Welcome To Coaches Education




Getting It Done In the Zone

By Tony Veney

Your palms are sweating, your heart is pounding and you feel as if you're going to jump out of your skin.

No, your lotto numbers didn't come in. Ed McMahon and Dick Clark have not driven up to your house to give you the 10 million. And, no, this is not an IRS audit. It's mere moments before a track and field starter sends off the 4x100 meter relay. This one event has caused more collective anxiety than all the individual sprint races combined, because of the fine line between a great race, a slow race or a DNF (did not finish). The sprint relay gives the coach the "Penthouse to the Outhouse" (and vice versa) experience because no matter how hard you've practiced, the unexpected seems to be the order of the day.

The purpose of this article is to cover ways to prepare and practice for the relays, so that the event becomes one the athletes, as well as the coach, can have great confidence in. There are two types of bad passes:

1. The bad pass that's caused by "going for it."

2. The bad pass that's caused by indecision.


Now you may feel that bad is bad and that's the end of the discussion. But indecision is an area of coaching that's the proverbial "no-man's land." If your athletes make a mistake going after the home run exchange, you, as the coach, can make adjustments to the zone and perhaps make a personnel change that will put the correct people on the right legs. Indecision cannot be adjusted to because it rears its head in dozens of different ways, but these are the most common:

1. The outgoing runner leaves too early.
2. The outgoing runner leaves too late.
3. The outgoing runner uses the wrong checkmark.
4. The outgoing runner runs on the wrong side of the lane.
5. The outgoing runner leaves well, then looks back to make sure.
6. The outgoing runner puts his hand back before it's called for.
7. The incoming runner slows down because he "thinks he will run up the back" of the outgoing runner, and then the outgoing runner leaves him.
8. The incoming runner runs on the wrong side of the lane.
9. The incoming runner says "stick" too soon or too late.
10. The incoming runner anticipates where the hand is going to be and misses.
11. The incoming runner does not finish the pass and lets go of the baton before the outgoing runner has had the chance to close her finger on the stick.

There are just a few of the things that go wrong when trying to effectively construct the best possible relay unit.

In this article, I would like to cover some areas that are critical to the development of a relay team that will give the coach more highs than lows (hopefully).

Most coaches have read articles on how to get the baton through the zone, so I will only say that the time the baton takes to move through each zone is a coordinated effort of the right people at the right location. This, coupled with a training regimen that allows for quality relay work to take place, is very important. I have had a hand in the running of relay teams that have run as fast as 41.97 for women and 39.35 for men on the elite level. Also, I have worked with high school boy's and girl's relay teams that have run 43.1 and 50.7 respectively without one truly big-time 100-200 or 400 meter runner.

I constructed a quartet of young girls who ran 51.1 without a single sprinter who could run faster than 13.00 (electric) or 28.0 for the 100 or 200 meters. But I was blessed with the "zone talent" to put together a relay that ran very well in their division at C.I.F. Zone talent is having the people who can run as pistons in a very powerful engine rather than as just someone who gets the other person the stick.

Just getting them the stick doesn't cut it. Let's take a look at who should run where. Everyone should have the ability to give and take the stick. I am not really concerned about the upsweep, the push-pass, or the tomahawk, because the free distance talk and the superiority of the underhand pass is all moot in the face of superior sprint talent, so let's put that on the shelf. But if you don't have the right people running the zones and if your preparation hasn't been what is really needed to put a well-honed team on the track, then be ready with a large supply of Pepcid AC, because every relay race will be a crap shoot.

The two turn legs need to be sprinters who cannot only start well, but who have the ability to maintain good leg turnover. Stride frequency is critical on the turns to maintain high velocities coming out of the turns. Look to your hurdlers for these legs, because they have a higher focus on the earliest stages of their races. This is due largely to their pinhole focus for the first hurdle, and every hurdle thereafter. Shorter sprinters have run very good turns because they are running where they are the best (where frequency is a premium). Also, hurdlers are better here because of the rhythm from hurdling that they have ingrained in their legs.

Sometimes putting your best 100 meter person on the anchor can be your biggest mistake because you can burn out your best sprinter by putting them in the "go catch'em" position each time out. No matter how slow the others on the relay run, it ultimately comes down to the anchor runner. That's a lot of pressure, and week after week of this can burn out a kid's passion to relay race. Also, if your top sprinter lacks the speed endurance to run the 200, they lack the strength to run the longer straightaways, so putting them on the turn would be more advantageous. And running your top person on a leg other than the anchor keeps them fired up to bust a big leg.

With this in mind, the longer sprinters are more suitable for the straight legs because they have the speed endurance. Evelyn Ashford, who is arguably the greatest anchor in history, was also one of the most dependable lead off women as well. As Evelyn reached the twilight of her career, she was able to take advantage of her remaining speed by moving to the lead off spot. Dennis Mitchell, who has been one of this country's best straightaway 100 men, has run the turn better than any sprinter on record. So, it is very important that you establish a philosophy that everyone gives and takes the stick. You do a disservice to the development of the sprinter by not making them versatile enough to run any position that they are capable of running (as long as their talents fit that spot). In two of the last three Olympic Games, the United States had women who were among the top sprinters in the world, and they did not run on the relay (it was a certain gold medal for them) because they could not take and give. They were "trained" to be anchor girls only and they missed out on major opportunities to contribute to this country's success.

Once you have set your personnel, it's now time to decide how you will go about organizing your workouts. The one area of relay development must take place as soon as you get your kids. Find out who your best straight runners are and who are your best turn runners. Running flying 30's and 60's on both the turn and the straight so as to determine where these people will best serve the relay. Also, if you do not know the stride length and rates of your sprinters, you can put a great turn runner in the wrong position because you have little knowledge of the turnover or length of their strides (which is critical).

As early as possible, you need to start running relay workouts to familiarize your personnel with the stick and procedures. They need to learn at an early "relay age" that certain responsibilities lie with certain members of the relay team.

First, it is always the responsibility of the passer to make the pass! From a blind position, the outgoer cannot gauge whether or not the pass is complete, so the passer must make sure the baton is firmly in the grasp of the outgoer. This is accomplished when the outgoer "takes the baton" from the passer. Dropped batons are the sole responsibility of the passer. Make that clear to each of the three passers. The gravest error is made when the passer assumes that, merely because the baton touches the hand of the outgoer, their job is done. On the contrary, this is the most critical moment and when the baton has the greatest chance to hit the track. The passer must not deliver the baton until the outgoer has heard the stick command and has delivered their hand to the appropriates spot. Many times the passer will deliver to a spot the two have worked on in practice. It's cool and slick looking but does not move the stick any faster than if both runnrrs are blasting through the zones and keeping the baton moving. By waiting until the receiver's hand has reached its spot will prevent bouncing or wavering of the hand, and gives the passer a steady target to hit. While the passer is passing the stick, he must stay on his side of the lane and keep the opposite arm pumping (this is another of those critical areas that can affect the successful movement of the baton). The tendency is for both arms to stop moving as the passer passes the stick. But a significant loss of speed can result from the passer not using the opposite arm to keep sprinting. All of your sprinters should practice sprints of up to 30-40 meters pumping their opposite arm as they pass a stick (holding the arm with the baton extended while they vigorously pump the opposite hand) and pumping the opposite arm vigorously as they hold their arm back awaiting the stick to be placed in their hand. This must be practiced early and often before your season begins so that all of your relay practices can be used to sharpen the zones rather than in developing them.

Secondly, the role of the outgoing runner is to get out hard and stay on their side of the lane, present a stable target for the passer, and take the baton decisively from the passer.

Relay practice should be held with a definite plan to run legs 1-2 and 3-4 on one day and 2-3 on a separate day. This is so 2-3 don't have to do double work after making countless runs and passes to their teammates. The relay workout should be all that they do for the day and should not be followed up with a hard sprint just beause you think they haven't run enough. Every time the outgoer does their job right, they are developing good acceleration skills and every time the passer does their job right, they are getting in quality top end speed work. So why mess it all up by throwing in a 300 or an all-out longer sprint just because you think it was an easy day? If they did it right, it was a great sprint day, and the only thing you should do is some short jump work (standing long and triple jumps, 3 and 5 bound work for the acceleration work, or speed bounds, 10 bounds or 30-40 and even 50 meter bounds to work the top end speed power).

Setting your zones will go back to the beginning when you can determine who has the best top speed and who your long, short, and quick turn sprinters are. You can start with a 20 step zone and work to shorten or lengthen it but you should always use the follwoing rule of thumb:

Relay studies have shown that most passes must be made after the outgoer has taken 10-13 steps once they have taken off. Running blind, they have a tendency to become quite anxious if they have not gotten the stick and will slow down, or look back for the stick. Passes in the middle of the passing zone and a few meters beyond is considered the optimum pass area. Ideally you would like to go as deep as possible to allow the outgoer more time to reach top speed. This would be fine if there was no DQ for going out of the zone. And that is what makes the relays so sensitive and exciting. Get the baton in to the zone and out as quickly as you can is the whole idea, but you sometimes must decide whether or not pushing that zone for that extra speed won't put extra pressure on the outgoer causing them to go out slower in a big pressure meet, or get out hard and shut down because they've run out of patience waiting for the stick to get there. You might have to get the stick to the outgoer in the first 5 meters of the passing zone because your passer does not have the speed endurance to run 110 meters without losing too much speed. Or you will want to get the baton to the outgoer early because it takes them a long time to get up to top speed and the passer can't run very far.

The second exchange is a tough pass because the passer is diving into the curve as the outgoer runs close to the inside of their lane. This will require that the passer shoot for the middle of the lane rather than the outside of her lane to offset the outward forces of running into the turn. This pass requires extra concentration to detail than the other passes for another reason. On this exchange, the passer is coming at the outgoer dead-on, and this is very difficult to manage as far as depth perception is concerned. This sea of sprinters is coming at you and it's harder to visually manage the zone when you are looking straight at it, as opposed to looking at it from an angle like the other legs can (visually, this is much easier to gauge).

Finally, to make your relay team a family, give them responsibilities that have a bearing on the success of the run.

  • Lead off Lane assignments
  • 2nd leg Tape for the zones, protests for DQ's, inquire, then tell coach
  • 3rd leg The sweats of the relay runners
  • Anchor The baton and getting the time.


The whole team should walk the track together (alternates too) to familiarize themselves with the different sizes of the track, the lane size, position of the zones, and how the weather (have a wind, rain or injury plan to allow for the sprinters to manage the unexpected) might change how they will set their zones. This is a lot to digest, but the relays are arguably the most exciting events on the track.

Another time I will detail he 4x400 and 4x200 meter relays.

International Copyright © of CoachesEducation.com. All Rights Reserved.
Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission
CoachesEducation.com is strictly prohibited.