Robles and Oliver: A Comparison/Contrast

As we head into the World Championship year of 2011, two high hurdlers who will likely be vying for supremacy are Cuban Dayron Robles and American David Oliver. Robles, in 2008, had one of the most dominant years ever in the event, setting a world record of 12.87 and winning an Olympic gold medal. After a similarly successful 2009 season in which Robles continued his supremacy, Oliver took over as the world’s best in 2010, having an outdoor season that rivaled Robles’ 2008 campaign. On the way to an undefeated season, Oliver broke the American record with his 12.89, making him only the third hurdler in history (besides Robles and Chinese star Liu Xiang) to dip under 12.90. Yet, despite their comparable achievements, no two elite-level hurdlers could be more different in terms of style than Robles and Oliver. This article will take a look at the hurdling techniques of these two athletes, pointing out their differences, but also pointing out the key things that both do quite well to run fast consistently.

The most glaring difference between these two hurdlers lies in their lead leg / trail leg emphasis. Oliver is what I would call a “lead-leg dependent” hurdler, in the old-school tradition of greats from the past, such as Rodney Milburn and Roger Kingdom. A lead-leg dependent hurdler relies on a fast, quick lead leg that drives at the crossbar with minimal clearance and that snaps down with force on the other side of the bar. This is a style that I taught throughout much of my coaching career, and it’s the only style that was taught back when I was running competitively. With this style, the trail leg tries to “keep up” with the lead leg by “whipping” to the front. The problem with this style is that, after a while, the trail leg can no longer keep up with the lead leg, so, over the last two or three hurdles, the lead leg loses some of its snap, the trail leg hangs lower and hits some hurdles, all of which causes issues with balance and rhythm. Still, hurdlers who are fast enough and powerful enough can compensate for these flaws with their speed and power. Milburn and Kingdom both operated that way, with great success, and so does Oliver.

Oliver, on the right, battles David Payne at the US 2008 Olympic Trials.

Robles, meanwhile, is what I would call a “trail-leg dependent” hurdler. This approach is much less common,  but is becoming more so. A trail-leg dependent hurdler relies on a tight, fast, explosive trail leg that drives to the front and creates significant acceleration off the hurdle. The only hurdler from back in the day who was even remotely trail-leg dependent was France’s Guy Drut, the 1976 Olympic champion. A fairly good amount of modern hurdlers emphasize the trail leg, although it’s hard to tell whether they do so consciously or not. Such hurdlers would include Aries Merritt, Ronnie Ash, Jason Richardson, and a few others. The masters of this style, though, are Robles and Xiang. A key element of this style that distinguishes it from the lead-leg dependent style is that the trail leg doesn’t lag and then whip. Instead, it rises high off the ground with the lead leg, into hurdling position, and then it “runs” off the hurdle in a sprinting stride as opposed to just dropping down. This “running off the hurdle” with the trail leg is what creates speed coming off. Hurdlers like Robles just carry that speed for the next three steps. He accelerates without even trying to accelerate. The lead leg does not “snap” down, but descends and cycles under the hip as it would in a sprinting stride.

Robles’ style more closely resembles what I teach  now. It’s powerful without being effort-ful. In talking with hurdlers who have competed against Robles, they remark upon how, when he warms up prior to indoor races, his trail leg attacks the ground with such force that it creates an earth-shaking “boom!” that echoes throughout the facility. It’s so loud, they say, that everybody, not just the hurdlers, turns around to watch. Though I’ve never been present to witness a Robles warm-up routine, I would argue that the reason his trail leg sounds so thunderous has to do with the fact that he is, as stated in the previous paragraph, running off the hurdle, not merely dropping the trail leg after snapping down the lead leg. Because the leg is “running” from such a high position – coming off a 42-inch hurdle – it will naturally be more forceful and powerful. I’ve always felt that the first step off the hurdle – the trail leg step – is a wasted step for many hurdlers. For Robles, it is the key step for creating speed, maintaining speed, and maintaining a steady rhythm.

In this photo from the 2008 Olympics, Robles battles Oliver (left) and Payne (right).

A lot of the American hurdlers I mentioned two paragraphs ago are Robles-esque in raising the trail leg high into hurdling position off the ground, but they don’t finish the action like he does on the other side of the hurdle. The foot drops, whereas with Robles, the knee drives forward.

As a result of being lead-leg dependent, Oliver often hugs the lead leg side of the lane, and sometimes his body tilts to that side while going over hurdles before righting itself on the way down. Robles, because he is trail-leg dependent, stays pretty much in the middle of the lane the whole race, and never suffers from the balance issues that plague Oliver and other lead-leg dependent hurdlers.

Also worth mentioning is that Oliver’s trail leg takes a wider path to the front. That’s a common issue with lead-leg dependent hurdlers. When you’re counting on snapping down the lead leg, first you have to extend it very far so that you have a long lever to snap down with. That extension is what causes an opening in the groin of the trail leg (and consequently much soreness in the groin of the trail leg). Then, when the lead leg does snap down, the trail leg feels like it has to “fight” to move to the front. Often, it never gets all the way to the front, to where the knee is facing the next hurdle. Kingdom, whom Oliver mentioned in his blog as being a hurdler he has studied intently, broke a world record running that way. So, again, for an athlete of that body type and skill level, the power and speed can compensate for the technical issues.

Meanwhile, Robles’ trail leg, instead of traveling in a wide arch, moves in more of an up-and-down motion. The knee drives upward into his chest, almost to the point where it’s touching his chin, which gives the trail leg the height necessary to clear the hurdle while also allowing it to stay as close as possible to a natural sprinting position.

So what do Robles and Oliver both do well? Let’s take a look:

  1. The lead leg never locks. When attacking the hurdle, the heel rises, the knee rises and drives forward. When the foot opens, it does so without kicking. With Robles, it opens at a slightly downward angle, which also helps preclude the need to snap down. With Oliver, the fact that his lead leg doesn’t lock is huge, because it goes a long way in explaining how he’s able to run so fast. A lot of lead-leg dependent hurdlers lock the knee and kick out the foot, which costs them valuable time over each hurdle. Oliver is that rare, exceptional lead-leg dependent hurdler who doesn’t kick out the foot.
  2. The lead arm is tight and fast. This too is of huge importance. Oliver’s trail leg issues would be much worse if his lead arm weren’t so efficient. He keeps the elbow bent, he doesn’t let the arm swing across the body in either direction, he keeps it moving in a tight up-and-down motion that keeps the legs moving in the same direction. Oliver’s lead arm is the best I’ve seen outside of Liu Xiang’s, and that’s saying a lot. Robles’ lead arm is similarly efficient, but it doesn’t move quite as fast as Oliver’s does.
  3. The lean from the waist is deep. I’m big on this. Even for women hurdlers, I feel a deep lean from the waist is essential. The lean is not just for hurdle clearance, but, even more significantly, it is for maintaining forward momentum and creating speed coming off the hurdle. You cannot stay forward and you cannot accelerate if you’re too erect. Robles and Oliver both serve as excellent examples of how to lean forward from the waist (as opposed to just crunching the abs) for optimal hurdle clearance and speed.

Both Robles and Oliver take seven steps to the first hurdle, but Robles has been doing it longer, so his approach to the first hurdle is much more efficient. Oliver’s 7-step is still a work in progress. His first step is still like that of an 8-stepper, so once he gets in the habit of pushing off the pedals with more force there should be no advantage for either hurdler at the start.

Finally, Robles is more of a new-school shuffler between the hurdles whereas Oliver is more of an old-school runner. That’s just an observation; I have no personal preference for either style. Both are very effective with what they do.

So what conclusions can we draw from studying the styles of these two highly successful hurdlers with such contrasting styles? Let’s break it down:

  1. There are certain major principles that must be in place, regardless of one’s hurdling style. These include a fast, efficient, tight lead arm; low clearance with minimal space between the crossbar and the underside of the lead leg; a deep forward lean from the waist.
  2. There is no “right” way to hurdle. Oliver is as old-school as they come. Robles is as new-school as they come. Yet their personal bests are a total of .02 apart. That’s why it’s important to never throw away old-school approaches, yet equally important to always stay open to new ideas. Robles’ and Oliver’s hurdling styles are as different as night and day, but they both get to the finish line right around the same time.

Hopefully both Robles and Oliver, as well as Xiang, will be healthy in 2011, and we’ll get a change to see these sub-12.90 hurdlers all compete at their best. No matter who you’re cheering for, it’ll be fun to watch.

© 2011 Steve McGill

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