3 Ways to Improve Your Relay Starts in Swimming

Swim Training courtesy of BridgeAthletic

Relays are an exciting part of swimming. Racing in a group of 4 teammates is the closest swimming gets to feeling like a true team sport. In order to succeed, relay members need to not only have flawless starts, but also perfect timing with their teammate’s finish. Let’s discuss 3 ways to improve your relay starts.

1. Relay Start Technique

Before you can master the timing of your start with the other athlete, learn the correct stepping technique alone. Different teams use slight variations of a step forward and jump. Place your feet near the back of the block parallel with each other. From a squat position, you will swing your arms backward in a double-arm backstroke fashion as you take 2 steps to the edge of the block. One foot reaches the edge first and then the other meets it right before you jump off. The arm swing and 2-step motion must work together to maximize hip extension and propulsion off the block. A common mistake swimmers make is to stand up too soon, going into hip extension too soon during the arm swing. Stay low to transfer as much of your momentum as possible into forward motion instead of upward motion.

2. Timing

Practice the timing of your relay exchange with a teammate to establish your rhythm. With practice, you will learn the cadence of their stroke and how to adjust your dive to good or bad finishes. The incoming relay swimmer should practice timing their finishes from various distances away from the wall. Elite swimmers can predict several yards out how many strokes they will need to hit the wall perfectly extended. To make these adjustments, learn how to shorten and lengthen strokes and how to accelerate into the wall with your kick. You want to hit perfectly extended without dipping too far under the surface.

3. Repetition

In the weeks prior to a major competition, practice your relay starts and exchanges more frequently. Before you taper, you have more opportunities to do several starts in one day. At the end of practice, do a few exchanges with your teammate. The more you practice, the more automatic your exchanges will become and the faster your exchange time will be. Anticipate the incoming swimmer and begin your movements before the athlete finishes. Have another teammate close-by judge the legality of your start. During your taper, you can practice your 2-step pattern on land to keep the technique without completing full starts that fatigue your legs. Limit your relay exchanges to 1 or 2 efforts; by then, you will be well on your way to a fantastic relay performance!

About BridgeAthletic

BridgeAthletic Logo 3BridgeAthletic works with elite professional, collegiate, and club swimming programs to provide a turnkey solution for dryland training. Led by Nick Folker, the top swimming strength and conditioning coach in the world, our team builds stroke-specific, custom-optimized dryland programs for each of our clients. The individualized workouts are delivered directly to athletes via our state of the art technology platform and mobile applications. Check Nick and BridgeAthletic out as recently featured in SwimSwam.

About Nick Folker

Nick FolkerNick Folker is the Co-Founder and Director of Elite Performance at BridgeAthletic. Nick’s roster of athletes includes 35 Olympians winning 22 Olympic Medals, 7 team NCAA Championships and over 170 individual and relay NCAA championships. Megan Fischer-Colbrie works as the Sports Science Editor at BridgeAthletic. Megan was a four-year varsity swimmer at Stanford, where she recently graduated with a degree in Human Biology. The Championship Series by BridgeAthletic is designed to empower athletes with tips from the pros that will help them reach peak performance come race day. We will be covering competition-focused topics such as nutrition, recovery, stretching, and mental preparation.

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Swimming News / Swim Training courtesy of BridgeAthletic, a SwimSwam partner.

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Becky D
6 years ago

Bah, humbug. Does someone have numbers to show that the step start really has a benefit? After this spring’s NCAA DQ-o-Rama, I’m unconvinced.

Oh, and — You kids get off my lawn!

Reply to  Becky D
6 years ago

Ha! So funny…

I don’t have numbers, but I did witness the blood-bath at men’s NCAAs. Locking the exchange would’ve been the safe – points ensured – way to go….but the flying start is the flying start. It has to be faster. Alas, I have not hard data to prove.

Reply to  Gold Medal Mel Stewart
6 years ago

Mel, could you possibly write an article on what you think Michael Phelps will swim at Nationals? I’ll understand if you don’t want to.

Reply to  Bobthebuilderrocks
6 years ago

He will swim the 100 fly and 100 free for sure. He won’t swim the 200 free, unless he has to in order to be on the 800 free relay at pan pacs (I don’t know much about the qualifying criteria). He’ll probably swim either the 100 back or 200 IM, possibly both. At this point, I’d say his 100 back is looking better than his 200 IM, but given his improvement at the Georgia meet, he probably would’ve been right there with Lochte in the 200 IM.

Steve Nolan
Reply to  Becky D
6 years ago

I read one paper about…oof, five years ago now that investigated the different types of starts.

From what I remember, it was highly dependent on whatever a swimmer was most comfortable with. I also want to say that moving at least one foot was faster than not moving the feet at all, but I may be making that part up.

Basically, do whatever you feel works best.

Reply to  Becky D
6 years ago

Double and single step starts have been shown to be faster than having both feet at the front of the block. Single step seems to provide the best result as well as being the safest in terms of control (i.e. planting the feet wrong during the double step and compromising your takeoff).


Reply to  Sven
6 years ago

Yeah, I never let my swimmers do two-step starts. Risk never seems worth the reward to me. Definitely try to get them all comfortable doing the one step, the challenge is getting them to think about what they’re trying to accomplish with the start (i.e., momentum) versus just going through the arm swing because the arm swing is what you’re supposed to do.

Becky D
6 years ago

At this point, if I’m a certain American breaststroker, I’ll wait until I see the backstroker touch the wall. For good measure, I’ll wait until he’s taken off his cap.

Reply to  Becky D
6 years ago

Had he done that at World’s last year, I think the USA still would’ve won. 🙂

bobo gigi
Reply to  TheTroubleWithX
6 years ago

Oh no! I didn’t want to be too nasty but you talked about Kevin Cordes for me. 🙂
After his bad experiences at worlds last year and NCAAs this year, I’m sure he has learned the lesson now.

Becky D
6 years ago

In all seriousness, you need to balance momentum and reaction speed. No doubt this technique was introduced because your reaction time can be perfect, but your momentum can be low. Yet, just because you maximize momentum doesn’t mean your reaction time will be good. Worse yet, if you can’t control reaction time (i.e. keep it legal), then maximizing momentum is counter-productive.

I guess this story bothered me because there is no mention of any other technique besides a two-step, and no practical advice (other than repetition) to improve reaction time. I could do it a hundred times and never know if I’m improving.

Thank goodness I’m a lowly masters swimmer that won’t be criticized for keeping it old school.