Track Starts: The (almost) Definitive Scientific View

At the risk of offending your coach, the two-footed start is a dinosaur: it once ruled the land, but slowly faded out to nonexistence, and then a big meteor came and thoroughly destroyed any chance it had at survival. I would be concerned about any coach who still teaches the two-footed start, and their lack of continuing education as to the evolution of the sport.

Throughout this article, I will reference this analysis, done by Vladimir B. Issurin and Oleg Verbitsky of the Elite Sport Department at the Wingate Institute for Physical Education and Sport, Israel which was done after the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.

If you are only interested in the answer, skip the history section and go down to Issurin and Verbitsky Study.

The Evolution of the Swimming Start

First, we’ll delve into the history. The two-footed start used to be the only start that was taught. See the video below of one of Mark Spitz’s 7 gold medals from the 1972 Munich Olympics for some of the ridiculous starts that swimmers would use. Swimmers often didn’t even grab the block, and many of their starts resembled a modern day relay start more than anything.

As the 70’s became the 80’s, starts calmed down a little (less arm twirling, more grabbing) and what was known as the “grab start” began to develop. This is basically what we picture as today’s two-footed start. The following video, which is from a documentary about swimming legends Rowdy Gaines and John Moffet at the 1984 Los Angeles games, shows what the starts looked like then. (Very interesting documentary, but skip forward to the 4:20 mark to see the start

When I started competitive swimming in the early 90’s, the two-footed start was still being taught predominantly. However, I began to hear rumblings of track starts. Some of the older swimmers would play with it at practice, and the coaches insisted that it was only to be used by older swimmers with very strong legs. The two-footed start was still the overwhelming favorite amongst top swimmers, but as you can see from the 50m freestyle final of the 1998 World Championships below, a few swimmers began to use the track start. The best view is at 3:15, where it can be clearly seen that American Neil Walker in lane 8 uses the track start.

One of the limiting factors to the track start was the design of the blocks. Up until the late 90’s (rough estimate), blocks were very short and very flat, which didn’t allow for a great track start.

Some time between 1998 and 2000, the track start suddenly exploded. At the 2000 Sydney Olympics, in the finals and semi-finals, 37% of male swimmers used the track-start, and 40% of females.

Suddenly, blocks began getting longer, and more angled, and at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, nearly every swimmer used the track start. Then, equipment company Omega took the track start to a whole new level, and developed a block that was actually angled up at the back to really allow for a true track start. The angled back slides forwards and backwards to meet the preferences of different swimmers. FINA approved the block in early 2008 and debuted at the 2009 World Cup meet in Durban, South Africa.

This block has caused a minor uproar in the swimming community, but has been largely overshadowed by the well-documented suit controversy.

Omega Track Start Block

Omega Track Start Block

Issurin and Verbitsky Study

The 2000 Sydney Olympics, the first and probably only Olympiad where there was a significant number of swimmers using each type of start, gave Issurin and Verbitsky the first true opportunity to do a scientific exploration of which start was superior in a true meet environment. Read the full paper for all of the scientific details, but here’s what you need to know:

1. The track start gave a much better reaction time. The track start, depending on the event, had a lower average reaction time by as much as .1 seconds: an eternity in swimming. While not all results were statistically significant, most were, and in every single event, the track start provided a lower average reaction time.

2. The track start swimmers usually were faster to 15 meters. In all but 3 events (men’s 100 freestyle, men’s 200 fly, women’s 400 I.M.), the swimmers who used the track starts hit the 15 meter mark on average faster than those using the two-footed (grab) start. The 15 meter mark was used to try and isolate the effect of the start as much as possible.

3. The start helped male and female swimmers equally. In their study, Issurin and Verbitsky found that the breaststroke events were the only event where the track start was significantly better for one gender than the other, which in this case were the females. None-the-less, both genders still saw an improvement in the breaststroke events.

Read the full study here, it’s really very interesting.

Anecdotal Evidence

I was at an NCAA invitational meet about a week ago that had both top flight Division I swimmers and lower level Division I and Division III swimmers. There were still a few stubborn holdouts who did the two-footed start, and they were very slow off the blocks (confirmed by both vision and the reaction times on the scoreboard), and were typically behind the field at about the 15 yard mark.

If you need any more evidence, watch an international level race, and count the number of two-footed starts you see. It won’t be many.

Although, in all fairness, in the 2009 World Cup Series, Paul Biedermann and Leisel Jones broke World Records using the 2-footed start, despite having the availability of the track start block. But then again, there were many more records broken using the track start, and Biedermann and Leisels’ records may have had more to do with their suits than anything. Perhaps there is a very specific body type or muscle development that has allowed these swimmers to develop such an effective two-footed start, or perhaps they could be going even faster if they used the track start. Further study of that topic might be warranted, but it’s clear that the vast majority of elite, and non-elite, swimmers have chosen the track start.

The Conclusion

The reason why some may prefer the two-footed start is that it may be easier for younger swimmers to balance themselves until their muscles develop fully. While this is somewhat reasonable, the swimmers will be able to develop a more effective start by practicing the track start and will be quicker to develop the core strength necessary. I would only recommend it for young swimmers if they were truly having really significant balance problems.

The problem with the two-footed start is that the position makes it very difficult to get on your toes in order to react quickly and to spring yourself forward. Furthermore, the body angle of the two-footed start promotes more of an upward motion, whereas the track start encourages more of an outward push. A two-footed start still has a place in relays, when stepped into, for the facts of the arm spin, the upright body position, and the reliance on timing rather than reaction.

With the development of the Omega blocks and their approval for high-level meets, it is almost silly not to learn the track start. At some point, these blocks will proliferate to all high-level meets (from Age group meets to the Olympics) and they will give swimmers an even huger advantage over anyone clinging to a two-footed start.

Statistical, anecdotal, observational, and physiological evidence all point to the superiority of the track start. The two-footed start, like other dinosaurs, is extinct.

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Paul Windrath

I wonder when FINA and the other governing bodies will find a way to even the swimming field by approving a device to prevent backstrokers from slipping on the start.

It is gross discrimination right now that backstrokers can’t curl their toes nor have a block to push against. Imagine telling the freestylers, breaststrokers, and butterfliers that they could not curl their toes. Everyone would yell “Unsafe and unfair.”

About Braden Keith

Braden Keith

Braden Keith is the Editor-in-Chief and a co-founder of SwimSwam.com. He first got his feet wet by building The Swimmers' Circle beginning in January 2010, and now comes to SwimSwam to use that experience and help build a new leader in the sport of swimming. Aside from his life on the InterWet, …

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