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by Scott Bay

February 8, 2021

Win your next race with a great start by following a prerace checklist

Competitive swimming is all about racing. For those who race, the start can be the difference between winning a race or losing.

Here are some tips to make your start better and faster.

The Block

Before you report to your lane, as the heats before yours are in the water, have a progression in mind of the habits and movements you will do every single time before you race. Here’s a checklist of what you should do before you get on the block and when you step up.

  • Adjust. Line the seams and edges of your suit where you want them, tie your suit (guys), set the wedge where you want it. Your goggles and swim cap should be in place. You shouldn’t have to adjust anything when you step up onto the block.
  • Your feet. The moment you get up on the block, set your feet. Wrap the toes of your lead foot over the edge of the block and place your back foot. Your feet should be shoulder-width apart with your toes and knees pointed straight down the lane. You should be able to stand or crouch comfortably when you set your feet. If there’s a wedge, set the ball of your back foot close to the top.

Take Your Mark

This really needs to be practiced a lot—you don’t want the only time you practice getting into a start position to be at a meet. Finding what works best is a matter of experimenting, and you don’t want to experiment on race day. No blocks at your pool? The edge will do just fine (as long as it’s OK with your coach and fellow swimmers).

Here are some tips to help you find your best position.

  • Hands. Everyone sets their hands differently, and there is no one right way. Some blocks have handles, though I’d recommend just grabbing the front of the block. More on that later.
  • Head. Where are you looking? Ideally, you’d be looking down at the wall underneath you. The more you lift your head, the more constricted your airway and blood vessels are.
  • Hips. Working on this element requires the most practice. Should your hips be back or more forward? Should they be up with straighter legs or down in a more crouched position? There’s no single right answer for everyone. Go with what’s fastest for you, but figuring that out takes a bit of experimentation. Work with a coach and try it a bunch of different ways to see what’s both stable and fast.


Now that you have a stable base, focus on your kinetic energy. The more kinetic energy you generate, the faster you’re going to be going when you hit the water.

To be clear, we’re talking about the maximum velocity that you can generate horizontally down the pool. Some starts look pretty, but the swimmers just go up and down and are half a body length behind when they hit the water.

Here’s how to maximize your start velocity.

  • Grip and Rip. With your hands on the front of the block, compress and pull forward rather than letting go and raising your hands. Many swimmers pull back with their elbows and then quickly get their hands forward into a streamlined position. Others let their arms swing out and around, like Olympic gold medalist Caeleb Dressel does (and it’s often referred to as the Dressel start). You have to be very quick to get to a streamlined position before hitting the water to use this technique.
  • Legs. Your legs generate a ton of velocity. There’s a lot of debate about which foot you should place forward but the simple answer is: There’s no one best practice. Much of it depends on your hip placement and what generates the most power. Again, this is where you experiment and find out what works best for you.
  • Hips. Ideally, these go forward, not up and down or, worse, side to side. If you have your feet shoulder-width apart and are balanced during your start, your hips aren’t going to swing side to side, so concentrate on not popping your hips up or just dropping them and rolling into the water.
  • Head. Many swimmers initiate with their head, meaning that they pop their head up and look for the end of the lane. It might look cool, but it can produce upward force, not horizontal velocity. Lifting your head up does nothing to make your start faster.

Final Thoughts

The most important things are for you to practice 1) your prerace checklist, 2) getting into your best athletic position, and 3) being explosive off the block during practice.

One of the best things to help your start is to make sure you build strength in the areas needed for a great start. U.S. Masters Swimming’s website is full of great dryland articles about workouts that strengthen your core and legs.


  • Technique and Training


  • Starts