 meter hurdles.
Recently I conducted another speed trial using the traditional 4-point block and a commercially made 3- point block. All the test trials I had conducted in the seventies were with hand-held watches and were far from scientific. This time I used electronic timing and used six female sprinters/hurdlers. Some were experienced some were younger and did not have much experience. Each girl received six starts – three starts with the 4-point start and three starts with the three-point start. Five out of the six girls were faster using the 3-point start. Again, this trial would probably not conform to rigid scientific standards but it further convinced me that the 3-point start is a viable option for many.
I have always been interested in teaching young athletes new skills. I know the athlete has to understand the make-up of a skill and then have plenty of practice time in order to gain increased proficiency. In many sports, equipment modifications are made to accommodate the developing strength and skill of youngsters. We need to make the same developmental process available for our track athletes. I believe the 3-point start is better for some and I believe the 4-point start is better for others.
However, I also believe the 3-point start can be a developmental transition process toward learning the 4-point start. When an athlete is developmentally ready through strength gains and increased coordination they can easily transition to the 4-point start from the 3-point start.
Most track programs function now putting everyone in the 4-point start because that is all they know or that is the way the Olympians start. The objective of sprinting and hurdling is to get from point A to point B as fast as possible. Using the 3-point start will allow some of our developing athletes get to point B faster. However, many coaches will not use the 3-point start because they have not had any experience with it and do not feel comfortable teaching it. The following starting routine and pictures may give coaches a better insight into the ease of teaching the 3-point start.
• Use of the 3-point blocks allows the athlete to start much closer to the starting line. (see Figure 1—Notice the front pedal with the smaller block is much closer to the starting line).
• The athlete on the right pictured in Figure 2 places her front block pedal one fist and two fingers away from the starting line. The front rest arm is placed the same way a 4-point starter places both their hands.
• Our 3-point starters do not need to use a rear pedal. It is entirely optional for our athletes. We tell our runners to concentrate on getting the back foot forward as quickly as they can—quick like a karate kick. If you use a rear pedal the distance between the blocks is about one-foot length.
• On the “take your mark” command our hurdlers are instructed to walk to the front of the block and place the drive foot on the pedal, the toes are not fully placed on the block and partially flatten on the track. The athletes will have to experiment with this in practice to find how much of their front foot on the track feels comfortable to them—See Figure 2.
• 3-point starters do not have to place their back foot in the back pedal or put the front arm down until most of the 4-point starters are on their marks. When most of the 4-point starters are on their marks, the 3-point starters can place their back foot and front arm in the “on your mark” position. We tell them to “time” getting in to “on your mark” so they are not the first or the last athlete that comes to that position—See Figure 3.
• We instruct our athletes to lower the hips by bending the knees, then lean forward and put the front arm down behind the starting line. (See Figure 3.)
• The opposite arm (the drive arm) is placed alongside the 3 point starters hip. See Figure 3.
THE SET COMMAND
• On the “set” command the 3-point starter raises the elbow of the drive arm and at the same time rolls a bit forward so both the support arm and toes of the front foot are supporting more weight. The athletes are instructed to roll forward slowly into “set” and go as far as comfortably possible (see figure 4). The 3-point starters feel like they are going to fall forward into a run.
• When the gun goes off the athlete is instructed to thrust the drive arm forward vigorously and bring the back leg through quickly. We tell our athletes to bring the back leg through as quickly as a karate kicker. The athletes focus on getting a good drive angle out of the blocks. Our starters feel this angle is much easier to achieve in the 3- point blocks. See Figure 5. (The 2 outside lanes are the 3-point start, the middle lane is the 4-point start. The runner in lane 4 is a distance runner and has limited experience with blocks–but she does quite well for the first time using the 3-point start.
Many coaches will not agree with this article but, many coaches may consider using this start, especially coaches who believe the 4-point start is not the best start for all sprinter/hurdlers.
What do you have to lose by trying the 3-point start?
Donald Glover has coached track and cross country for 40 years, first as an assistant at Winona HS in Minnesota in 1967, and then track assistant at White Bear Lake HS (MN) in 1969. In 1972 he became head track and cross country coach at Mariner HS in White Bear Lake; he continued as head cross country coach until 2000, and in 2002 took over the track and cross country programs at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, continuing in that position until retirement in 2009.