All Good Hurdlers Fall

The one thing that all beginning hurdlers are most afraid of is falling. The one thing that will happen at least once in the career of all hurdlers is they will fall. Does that mean that hitting hurdles is a bad thing, to be avoided at all costs? Yes. And no. I’ve never been a purist; well, I am a purist in the sense that I believe in the principles of hard work and dedication. But I’ve never been a purist in the sense of believing that a “clean” race is somehow inherently more worthy of my admiration and approval than a race in which a hurdler hits a lot of hurdles. You can hit a lot of hurdles and still run an excellent race. Too much emphasis on not hitting hurdles can lead to a passive style of hurdling, featuring an overly-high clearance of the barriers, and slower times. But obviously, on the flip side, an overly aggressive style can lead to hurdles flying in the air and hurdlers falling to the ground. But to think you can be a hurdler and never fall is naïve. It’s no different than being a basketball player and hoping you will never get your shot blocked, or being a cornerback in football and thinking you’re never going to get beat deep. It’s going to happen. The question is not whether or not it is going to happen, but how are you going to deal with it when it does.

The Good Ones Get Back Up
A good way to tell whether or not someone who runs the hurdles is truly a hurdler is how he or she responds upon falling. I fell at the second hurdle of the first intermediate race I ever ran. It was back in the days of cinder tracks, so I had all kinds of itty-bitty stones crawling in my arms and legs. In spite of my embarrassment, I got back up and finished the race, coming across the finish line solidly in last place. I expected my coach to be angry with me, or at least disappointed in me, but instead he said something that has stuck with me to this day. “All hurdlers fall,” he said, “the good ones get back up.” He then sent me to the training room to get some treatment for my cuts.

All Good Hurdlers Fall
To take what my coach said to me one step further, all good hurdlers fall, because all the bad ones stopped hurdling once they fell. I’m sure that watching two of the best hurdlers in the world (Perdita Felicien and Allen Johnson) fall in the Olympics Games in Athens put a shiver of fear through the hearts of hurdlers everywhere, but it really shouldn’t. The lesson we learn from their mishaps is one that sprinters and distance runners will never have to learn – when there are barriers in your way and you’re running full speed at them, you might hit one, and you might fall. No matter one’s level of experience or ability, the potential for disaster is always there. Through practice and mental preparation, it can be minimized, but it can never be taken completely out of the equation. That’s what makes hurdling so thrilling, but it’s also what makes hurdling so hazardous. Sure, it would be easier to sprint without the trouble of negotiating barriers along the way. That’s why not everybody runs the hurdles. Another lesson we learn from the falls of AJ and Felicien is that there are ways to hit hurdles that are quite treacherous, but there are also ways to hit hurdles that not only are not so bad, but are indeed much better alternatives to sailing above hurdles.

The Allen Johnson Factor
Allen Johnson has been one to hit many hurdles in a race throughout the course of his career. I remember one race – I think it was either the national championships or the world championships in 2001, when he hit nine of the ten hurdles and still ran a sub-13.0. Amazing? Impossible? Not really. One of the things that has made Johnson great is that he is a master of knowing how to hit hurdles without allowing it to slow him down. In that race, he brushed the majority of the hurdles with his hamstring, sliding over them smoothly, causing a slight rustle, but not knocking them down. He hit maybe two with his lead leg foot, but only one of them did he hit really hard. On the two that he hit with his lead leg foot, it was the edge of the heel of the foot that took on the brunt of the impact, so he was able to drive through the hurdle and maintain his speed. Optimally, all hurdlers want to clear the hurdles as low as possible without actually touching them. So, there’s a risk factor involved. In getting as low as possible, you run a greater risk of hitting them. That’s the chance a hurdler takes; indeed, that’s the chance a hurdler must take. AJ has done it with mastery throughout his entire career, but he caught a little bit too much of that ninth hurdle in the quarter-finals of the 2004 Olympic Games.

The Roger Kingdom Factor
There is no Roger Kingdom factor. Kingdom hit hurdles so hard that they would bounce off the track and fly into the infield, but he would just keep on running without barely turning his shoulders. To use Kingdom as a model would be foolhardy unless you’re someone as big and as strong and as fast and as fearless as he was. That list of requirements would leave out everybody. The important work that Kingdom did, though, was show us all that it’s quite possible to hit a lot of hurdles yet still run fast times. He made us all – coaches and athletes alike – re-evaluate our criteria for what constitutes a quality hurdle race, and what constitutes a quality hurdler. There’s a reason why the equipment companies now put weights on the bottoms of hurdles – because it’s understood that, otherwise, there would be a whole track full of overturned hurdles lying on the ground at the conclusion of a race. I know that when I, as a coach, have a male hurdler who feels frustrated because he’s hitting too many hurdles in races, I will show him a tape of an old Roger Kingdom race just to emphasize the point that hitting hurdles isn’t the end of the world. Stay aggressive, I say, but work on your technical flaws, and you’ll eventually stop hitting hurdles. And that’s what always ends up happening.

“Good” Ways to Hit Hurdles
Ideally, obviously, there are no “good” ways to hit hurdles, because hitting hurdles slows you down. However, there are ways to hit hurdles that are less damaging than others, that cause a minimal loss of balance, rhythm, and speed. Hitting hurdles in these ways is definitely better than sailing over hurdles, which causes an even greater loss of speed and rhythm. “Good” ways to hit hurdles would include the following:
1. With the underside of the lead-leg hamstring on the way down. If the hamstring really grabs the hurdle, then you’re in trouble; but if the hamstring just kind of slides along the top of the crossbar, that means you are wasting no time in the air, and that you will get the lead leg back on the ground very quickly.
2. With the tip of the lead-leg heel. If you have a good, low dive into the hurdle, if your energy is moving forward with good velocity, then hitting the hurdle with the tip of the lead-leg heel won’t bother you much at all. You’ll be able to run through the hurdle without hardly feeling any disruption in your rhythm.

“Bad” Ways to Hit Hurdles
Hitting hurdles in the following ways will cause significant loss of speed, balance, and rhythm, and could lead to crashing:
1. With the entire heel of the lead-leg. Hitting hurdles here will throw you off-balance if it catches you by surprise. The best thing to do if this happens is try to stay low and drive the crossbar all the way to the ground so that you can keep yourself running in a straight line. If you do this over too many hurdles, you’ll get disqualified, but if you have to do it once in order to be able to keep on going to the next hurdle, then do so.
2. With the ball of the lead-leg foot. Hitting hurdles here will cause the same problem as hitting them with the heel. So, the way to deal with it would also be the same. There’s a greater danger, too, of getting top-heavy on the way down and falling forward. That’s where the trail leg comes in. Try as best you can to get the knee of the trail leg moving upward so that your next step will be more than just a stumble. Hopefully, you’ll be able to maintain your stride pattern between the hurdles and get back into the race.
3. With any part of the trail leg. Whether it’s the knee, the ankle, the shin, or the foot, hitting hurdles with your trail leg will throw you off-balance. I’ve known some hurdlers, including myself, who hit so many hurdles in the same spot on their trail-leg knee that they’ve developed a numb spot on the knee where there is a permanent bruise. When you hit the hurdle with the trail-leg knee while driving the knee upward into the chest, it will hurt, and your hips will be knocked off-line to a certain degree, depending on how hard you hit it, but you’ll generally be able to keep sprinting forward. The good thing about hitting hurdles with the trail leg is that, except in rare cases, you won’t fall, because your upper body weight and your center of gravity has already gone past the hurdle. Disaster can strike, however, if you hit the hurdle with the foot of the trail leg, with the toe of the foot pointing downward, even slightly. That’s why it’s important, when doing trail leg drills, to make sure you get in the habit of flexing the trail-leg ankle so that the foot clears parallel to the crossbar.

When and Why Falls Occur
1. Many falls occur over the first hurdle. It seems to me that this problem is most common among elite athletes in major competitions, who are driving furiously to the first hurdle to gain an advantage, and forget that they have to fit in their eight steps. This is where Felicien fell, as she got way too close to the first hurdle and smashed it with her lead foot. I remember also in the 1996 Olympic Trials, in the men’s 110m Hurdle finals, two athletes – Jack Pierce and Larry Harrington – both fell at the first hurdle. Pierce, who had burned a 12.94 in the semis, was a heavy favorite to make the team. Harrington also had been running fast in the prelims, and had a good chance of finishing in the top three. Harrington toppled the first hurdle with his lead foot and fell hard to the ground, then sat there and wept openly as track officials tried to make sure he hadn’t injured himself too badly. Pierce, though he smacked the first hurdle real good, was able to stay on his feet, but wasn’t able to regain his balance and timing well enough to clear the second hurdle. He reached out and grabbed the crossbar with both hands to avoid falling, then stood there with a distant, forlorn look on his face as he watched the rest of the hurdlers finish the race. Felicien, as we all know, crashed so hard that she stumbled into the next lane, bumping hard into the Russian hurdler beside her, effectively knocking her out of the race.
2. I think that the majority of falls take place late in the race, somewhere in the range of hurdles 7 to 10. The most obvious reason that so many falls take place in this stage of the race is because of late-race mental fatigue, even more so than physical fatigue. Yes, it is the physical fatigue that causes the mental fatigue, but it is the mental fatigue that causes the mistake. Because the 110 and 100m hurdles is such a short race in comparison to other track events, we often underestimate just how much fatigue becomes a factor in the race’s latter stages. To concentrate and focus on executing precision-perfect technique over ten barriers without having even an instant to rest or think requires tremendous physical and mental stamina. That’s why, at all levels, breakdowns in technique often occur toward the end, sometimes leading to falls and crashes.
3. Besides fatigue, another reason that falls occur in the late stages of a race is because the hurdler is more focused either on reaching the finish line, or on catching up to an opponent, than on clearing the hurdle. One of the most famous falls of this kind was that of Gail Devers in the 1992 Olympic finals in Barcelona, when she tripped over the last hurdle, with the finish line and a gold medal only a few meters away. I think we’ve all seen enough replays of that one, wouldn’t you say? It could be argued that Johnson’s fall in the Athens Olympics was the result of trying to catch up to the competition, as he wasn’t having one of his better races up to that point, and he was anxious to ensure that he would make it to the next round. We all preach the mantra of “run your own race, in your own lane” and “clear the hurdle in front of you,” but, in the heat of the battle, it truly is a very difficult thing to do.
4. Another reason that late-race falls occur is because of what I call the accumulation of blows theory. In boxing, sometimes, a knockout occurs not because of one big punch, but because of a steady dosage of solid shots distributed round after round, until the receiver of the punishment finally goes down after being hit with a relatively unimpressive punch. Similarly, in the hurdles, hitting a lot of hurdles early in the race can knock you off your rhythm a little more each time, until finally, by hurdle eight or nine, you’re smacking them so hard that you can no longer keep your balance.

The Emotional Aspect
Falling during a race, or even in practice, can be a devastating experience for a hurdler. The humiliation of sitting there on the track as the race goes on without you is a memory that can haunt you for the rest of your hurdling life. It can renew a fear of falling, a fear of hitting hurdles, that you may have thought you had conquered long ago. It can make you doubt that you’re really cut out to be a hurdler, and lead you to entertain thoughts of switching to other, safer events. The emotional aspect of falling cannot be ignored or dismissed as trivial. The truth is, falling isn’t always a matter of technique or getting in enough reps during practice. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of confidence. I remember how, after my senior year of high school, I ran summer track in an attempt to improve my pr before entering college. I had a different coach, with whom I was unfamiliar, and who didn’t know or care much about the hurdles. Suddenly I was running against stiff competition every weekend, I was no longer the man to beat, and I didn’t know how to adjust. Every race, I was smacking hurdles right and left, running ugly, sloppy races. Instead of improving my pr, I was running mediocre times. If I had been running times that equaled my pr, I would have been winning a lot of these races. Why was I hitting so many hurdles? Why couldn’t I find my rhythm? Because I simply didn’t believe in myself. At every meet, while I was warming up with the other hurdlers, I had a lot of negative chatter going on in my head. I was trying to convince myself that I really belonged there, but, in my heart, I didn’t feel that I did. So the way I ran reflected the way I felt. And I didn’t have a coach who believed in me, who knew what I was capable of doing, whereas my high school coach had always known just the right thing to say to give me that competitive edge. I think a lot of times when hurdlers hit multiple hurdles in races, lack of confidence, sometimes coupled with a lack of a close relationship with a coach, lies at the root of the problem. In the end, it’s like my high school coach said, “All hurdlers fall; the good ones get back up.” All good hurdlers fall.

© 2004 Steve McGill

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