Hurdling Is a Dance

To be a good hurdler, one must be a good dancer. One must learn to step into the rhythm created by the space between the hurdles and the height of the hurdles. One must learn to become one with that rhythm. Then, after having mastered it, one must be willing to break it down in order to create a new one. It’s an ongoing process that never ends. Rhythm is the aspect of hurdling that is personal, that can’t be imitated, that can’t be coached. You can imitate another hurdler’s trail leg, or lead leg, or lead arm, or lean. But you can’t imitate another hurdler’s rhythm. No one can teach you how to dance. You have to learn it on your own.

Hurdling, when you really think about it, is a sound-based activity. While matters of technique and speed and power and flexibility all play vital roles in contributing to running fast times, you can only run as fast as you can hear yourself run. In that sense, speed in the hurdles isn’t just a matter of being fast. In fact, as many elite level hurdlers have discovered, being fast can often get in the way of running fast times, for the simple reason that it can create hiccups in the rhythm, or in some cases sabotage the rhythm. That’s why I contend that, ultimately, hurdling is a dance, not a race. It’s a musical exploration in which the fulfillment of one’s potential becomes a musical equation, based on the three key factors of frequency, pitch, and harmony.

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Let’s talk about frequency first. For a musician, frequency is the spacing between the notes. Whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, etc. The song’s tempo is dictated not by the notes themselves, but by the spacing between them. In hurdling, one’s cadence dictates the tempo. The faster you are in terms of straight sprinting speed, the faster your tempo will need to be in order to manage the obstacles effectively. A hurdler whose 100 meter time is 11.00 will have more space between his strides than someone who runs the 100 in 10.00. They will be running the same race, taking the exact same amount of strides (unless the 10.00 guy is seven-stepping to the first hurdle), but their cadences will differ.

For every hurdler, speed, height, sprinting mechanics, and hurdling technique, will have an effect upon cadence. As an athlete, you want to get to a point where you can “feel” how well your running by how your cadence sounds. It’s also important to note that cadence changes – during the course of a race, and during the course of a season.

In a race, your cadence to hurdle one is its own separate entity, since you won’t yet be in the race rhythm of 3-stepping, or in some cases, 4-stepping. But those last three strides into the first hurdle should put you into the race rhythm that you will establish between hurdles one and two. Now, just like in a 100 meter dash, a hurdler will reach top speed somewhere in the middle of the race, usually heading into hurdle four, and will maintain it to about hurdle seven. In terms of speed, this is the danger zone. This is where you’re most in danger of running up on hurdles, getting too crowded, and crashing. The cadence in this part of the race will be faster than it was over the first three hurdles. That’s why touchdown times are usually fastest in this part of the race, obviously. But that’s why hurdlers can’t allow themselves to grow comfortable with a rhythm during a race. Your cadence between hurdles two and three might be too slow if you keep the same cadence between hurdles five and six, so you have to speed up the tempo. Meanwhile, late in the race, as you decelerate, the tempo will slow down a bit, but this is also a danger zone because of the potential for lapses in concentration, and because the eagerness to get to the finish line can cause you to forget about clearing the hurdles.

So that’s why the hurdles are a dance, not a race. When you race, you chase, and when you chase, you make mistakes. You have to know your rhythm. You have to practice your rhythm. You have to teach your body the rhythm. In the race, you have to focus on the rhythm. Trusting the rhythm, at each phase of the race, will take you to the kind of time you want to run, will allow you to compete effectively. But if you’re chasing times, or chasing opponents, you will lose your rhythm, hit hurdles, and potentially crash.

Meanwhile, throughout the season, your speed will most likely be increasing. If you’re talking about a high school outdoor season, for example, you’re gonna be a lot faster in May than you were in March. The weather is warmer and the meets have more at stake. In any running event except the hurdles, getting faster can only be a good thing. In the hurdles, it can be the exact cause of disaster if you don’t continually work on adapting your cadence to match your speed. Again, the faster you are, the faster your cadence has to be. This is where sprint mechanics, and a reliance upon them, can be a dangerous thing for a hurdler.

While it’s important to note the similarities between sprinting mechanics and hurdling mechanics, and how hurdling mechanics are based upon sprinting mechanics, it’s equally important to note that, from a rhythm perspective, from a cadence perspective, the 100 meter dash and the 100/110 meter hurdles have little, if anything, in common. In the 100, you want to cover ground, you want to lift your knees and open up your stride. That’s how you run faster. All else being equal, stride length beats stride frequency every time. If a hurdler takes that same approach – cover ground, open up the stride – he or she is gonna run up on hurdles in a big way. That’s why all hurdlers, basically, at one point or another in their careers, wonder if it wouldn’t be easier to just forget about the hurdles and run the sprints instead. They’d be free from all the rhythm issues that are so unique to the hurdles. When you say the word “fast” to a sprinter, that means cover ground. If that word means the same thing to a hurdler, he or she is courting trouble.

However, for hurdlers who are new to 3-stepping, or whose 3-step isn’t as fast, then thinking like a sprinter is the exact thing to do. Get your hands high, get your knees high, and cover ground. But the faster you get, the lower your hands have to get, the lower your knee lift has to get. Constantly, it’s all about adjusting the rhythm, making very subtle yet hugely important adjustments to the rhythm.

Let me just mention as somewhat of a side note, because it came to my mind, that rhythm is the key issue when it comes to 4-steppers learning how to 3-step. If I can get a beginner to 3-step without 4-stepping first, I will do so. Four-stepping is such a different rhythm. Not just because the hurdler is alternating lead legs, which is a rhythm unto itself, but also because the cadence is so different, and it therefore sounds so different in the hurdler’s mind. If you’ve been four-stepping for a while, you’re unconsciously expecting that fourth step to touch down before you attack the hurdle. You also unconsciously drop the trail leg after you land off the hurdle in order to fit in all four steps. So that 1-2-3-4-hurdle rhythm becomes ingrained in the muscle memory. So even a four-stepping who is getting super-crowded four-stepping and has the speed necessary to three-step will have trouble making the adjustment – not due to fear or a lack of speed or commitment – but due to the rhythms being so different. A four-stepper basically has to tear down the old rhythm and create a new one. Which means going backward in order to go forward – by doing workouts with the hurdles moved in so far that four-stepping is impossible, and then gradually moving them out as the hurdler adjusts to the new rhythm.

This need to tear down the rhythm in order to create a new one is an issue that all hurdlers have to deal with at different times in their seasons, at different times in their careers. Often, experienced hurdlers get locked into a rhythm and grow comfortable with it. The thing is, once you’ve mastered a certain cadence, the temptation is to stick with it. It’s tried and true, and it always gets you through. The problem with getting locked into a cadence, though, is that it prevents the ability to run faster. As a hurdler, you can’t get faster by covering more ground like a sprinter can, so speeding up the cadence is the only way to run faster. That’s why, the more advanced a hurdler is, the more specialized his or her workouts need to be.

Coaches of elite-level hurdlers need to create workouts that cause crowding, that force the athlete to speed up the cadence. That’s the only way the athlete can adapt to the hyper speeds he or she will reach during a race. For a hurdler at this level, the comfort zone is the slow zone, and the danger zone is where new personal bests can occur. A hurdler who is comfortable cannot run fast. So moving in the hurdles in practice becomes paramount. If, for example, a hurdler is having crowding issues in races beginning at hurdle five, then set up seven hurdles in practice, keeping the first three hurdles on the regular marks and then moving the next hurdle one foot in, and the last three hurdles two feet in. Address the problem directly. The body is a remarkably intelligent being; it will adapt to whatever cadence we teach it to adapt to. And when the athlete is focused on the cadence instead of focusing on racing or on hitting touchdown times, that athlete is learning how to dance, learning how to really think the way a hurdler needs to think.

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Now let’s talk about pitch. Basically, here, we’re talking about the sound that a hurdler’s footsteps makes with each footstrike. Again, from a rhythmic point of view, there’s a big difference between how a sprinter thinks and how a hurdler thinks. Sprinters want to apply a lot of force to the track with each stride. That’s how they cover ground. A sprinter who is light on his or her feet will get nowhere. Hurdlers, meanwhile, want to be light on their feet. That goes for all hurdlers. But elite hurdlers in particular want to be tap dancers between the hurdles. Applying too much force will get them too close to the next hurdle and will therefore ruin their cadence. Hurdlers who have been trained to think like sprinters have a lot of trouble with this issue. They always get crowded in races because they’re trained to think in terms of applying force instead of being light on their feet.

I’ve come to realize that the way a hurdler sounds between the hurdles will tell you everything you need to know about how he or she is running that day. This point was driven home to me quite accidentally during a practice last week with a couple of my hurdlers. Toward the end of the workout, I was talking with a male hurdler while the female hurdler was doing her rep. I didn’t realize she had gone because I was facing the other way, explaining something technical to the male hurdler. I didn’t even turn around to watch because I was so engaged in what I was talking about. By the time I realized she had run I had missed the whole rep. But I instantly turned toward her after she finished and said, “You sounded tired on that one. Let’s just do one more.” She nodded in agreement that she was indeed very tired and said that one more rep would be just fine.

What I had heard was that her footsteps had sounded heavier than usual. It sounded like she was trying to reach the hurdles instead of sprinting through them. I could hear it. I didn’t have to see it. That’s when I realized that sound is a dead give-away. Any flaws in your race rhythm, stride pattern (300/400m hurdles), sprinting mechanics, or hurdling technique will be exposed by how you sound. In terms of mechanics, hurdlers who stomp the track instead of properly cycling will sound very heavy. Hurdlers who land flat-footed or on their heels will sound very heavy. In terms of technique, hurdlers whose trail leg lags too far behind will sound very heavy when they land off the hurdle. And as the above anecdote makes clear, hurdlers for whom fatigue has set in will sound very heavy.

So, a hurdler’s pitch should be in the upper registers of the instrument, so to speak. A hurdler whose footstrikes and touchdowns off hurdles sound too heavy is doing something wrong.

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Now onto harmony. This one’s a little more nebulous, but no less important. Harmony in the hurdles has to do with how all the body parts work together, and it also has to do with the precision of the timing of all movements. Harmony consists of the lead leg working in sync with the lead arm, the lead leg working in sync with the trail leg, the lead arm working in sync with the trail leg. And on and on, adding in the trail arm, the lean, the forward thrust of the hips, etc. All these body parts have to work in unison, not as separate entities fighting each other for supremacy. When the body parts are not working in unison, there are breaks in the action, there are forceful compensatory motions that disrupt the rhythm, and imbalances are created that must be corrected upon landing while the hurdler is trying to continue forward. When, for example, the lead leg is extended way out in front and the trail leg is lagging way behind, these two limbs are in a disharmonious relationship. They’re fighting each other. The lead leg wants to get back to the ground, but it can’t because the trail leg is way back there in another time zone. The trail leg wants to drive to the front but it can’t because the lead leg is hanging in the air.

When one body part is functioning improperly, it throws off the entire motion, and it causes reciprocal body parts to function improperly. For example, a lead arm that swings across the body will cause the lead leg to lock and the hips to twist and the trail leg to flair out too wide. One flaw causes a domino effect of flaws. And all of these flaws kill the rhythm.

As for the timing aspect of harmony, if any of the actions over the hurdle are mis-timed, that disrupts the rhythm. So, at take-off, you can’t drive your lead leg knee at the bar and then lean, for example. These two motions have to happen at the same time. These two motions are really one motion. So, what if you drive your knee and lean at the same time, but you forget to thrust your hips forward until after you’ve left the ground? Too late. Your hips will rise and you will float. So all three motions – the drive of the knee, the lean forward from the waist, and the thrust forward with the hips – all must happen at the same time. They’re not three separate motions; they’re one motion. So, let’s say you do all three aspects of the motion properly, perfectly in sync, but you forget to push off the track with the back leg with enough force? Then you won’t get high enough to clear the hurdle cleanly and you’ll hit it on the way up. Are you understanding how many things there are that can go wrong if only one aspect of the motion is out of sync with the others?

There are other aspects of harmony. The way you run over the hurdles sets up how you run between them. And how you run between them sets up how you run over them. Mess up one, you mess up the other. Even breathing is an aspect of harmony. The breaths have to be on beat, in sync with the exhale at take-off. Push out a long deep exhale like a 100 meter sprinter and your rhythm is destroyed.

All of this adds up to the basic point that “you have to know how to hurdle,” as Renaldo Nehemiah put it when I interviewed him for an article on this website seven years ago. You can’t just be fast, you can’t just be an athlete. Nor is hard work enough in and of itself. To be a hurdler, you must fully engage yourself in the musical aspects of the event. You must quiet the agitations of your ego and engage in a harmonious relationship with the barriers.

* * *

The hurdles are a dance, not a race. If you can understand that, you can begin to understand why you were attracted to the hurdles to begin with, and why you have continued to pursue hurdling in spite of how it may have frustrated you and disappointed you at times. The truth is, no matter how many races you have lost or how many hurdles you have clobbered, the hurdles have not disappointed you. Your desire to gain something material from hurdling is what has caused any disappointment. Otherwise you’d recognize the hurdles as your Teacher, and you’d be ready to learn.

The hurdles are a dance, not a race. Hurdling as a race began in England in the 1800s. But hurdling as a dance goes back to original man. It goes back to the first time someone jumped over a rock or jumped over a fallen branch just for the heck of it, just because it was there. For me personally, I first started hurdling competitively in my sophomore year of high school. But the first hurdle I ever cleared was the Japanese maple tree in my back yard that my brother and I used to jump over when I was five years old. I didn’t call myself hurdling, but I was hurdling. That’s what I mean when I say that hurdling was a dance long before it ever became a race. The joy a hurdler feels when hurdling is a dancer’s joy, not a competitor’s joy. We here in this modern world have made it into a competition. But in its purest form it’s not a competition. It’s a dance. Even when you’re competing.

That’s why focusing on the musical aspects of hurdling, even while training for competition and even while competing, is essential. A hurdler who is in tune with the cadence of his strides, who is in tune with the pitch of his footstrikes, and whose limbs and lungs are in total harmony, is a hurdler who knows how to hurdle, and whose potential is limitless.

When you’re not focused on racing, when you’re not focused on beating the athlete in the lane next to you, when you’re not focused on trying to run a personal best, when you’re not focused on making it to the next round or to the next meet, when instead you’re focused on the rhythm of your body in motion, when you’re focused on being a dancer between and over the hurdles, you open up new possibilities.

Really, you have to run with Joy; that’s what it comes down to. You have to run with the same simple Joy my brother and I had when we were jumping over the Japanese maple tree. Being competitive and being an athlete doesn’t have to mean sacrificing the Joy. In fact, it can’t mean that. The only way to hurdle, really, is to dance.

© 2012 Steve McGill

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