Of all the skills you need to swim fast, the block start stands alone. It is the only swimming "technique" that has your entire body out of the water. Somehow, despite how simple the fundamentals for a good start are, poor start technique is everywhere, from the beginning to elite levels.
Don't believe me? I used to have a terrible start. I spent my first two years in competitive swimming tucking my knees into my chest to protect from belly flops. By the time I finished college, I had progressed to a slow two-foot on the front of the blocks leap.
So when I made my masters swimming comeback this year, I knew I needed to get better. But more than any other technique, it's really impossible to improve your start unless you can see what you're doing. Because I always swim alone, I had to sheepishly ask a lifeguard to film me.
Then I watched the video, and tried again. It didn't take a lot of attempts, but considerable focus to change my instincts.
When I got to my first meet, this happened (I'm in the farthest lane with a white cap)
Slow the video down to quarter speed at the start. It wasn't a perfect start, but I smoked my competition off the blocks. My start went from "mildly terrible" to pretty good with just a little bit of work.
So how did I do it?
The nature of coaching swimming is that most knowledge is passed down from coach to coach. For whatever reason, very little knowledge about starts makes its way out there. That's a shame, because a start can have a huge impact on a swim.
Most people focus on reaction time, and if you do that you'd think there is very little reason to work on starts. Bad reaction times are in .8 or slower, good ones are .6 (sometimes .5, I was .58 in the video above. So why spend a lot of time on something that only means a couple of tenths difference?
The start has a domino effect on the race that follows it. A good start can get you into clean water, allowing you to swim free from the disturbance of others. Think Anthony Ervin with a slightly better start winning Olympic gold again.
Having a great start also gives you a psychological benefit. I used to panic after my start- knowing that I had to play catchup on the rest of the field. Having a good start allowed me to settle down and swim my race as I had planned.
Perhaps most fundamentally, the kind of flexibility work you need to do to work on your start improves your technique on all four strokes, as well as turns and underwater swimming. One of the most frequent questions I see posted to the Swim Coaches Idea Exchange group on facebook is "Help with this start!". I'm here to help.
Are you a coach that wants to be great at coaching starts or a swimmer looking to get a competitive edge? Write me