The Start: How Important Is Noah Lyles’ Start to His Chances of Success in the 100 Meters?

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Over the span of 9.80 seconds on May 21, track & field fans saw the highs and lows of Noah Lyles, 100-meter runner.

Watch the second half of Lyles’ race at the Bermuda Grand Prix and you see a top-end speed that rivals the all-time greats. Watch the first half and you see a 200-meter man who may never start fast enough to be the best in the world in the 100. On that day, the second half was not quite enough to make up for the first half; Lyles trailed Christian Coleman by two, perhaps three meters at halfway, and though he was able to claw back almost all of the deficit by the finish line, it was the fast-starting Coleman who hung on to win in a wind-aided 9.78 seconds to Lyles’ 9.80.

But if Lyles could just improve that start…

Lyles and his coach Lance Brauman have heard some version of that line ever since he turned professional seven years ago. Lyles has already conquered the world in the 200 meters, claiming global titles in 2019 and 2022, the latter in an American record time of 19.31 that ranks him behind only Usain Bolt (19.19) and Yohan Blake (19.26) on the all-time list. He’s done some impressive things in the 100 as well — US champion in 2018, Diamond League champion in 2019 — but until this year has never contested the event at a global championship.

In 2019 and 2022, Lyles didn’t even enter the 100 at USAs; the 200 was so important to him that he couldn’t risk adding another race to his plate at Worlds. In 2021, Lyles did attempt the double but finished only 7th at the US Olympic Trials. This year, Lyles is once again targeting gold in both events, and if he is going to join Bolt and Blake as a 100-meter world champion, it is no secret what has to happen.

“If you’re in position with [the best] guys at 60 meters, with his top end, then some people have things to worry about,” Brauman says. “All we’re really trying to do is put him in a position so that at 60 meters, he has contact.”

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It’s a simple notion that applies to any athlete with a singularly great skill — if only Lyles could start faster, if only Grant Holloway could close stronger, if only Happy Gilmore could putt. But it is rare to win the genetic lottery twice. The best starters are not usually the best closers. The best drivers are not usually the best putters. That disparity of abilities is what makes sports compelling, and it’s why the men’s 100 at this year’s USATF Outdoor Championships, which begins Thursday in Eugene, Ore., is so exciting. Lyles’ closing speed is ridiculous, but he’ll be up against some of the fastest starters the sport has ever seen, led by Coleman.

“When you line up at the US nationals against [Marvin] Bracy, [Fred] Kerley maybe, [Trayvon] Bromell, whoever else lines up, if your start deserts you or you don’t have a good start in the final, you’re not making the team,” says NBC sprint analyst Ato Boldon.

Lyles and Brauman’s task is to ensure that doesn’t happen. How? Well, let’s start by defining the, uh, start.


What is “the start”? And how do you develop a good one?

Talk to five different sprint coaches and you are likely to receive five separate definitions of what constitutes the “start” of a 100-meter race. For Brauman, it is the first five steps out of the blocks. Ralph Mann, the 1972 Olympic silver medalist in the 400 hurdles and longtime USATF mechanics guru, defines it as the push out of the blocks and the first two steps. Stuart McMillan, sprint coach at ALTIS who coached Canadian Andre De Grasse to three medals at the 2016 Olympics, says the end of the “start” can vary depending on the athlete.

“Most people, what they would consider as the start, is the time between leaving the blocks and being upright,” says McMillan. “…And that’s, depending on the athlete, anywhere between 20 and 30 meters.”

Mann breaks the 100 meters into three phases: gun to first movement, acceleration (first two steps out of the blocks and transition), and maximum velocity. When Boldon talks about an athlete getting a “good start,” he does not mean the athlete who reacted fastest to the gun. He’s talking about that acceleration phase — how quickly and efficiently an athlete can reach top speed.

“The truth is you can have a good reaction to the gun and be losing at 10, 20, 30, 40 meters,” Boldon says. “The people who we call exceptional starters – Christian Coleman, in the previous generation, Asafa Powell, certainly Trayvon Bromell in this generation – those are the guys that accelerate well.”

There are three things that make a great accelerator: the ability to apply force to the ground, the frequency with which one applies it (stride rate), and the direction of that force. Right now, no one is better at it than Christian Coleman.

“Coleman is the best accelerator the world has ever seen,” McMillan says.

Coleman used his lightning start to break the 60m world record in 2018

Coleman is very strong, but stands only 5-foot-9, which means he can produce a large amount of force while maintaining a faster stride rate than his rivals (shorter legs = quicker turnover). But McMillan says it’s the third area in which Coleman separates from the pack. Coming out of the blocks, every athlete has an ideal angle at which they should be pushing off the ground, a combination of horizontal force pushing them down the track and vertical force to counteract gravity and raise their body to an upright position. Mann calls it “productive force.”

“The first two, all the elite guys on the planet can do that really well,” McMillan says. “They can all apply massive forces, and they can all apply these massive forces really, really quickly. The ones who [accelerate] the best — and this is another reason why Christian has such a fast start — is because of the orientation of the force. He just applies it in the most effective direction.”

Many young sprinters struggle with generating force and applying it in the most effective direction, both for the same reason: they are not strong enough. Obviously, a stronger athlete can impart more force on the ground than a weaker one. But a weaker athlete also has a harder time hitting the correct angles while sprinting.

A sprinter’s ideal angle out of the blocks varies with their height, but all athletes are subject to the laws of physics. Whatever a sprinter’s ideal angle, they must be able to generate enough horizontal force to stay under their center of gravity. If the sprinter is not strong enough to do that, they have to adjust by raising their center of gravity and adjusting the angle at which they are pushing. That is why you will see inexperienced sprinters starting higher in the blocks or popping up early.

Lyles says it is no secret why he struggled with his start when he first turned professional in 2017 at the age of 19.

“Oh gosh, it was horrible,” Lyles says. “I wasn’t strong enough to hold my positions. To ask your body to produce force, you have to have muscles that produce force. I didn’t have that. I had a teenager’s body and I was trying to do grown-man stuff.

Now, at 25, Lyles is a grown man, and it’s allowed him to do things the teenage Lyles could not. When Lyles watches tape of his 100-meter pb of 9.86, set in Shanghai in 2019, he sees “old Noah” — short, quick steps out of the blocks. Now Lyles’ opening steps are longer and more powerful — a natural product of the time Lyles spent in the weight room.

“That’s not a change that you make, it’s a change that happens when you get stronger,” Brauman says. “Your ability to apply force to the ground dictates your amount of clearance per step…It’s just simple power to weight ratio. As you’re able to apply more force and your body weight stays the same, you should become more powerful, which is more forceful, which is a better start.”

2021 is the first year, Lyles says, that he felt he was strong enough to apply the force necessary to have a great start. But that is only half the battle.

“I have a lot of power, but I don’t get to apply it as directly as I want to,” Lyles told Citius Mag in June. “I’m getting closer and closer. Even if I know exactly what I need to do, it’s still being able to do that action that I constantly have to keep getting in the habit of doing.”


Consistency is key

Lyles wants to win the 100 meters at this year’s World Championships in Budapest (August 19-27), and he wants to eventually break Bolt’s 200-meter world record of 19.19. To do either of those things, Lyles figures he needs to be in 9.7-second 100m shape. And to get in 9.7 100-meter shape, he has to improve the first half of his race. Which is why he has run a total of 12 indoor 60m races over the past two seasons.

Lyles beats Bromell at 2023 NBIGP Lyles turned a lot of heads when he beat Bromell in the 60 in Boston (Kevin Morris photo)

Last year, Lyles dropped his 60m pb from 6.57 to 6.55 and followed it up with the best outdoor season of his career, highlighted by that unforgettable 19.31 in the World Championship final. This year, Lyles went even faster, clocking a personal best of 6.51 in Boston on February 4. In that race, he edged Bromell, the 2016 world indoor 60m champion and one of the best starters on the circuit.

Lyles’ final two meets did not go quite as smoothly. At the Millrose Games, he false-started, and while he was allowed to run the race under protest, his time of 6.53 (good for 2nd behind Coleman’s 6.47) was annulled when the DQ was upheld. At USA Indoors, Lyles looked set for a fast time after clocking 6.56 in the semis but withdrew from the final as a precaution due to a hip issue.

Overall, however, both Lyles and Brauman were pleased with the gains Lyles made in his acceleration phase.

“We got the results we were looking for,” Lyles says. “We worked on our acceleration, that 10m to 30m was extremely faster than it was the previous year, and that’s where I think we’ve seen the biggest growth. Now of course, I want to keep improving that first 10m increment. I just wasn’t at all happy with that number.”

For Boldon, the difference between a good starter and an exceptional starter is consistency.

“To be an exceptional start, it has to be a start that you can count on every single time,” Boldon says. “…I mean when it matters – can you nail one of those when the stakes are at their highest?”

Right now, Boldon says, Lyles is still lacking that consistency.

“Indoors, he had that one race where he beat Trayvon Bromell and it was like, Oh, good, Noah has fixed his start!” Boldon says. “But the truth is, starting, it’ll drive you nuts as a coach. Because you can have the best start in the world and it will be good for June and iffy for July. It will be back for August and be iffy for September. And I think he’s having that sort of a point in his working on the start now. Sometimes you see it, and sometimes, you go, oh that’s the old start. Bermuda, to me, looked like the old start.”

Part of that is down to the way Lyles and Brauman approach the season. Just as distance runners will taper their mileage to peak for a major championship, Brauman does the same with Lyles’ volume during sprint workouts. Last year, they timed the peak perfectly, and that, more than anything else, is why Brauman believes Lyles was able to get a flying start and run the best turn of his life at Worlds.

“His body was fresh and he was able to get in better positions and apply better force,” Brauman says. “The whole difference is, he was training through USAs whereas Worlds, he actually was peaking towards. So it’s just a difference in the amount of work he’s doing at the time.”

Lyles’ practice volume has remained high in 2023 as he chases the 100/200 doubles, and if Lyles is to contend in both events, improving his start alone is not enough. The double requires six races in seven days in Budapest and six in six in Paris. He needs to make sure his body is up to the task.

“[Brauman] has kind of been training me to handle bigger loads,” Lyles says. “Because there’s going to be six rounds, essentially. So how do we be able to make sure that our body can handle that? We just have to constantly take it to that point of asking to sprint fast a lot of times.”


A great start is nice, but max speed wins races

Stuart McMillan is convinced Lyles could start races faster. If he trained as a 60m runner for the next three years, McMillan says, Lyles could make significant gains in his start.

But it’s not something McMillan would ever do if he were in charge. Every sprinter is blessed with natural gifts, and the challenge for any coach is improve their athletes’ weaknesses without detracting from what makes them great in the first place. For Lyles, spending all of his time working on the first half of his race would be like Tom Brady spending all of his time trying to improve his arm strength. It may produce a gain in one specific area, but it’s ignoring the skills that separate them from everyone else.

“If [Lyles] tries to spin out the first 30 meters and get to 30 meters really, really fast, well we’ve got a finite amount of energy available to you over the course of 100 meters,” McMillan says. “You use a little more of it at 30, then you’re taking away from your gift, which is, in his particular case, from 60 to 90.”

That’s why McMillan views a “great start” as a relative concept. For Coleman, it means building an early lead that is big enough to hold off the guys with superior top speed. For Lyles, it’s making sure he’s in contact at 30 meters without sacrificing his ability to reach his maximum speed.

“The way in which I define it is a great start will set up the sprinter in a great position to take advantage of the rest of the race,” McMillan says. “Because the rest of the race is where it is actually won or lost. Very few races are won or lost at the start, especially at the elite level.”

The statistics bear that out. Coach and sprint historian PJ Vazel studied 24 World and Olympic men’s 100-meter finals from 1972 to 2022. In all but one of those races, the winner was the athlete with the highest top speed (the lone exception: the 2017 world final in London, where South Africa’s Akani Simbine had the best top speed but only finished 5th), which typically occurs around 60 meters.

The 2017 Worlds was the rare elite 100m race where the athlete with the top speed failed to win

Of course, for an athlete to reach their maximum speed, they have to accelerate well in the early part of the race. And that, more than anything, is why Lyles was encouraged by the improvements he made this indoor season. It wasn’t just his finishing time in the 60, but the speed at which he was moving at the end of the race.

“If I’m moving faster at the 60m mark, then I’m going to have a better top-end speed and a better time in the 100,” Lyles said. “It’s constantly been, okay, how are we working that, let’s just continue to work on that.”

Lyles will put his start — and the rest of his race — to the test at USAs this week. With reigning world champion Fred Kerley contesting the 200 only — he has a bye to Worlds in the 100 — it’s the same format as usual: the top three finishers in Friday night’s final are on the team for Budapest. Lyles, who has the bye in the 200, will contest the 100 only in Eugene.

With no Kerley in the field, the event is wide-open. The two fastest men in the field by season’s best are collegians, NCAA champion Courtney Lindsay of Texas Tech and Florida’s Pjai Austin, both of whom have run 9.89 this year. But neither man has broken 10.00 outside of NCAAs in Austin — where the hot, humid conditions were perfect for sprinting — and neither has even made the semifinal at USAs, let alone a final. Marvin Bracy, last year’s Worlds silver medalist, has been all over the place, running 9.93 in Montreuil but finishing well down the standings against competitive fields in Florence (8th in 10.23) and Hengelo (4th in 10.10). Trayvon Bromell, the bronze medalist at Worlds, has run just two individual races all season with an sb of 10.09. Coleman and Cravont Charleston, the 25-year-old NC State alum in the midst of a breakout season, have been the most consistent this year, but neither has broken 9.90 yet wind-legal.

And then there’s Lyles, who was humbled by losing to a high schooler in a 100 in April (granted, a historically fast high schooler, Issam Asinga, who ran a wind-aided 9.83 to Lyles’ 9.92). Since then, Lyles has also suffered that head-to-head defeat to Coleman in Bermuda, but he heads to USAs on the strength of a Diamond League win in Paris on June 9 in which he ran 9.97 into a 0.9 headwind to defeat then-world leader Ferdinand Omanyala of Kenya. In that race, Omanyala was ahead at 60 meters, 6.48 to 6.54, and while both men reached the same top speed, Lyles held it for longer, allowing him to pull away late.

That’s the recipe Lyles will hope to replicate in Eugene. Can he do it? It starts with his start. Fortunately for Lyles, it doesn’t end there.

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