The 4×100 relay or sprint relay is an athletics track event run in lanes over one lap of the track with four runners completing about 100 meters each. The lead-off runners begin in the same stagger as for the individual 400m race. A relay baton is carried by each runner and must be passed within a 20 m exchange (or “passing” zone), which is usually marked by colored lines or triangles. The center of the first exchange zone is 100m from the starting line, the second exchange zone is centered 200m from the starting line, and so on. The acceleration zone allows for the outgoing runner to gain speed and it extends 10m from the exchange zone.
The 4×100 is the most technically difficult of all the relays. The ability to make good high-speed handoffs requires precise timing, proper technique, skill, as well as teamwork. Your relay time should be less than the sum of your runner’s best 100m times due to the benefit of flying starts for three legs of the relay.
There is no evidence that the ancient Greeks had sprint relay races. A race named Lampadedromia included teams of 6-10 runners racing over long distances carrying a flaming torch. This is possibly the inspiration for today’s Olympic torch relay.
The decision of which athletes run the various relay legs can be a critical factor in your team’s success. Consulting with your runners can be helpful in this regard, as oftentimes athletes have a preference for which leg they would like to run, and even better, sometimes they have good reasons.
Here are some guidelines to consider when matching an athlete to a relay leg.
The lead-off leg requires an athlete who is fast out of the starting blocks and runs a good corner. The only exchange technique necessary is to be able to pass the baton. This leg requires less practice time compared to the second and third legs, where receiving and passing the baton is required.
The second leg of the relay runs the backstretch, with very little or no curve running. The athlete needs to develop both passing and receiving skills to be effective in this leg. Many coaches choose to place their best sprinter here, with the intention of having this runner carry the baton farther than the other runners. This is done by getting the baton to the runner of the second leg early in the first exchange and passing it late to the third leg runner. Excellent speed and speed endurance is very important for this leg, particularly if you plan for this runner to carry the baton for an extended distance. Being a quick accelerator is helpful if you want this runner to get the baton early in the exchange zone.
The third leg requires a runner who can run a good curve and has the ability to receive and pass the baton. As with the second leg, the third leg can be intentionally lengthened or shortened by the coach. Some coaches will place their slowest runner in the third position and try to pass the baton late to this runner and have the runner give up the baton early in the exchange zone to the fourth leg. Some coaches will do the opposite and fill the third leg with a fast runner (Usain Bolt has run this leg for the Jamaicans) and in doing so try lengthen this leg.
Often coaches will put either their fastest or second fastest athlete in this position. It requires a very competitive athlete who can finish the event by either catching or holding off other challengers into the finish line. This athlete needs only to be able to receive the baton well, but does not need to pass it, and he or she does not need to run a curve well. As with the leadoff runner, practice time for this leg is reduced compared to the 2nd and 3rd legs.
When do you practice the relay?
A coach that begins practicing relay techniques from the very first practice will send a clear message to the team that the relays are a priority, particularly compared to a coach that starts practicing relays the day before the first meet.
Coaches that want to be as efficient with practice time as possible will have relay teams practice “blind” handoffs while jogging during warm-up and/or cool down laps (see Jogging Relay Drill).
Practicing “full speed” handoffs following a tough sprint workout will not be as productive as practicing these handoffs while the athletes are warmed up and still “fresh” early in the practice. Trying to get the timing right for handoffs and establishing the “go” marks for example with athletes that are physically and mentally tired will be challenging.
Take into account the amount of “training” the athletes are putting in during relay practice and adjust their sprint training accordingly. Relay team members for example might require a reduction in interval work compared to your other sprinters.
Faster runners will typically start at the beginning of the acceleration zone (run a full 10 meters before reaching the exchange zone) in order to reach full speed before getting the baton near the middle or last part of the exchange zone. When slower runners compete the event, it may not be necessary for the runner receiving the baton to use the whole 10m acceleration zone because a slower runner does not require as much distance to reach full speed (if the race was being run by toddlers, you really wouldn’t need much of an acceleration zone, just to exaggerate the point).
Handoffs are performed using a “blind exchange”. Once the outgoing runner starts to accelerate, he or she does not look back to receive the baton. The outgoing runner starts to sprint once the incoming runner reaches a mark on the track (typically the outgoing runner will put a strip of athletic tape on the track –USATF rules permits one mark, maximum of 5x40cm). The incoming runner will usually yell “go” when reaching this mark.
There are several methods for executing a fast, blind 4 X 100 relay baton pass. The most commonly used technique is the “downsweep”, wherein the runner with the baton sweeps the baton downward onto the receiver’s hand, which is palm up.
Downsweep/Palm Up – Alternating Method
The downsweep pass is popular and has been used since the 1960s. With this pass, the outgoing runner accelerates to a predetermined spot in the exchange zone or responds to a verbal command. The arm is then extended back straight. The target hand is held high (nearly parallel to the track, although note that is not the case in the exhibit below) with the palm facing up, fingers slightly spread, and the thumb turned toward the torso. The incoming runner, while maintaining a normal sprint action, extends the baton and arm forward in a downward sweeping motion. (See figure 9.2. below which comes from the USA Track & Field Coaching Manual). This exchange may require the passer to steer the baton into the target. A little wrist action may be needed to angle the baton so that it fits the diagonal groove formed by the upwardly turned palm.
In the 4 X 100 relay, passing the baton right hand to left hand, left hand to right hand, and right hand to left hand sequentially is known as the alternating method (so you will use the downward sweep technique with the alternating method). In using the alternating method, the runner does not switch the baton from hand to hand. The runner passes the baton with the same hand in which he or she received it. The advantage of this method is that it allows the first and third runners to run as close as possible to the inside of the lane on curves. The second and fourth runners stay in the outside of their lanes so that the incoming runners can stay close to the inside part of the lane as the pass is made. This allows the pass to be made in a straight, forward direction and not across the body. This is a fast and efficient exchange method and helps reduce the chance of teammates colliding.
Younger athletes may object to handling the baton in their weaker hand (a right handed person for example may not feel comfortable in the second leg where the baton is received and passed with the left hand). Also, coaches of younger athletes may feel like the alternating method is too difficult. However, the ability to be able to handle the baton with either hand should be viewed as a skill that needs to be developed, as all good high school and college track programs use the alternating method.
Racing Through Zone
This is a particularly good drill for younger or less experienced athletes and you can use it to help establish the proper location to place your “mark” (when the incoming runner hits the “mark” the outgoing runner starts).
Make an educated guess as to where you think the mark will be and place a small cone or other object beside the lane. Have the incoming runner essentially race the outgoing runner through the exchange zone without making a handoff as follows. The incoming runner runs about 50% of the leg as fast as possible and when this athlete reaches the “mark” the outgoing runner takes off as fast as possible and they literally race to the end of the exchange zone.
You can practice the 1st and 3rd exchange runners on the same corner of the track at the same time (one pair goes, and then the other). In both cases the incoming runner (running the curve) will stay on the inside of the lane and the outgoing runner will stay on the outside of the lane. If you are concerned that your kids will trip over each other, split the exchange zone in two with a row of small cones.
The benefits of the racing through the zone drill are:
- It allows the athletes the opportunity to focus on one thing – running as fast as they can through the exchange zone, which is obviously what you want them to do in a race.
- The incoming runner will be forced to run as fast as possible all the way through the zone in order to “beat” the outgoing runner. This will help them in races, when you want them racing through the entire exchange zone.
- The outgoing runner can focus on starting fast and running hard through the exchange zone with no hesitation or slowing down while waiting for a handoff (which can happen with younger or less experienced athletes).
Adjust the “mark” between “races through the zone” to help determine the proper location for the “mark” you will want for handoffs. You will be looking for that location where the outgoing athlete has had enough time to reach maximum speed and the handoff can be made safely within the exchange zone. The outgoing runner should “win” the races through the zone if your mark is properly located. Using this drill, you can also determine if your outgoing runner really needs to use the full 10-meter acceleration zone or not.
The following drills will help the athletes improve their ability to pass and receive the baton:
Stationary Relay Drill
This is a good drill to practice before trying the “Jogging Relay Drill”, which is a good drill to practice before attempting the more difficult “Sprinting Relay Drill”
1. Line runners up within the a lane with the second leg runner in front of the first leg, the third leg in front of the second leg, and the fourth leg at the front of the line in front of the third leg.
2. The lead-off runner stands on the inside part of the lane (since this runner will race on the inside of the curve). The second runner stands on the outside part of the lane about two full arm’s length distance between the first and third leg. The third runner stands on the inside part of the lane (again, because this leg involves running a curve). The fourth runner stands on the outside part of the lane about two arms lengths in front of the third leg.
3. Again, the runners do not stand directly behind one another, but staggered on either side of the lane so that the baton travels down the middle of the lane. This right left-right-left handoff simulates how the first and third runners to hug the inside lane and run the shortest possible distance, while the baton takes the most direct path during races.
4. The athletes stand in place while pumping their arms, and pass the baton forward using verbal passing cues (“stick”, or “hand”, etc.).
5. When the fourth runner receives the baton, he or she reverses the direction of the handoff and sends the baton back through the line and the hand offs can then be repeated.
Make sure the athletes practice with good posture. The “passer” should not be leaning too far forward, and the “receiver” should not be leaning back, for example. Each receiver should use proper fundamentals when reaching back for the baton. The elbow goes back first, leading the forearm and hand into position. The palm is up and the arm is fully extended, at close to shoulder height, to receive the baton. The hand should be held “still” so the passer can stick the baton into the hand.
Jogging Relay Drill
This is similar to the Stationary Relay Drill, but the athletes, maintaining their same staggered positions within the lane make handoffs while jogging. This drill can easily be performed during practice warm ups and cool downs. This drill will help the athletes understand proper spacing and hitting a moving target. Again, make sure the athletes use proper posture and handoff fundamentals.
Sprinting Relay Drill
This drill is much more difficult than the jogging relay drill. Perform this drill with two runners. The runners jog for a distance in staggered positions before the passer yells “go”. They sprint for a short distance and then the passer yells “stick” (or whatever command you prefer), and the two complete a handoff.
This drill will allow your athletes to make a number of handoffs running at or near full speed within a relatively short time period. Hopefully this high volume of repetitions will improve their skills.
This drill can become a large part of their workout for the day. You will need to give them clear directions on how much jogging (or walking) you expect them to do between each handoff. Also consider their endurance and how much of a work out you want this to be when determining how many laps they will run.
Multiple pairs of runners can complete this drill at the same time running in adjacent lanes. This will give the drill a bit more of a racing feel to it. The athletes will have to learn to listen to their teammates commands (“go” and “stick”) amongst multiple voices. If the receiver is much faster than the passer, this will also make the drill challenging and passer will need to gain a burst of speed before yelling “go” and yet still maintain a reasonable distance.
When you run full speed exchange drills in practice, time the baton in the exchange zone. Start your watch when the baton breaks the plane of the exchange zone, stop your watch when the baton exits the zone. The key is to have the baton spend as little time in the zone as possible. If possible, time these exchanges during meets as well.
It is not reasonable to expect that the timing of your exchanges in your first few races will be perfect. Athletes will run differently during meets (faster) than they will in practice. It is important to review the “good” and the “bad” soon after the race. The idea is not to criticize the athletes, but to look for proper adjustments to be made for the next meet. Video can be a very helpful tool in reviewing relay races as well as practices.
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Delete the rules below if you want to…
USATF Relay Rules (2010)
- Uniforms must be clean, non-objectionable, and non-transparent when wet. (143.1)
- Relay runners must be identifiable as team members – meet-issued letters/numbers or identical shirt. (170.24)
- If bibs are provided, they may not be cut or folded. (143.4) & must be worn visibly on front if 1/front & back if 2 (1 only – HJ&PV) (143.5/6, 143.4). Transponder/timing device must b worn according to instructions (143.7)
- Runners may run in bare feet, or with shoes on one or both feet; no more than 11 spikes/shoe. (143.3)
- Max spike length for synthetic surfaces – 9mm (12mm for HJ &JT) or as further limited by meet mgmt; for non-synthetic surfaces – 25mm; no appliances in shoes for unfair advantage; max sole thickness: 13 mm for HJ& LJ, max heel thickness: 19mm for HJ (143.3) All other events – shoes may be any thickness.
Electronic Devices Visible possession of audio/video/communication devices not permitted in competition area. (144.3)
Starting Positions and Commands
- For races of 400m or less, starting blocks and a crouch start must be used; blocks may not be used in longer races. Block holders – OK. (161.2/5, 162.6) Commands are: “On your marks,” “Set,” and then the gun. (162.3)
- For races of more than 400m, must use a standing start and runners are placed 1-3m behind their starting line. The commands are: “On your marks” (runners advance to the starting line) and then the gun. (162.3, 162.6)
False Starts Athletes are disqualified after their 1st false start; exception: combined events and Sub-Bantam, Bantam, Midget, and Youth – where a 2nd false start is a disqualification. (162.12; 200.3c; 302.2d)
Forming Heats (See Rule 166)
Starting Lines (lanes/not in lanes) & Staggered Starts (160.8, 162.18)
- 200m: entirely in lanes, 1 turn stagger; 400: entirely in lanes, 2 turn stagger
- 800m: in lanes for 1 turn stagger, then break. Place small cones at the intersection of each lane & the break line.
- Staggered alleys – 2/3 on waterfall at start line, and 1/3 on waterfall at stagger for a 1turn stagger.
- Relays: 4x100m entirely in lanes, 2-turn stagger; 4x200m entirely in lanes, if not possible, 3 turn stagger; 4x400m in lanes, 3-turn stagger then break. (170.6)
Relays – Passing Zones
- Passing zones are 20m long, centered on the starting line for each leg. (170.2)
- In the 4x100m, 4x200m, and any other relay where the incoming runner leg is 200m or less, the 2nd, 3rd, & 4th runners may start l0m outside of passing zone in the international zone. (170.7)
- The zone center lines for the first exchange of the 4×400 and the second exchange of the 4x200m relays are the same as the start lines for the 800m run. (170.3)
- For exchanges in lanes, runners may place one tape check mark in their lane, max size of 5x40cm. (170.11)
Relays – Baton Exchange
- The baton must be smooth, rigid, hollow, one-piece, with no material or other substance on it. (170.25)
- The baton must be carried by hand, if dropped it must be retrieved by the runner who dropped it. (170.12)
- The baton must be exchanged within the passing zone (position of baton is decisive). (170.14)
Relay Receiving Positions
- In the 4x400m relay, 3rd & 4th runners are placed in the order of their incoming teammates as they complete 200m; after that they will not change positions. (170.9) (Also applies to other relays when lanes are not used.)
- For other relays with exchanges not made in lanes – no specific rule, but: outgoing runners are usually placed on the track in the order of the incoming runners as they enter the final straightaway. (170.10)
- Runners must remain in their lane until the course is clear. (170.16)