300m or 400m Hurdles at High School Level?

An issue of increasing relevance on the high school level is whether the intermediate hurdle race should be 300 or 400 meters long. I recently searched the internet to find out how many states feature a 300m race, as opposed to how many feature a 400m race. To my surprise, I found that most states still run a 300m hurdle race, with Iowa, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, and South Carolina being the only exceptions. In age-group track (AAU and USATF), both the 15-16-year-old age group and the 17-18-year-old age group feature a 400m hurdle race. So, with these facts in hand, I began to ponder the question of why so few states have their intermediate hurdlers race 400 meters, especially when considering that the high-schoolers who run in the summer race 400 meters, and that all collegiate intermediate hurdlers race 400 meters. In this article, I will discuss the pros and cons of both the 300m and 400m hurdle races at the high school level, and I will also discuss whether or not there should be a standardized distance for all states.

The most obvious argument in favor of the 300 meter distance is that it allows for beginning hurdlers to get involved in hurdling without suffering too much physical or emotional trauma. Once a newcomer can hurdle decently well, he or she can get through a 300 meter race just by running hard between the hurdles and getting over the hurdles the best he or she can. The three-step rhythm of the sprint hurdles might be too demanding at the early stages of a hurdler’s development, but the 300s don’t require nearly as much precision timing or technical efficiency. Try to throw the same athlete out there to run the 400 hurdles and you might need an ambulance nearby to rush him or her to the nearest hospital. The 400m intermediate hurdles is notorious for being one of the most demanding, most intimidating events in all of Track & Field, even for those with experience, so it makes sense to want to ease younger hurdlers into the hurdles by having them run the 300s, where they have only eight hurdles to clear, and the finish line is right there waiting for them as soon as they touch down off the last barrier. Logically speaking, just like the high school boys run over 39-inch hurdles in the 110s, and then move up to 42-inch hurdles in college, it follows that, in the long hurdles, they would graduate from the 300m hurdles to the 400m hurdles upon entering the collegiate ranks.

To counter the above argument, however, one could say that the 400m hurdles wouldn’t be so intimidating if hurdlers were introduced to it sooner, before entering college. There is much credence to this point of view. In the summer USATF age-group meets that I have attended, it seems obvious to me that kids have a lot more trouble with the 400m hurdles in the early part of the summer, having just come off the school season, in which they ran the 300s. Late in the season, though – by regionals and nationals – the races look much smoother and cleaner, and there are significantly less breakdowns in form caused by “hitting the wall.” Of course, the athletes who make it to regionals and nationals are better athletes, but still, their performance seems to improve dramatically over the course of the summer, as they gradually get used to the longer distance. Nadine Faustin, a professional hurdler who competes internationally for Haiti but ran for the University of North Carolina in the mid-90s and ran high school track in New York (a 400m hurdle state), made the following observation: “The 300-hurdlers are at a great disadvantage in the summer meets because they’re so used to stopping after three hundred.” As for the argument that younger hurdlers would be intimidated by the 400-meter distance, she argued that “you can always put younger hurdlers who are afraid of the distance in a slower heat and encourage them to just finish. They’ll grow into it.”

Faustin’s got a point. I remember a few years ago when a hurdler that I helped coach competed in the Adidas Outdoor Championships (which was called the Footlocker Outdoor Championships back then) in the 400m hurdles. A state champion in the 300m hurdles, she was in first place in her heat coming into the final straight-away. Then she hit a brick wall, or, if you will, a bear came out of the bleachers and jumped on her back, and she ended up finishing dead-last in her heat, literally walking across the finish line. She wasn’t out of shape; she was in great shape. She just wasn’t used to the distance. So, it seems clear that the chief argument in favor of high-schoolers running the 400m hurdles is that it prepares them much better for the post-season championship meets as well as for the summer USATF or AAU season. Lee Pantas, a hurdle coach who has produced state champions and national-caliber hurdlers at Asheville-Reynolds High School in Asheville, NC, noted that “the states that run the 300 hurdles seriously hamstring their athletes who wish to participate in the summer programs, with a few exceptions. It is very difficult to compete at 400H if all you have been running is 300H.”

Another thing worth mentioning, if only briefly, in this discussion, is that intermediate hurdlers are largely counted upon to serve as relay legs for the 4×400. It’s a lot to ask of a high school athlete to run the 400m hurdles and to run a 4-by-4 leg. This might be a more reasonable expectation for the athlete who competes indoors and has time to get into proper condition, but for the multi-sport athlete who doesn’t begin training for track until the spring season arrives, doubling in the 400m hurdles and the 4-by-4 is virtually impossible.

Personally, although I like the 300m hurdles more, I do feel that all states need to start moving toward making 400 meters their intermediate hurdle distance. The kids who are serious about track, and serious about training and getting better, will not back down from the longer distance, but will rise to the challenge of increased expectations. Really, the kids who would back down from the 400m hurdles are the ones who already back down from the 300s. I ran the 400m hurdles for four years in college, and although it was often painful, I don’t remember ever being carried off on a stretcher at the end of a race. As demanding a race as it is, it is manageable if one trains for it properly. For the kids who want to run track in college, who are hoping to earn scholarship money as a means of paying for their college education, we owe it to them to give them the best chance possible for success. And as Faustin mentioned, the less gifted hurdlers who are genuine hard workers will adjust to the longer distance with steady dosages of encouragement from their coaches. The less gifted athlete might even be at an advantage in some cases, as endurance would matter more than pure speed.

So, should there be a standardized distance for all states? Yes, and, for the reasons discussed in the previous paragraph, the distance should be 400 meters. The intermediate hurdles is the only event in high school outdoor track (as far as I know, anyway) that isn’t the same in every state. You don’t have a 16-pound shot in some states and a 14-pound shot in others. You don’t have a 100 meter dash in some states and a 90 meter dash in others. So, looking at it from that point of view, it’s rather illogical to have a 300m hurdle race in some states and a 400m hurdle race in others. In short, the 400m hurdles’ time has come.

© 2004 Steve McGill

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