Down the runway

Luke Stott and former international triple jumper Femi Akinsanya explain how to measure a run-up for the horizontal jumps

Posted on November 24, 2011 by
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Nathan Douglas (Mark Shearman)

The run-up in any of the horizontal jumps is a simple yet essential part of each event. Its aim is simple – to get the athlete to the take-off board at the optimal speed so that the furthest distance possible can be attained.

Athletes can go about doing this in a variety of ways. Some choose to have a run-up where they build up speed throughout. Others will elect to drive out hard, then maintain and turn over quickly for the last four to six strides. Some choose to walk or skip into the starting mark so that acceleration is easier and some athletes prefer to run as fast as they can from start to finish. Each of these techniques requires the athlete to display excellent running technique in order to maximise their potential.

All these methods of employing the run-up are perfectly valid and all lead to its most crucial phase – the final four to six strides prior to reaching the take-off board. It is at this point that the athlete should be travelling at their optimal speed – like an aeroplane on the runway just before leaving the ground.

These last strides are especially important because if the right speeds at take-off are not reached, a loss in horizontal speed and sometimes vertical take-off in the jumping phase will be lost. The end result will be a jump that is not as long as could have been expected.

One of the questions frequently asked by young athletes is: how long should the run-up be? The answer tends to lie in the age of the athlete and it is amazing to see how often young athletes measure out run-ups in competition that are far too long for them. If we asked a 10-year-old athlete to show us their run-up for the long or triple jump, there’s a good chance that it’ll be longer than 30 metres.

There are two problems for a young athlete who reaches top speed much sooner, but runs out of steam the closer they get to the board. The first is that a long run-up expends valuable energy – it’s much harder to jump personal bests if you’re already tired before you reach the board.

Secondly, the longer the run-up, the less accurate you’re likely to be on the board because the athlete’s run-up is going to be very inconsistent. This is because slight changes in stride length are exaggerated with the more steps you take.

What slight changes can there be for stride length? Well, the weather for a start. If you find yourself jumping with a very strong tailwind, your strides are likely to be slightly longer than on a still day. If you take 15 strides to reach the board and each is 5cm larger than normal, then by the time you reach the board you’ll be a whopping 75cm further down the track with a foul jump the expected outcome.

In order to minimise the effects of these two problems, a good rule of thumb for the young athlete is to have a run-up that is approximately the same number of strides as their age. The strides can be odd or even depending on what foot is preferred for take-off. This is only a rough guide and this rule tends to work up until the age of 16. After that, body strength tends to accelerate rapidly and it becomes more difficult to predict how much force an individual can take from running faster and still produce good jumps.

Once you know how many strides the run-up will be, you should stand on the take-off board with your heel as close to the plasticine as possible without making an indentation. Then you will run back up the runway in one of the run-up patterns mentioned earlier. Once you do the number of strides agreed, an observer – it can be a coach or another athlete – will mark the runway at this point. Then turn around, go to the mark and run back down the runway with the same pattern. You should hit the take-off board accurately.

Depending upon whether or not you hit the board with your jumping foot, you might want to switch your feet around at the start of the run-up to make sure the correct foot makes contact with the board. Some adjustment may be necessary by moving the marker forward or backwards so the desired foot hits the board, if the athlete finds swapping legs awkward to do. Once the run-up is correct, you can measure the distance with a tape measure or you can count it out with your feet.

In outdoor competitions these marks may change due to adverse weather conditions or just that you feel slow that day. If you find yourself a long way behind the board you should move your starting mark the same distance forward. If you are constantly over the board then moving the starting marker back by roughly the same amount should lead to becoming more accurate in subsequent jumps. The key is to do this finetuning in the warm-up before a competition so that the focus is solely on jumping once it commences.

It is obvious to anybody that has ever attempted both the long and triple jumps that they require very different approaches – so how do their run-ups differ? First and foremost, the principle difference between the two events is the speed at take-off. Long jumpers require only the one contact in order to become airborne as opposed to the three separate contacts in the triple jump. Therefore they are required to consolidate all their momentum from their approach into a single contact – as they only have one chance at this, they require more speed in order to get as much as possible.

A triple jumper never jumps off the take-off board into the hop phase with the same force as their long jumping counterparts. Instead, their goal is to carry their horizontal momentum forward rather than sacrificing any of it for the sake of jumping higher off the board. This is in stark contrast to the long jump where maximising the vertical forces is one of the important considerations for the athlete. In other words, running as fast as possible into the board, then jumping as high as you can off it will result in the biggest distance.

The run-up for the long jump often depends on what forces the athlete can handle at take-off. The ideal position for an athlete to be in at the point of take-off is one of minimal flexion at the ankle, knee and hip joints. This will give the athlete the best chance of converting their flat speed into velocity in the air and also allow them to generate their maximum vertical lift off the board. So the quicker we go, the stronger we need to be in order to handle the forces that speed exerts on our bodies.

For triple jump the forces are just as great as in the long jump but the main forces come from the landing of each phase. We are still looking at minimal flexion at take-off, but again we need the same thing to happen two more times on the hop and step landing. So if you are running too fast and you can’t handle the hop landing, you will more than likely end up with a loss in total distance.

Three things to avoid

Femi Akinsanya’s three things to avoid on a run-up:

1 Over-striding during the last two strides
It’s very tempting to “reach” for the board in the final few strides of the approach. Always try to resist this urge because larger strides will lead to a braking effect on your velocity. The result of this is that, although you may be more accurate with regard to hitting the take-off board, you will likely do so at a greatly reduced speed, meaning that you won’t jump as far due to a loss of horizontal and vertical velocity once airborne.

2 Being inconsistent with the first two to four strides
Always make sure that the first two to four strides are consistent. This is where the majority of errors are made that lead to fouling and other problems relating to accuracy on the board. A good example of a world-class athlete that currently has these problems is Teddy Tamgho who, while capable of huge distances in the triple jump, is also prone to inconsistency.

3 Posture
It’s always best to make sure that you have a good, tall posture halfway down the runway. This will ensure that you are in the right position to optimise the take-off when it arrives.

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