This past summer Mark Hale-Brown of runningmovies.com emailed me and asked if I’d write an article about lane assignments in the hurdling events. I put it on my to-do list, but never got around to doing it, until now. The November issue of Track & Field News jogged my memory, as two articles in there mentioned the importance of lane assignments. So, in this article, I will put forth my views on lane assignments in the 110/100m and 300/400m hurdles.
To me, the most obvious example of lane assignments directly affecting the outcome of a race occurred in the 1984 Olympic high hurdle final. I know you members of the younger generation don’t go back that far, so let me break down for you what happened. Back then, lanes were assigned randomly for the finals, as opposed to having the athletes with the fastest semi-final times in the middle lanes. So the race’s two biggest favorites – Americans Roger Kingdom and Greg Foster – were on opposite ends of the track. Foster in lane one, Kingdom in eight. Kingdom won, 13.20 to Foster’s 13.23. Foster had a terrible start because he thought the hurdler next to him had false-started. Expecting to hear another shot, he rocked back in his blocks, and that slight hesitation proved to be the difference in the race. But who knows if Foster would have been able to recover the lost ground if he and Kingdom had been running in the middle of the track, where they could see each other?
In the November 2006 issue of Track & Field News, Allen Johnson discusses a few of his races in September, when, after struggling with injuries throughout most of the summer, he came back and ran 13.14. He then ran 13.01, good for third at the World Athletics Final, behind world-record holder Liu Xiang and young Cuban sensation Dayron Robles. Then he ran 12.96 at the World Cup, defeating Xiang and Robles in the process. In the T&FN article, Johnson explains the difference between the Athletics Final and the World Cup as coming down to lane assignments: “At the Athletics Final, I was out in lane 8 by myself. Basically, it was like running a time trial.” But at the World Cup, “Robles was in lane 8 and I thought, ‘Let’s see what he does in lane 8.’” Indeed, Robles finished third.
Funny thing is, in the sprint hurdles, one would think that lane assignments don’t matter. Everyone runs the exact same distance, with no curve. But psychologically, it matters. When you’re in one of the outer lanes, it’s hard not to feel like you simply don’t belong in the race. When you’re in lane 8 and there are spectators hanging over the railing so close that they could tap you on the head, you feel like maybe you should be up there in the bleachers with them instead of on the track with the other competitors. It gets in your head; it affects your confidence. Also, it can create a subconscious laziness. You feel like you’re doing well, so you might relax too much without even realizing that you’re doing so. That’s what happened to Foster in ’84, and that’s what Johnson is talking about regarding his recent races, especially when referring to the Athletics Final as a “time trial.”
For spectators, whether at the meet or watching on TV, it’s just easier to watch the race when the favorites are in the middle of the track. Especially when in the bleachers, you may not know which athletes were assigned which lane, so it can be difficult to identify which athletes to watch for when there’s people around you talking, standing up, jockeying for position to take photos or film the race. So, just knowing you can focus on the middle of the track always helps. Of course, if an athlete in an outside lane can rise to the occasion and beat the odds, more power to him or her. But more often than not, the favorites are the favorites for a reason.
In the long hurdles, the curve is a factor, so the dynamics differ than in the sprint hurdles. The most common assumption among hurdlers and coaches alike is that lane 1 is the least desirable lane because of the tightness of the turns and the possibility, on some tracks, of stepping on the inner railing and turning an ankle or rupturing an achilles. Still, two Olympic champions – John Akii-Bua in 1972 and Angelo Taylor in 2000 – ran out of lane 1, and both were tall, long-legged guys. Personally, I feel that lane 3 is the most desirable lane in the intermediates. The turns aren’t too wide like they are in the inside lanes, and your biggest rivals will most likely be in front of you, where you can see them. Here, we get into the issue of basing your race on what your opponents are doing. Obviously, the mantra all we coaches preach is to “run your own race in your own lane.” But let’s be real; a hurdle race is a competition. You bring out the best in yourself by challenging yourself against others, not by running alone. In the intermediates, unlike sprint races run on the curve, you can get a feel for how fast you’re running by staying cognizant of your touchdowns compared to those of your rivals. In the open 200 and 400, you don’t really know where you stand in relation to your opponents until you get to the end of the second curve (unless you’ve been passing people along the way).
Still, sometimes, being too aware of your opponents can, indeed, throw you off your rhythm. If you come into the race with a strategy regarding stride pattern, it can be disrupted quickly if one of your rivals goes out blazing over the first few hurdles and you try match his or her pace instead of maintaining your own. In that sense, being in an outside lane can be beneficial, because it forces you to focus on your own rhythm and to trust your instincts. Seeing someone run away from you can be disheartening enough to make you consciously slow down for a few steps before regaining your composure. Obviously, if you’re in an outside lane and someone inside of you passes you before the second curve, that can be quite demoralizing as well. But at least, if you feel them coming up on you, you have a chance to shift gears and fight them off. The problem, though, again, is that you have to maintain your stride pattern.
Another advantage to the outer lanes is that they give you more room to negotiate the angles of the curve. Also, in the 400m hurdles, there will be less of the first curve to deal with. So, the biggest problem with the outer lanes is the psychological one of not being able to see anyone. Similarly, the biggest problem with the inner lanes (besides the tight curves) is that everyone seems so far away (or should I say, so far ahead). That’s where mental toughness comes in. You just have to believe in your game plan and in your ability to execute it. No matter what lane you’re in, you can’t go into a race “hoping” to do well. I know that when I have my intermediate hurdlers do race-simulation workouts together, I’ll always make sure to mix up the lane assignments each rep, so no one gets used to always being in the middle, or always on the outside, or always on the inside. Whatever you prepare for, you’ll be ready for.
For the spectator, having the favorites in the middle of the track isn’t as essential in the intermediates as it is in the 110’s/100’s. The panoramic view enables the viewers to see all the competitors at once, and we too can tell who is winning by who is touching down first. T&FN editor E. Garry Hill suggests that, in the big championship meets, the best athletes from the prelims get to choose which lane they want for the final. I really like that idea. If Athlete A finishes with the fastest semi-final time in the US Nationals, for instance, and she feels that lane 2 is her lucky lane, then she should get to run in lane 2. As it stands now, those with the fastest prelim times are automatically placed in the middle lanes, starting with 4, then five, then 3, 6, etc. In the sprint hurdles, this approach makes perfect sense, but in the intermediates, the best athletes might not necessarily want to be in the middle of the track. In international championships meets, the best four athletes are randomly assigned lanes 3 through 6, and the next four are randomly assigned 1, 2, 7, and 8. That’s pretty dumb.
In the end, my advice for any athlete is the same advice I give to my own athletes: whatever lane you’re in, win your race from that lane. Whatever it takes. Going into a race, to be saying to yourself, “I’m in a bad lane” is just part of the negative chatter that prevents you from performing at your highest level. And you don’t want to do that to yourself.
© 2006 Steve McGill