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Starts and Turns / Stroke Technique

Five Key Elements of a Good Track Start

Start things off on the right (or left) foot

Scott Bay | September 14, 2016

Good starts are really hard to define. To a casual observer, a good start is one that looks pretty. In reality, looking pretty is not nearly as important as the physics of the start and how that sets you up for a great race; this is swimming, not diving, so looking good is great, but being fast is better!

How is it that some swimmers seem to be so much faster than others on the start? There are a few things that they do that the rest of us don’t.

The Five Elements

Of course everyone is different, but swimmers with great starts usually have these elements in common.

  1. Stance on the block. This is when you’re setting your foundation to generate as much power as possible. With the exception of a wall, setting your stance is your last opportunity to take advantage of pushing off something solid. Make it count. How wide your feet are apart both horizontally and vertically makes a huge difference. Your feet should be about as wide as your shoulders and your forward foot should be placed at the edge of the block with the toes wrapped over the edge to prevent slipping. How far back on the block you stand, or where you place the wedge, depends on how tall you are and the length of your legs. You’ll need to experiment until you find the correct width for you.
  2. Foot placement. As mentioned, your forward foot should be at the edge with your toes wrapped over the front of the block. The back foot on the wedge (if you’re using blocks with wedges) should be up close to the top of the wedge. This generates more power in a horizontal direction. Both feet should be pointed straight down the lane, toward the opposite end of the pool (don’t angle the back foot), to keep the hips squared and ready to move forward without any wobble.
  3. The set. When you take your mark, make sure both legs are bent. If you keep your front leg straight and your hips back, then your whole body has to go up and over the straight front leg, costing time and energy. It’s better to keep your center of gravity (hips) between your front and back foot. Make sure your neck is long and loose—don’t strain up to look at the other end of the pool.
  4. The launch. Once the horn goes off, many swimmers have a tendency to look up and initiate the start with the head. This causes an unnecessary up and down component to your start. The emphasis should be on driving the shoulders forward to the opposite end of the pool, using your hips and legs. Pulling forward on the block at the start is also a good idea. Be explosive in this part. Once you’re moving forward, lift your head to spot the water for your entry.
  5. The entry. Once you have your spot for the water, your hands and arms should assume the streamline position pointed right at that spot. Tuck your chin down to your chest, which helps prevent your goggles from slipping down your face. Your hands, head, hips, and feet should all enter through the same hole in the water. In the best starts, your legs will be more or less parallel to the surface of the water when your toes leave the block. If you can do that, it means you’ve generated the maximum amount of force in the direction you’ll be swimming.

Of course streamlining, transitions, and breakouts are part of a great start as well, and those things should be practiced regularly. Remember, the fastest you’ll be traveling during the entire race is right after the start, so the faster you make your start, the easier it is to maintain good velocity.

Starts should be practiced under the supervision of a knowledgeable coach. If you don’t have one, check with pool management about using the blocks—many pools don’t allow it unless a coach or lifeguard is present. If your facility has no starting blocks, check with staff to find out if it’s OK to practice starts from the wall.

Once you’ve secured permission to practice starts from the block or the wall, ask a friend or coach to video you so that you can track your improvement.

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About the Author—Scott Bay

Scott Bay is a USMS-certified Masters coach and an ASCA Level 5 coach and has been actively coaching and teaching swimming since 1986 to swimmers of all ages. The Masters swimmers he currently coaches include national champions, All Americans, and world record holders, who have swum to more than 300 Top 10 swims and 30 world records in just the past 5 years. Throughout his career Bay has taught thousands how to swim or how to swim better. He’s also written numerous articles on technique and coaching and contributed to USMS’s coach certification curriculum. Bay presents at clinics across the country and has written an instructional book, “Swimming Steps to Success.” (Human Kinetics, 2015). Bay is the past chair of the USMS Coaches Committee, and the Head Coach of YCF Masters.

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