The 400 Meter Hurdler: A Different Type of Animal
Not All Hurdlers are High Hurdlers

In developing hurdlers, the most common method is to teach hurdling mechanics through drills and workouts that focus on the 110m/100m hurdles. This is the method that I most often use; even if I start kids out by learning over lower hurdles, the emphasis is on preparing them to run the sprint hurdle race. Often is the case that they’ll end up participating in the 300h/400h before running their first 110h/100h race, simply because there’s more space between the barriers and not as much need for technical precision to get through the race. What I’ve come to discover over the years, however, is that not all hurdlers are high hurdlers, and that the best intermediate hurdlers might not necessarily be found among the hurdling crew, but among the quarter-milers and half-milers. This article will discuss ways to identify those who are more geared toward the longer hurdle race so that you don’t waste a lot of time and energy (yours and theirs) trying to make them into something they’re not.

Don’t Sweat the Technique
To me, the most obvious factor that distinguishes intermediate hurdlers from high hurdlers is that intermediate hurdlers simply don’t care as much about hurdling technique. High hurdlers generally are very curious about all the subtle nuances of hurdling form; they are always searching for ways to shave off tenths and hundredths of seconds from their personal best. Whether strictly for competitive reasons, or for artistic reasons, or a combination of both, the high hurdler constantly seeks to master the craft of hurdling. Lead arm, trail arm, hips, chin, eyes, chest – everything needs to be analyzed and scrutinized through repeated practice sessions if the athlete is to achieve maximum performance.

Intermediate hurdlers, meanwhile, tend to quickly get bored and frustrated during workouts that focus exclusively on hurdling technique. They’re not intrigued by the technical aspects of the hurdling events, so they tend to bring less effort to those type of workouts. My experience has been that, for hurdlers who prefer the intermediates over the highs, progress in their hurdling mechanics comes very slowly, if at all, by doing 110h/100h workouts. Same thing for doing a lot of hurdling drills. Intermediate hurdlers prefers to run. That’s what gets them excited and keeps them motivated. So, as a coach, you often have to figure out ways to get their hurdling work in during running workouts.

Instead of technique, the strength of intermediate hurdlers is their strength – their stamina, their speed/endurance. Plenty of intermediate hurdlers have reached high levels of success without having great technique simply because they are able to run so fast between the hurdles and because they are able to maintain their speed longer than hurdlers whose training focuses solely on the sprint hurdle race. Because the hurdles are farther apart in the intermediates, having excellent technique isn’t as essential (even though it does help).

Ain’t Nothin’ Gonna Break My Stride
While the 110h/100h are races that emphasize stride rate, the 300h/400h are all about stride length. When coaching athletes who compete in both events, you always have to remind them to adjust their mindset from one race to the other. In the shorter race you have to think quick-quick-quick, while in the longer race you need to open up your stride and maintain a full range of motion with the arms. For 400m hurdlers in post-season high school meets, as well as for collegiate athletes, the difference between races is even more exaggerated. The 110h/100h and the 400h are races that have very little in common.

While the debate is endless as to whether less strides between the hurdles translates into a faster race, what can’t be questioned is that athletes who have a naturally long stride are a better fit for the intermediates than for the highs. Taller hurdlers and hurdlers who simply have a lot of bounce in their legs will constantly have trouble with crowding in the shorter race. Also, because it usually takes taller hurdlers more time to get their legs moving, their stride rate is slower than that of smaller athletes, which puts the taller hurdlers at a disadvantage in the 110/100h. In the intermediates, though, having a naturally long stride can only be an advantage. Also, having slower turnover isn’t nearly as much of a negative factor, because even the hurdlers with quick turnover can rarely maintain that quickness over the course of an entire 300h/400h race.

Wish I Was a Little Bit Taller
In spite of some the things I said in the above paragraph, one thing that holds true in the intermediates is that size is really not an issue. In the 110h/100h, it is possible to be too tall (as discussed above), but it is equally possible to be too small. A 5’7” guy, for example, may be able to get over the 39” high school hurdles, but if he wants to continue to compete in college, the 42” hurdles will cancel him out. Even if he can get over them, he can’t get over them fast enough to keep up with the competition. So he’ll have no choice but to specialize in the 400h if he wants to continue hurdling competitively at all.

In the men’s 400h, world leaders have been as tall as 6-4 (Kevin Young), and as small as 5-8 (Bershawn Jackson). So you can be very tall or very small and still reach the pinnacle of success in that race either way. That’s why, in picking out potential hurdlers and developing young hurdlers, it is so important to never turn anyone away for being too short. The longer hurdle race can always be a potential option, even if the sprint hurdles prove to be too much of a challenge.

I Know That You Like My Style
In working with the hurdlers I coach, one thing I’ve learned to do is tailor the training regimen to each individual’s preferences, and to each individual’s needs. I don’t train every hurdler like a high hurdler anymore, and I no longer try to force the quarter-miler types to learn technique to the same degree that I teach it to the true high hurdlers. A couple years ago, a friend of mine sent me an article that discussed the training that 1972 Olympic 400h champion John Akii-Bua did in preparation for that meet. Akii-Bua was far from being a great technician, yet in that race he became the first hurdler ever to run under 48.00 in the intermediates. The article explains how: he trained more like a distance runner than a hurdler – piling up the miles in the off-season, then doing a lot of 1200s, 800s, etc. during the competitive season. The intervals would be done with 4 to 6 hurdles spread out around the track. Wow.

So now, when I have hurdlers who have that half-miler/quarter-miler mentality, I’ll give them the space they need to run. I’ll emphasize their strength, and de-emphasize their technique. When I have them work on technique, it will be on “light” days. I won’t dump a whole bunch of hurdle reps on them, but will have them do some basic drills. The best way to sell an intermediate hurdler on the importance of technique is to give it to them in small doses, and to remind them that refining their form will reduce the amount of effort they’ll need to clear the hurdles, making it easier for them to maintain their strength in the latter stages of a race.

Really, I think the high hurdles and the intermediate hurdles complement each other, as different as they are. The best intermediate hurdlers are usually those who have the strength of a quarter-miler or half-miler, and the technical proficiency of a high hurdler. The intermediate hurdlers with god-awful technique are going to expend too much energy just getting over the barriers, and will lose to the more highly-skilled technicians. Yet at the same time, too much time spent on technique at the expense of conditioning will make for an intermediate hurdler who can roll with the best of them for five or six hurdles, and then fall apart. Meanwhile, endurance is one of the most under-rated necessities for a high hurdler. To be able to maintain form, speed, quickness, and concentration for ten hurdles is very difficult. Doing intermediate hurdle workouts is therefore a good way to build late-race strength for the highs.

In closing, I would say to all coaches, do your best to treat each hurdler as an individual, and to train each hurdler as an individual, regardless of your personal preferences, regardless of your team’s needs. That’s not always easy, but it always works out for the best.

© 2006 Steve McGill

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