A Look at Aries Merritt’s 12.80

After Aries Merritt smashed the world record in the men’s 110 meter high hurdles last week, a lot of people have been asking me if I was surprised and what I think he did differently to run so fast. While I wasn’t surprised that he broke the record, I was surprised that he broke it by so much. A .07 drop in the world record in this event is pretty steep. After Nehemiah’s 12.93 in 1981, it’s never been broken by more than .02. So, to take it from 12.87 to 12.80 is a very big deal. It’s a wowwwww. Yet I wasn’t surprised that he broke the record. Merritt had been having the greatest season in high hurdling history up to that point, he had expressed confidence that, under the right conditions, he could break the record, and all indications seemed to be that it was only a matter of time. As to how he did it, and what he did differently in this race that he hadn’t done in all his other sub-13 races this season, that’s what I’m going to try to break down in this article. From what I can see, in addition to a great start, there were four other factors that led to this historic accomplishment: lower hurdle clearance, a tighter lead arm, a quicker cadence between the hurdles, and not hitting hurdles.

Lower Hurdle Clearance
I think the most obvious improvement he made from previous races was in his hurdle clearance. As he said himself in the post-race interview with Colin Jackson ( who was hating on the 7-step start, by the way, smh), he cleared the hurdles much lower than he did in his previous post-Olympic race, when he ran 12.95. Even in the Olympic final, which was a great race, he did have a bit more height than necessary on top of the hurdles, as I noted in an earlier article.

Tighter Lead Arm
Merritt’s lead arm has been a topic of discussion for years. At this point, I think it would be safe to say that he has the most efficient lead arm in the history of the event, even more efficient than Liu’s in his best years. Back in the day, Merritt’s lead arm was largely a hindrance to his success. The wide sweeping motion took too long to execute. And when you consider that the legs can only move as fast as the lead arm moves, a lead arm that takes up a lot of space and time slows down the whole hurdling motion. Over the years, Merritt has gradually tightened up the motion, so that the arm doesn’t flair out so wide, nor rise so high above his head. Now, the fact that he begins the motion before he takes off provides a huge benefit, because he’s able to complete the entire motion before he even reaches the hurdle. If you were to compare the 2012 lead arm of Merritt to the 2006 lead arm of Liu, you’d have to give the nod to Merritt in terms of efficiency. In essence, he has solved the Liu problem of the arm swinging back too far as he drives it down and completes the hurdle motion, which causes Liu’s shoulders to go slightly off-line. By swinging the arm outward upon take-off, but not swinging it out so far like he used to do, Aries is eliminating that swing-back motion that Liu does. The slight outward motion also keeps the lead arm in constant motion, so that it’s not punching up, pausing, then punching back down.

Quicker Cadence
Okay this one’s a little tricky, and I’m not really sure that I know what I’m talking about here. But I’m gonna tell you what I think I’m seeing in this world record race that distinguishes it from all of Aries’ other races, and all of anybody’s other races. It’s not gonna be easy to explain, but try to picture it in your  mind. But what I’m about to explain is what I think is the key to why this race was so fast, and why he may be able to go even faster.

All  modern-day elite hurdlers talk about the need to shuffle between the hurdles, to get their feet down quickly. No doubt, the best hurdlers these days are the best shufflers. If you can’t master the shuffle, then it messes up everything you’re trying to do over the top. So here’s what I think Aries is doing:

I think he’s beginning his shuffle prior to touching down. I know that doesn’t make any rational sense, so you have to think irrationally to be able to grasp what I’m saying. But think about it: for any hurdler at any level, “between the hurdles” begins upon touchdown. Whether you bound between the hurdles, sprint between the hurdles, or shuffle between the hurdles, you begin doing it after you touch down. But you could argue that for an elite level 110 hurdler, with the hurdles being so high and so close together, waiting until touchdown to begin shuffling is too late. Your first stride is going to be too long and eventually you’re going to end up running up on hurdles. So, you have to put your body into shuffle position before you even reach the ground. That’s what I think Aries is doing. He’s creating more space, but without slowing himself down, without putting on the brakes, without backing off. Clearing the hurdles itself requires extending yourself – extending your lead leg in particular. You make yourself long. Sprinters, too, make themselves long. They open up their stride, they cover ground. But to shuffle, you kind of have to do the opposite; you have to shrink yourself. So if you can begin shrinking yourself before you touch down, then you’ve already made the transition from over-the-hurdle to between-the-hurdles before you’ve hit the ground. That’s what I think Aries is doing.

Not hitting hurdles
You can’t underestimate the value of running clean races. No matter how fast you run hitting hurdles, you can run faster clean. Timing and rhythm and balance are going to be negatively affected by hitting hurdles. Merritt’s races all year have been very clean; he hasn’t been hitting many hurdles at all. So that plays into his success as well. But as far as the 12.80 goes, I think the above factors are the ones that have sent him into a level all his own.

© 2012 Steve McGill


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