Blocks: What Good Research Tells Us

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When bloggers interpret research I find it to be an insight to bias and experience or a clue how the coach or writer looks at scientific studies for guidance or confirmation. The proper way to share research is to make the research available if possible and talk about it. Agendas are often reasons why research is used or selectively filtered now more than ever. Mark Young (not Mike’s brother) has a educational product on how to read research and I think that is a good start, but formal education needs to focus on making sure exercise science students learn to read research correctly. Being biased towards coaching, I often have problems with the research I see as the inspiration of research often is based on personal interest of the GAs and not on needs of the findings.

One world championship medalist shared me a very well written thesis on blocks and I figured I would get into my own experiences with research and actually coaching blocks or track starts. In the combine world track coaches are often dismissed as resources that don’t understand 3 point starts used by football players, but most of the runs I do in practice are not from blocks and I am use to an array of staring positions. Crouch, 3 point, standing two, rolling, and more.

I have one athlete that is struggling with blocks and acceleration. After having four coaches before me I am in the middle of a deprogramming session that is likely to take a full year to undo, and another to get to competitive levels that will make his start an advantage. Here are some common struggles and my belief of why things are not working.

Great blocks start with a good foundation of acceleration. The chest starts we see with kids are fun, but after inheriting one athlete from a school that produced a DVD on the matter, it clearly didn’t work for everyone. If the drill was so great we would see hordes of Asafa clones in college. I don’t see that. Acceleration is the entire approach from 0-Max speed, not certain distances. How much elastic energy is used during the first 10 steps is unknown, but I trust Kebba Tolbert may have some better literature on the subject.

Blocks have prerequisites such as squat jump abilities and I like teaching both legs to be lead and rear. 7 steps being en vogue (110m h) and not knowing if we can trust all of the neurology studies on hemisphere, I rather not put all my eggs in one basket. When coaches claim they are doing magic in the weight room, a general squat jump or medball toss will hint to me if we are going to see a Chinese training hall or Three Stooges Marathon later in the weight room. I like offensive and defensive lineman that must hold a start position, but instead of 10 yard penalties in football, track is one and done. Elastic energy is great, but many sports can’t be totally dependent on stretch reflexes to get going as it usually requires going backwards. False steps are often the right choice, but adding more static abilities will help with speed generally.

Many athletes need to do star and rocket jumps to unfold the body. Now with smartphones and other devices we are getting more and more crumpled with postures and opening up dramatically like ballet or even cheerleading is necessary to get the body to straighten from a bent posture (angular or curved). Key indicators I see are:

Does the lead hand sweep back with toe off? The lead hand and often is rushed because it has to with for the front leg to get into the recovery phase in the air. It’s nice that some coaches understand that you don’t need the arm to be in the sky during 3-points starts but teaching it to be quick is futile as the legs are the bottle neck, not the hands. General quickness is good to have as power is often mistaken for strength and slower movements.

Do the heels make a quick piston action right after? I was told by one coach that I had to work on reaction time as one athlete I inherited had poor starts, but the video didn’t lie. His hand moved first as he heard and reacted to the gun, but the hips were not projecting as fast. Good blocks take advantage of both feet, and faster block clearance have a smaller s pattern, meaning less lag time transitioning from double to single pushing.

Packing the neck has merit, but coaches have talked line for nearly 100 years. Geometry and anatomy are not new discoveries, and the head position should not interfere with the upper back and pelvis. A good head line is neutral as the eyes are so important in proprioception as well as removing protective responses like inhibition. Try not to coach segments of the body as it takes longer to absorb.

The transition to pushing while in the air is an enigma but patience is the most delicate of dances because rushing will cut off power and have more ground time and delays will do similar things while reducing power. I coach arm range for complete stroke and leave the legs alone. I was a push guy for 10 years but this is a moving target as athletes are going to push if in racing conditions in practice. The key I believe (personal of course) is seeing how times and sensations and improvement curves match. Times are real. Feelings are real but may be deceptive. Improve will happen but the rate and consistency are important elements. Right before toe off of the other leg the athlete needs to push back to meet the ground but measuring this and teaching this is not easy. I am not sure if this should be taught, but I do think this is a key element for development. With the relaxation renaissance we are seeing a lot of wet noodle responses when we need titanium stiffness. The balance between stiffness and relaxation is difficult and requires a combination of arousal and trust.

Starts take a long time develop to be excellent, but saving time by not chasing the wrong areas will make them more natural. I don’t know the right way to teach them as each year I think I know that the previous year was likely to be fixing symptomatic issues but I think another ten years will start to unlock the true root problems.
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Carl Valle

Carl Valle

Track & Field Coach
Carl is an expert coach who has produced champions in swimming, track and numerous other sports. He is one of the foremost experts in the fields of nutrition and restoration.
Carl Valle

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