At the 2012 Olympics, the U.S. Women’s Track and Field Team brought light to the sport and the event of the 400-meter relay after winning the gold and breaking the world record. With a sport that consists of running, jumping, and throwing, the relay is a unique event because it’s the only race involving four team members. The 400-meter relay is when four team members pass the baton from runner to the next at maximum speed within a designated area. This event entails utilizing proper strategies that will allow for a successful race. Many factors need to be considered other than just being fast, such as placement of the athletes, rules of the race, and responsibilities of the athlete.
When selecting team members for the 400-meter relay, the athletes chosen are usually the four fastest individuals on a track and field team. As a coach, choosing the order of the relay legs can be a complex task. Relay order is best determined on the strengths, weaknesses, and characteristics of the athletes. The first leg should be someone trustworthy and has experience coming out of starting blocks. In any race the use of starting blocks requires patience, explosiveness and the ability to stay in the blocks until the gun fires. The last thing a coach or athlete ever wants is a disqualification due to jumping the gun. Additionally, this leg must also be a good aggressive curve runner that will get a good lead and break the stagger. This runner will hold the baton with their right hand and run inside of the lane. The second leg will be a strong sprinter and is generally the fastest runner of the team. Unlike the first leg, this leg will receive the baton with the left hand and will run on the outside lane. The third leg will usually be the slowest of the four legs. Again this leg will also be a good aggressive curve runner, but because this individual is the slowest adjusting their steps to run less is not unlikely. The last leg, also known as the anchor can be your fastest runner or second fastest runner. When deciding this position, keep in mind you want this to be the best competitor. Essentially, the anchor is confident at this position and able to finish strong whether they are in the lead or coming up from behind. This leg will run on the outside lane and receive the baton with the left hand as well.
Once placement of runners and possible order has been decided, the final components of executing the sprint relay are the roles and responsibilities of the outgoing and incoming runner. Basically, the athletes need to know where to stand and how to exchange the baton with one other in one smooth running motion. First thing to remember is teaching the athlete the color of the exchange zone and international mark (little triangle). These areas will be where the runner will start to measure their marks (international mark) and where the transfer of the baton must take place (exchange zone). CAUTION: not every track is the same. Therefore, when running this race at an unknown track, coaches and athletes should be aware of the marks as they tend to change color from track to track. Next, have the outgoing runner mark their steps starting at the international mark by measuring heel to toe steps back or away from the exchange zone. The athlete will begin to measure on the opposite side of where they will be standing. For example, the second leg will start to count their steps from the inside of the lane since they will be receiving the baton with the left hand and be standing on the outside lane. Start counting back fourteen heel to toe steps and place down your marks, then take two more steps and put your second mark down, this will create a box. Again, it is important to note that the box will be on the opposite side of where the outgoing runner will stand because that will be the focus point and where the incoming runner will be coming in. Once the incoming runner hits the middle of the box, the outgoing runner should use this as a cue to take off. Measuring fourteen steps is a starting point, at which time the steps should be adjusted accordingly based on how the outgoing runner can build speed. The faster the outgoing runner’s acceleration, the shorter the steps should be. Likewise, the slower the take-off, the larger the steps will be.
When transferring the baton from incoming to outgoing runner, a command will be utilized such as “hand” to prompt the outgoing runner to give a good target for placement of the baton. This can be achieved by using a non-visual or a blind exchange, in other words absolutely no looking back. The outgoing runner will hear the command and will immediately extend their arm straight out with a high hand, fingers to the side, and thumb facing the downward position. This will be the incoming runners target where then they will push the baton into the outgoing runners palm. The job of the outgoing runner is to shoot out with explosiveness and sprint. The incoming runner must catch them and run through the exchange zone at full speed all while exchanging the baton. Once they get the baton across, athletes should advise other athletes to stay in their lane. The same process continues for each leg thereafter.
Overall, the goal of the 4×100 is to get the baton around the track as quickly as possible without slowing down the speed of the individuals passing it. Following the simple steps of analyzing your athlete’s characteristics, identifying roles and responsibilities of the incoming and outgoing runner will be significant in ensuring the best race possible. Ultimately, practicing with the relay everyday will build consistency and chemistry within team members.
By Angela Michelle Billups
Angela Billups is a teacher and Head Track and Field Coach in Donna, TX. She is a former University of Texas Pan American track and field athlete. Ms. Billups has been a teacher and coach at the secondary level for 10 years, and is currently a Special Education Teacher. Along with track and field, Billups has high school coaching experience in cross-country, volleyball, and tennis. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.