Track and Field Starting Blocks Evolution

Starting blocks were developed in the late 1920′s over the alternative of digging holes into the ground. They were patented in 1935, and have officially been used at the start of sprint races since 1937. Several iterations of starting blocks have been filed by the US patent office since then.

They have always been a subject of controversy when it comes to the term “a fair start” for everyone.

Other than pressure pads to detect false starts, and speakers installed in the rear of the blocks (aka the silent gun vs. the loud gun theory), the most obvious change in recent times is the height of the blocks. The big question remains: How much contact should the bottom of the foot plate have on the block pads?

The early days (i.e 1970′s) had a low block where the heel is exposed, as seen in the Valeri Borzov photo below. This was good because the stretch reflex generated by the calf muscle (i.e. gastrocnemius) provided a greater force output.

Then sometime in the late 80′s and early 90′s they had blocks high enough to provide complete foot contact, including the heel, for the entire foot. One theory was a greater force applied due to maximal contact. I witnessed these blocks from Bruny Surin at a local meet back in Montreal.

The “high blocks” starting popping up everywhere and became the latest fad, supposedly to produce a better start.

From 1986-1988, the whole world took notice of Ben Johnson’s starts as it appears he leaped out of the blocks with both feet at the same time, similar to a swimmer. How many times have you seen younger athletes imitate this? I guess imitation is the greatest for of flattery. If you can full squat 600 pounds.

Then they went back to the “short blocks”, as seen in the 1996 Olympics with the Micheal Johnson Golden spikes.

Of course, they went back to the high blocks as seen in the 2007 and 2008 photos below.

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Valeri Borzov, circa 1972

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Michael Johnson Golden Spikes, 1996 Atlanta

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Usain Bolt, 200 meter start, Beijing 2008

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Tissot Starting blocks from the 100 meters at the 2007 Pan American Games in Rio de Janeiro.

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Omega Starting Blocks from the 100 meters at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Block positioning – “All Rise”

 

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In the 2008 Olympics, you can see the starting blocks foot positions from photos of Usain Bolt.

The other question to consider is whether you should have your toes in contact with the ground, or if your feet should rise onto the blocks completely.

In Bolt’s case, he rises about 1 inch above the ground. If you believe in having your heel exposed for the stretch reflex, then rising on your blocks will allow this. Having big feet helps, too.

There is no right or wrong in this case, as it’s simply a matter of finding the proper and effective start position. You can still get an effective 2-point crouch start like 800 meter runners which should not be a problem if you are wearing spikes. No slipping here.

If you think the calf muscle is the important force generator, then the shin angle at the set position is also important. If the entire duration of foot contact is providing force, then the final shin angle before the foot leaves the ground must also be considered. You must take in account of the whole motion.

There are hundreds of research papers including Ralph Mann from the 2007 USATF NPEP on the best start technique out of the blocks based on angles. Dr. Mann even goes further on doing squats at specific angles to optimize the explosiveness of the start.

That being said, there is another alternative to an effective start using your spikes as contact to the track, and having the correct angles in place, similar to a crouch start, but this is a 4-point start. Adarian Barr from NextLevelAthleticsAndFitness.com has some innovative products out there.

  • Thanks. Great information to end the year. Do you think we’ll ever have virtual blocks in the far future? Perhaps a combination of laser technology with air powered and shaped block pads.

    Unrelated topic:
    I ran across an article from Stanford Medical published in Aug. 08 stressing that running increases longevity.

    http://med.stanford.edu/news_releases/2008/august/running.html

    http://med.stanford.edu/profiles/frdActionServlet?choiceId=showPublication&pubid=924710&fid=4601

    I wonder what the longevity of world class sprinters has been throughout the years.

    Jimson, thanks again for giving us another year of great information, insight, and inspiration.

  • @Fred – Thank you for the kind words!

    When I was a child, I wondered the day where we’ll see the high jump and pole vault using a laser beam (in a smoky environment!). That will surely increase the speed of the competition.

    They already use optical measuring devices in the jumps and throws events.

    For the longevity question, that inspires me to write a post about it. Science has revealed that strength-power-speed event athletes have “irregular” hearts because the type of training creates a thicker ventricle.

    Whereas endurance athletes develop a “larger” more efficient heart from cardiovascular training.

    Interesting?

  • What if the current style of starting blocks is holding back sprint performances? What if starting blocks is the weak link?

  • Excellent, Adarian. That’s something Bruce Lee would have thought and said. Maybe someone could do some actual field analysis to determine if there might be some merit to it.

    The Frank Wykoff article forced me to do a little research. He actually anchored the USA 4×100 relay team which won the gold medal in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Jesse Owens, Ralph Metcalfe, and Foy Draper were his running buddies that day as they set a then new world record of 39.8. Interesting line-up for the team with Owens and Metcalfe in the 1 and 2 spots. It seems they set the tempo and pretty much physically and psychologically destroyed the rest of the field before Draper received the baton for the third leg. Supposedly, Wykoff gained another 6 meters for his leg which supports the reason for a demoralized competitive field. I imagine the other countries had their elite anchoring their respective teams.

  • Bruce Lee also said, “Absorb only what is useful”.

    My take on blocks is they are simply overrated. You need something to overcome inertia, that’s the point. It could be the mondo track below you, blocks, holes in the ground, Adarian’s blocks, a rubber step (like baseball), a wooden plank….

    I ran in Dartmouth, and never used blocks for the 200 or 400m oval, because we were not allowed. My indoor PB 200m was set at Dartmouth, and that track is flat, not banked.

  • Hi All
    It has been very interesting reading all your comments and thoughts about how the starting blocks have evolved and what the future will bring. I sprinted for South Africa in 1994 when at 17 years old I clocked 10.9 seconds for the 100m, during my sprinting career we found the exact floor as in the Valeri Borzov, circa 1972 image, As manufacturers and design engineers we then developed a set of starting blocks with an adjustable heal support. By adjusting the heal support whist in the get set position not only did they eliminated Achilles stretch but also reduced start times by around 0.2 seconds. A truly revolutionary product in those times, we have patented the blocks but unfortunately have not had the expertise to bring them to market, I would welcome your thoughts and any ideas on how we can bring the SUPER BLOCK into the 21 century, for any more information please go to my web http://www.crichton-mfg.com
    Thanks for reading.
    Andrew Crichton

  • i wanted to comment on and old post, i know the blocks like bill gates knows computers. you want the block of the future , i got 50 designs of different sets of startingblocks. i was the greatest starter that ever tried a pair out. i started with 2×4′s as tomatoe stakes for foot pedals. i have a dream to one day to invent my ideals because track and feild has been good to me. Andrew Crichton, im the guy you need on blocks . man i got away to make blocks cheaper than the market ever seen. everything from pressure pads , starters command system , reaction time , 10 degree to 45 degree angles built in lane markers, speakers , detection lights, suction cup vacumed seal to the track, led lights, custom wings on footpedals. let me stop i even got a block that 2 people can use at the same time the double block and it tells in practice everything were talking about. big boy blocks come from big boy thinkers . i want to be the creator of the best most duriable most prettiest startingblock on the market.