“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson
Over the past five years, since the inception of this website, my approach to coaching the hurdles has evolved a great deal. Coaching some outstanding hurdlers, as well as many hard-working hurdlers who didn’t have as much physical ability, has taught me much about the hurdling events, to the point where I have come to question many of the basic elements that I once assumed to be untouchable. This article will discuss the main changes that have taken place in my approach to coaching hurdlers.
Lead Leg isn’t the Most Important Leg
When I first started this website I strongly believed that the lead leg was the most important factor in running fast times in the hurdles. I believed you had to develop a lead leg that functioned properly with a knee-driven attack at the crossbar and a lightning-quick thrustful snapdown off the hurdle. While I still believe that the importance of leading with the knee is paramount, I no longer feel that snapping it down is nearly as important as I used to. I now feel that the key to speed going into the hurdle, over the hurdle, and coming off the hurdle is the trail leg, which I prefer to call the back leg (because that’s where it starts from) or the push leg or whip leg (because those are its functions).
Because the back leg is the leg that pushes off the ground, it is the leg that creates acceleration as you attack the bar. Because the lead leg is already in the air, it cannot create acceleration. The lead leg, in that sense, is more important for balance than for speed. It can slow you down if it swings or kicks, causing you to hang in the air too long, but it can’t speed you up.
The trail leg, because it pushes off the ground and then whips in front, creates speed. I’ve become convinced that 99% of the hurdlers out there never reach their full potential because they over-emphasize the lead leg and under-emphasize the trail leg. They don’t push off the track with any significant force because they’re so focused on getting their lead leg back on the ground. The trail leg lags, creating width in the groin and imbalance in the hips and shoulders. And on they go, running sort-of-sideways all the way down the track. The problem is not that the trail leg is too slow and therefore unable to keep up with the lead leg, but that it is starting from too far behind. So, even when it functions properly, it can’t get all the way to the front by the time you land.
I hate to beat a dead horse, but the two hurdlers who are masters of pushing off the back leg and whipping it in front are Dayron Robles and Liu Xiang. American hurdlers generally don’t hurdle this way. Allen Johnson did in the latter part of his career, which is why, I would assume, he broke free of the habit of clobbering hurdles. There are a few others who do so as well, but I don’t know if they even realize they’re doing it.
Sprinting Between the Hurdles is Just as Important as Hurdling
The very name of this website is based on the principle that the motion over the hurdles matters more than the sprinting strides between them. And much of my success as a coach has been based on the belief that if you fix the hurdling, the sprinting will fix itself. While this is true to a degree, I now believe that if you want to maximize your potential, you have to know the principles of sprint mechanics, and you must also understand to how they relate to how you want to sprint between the hurdles. Sprinting without obstacles in your way is not the same as sprinting with them in your way, but without developing a background in the basics of sprint mechanics, you’re limiting your room for growth.
I would now argue that problems in hurdling mechanics are caused by errors in sprint mechanics, and that, often, the hurdling problem cannot be fixed until the sprint problem is addressed. For example, a hurdler who has a very wide trail leg will continue to have a wide trail leg if he or she runs with a lot of back-kick. Stop kicking back so much when you run, then you’re trail leg will be tighter over the hurdle because its initial motion off the ground will no longer be backward, but forward.
Another example: a hurdler who doesn’t drive the knee at the crossbar probably runs with very low knee lift in his or her sprinting stride. Teach that athlete to get the knees up while sprinting, and that will carry over to when he or she hurdles. Basically, you want running over hurdles to be an extension of what you do mechanically when running without hurdles. So, when you have questions about what to do about an aspect of hurdling technique, you should be able to reference your sprinting technique for the answer.
Being Able to Alternate is Important
In regards to the 300/400m hurdles, one thing I’m still fluctuating on is the importance of alternating. When I first started coaching, I pretty much felt that it was nice if you could do it naturally, but that it wasn’t an essential skill. My argument was, if the great Edwin Moses was able to win consecutive races for ten years without alternating, it couldn’t be that important. But in looking closely at some of his races it’s obvious that he could have easily 12-stepped some of the early hurdles, and that he might have been better off on some occasions had he 14-stepped the last hurdle. Kevin Young, the only man to break 47 in the 400h, 12-stepped two hurdles when he did it, which makes you wonder if 12-stepping at least one hurdle is essential to breaking the 47-second barrier.
On the whole, I’m ambiguous about this topic. I take it on an athlete-by-athlete basis. It comes down to the question of, how much practice time do you want to dedicate to learning to use the weaker leg and building it up to be as strong as the stronger one? I would say this, however: if you are unable to alternate, even if it means using your “weaker” leg for only one hurdle, you’re going to hit a plateau. Why? Because there’s going to come a point in a race where an even number of steps between the hurdles will put you in a better rhythm than an odd number of steps. And if you can’t alternate, you’ll either have to chop or overextend your strides. Either way you’ll lose a lot of energy and momentum.
The only exception to this rule, I would argue, are hurdlers who have much experience in the 110/100m hurdle race. Such hurdlers can drop down from 13 to 15, or 15 to 17, or 17 to 19, without much loss of speed because they can revert to 110/100h mode and quicken their turnover. But such athletes are the exception, not the rule.
If you’ve read a lot of articles on this website and think that one thing I say in one article seems to contradict something I said in an earlier one, that’s because it probably does. As I gain more experience with more athletes and more possibilities in terms of how to bring out their potential, I sometimes find myself coming into conflict with my own long-held philosophies. So, instead of clinging to them, I let go of them, but I never throw anything away, because it could always prove to be relevant once again at a later time. In terms of workouts, for example, I now rarely use the zone drill, but I’ll never discard it because it always might be the perfect pre-meet workout for a particular athlete.
© 2009 Steve McGill