Often in sports, we try to teach too many things at the same time. We don’t necessarily need to spend an entire day teaching our athletes how to tie their shoes, as John Wooden famously did, but we have to teach certain tasks one step at a time.
Seems like many track coaches expect their athletes to perform 4x100m handoffs at top speed with very little practice. Oh, they’ll do standing handoffs, maybe even jogging handoffs. But when top speed handoffs come into play, the athletes are suddenly expected to perform them while also simultaneously figuring out how to leave their marks on time. Leaving your mark on time and learning how to accelerate while turning your body and staying on the correct side of your lane are hard enough skills to master by themselves. When combined with learning how to receive a handoff at top speed, you have a recipe for failure. The ability to pass the baton at top speed should be taught as a skill by itself, which is why we do a drill I like to call “Relay Runs.”
Overall, Relay Runs mimic regular top speed handoffs as much as possible, but the athletes do not have to worry about leaving on a mark. The outgoing runner still has to stay on the correct side of his lane, give a great target, receive the baton, keep up his speed once he has the baton, etc. Everything about performing a top speed handoff is the same, with the exception that the athletes are leaving together, rather than having the outgoing runner worrying about the delicate timing of leaving when the incoming runner hits a certain mark.
How to set it up
For the following example, we’re mimicking the 1st or 3rd handoff in a 4x100m relay. The incoming runner will start on the inside of the lane (with the baton in his right hand) and the outgoing runner will start on the outside of the same lane about two arm lengths ahead of the incoming runner. They’ll both get down into a crouch and get ready to sprint. When the coach yells, “Go!” both athletes will take off at top speed, staying on the correct side of the lane. At a given mark, the incoming runner will yell, “Stick!” (or a similar command) and they’ll complete a regular blind exchange. At this point, both athletes will continue running at top speed until they reach the next mark (laid out by the coach in advance). The importance of this aspect will be pointed out later in this article.
As you can see, with this drill the athletes get to execute a top speed handoff, but do not have to worry about leaving on time. You as a coach can focus on the mechanics of their handoff, like staying on the correct side of the lane, putting the hand back with a good target, keeping up speed inside the zone, etc. Because these are done at top speed, you need to allow for a full recovery (generally about 3-6 minutes) between repeats. The athletes should perform the handoff within the regular exchange zone, ideally in the part of the zone you hope them to complete a race handoff (generally the last half of the zone).
The cardinal sin of relay running is slowing down while you are still holding the baton.
The best way to set this up, like with any repeat, is to have the athletes start and finish on a given line. The starting line is less important, but a distinct finish line is extremely important. Thankfully, our outdoor tracks have hurdle marks that are the same distance away from the finish line in each lane. We utilize these marks as starting lines and finish lines quite often in our program. If you’re performing a Relay Run at the third exchange, you can have the athletes start at the fourth hurdle mark, which is 150 meters from the common finish line (doesn’t matter whether you have the incoming or outgoing runner start on the line; you decide). This will give them 40 meters until they reach the beginning of the exchange zone, so they should both be reaching top speed in the zone. If you have them finish at the sixth hurdle mark, which is 80 meters from the finish line, they’ve run a 70 meter repeat. If that seems too long for you, they can finish at the end of the exchange zone, which would make it a 60m repeat. Or you could start them ahead and make the repeat shorter; this is up to you.
Why do the athletes keep running after handing off the baton?
Now let’s get to why we have both athletes keep running after the baton has exchanged hands. For the outgoing runner, this is obvious. In a race, the outgoing runner will keep running after catching the baton. I for one cannot stand when an athlete in practice starts slowing down immediately after getting the baton in his hand. For a coach, it is almost impossible to tell if a handoff was successful unless the outgoing runner keeps running at race speed for at least 5-10 meters after receiving the baton.
The reason for the incoming runner to keep going after handing off the baton is less clear, but very important. From what I have observed, the main reason a 4x100m handoff is unsuccessful is because the incoming runner did not run through the zone. By that I mean the incoming runner has started to slow down (intentionally or unconsciously) while the baton is still in his hand. While most people do not consider the 100m Dash to be a “hard” event, the fact remains that an athlete coming into the exchange zone in the 4x100m Relay is still tired (their CNS is exhausted, and coordination is becoming an issue). He has probably actually run around 120-130 meters, which means he has been decelerating for around 60-70 meters, at least. The incoming runner is anxious to hand off the baton so he can stop running. Often he stops running hard while the baton is still in his hand. Even if he slows down just a bit, the delicate timing of the handoff could be compromised.
Many incoming runners start slowing down as soon as their outgoing runner leaves his mark. A great many others mentally shut down as soon as they yell, “Stick.” I coach my athletes that the cardinal sin of relay running is slowing down while you are still holding the baton.
There are two things I tell every single athlete right before every single relay: “Leave on time. Run through the zone.” Messing up one of those two things causes the vast majority of the problems in the sprint relays. Even in the 4x400m and 4x800m, I instruct athletes to keep racing until they don’t have the baton anymore. Speed counts when you have the baton!
So, the main reason we have our incoming runners keep running at race speed after they have handed off the baton is to reinforce this race essential. If the athlete is used to keeping up his race pace even after handing off the baton, he’s less likely to start slowing down in a race while he still has the baton. You’re conditioning your athletes to run through the zone!
The main reason a 4x100m handoff is unsuccessful is because the incoming runner did not run through the zone.
How to fit Relay Runs into your program
As with anything, Relay Runs are completed best as a progression. First you must teach the proper mechanics of a sprint handoff, of course. When it comes time for Relay Runs, start at 70% speed so they get the concept down. Then go at 85-90% speed. Then all out. Be sure the athletes understand the concept and are able to complete the drill at a slower pace before graduating to top speed. Even in the sub-maximal repeats, we still have the athletes run the complete distance. This reinforces one of the main purposes of the drill, which is to run through the zone.
Relay Runs are great to do as a competition as well. This helps simulate the meet environment, adds some pressure to the athletes (which they will certainly be feeling on race day), and gives your practice a fun and competitive atmosphere. For the third exchange, put a pair of athletes in each lane. Have them all start at the fourth hurdle mark (middle of the second corner, 150m) and give the “Go!” command. The race isn’t over until the second athlete crosses the finish line (again, you could use either the end of the exchange zone or the sixth hurdle mark). Why the second runner? Because if you only judge the race based on the first (outgoing) runner, then the second (incoming) runner has little incentive to run through the zone. So the race ends when the second runner crosses the finish line. You can have another coach judge which outgoing runner crosses the line first as well, to give them extra incentive to keep up their speed after receiving the baton.
We do Relay Runs the first three weeks we can get outside. Normally, our first session will be just Relay Runs, and we won’t worry about doing actual handoffs that day. However, the next two sessions we’ll get to doing regular 4x100m handoffs with a mark after a few Relay Runs. A general outline would look like the following.
Week 1 2 x 70%, 2 x 85%, 3-5 x 100%
Week 2 1 x 85%, 2-3 x 100%, 2-3 Handoffs
Week 3 1 x 85% (if needed), 1-2 x 100%, 2-3 Handoffs
You can adjust the sub-maximal efforts as needed. When your athletes seem comfortable and proficient at lesser speed, you can have them pick it up. Remember also that while this can technically fit into your program as a workout, this is essentially used as a drill to teach athletes two main things:
1. Perform a proficient handoff at race speed.
2. Run through the zone as the incoming runner.
Once your athletes are proficient at these two, you can probably phase out Relay Runs. However, if they start to slack on either, you may want to reintroduce them, even if it’s just for one repeat.
There are other considerations for this exercise. First and foremost, you have to match speed with speed. Obviously the fastest athlete should not be matched up with the slowest athlete. Switching up athletes so they get experience catching and receiving batons from different teammates helps as well. Unless you have an athlete who is a strict lead-off guy or a strict anchor leg, you should have all your athletes perform these repeats as both the incoming runner and the outgoing runner. These should also be performed at both the second exchange zone and the third exchange zone (the first and third are nearly identical, so it makes sense to perform them all at the third zone where the staggers even out).
Because the athletes are running very fast for a relatively long time, you must consider this to be a hard top speed or speed endurance workout. Therefore, these should not be done the day after another hard workout or meet. Hopefully your conference doesn’t hamstring you with weekday dual meets and you’ll be able to better fit such workouts into your weekly plans with enough recovery between the other taxing practice days. The athletes are getting acceleration work and top speed work with this drill, but neither are the main emphasis.
One more note on sprint handoffs, unrelated to Relay Runs. For some reason I have noticed plenty of coaches having their athletes practice 4x200m Relay handoffs at top speed. News flash, your athletes will not be running at top speed while finishing a 200m race, much less finishing the 210-230 meters required for each athlete in a 4x200m Relay. That’s why you see so many outgoing runners completely running away from their teammates in the 4x200m Relay early in the season, especially during the indoor season. Be smart and have your athletes practice the handoffs at the appropriate pace, which admittedly is hard to find. Often you’ll see the incoming runner (in practice) running in at the appropriate speed, but when they realize the outgoing runner is pulling away from them, they speed up. In a race, you’re not going to be able to speed up! Coaches have to monitor the 4x200m handoffs very closely to ensure good handoffs come race time.
My advice for the 4x200m handoff is to have the outgoing runner take off at around 90%, not 100%. The outgoing runner will have fewer steps between the takeoff mark and the go mark than they will in the 4x100m Relay. We always start with 15 steps and adjust from there.