By: Lee Taft
Regardless of what is said about the value of the 40-yard sprint, it is exciting to see when an athlete blows it out of the water. Man! Speed really does get us excited.
What we get enamored with is the final time and the speed once the athlete nears top velocity. But what I get excited about is when I see an amazing, explosive start.
In this short article I want to drive home the importance of the first 2 steps. We often learn about the first 10 yards, and I 100% agree on how important it is, but with a poor first 2 steps, you are playing catch up the rest of the sprint. Let’s dig into the details…
Ask any combine or sprint coach and they will tell you their secrets to a great start. Mine are very simple, and it all starts with making sure the “shoe fits”. What I mean by that is not all athletes have the same shoe size so they must find what fits them. Same with the start set-up. Get comfortable, feel powerful, and push the earth behind you when you take off. Period.
Okay, here’s my set-up for The Start:
- My typical system to get them moving in the right direction and to find proper/comfortable foot position is to first, have both toes up to the starting line. Back up the front leg (power leg) to a heel-to-toe distance, then do the same for the back leg (so go heel-to-toe with this foot as well). Then move the back foot up anywhere from 4-8 inches to meet what feels comfortable.
- Next, I have the athlete crouch down so the back knee is on the ground and the front knee is up. Place the hands up to the starting line and raise the hips up to look at a few landmarks…
A. First landmark: Is the front foot position in relation to the hips when the athlete is in the up or “set” position? If the foot is too far under the hips and the shin angle is too vertical we need to back the foot up so it will be slightly behind the hips in order to drive back.
B. Second landmark: Are the shoulders in proper position with regards to the down hand? I want it vertically aligned over the top. Some teach the shoulders to be in front of the hand and I am okay if it is comfortable for the athlete, but it usually isn’t and they typically can’t hold it. Plus, they lose the loading of the ankles and feet (the ‘load to explode’ feeling of dorsiflexion).
C. Third landmark: This one varies athlete to athlete. I like to see the back leg-angle near 110-120 degrees at the knee (the front should be near 90). Some athletes are much better with less of an angle (hips higher) others like it with a greater angle (hips lower). Again- comfort and results matter. I don’t subscribe to one template.
- I like the down hand to be completely locked out at the elbow and the triceps tight. This keeps them stable and ready to explode versus wobbly and worried about stance.
- The up arm- It should be bent at the elbow and the hand near the hip. Simple and comfortable.
- You will notice I like my feet slightly closer together. My front leg shin points up to my shoulders which is a good angle to have. My down hand is right under my shoulder and my up hand is just past the hip by a couple inches. Many of my athletes will look different than this simply due to what they are comfortable with.
On to the First Step:
With a poor first step it is very difficult to recover, especially the shorter the race. Now, in a 100 or 200 meter race you have time to make it up if you are able to get into max velocity with no mistakes. If you are trying to run a fast 10 yard or 20 yard, (or even 40 yard) it is tough to catch up with a poor start. THE FIRST STEP MATTERS!
As a disclaimer, my old body doesn’t explode like it used to so this is kind of an ugly start, but you get the gist.
What I look for:
- An aggressive push off with both legs contributing- but more from the front. I do not subscribe to putting a huge majority of the weight on the front foot simply because the back leg has to push as well to get my body/momentum over the front leg. Having said that I might be 60% on the front leg and 40% on the back. However, I adjust for each athlete I work with based on their comfort level.
- The down arm should sweep back hard and long while the front arm explodes out and up. This big separation and length of the arms allows the legs to push longer into the ground to overcome inertia. Plus, the uplift of the arms allows the body to hold its lean- along with the power from the legs.
- The back leg, which moves forward first, comes through low and aggressive. The foot should not go upwards- it should travel forward well below the hips (piston-like).
- The front leg (from the start) will drive forward, with a low foot recovery as well, at the same time the back leg, which is now in front, is preparing to push down and back.
- As the front leg pushes down and back, into the first step out of the start, the back leg should pull through hard and low so the knee passes the other knee just around foot contact of the first step. This coordinated pattern of the legs is like a push-pull action to get the legs to switch in the acceleration gait.
On to the Second Step:
The second step is a continuation of the effort off of the first step but limbs will start to get tighter with regards to swing length. Arms will be shorter, but still aggressive and longer than they will be as acceleration moves on. The leg separation is still big but slightly smaller than the first step.
The key to the second step is to launch the body forward as the low leg recovery of the back leg moving forward occurs super aggressively.
The first 2 steps are so critical to set up the rest of the drive phase and later acceleration that, as mentioned earlier, you often can’t recover if it is poor. Especially if the distance being run is short.
It is worth your while to spend time working the first couple steps just so the athlete learns how to drive the body forward with proper mechanics (big arm swing and low leg recover, yet big leg separation).
All athletes, not just track, can work on this because it develops more powerful hips and legs.
- Perform 1 set of 6 reps of 3-point starts, focusing on the first 2 steps but allowing yourself to drive for 4-6 steps (roughly 7-10 yards).
- Perform Acceleration bounding- 1 set of 4-6 reps for 10 yards. Basically, when you come out of your 3-point start, gain a huge leg separation and bound into the next several steps for 10 yards. This teaches force production and separation and moves the body through acceleration.
- 10 yard pure starts- in a 3-point start, perform 4-6 reps of full out sprints for that distance.
Train hard and smart and you will see your 40 yard times drop.
Yours in Speed,
Coach Lee Taft, known to most simply as “The Speed Guy”, is highly respected as one of the top athletic movement specialists in the world. The last 25 years he has devoted the majority of his time training multi-directional speed to all ages and abilities. He has spent much of this time teaching his multi-directional speed methods to top performance coaches and fitness professionals all over the world. Lee has also dedicated countless hours mentoring up-and-coming sports performance trainers, many who have gone into the profession and made a big impact themselves. Simply put, Lee Taft revolutionized the fitness industry with his movement techniques for multi-directional speed. His innovated approach to training has impacted how athletic movement speed is taught.
Lee and his wife Jennifer have 3 children, Jae, Bailee and Brennen and currently reside in Indiana.