Technical Considerations in Teaching the Javelin

Casey Thom MSS, CSCS


The javelin throwing is perhaps one of the oldest athletic events. The javelin was invented primarily used as a weapon of war. However, there is evidence of the javelin being competitively thrown from as early as the 8th century B.C. In Homer’s The Iliad the javelin was one of the events contested during the funeral games (Lombardo, 2000). Over the years throwing competitions became more popular and the javelin found its way into the pentathlon which was contested in the ancient Olympics in Greece. In the early days javelins were wooden.

Javelins used for war were generally heavier than those used for competition. (Sing, 1984). However, over the years there have been many technological advances in the design of the javelin. Modern day javelins are made out of aluminum or graphite. The advances in javelin technology have come so far that rules had to be implemented to keep the javelins from flying out of the stadiums. This was accomplished by moving the center of gravity forward 4 centimeters in the javelin causing it to tip down sooner. Before this change was put in place men were regularly throwing over 90 meters and the world record was over 100 meters! After the modifications in 1986, men that who had thrown 90 meters had trouble breaking 80 meters. However, over the past 18 years the world record has crept back to almost the same distance it was before the modifications. Jan Zelezny now holds the world record with the new javelin at 98.48 meters (Lawson, 1997).

The javelin, although light(800 grams for men and 600 grams for women) is deceptively hard to throw. Aerodynamics as well as many biomechanical principles must be considered in determining the optimal method of throwing to achieve the greatest distance. This is a very challenging event to coach due to its complexity. This paper will discuss the most important elements of the throw, how these elements are accomplished, and how aerodynamics and biomechanics help to determine the optimal technique, as well as what is the best method of training for the event.

The key objective in javelin throwing is to throw as far as possible without fouling. There are three variables that determine the distance of a throw. These three variables are the height of the throw, angle of release, and velocity at the release. Velocity at release is the perhaps the most important factor in javelin throwing. There are not any world class javelin throwers who do not generate tremendous throwing velocities. However, there are also athletes that can produce unbelievable throwing velocities but still fail to achieve great distances due to throwing at a poor angle of release. This goes to show that to reach one’s maximum potential in javelin throwing all three variables must be perfected.

The first variable that we will evaluate is throwing velocity. In order to generate maximum velocity the thrower must learn to use his or her whole body. Javelin throwing is a whole body activity, and success is not just related to how good an athletes arm is. According to C. Harmon Brown describes the javelin as a, “…dynamic total body activity….” He goes on to say that it should be described as “whip-and-flail motion” rather than a “throw” (p.249). This makes the technique of the javelin particularly challenging for American youths who were raised playing baseball, and football. In both of those sports an athlete can get away with arm throwing, however in javelin to achieve maximum distance this is not the case.

The long axis of the javelin poses yet another challenge to athletes who have been raised to throw a ball, and have not had to concern themselves about the relation of the object they are throwing to its surroundings. They needed only to be concerned about the angle of the release, whereas a javelin thrower must also be concerned about the angle of attack. Major differential between the angle of release of the hand and the angle of attack can impose large drag forces on the javelin significantly reducing the throwing velocity. This will be discussed in greater depth later in the paper.

Early practice sessions should be used to familiarize the athlete with the idea that javelin throwing is a total body activity, and also that the athlete must throw “through the point” or keep their angle of attack as close as possible to their angle of release to decrease the amount of drag that is imparted on the javelin. Two handed medicine ball throwing is an excellent way to teach athletes that javelin is a total body activity and “sticking” or throwing straight down into the ground is an excellent way to teach athletes how to pull through the point. Sticking will help the athlete become more comfortable with the javelin, and being comfortable with the javelin is one of the prerequisites to success in this event (Naclerio, 1988). An athlete who is uncomfortable is likely to be tense, and that is not conducive to the looseness that an athlete needs to accelerate the javelin to maximal velocities.

There are four major divisions of the throw. These are the run-up or approach, the withdraw, and the delivery, and the follow through (Schmolinsky, 2004). Each off these divisions aids the athlete in reaching maximal throwing velocity.

The first phase of the throw we will evaluate is the approach. The approach helps the athlete create linear velocity which can later be transferred into the throw. Sing suggest that the approach can account for anywhere between 30-40% of the horizontal distance of the throw (1984).

There is general consensus that the run up should be rhythmic and relaxed, allowing the athlete to accelerate into the crossover steps. The approach speed should be such that the thrower is in control at all times. Inexperienced throwers will often run too fast during this stage of the throw and lose control of the javelin. He also suggests that the javelin should be carried in a manner that allows for very little movement. This is to assure the alignment of the javelin. It is very important for a thrower to keep the alignment of the javelin to help to assure a clean strike later in the throw. Babbitt suggests that the thrower should carry the javelin in a plane parallel to the shoulders, and slightly above the forehead to help assure alignment when the javelin is withdrawn (2001). Schmolinsky goes on to further suggest that the javelin should be turned slightly inward, rather than at a right angle. This will allow the athlete to more easily withdraw the javelin in a straight line, helping to ensure smoothness in the run, which will eventually lead to the athlete being able to release with out delay (2004).

Gorski suggests that the run-up can take anywhere from 6 to 20 steps. He suggest that less experienced throwers take shorter run-ups, ranging from 4 to 6 steps, and that more experienced throwers should take between 8 and 12 steps. This is due to the fact that the more steps a thrower takes the more momentum he or she creates. It is the goal of every thrower to create the maximal amount of momentum that they can transfer into the throw. However, do to the complicated nature of the throw, too much momentum may at times be detrimental to throwing distances. Excessive momentum can make it much more difficult to execute the proper throwing mechanics. This is why Gorski advocates a shorter approach for beginning throwers, and a slightly longer approach for experienced throwers who are more likely to be comfortable performing the proper throwing mechanics with more momentum (2003).

After the athlete has generated his or her initial momentum in the run-up, the next step in assuring maximal final velocity of the throw is the transition phase. During the transition phase the thrower withdraws the javelin, and begins to perform cross-over steps. Although these cross-over steps tend to be slightly slower than the linear steps taken in the run-up they allow the athlete to carry their feet ahead of their center of mass, putting the thrower in a position in which he or she can exert the maximum amount of force on the javelin over the longest period of time, or get a long pull on the javelin, therefore increasing impulse (Ecker, 2002).

Schmolinsky suggests that during the transition phase the athlete draws the javelin back in alignment with the shoulder axis, to help ensure a clean pull. The palm of the throwing hand should face up, and the hips should be at almost a right angle to the direction of the throw. This will allow for them to apply force to the javelin over a longer distance thereby increasing the amount of impulse generated into the javelin (2004).

Babbitt suggest almost identical considerations for the transition phase, however he also add that the thrower must be conscious not to drop his or her throwing hand below the throwing shoulder during the transition phase. If this occurs the thrower will have a tough time regaining the alignment of the javelin and will not be able to strike the javelin smoothly (2001).

Sing suggests that the there are three most commonly used transition rhythms. These are either a 3-step, a 5-step, or 7-step rhythm. The number of steps refers to the number of ground contacts that a thrower makes after the initial run-up and before the delivery. Sing suggest that a 5-step rhythm is perhaps the most efficient choice to carry momentum into the throw and generate maximum throwing velocity. He suggest that a 3-step rhythm does not allow enough time for the thrower to settle into the power position, and that athletes who choose a 7-step rhythm must be especially careful not to decelerate into the throw (1984). However, there are two types of throwing styles. Throwers can be classified as either linear or rotational throwers, and as Gorski suggests a 7-step rhythm is most likely necessary for a rotational thrower (2003).

Benefits of throwing with the linear approach are the increased runway velocity, and greater likelihood of keeping throwing alignment. However, it also restricts the role that the hips and the trunk can play in generating force into the throw and it increases the chance that the thrower will move to quickly over throwing positions (Gorski, 2003). This style is most appropriate for larger throwers with a limited range of motion (Sing, 1984).

Benefits of the rotational style of throwing include a longer path over which the javelin is accelerated, thereby increasing impulse. The drawback is that it often decreases the runway velocity which can be transferred into the javelin. This style is most advantageous to smaller, quick, and flexible throwers (Sing, 1984). This is also the style use by the current world record holder Jan Zelezny.

The last stride in the transition is known as the penultimate crossover. During this step the athlete should drive the right knee (for right handed throwers) out and low to maintain horizontal velocity, and to should be placed out in front of the throwers center of gravity to maintain the backward lean, thereby putting the athlete in a position that increases the amount of time the athlete has to apply force on the javelin, and consequentially increasing the amount of impulse the thrower can generate on the javelin. The athlete must be careful not to overdo this and completely kill their runway speed.

The right foot contacting the ground after the penultimate crossover is known as the soft-step. Attig (1981), Gorski (2003), and Sing (1984) all emphasize the conservation of forward momentum, and the creation of separation during this soft-step. During the soft-step the right leg should contact the ground in a bent position and the immediately collapse and rotate into the left leg which should be in contact with the ground at this point. While the right leg is doing this the torso should remain slightly behind the right hip with the throwing arm patiently held back in order to create separation and tension that can be utilized in the throw.

Simultaneously the left arm, which should have been reached out in the direction of the throw, should be rapidly brought in against the left side of the body with the left shoulder remaining as far forward as possible, stretching the chest which will later result in a dynamic contraction (Webb & Sing, 2000).

Once this stretch is created the right arm can now begin to initiate the throw by rotating the right shoulder, and keeping the armpit facing straight up. Then the arm should be brought directly over the top of the shoulder to assure that the linear forces are not divided. Care should be taken that the arm muscles are used in order from proximal to distal, activating the shoulder followed by the elbow, wrist, and finally fingers. This will help to keep the chain connected and to produce a whip-like finish to the throwing motion. All of these factors combine to help create maximal throwing velocity.

The final consideration in the throwing mechanics is the follow through. This has no impact on the distance of the throw as the javelin has already left the throwers hand, however it is essential due to the rules of the javelin, that the thrower stops his or her momentum before going over the foul line. In order to dissipate this momentum Schmolinsky suggests that the athlete’s right foot should be planted transversely to the direction of the throw, landing over a flexed leg. The upper body must lean forward in order to lower the center of gravity thereby increasing stability, and the left leg is moved back in the direction of the throw (2004). Javelin throwers also wear spikes in the heels of their shoes which aid them in creating sufficient friction to dissipate their momentum following the throw.

We should now turn our attention to the role that the angle of release plays in the success of a javelin throw. There are two major aerodynamic forces working on a javelin in flight. These two forces are lift, and drag. Lift is the force that keeps the javelin in the air, and drag is the force opposing the javelins flight. Drag is working against the javelin at angles of flight including zero, but it is the greatest as the angle of attack increases and more of the javelins surface area is exposed. These two forces act on the javelin in a spot know as the center of pressure. The center of pressure is not fixed but can shift in relation to the center of gravity. When the center of pressure is in front of the center of mass the javelin has a positive pitching moment and the javelin will remain tip up. When the center of pressure moves behind the center of gravity the javelin will then have a negative pitching moment and will face down creating negative lift. Having a positive pitching moment helps to create lift, however if the pitching moment becomes to great the drag forces imposed on the javelin will become greater than the lift forces and the javelin will stall out and drop dramatically (Sing, 1984).

There has been much debate over what is the ideal angle to throw the javelin at. Although no consensus has made Ecker suggest that between 34-36 degrees is most likely appropriate in calm conditions, but the appropriate angle can shift anywhere from around 30 degrees to around 40 degrees depending on wind conditions. When a athlete is throwing into a headwind it is beneficial for that athlete to throw with a lower angle of release due to the natural increase in lift, and drag that the javelin will experience. Throwing at a lower angle will expose less of the javelin thereby decreasing the drag, while still enjoying an increase in lift. When throwing with a tailwind the thrower should thrower slightly higher because of the reduction in both drag and lift (2002).

The last factor that determines distance in the javelin throw is the height of release. This is largely determined by the athlete’s natural stature. This does give a slight advantage to taller throwers, however throwers of all different statures have enjoyed success in the javelin. Jorma Kinnunen, standing just less than 5’9”, broke the world record in the javelin in 1969 throwing over 300 feet with the old javelin (Lawson, 1997).

Finally, when designing training for javelin throwers the following considerations should be made. Overhead throwing power is primarily generated by leg extension, hip rotation, and trunk flexion (Bartlett et. al, 1989). We can easily see this from the aforementioned technique. Training should be specific to these demands, and the quadriceps, hip flexors, glutes, and abdominals should be the primary areas emphasized to meet these demands (Kaufman, 1999).

Since release velocity is a key factor, and since the speed of release in the javelin can be as high as 30 m/s neurological speed training is a must in javelin and training for the javelin should not be done at slow speeds (Zatsiorsky, 1995), with the exception of beginners for whom it is sometimes appropriate to have them familiarize themselves with the proper motor patterns for javelin throwing at slower speeds. Taking this into consideration very little maximum strength work should be done specific to javelin, but training involving ballistic training and plyometrics should be the emphasis.

Summaries and Conclusions
From this paper we can see that the main objective in the javelin throw is to throw the javelin as far as possible, while staying under enough control to stop before the foul line. There are three variables that determine how far a javelin throw will go. The first and most important is release velocity. The second is release angle, and the third is release height. There are four major phases of the javelin throw. Each phase, when performed properly, helps to put the athlete in the optimal position to achieve the maximal distance on his or her throw.

The first phase is the run-up. This is where the javelin’s initial linear velocity comes from, and it can account for up to 40% of the throwing distance. This portion of the run should be smooth, rhythmic, gradually accelerating to a controllable velocity, and should allow the athlete to maintain javelin alignment.

The second phase is the transition phase. This phase is used to put the athlete in an ideal throwing position to maximize impulse. It generally consists of crossovers using either a 3-step, 5-step, or 7-step rhythm. Care should be taken by the athlete not to decelerate during this phase of the throw.

The third phase is the release. This is initiated off of the penultimate crossover, followed by a soft step on the right leg which transfers the momentum of the throw into a strong left block leg. The javelin should be kept back as long as possible to create the maximum amount of stretch while the left arm blocks, and then the right arm should rotate up keeping the armpit to the sky, and finish the throwing motion overhead. During the final phase of the throw the athlete needs to dissipate his or her momentum following the throw in the follow through by planting the right foot transversely, moving the upper body forward to lower the center of gravity, and finally by kicking the left leg back.

Aerodynamic factors such as lift and drag play a big role in the flight of the javelin, and the thrower should throw in such a manner that they maximize lift and limit drag depending on the conditions.

Finally, training for javelin should be specific to both the body areas involved in throwing the javelin, and also the speed of movement required in the javelin.

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