The idea behind having a good start is simple: you want to carry a shocking amount of speed into the water, through your breakout, and explode up into the swimming portion of the race.
For many races, particularly of the shorter variety, much of the outcome is decided on those brief moments when swimmers are exploding off of the blocks.
Here are 5 simple ways to improve your starts:
1. Time the starter’s gun in the races leading up to yours.
While waiting for your race, simulate the start you want on dry land. When the starter says “take your marks” crouch over into a start position and explode up into the air with your arms above your head when the beep/pistol/fog horn goes off.
This not only helps you anticipate how long the starter will keep you in the ready position, but the explosiveness of the act will prime your body’s fast twitch fibers for the real thing.
2. Hula hoop your way to cleaner entries.
When exploding off the blocks you want to dive crisply and cleanly into the water, into a tight circle. Think of a 10m diver, slipping into the water with barely a splash, the entry clean and tight.
It can be easy to visualize doing it, but in order to make sure that you are entering in a tight hole throw a hula hoop in the water (have a teammate hold it in place) and work on diving crisply through it.
(Bonus equipment tip: You know those pool noodles that litter most pool decks? Set one up at a distance you’d like to clear off the blocks to help get you further and faster off the blocks.)
3. Elbows should be pointed back, not out.
Our legs get all the attention during the start, and deservedly so, but too often swimmers neglect the pulling motion and velocity that can be generated by pulling forward on the blocks.
In order to get the most of the pulling action on the blocks you want to have your elbows pointed backwards, and not outwards (to the side).
When our elbows are pointed outwards we leak power to the sides, when we should be focusing on pulling ourselves exclusively forward off the block.
4. Toe crunch your way to a better foot grip.
When we are standing up on the blocks, and our toes are curled downwards around the lip of the block, our toes are gripping it in a manner that is atypical from how we usually use them.
Think about it—when else are we trying to grip something with our toes?
This can lead to shaky foot grips on the block, and a loss of torque with our front foot, leaving us relying almost exclusively on our back leg and arms to power us off the block.
Here is a very simple exercise that you can do anywhere, anytime to improve the “grip strength” of your toes so that you can use your toes to grip the block more powerfully—and launch yourself off with more velocity:
Lay your toes flat out, and curl them towards your heel. Visualize yourself pulling the floor or carpet back towards and under you. Exceedingly simple, and you can do this anytime. Bang out a few sets of 20 per day, and you’ll find your toes are better able to clasp onto the block.
5. Wrap your thumbs under the block.
The fastest way for most swimmers to improve their start is simply to focus on pulling more with their arms on the block.
In order to get the most of your arm pull wrap your thumbs around the block in order to get the most from the pulling motion. Too often you’ll see swimmers have their thumbs above the block, when in fact they should be wrapped under the block.
Doing so gives the athlete more surface area on the bottom side of the block, and more surface area means a more powerful pull.
Brad Tandy’s Start is Absolutely Ridiculous. South African sprinter Brad Tandy’s start has become a thing of legend. Here is video of Tandy’s start in action on the NCAA level as well as in practice.
Bill Pilczuk on How to Develop an Explosive Start. American Bill Pilczuk stunned the world, and the greatest sprint freestyler in history, Alexander Popov, on his way to winning the 1998 World Championships in the 50m freestyle with a start that leveled the entire field. Here is his favorite advice for swimmers wanting to improve their start.