The Backstroke Start
One of the misfortunes of many Masters swim programs is that there is not enough emphasis on starts. I can think of three good excuses why I do not work on them as often as I would like with my group: 1) the number of people in the group is too large, 2) no starting blocks at the facility, 3) the desire of many swimmers to just do the yardage. I hope to encourage you to work on your backstroke start by divulging my very best secrets that helped me win a few races I probably should not have won.
First of all, I want to tell you what a backstroke start isn't. It is not a relaxing flop or plunge after the gun goes off. It is a precisely timed explosion out of the blocks with every intention of getting as far ahead of the competition as possible. Imagine how you will feel when you come up from the start and see your old nemesis down at your hips. This is the main reason I spent more time in high school working on my starts and turns than doing laps. (I made up for it in college, though.) It's also easier to keep a lead once you have it!
So, now that you have decided to take my advice and start working on your start, what next? There are three keys to the backstroke start.
1) Feet Placement. In yards, this one is easy. Place your toes in the gutter about 6-8 inches apart and curl your toes comfortably over to the edge. Only your toes should be out of the water. The meters start is somewhat more difficult since you cannot place your toes in the gutter. They must be placed on a flat and sometimes slippery wall. Depending on where they are most comfortable, they should be anywhere from 2-8 inches under the surface of the water. The secret to not slipping is in the pull-up and take-off.
2) The Pull-Up. Most swimmers I see grab the starting block and pull themselves up as high as they can, resulting in their butts touching their heels. This will often cause slippage. The proper technique is to pull your head to the block, tucking it forward as far as you can, and pushing your butt out so that your legs form a 90 degree angle at the knees (see illustration). This position takes most of your weight off your feet and spreads it out over your entire body.
3) The Take-Off. When the gun goes off, first push with the hands away from the block, throw your head back, then drive with your legs. By the time you are driving your legs, the weight is no longer forcing your feet down but is pushing you away from the wall.
If you do this properly, you will hit the water much faster than usual. Therefore, you now need to bring your arms around much faster than before. The fastest route is over the top of the body, not around the side. You should also try to go through the same spot in the water with your entire body; hands first, head second, body last. This is achieved by arching your back after you come off the wall (see illustration).
Upon entry into the water, you must be as streamlined as possible. This is achieved by putting your hands together and squeezing your head between your biceps. You should go at least a foot below the surface at the start and begin a strong kick that should carry you for at least one second. Your first pull is executed while you are still under water and the second pull should help you surface and begin racing.
Oh, and after surfacing, don't forget to look back and notice how far ahead you are. Good luck!
Clay Britt is a former three time NCAA 100 Backstroke champion and American record holder for the University of Texas-Austin. Currently, he is working as a financial consultant and helps coach a Masters team in Bethesda, Maryland.