Seven Steps to the First Hurdle: Fad or Trend?

In the English Composition class that I teach to my high school students, one of the assignments is to write a “trend” paper. The students are to identify a trend in society and argue as to why that trend has become prevalent, and whether it will continue. A trend is not the same as a fad. A fad comes and goes. A trend is the wave of the future. Pet rocks were a fad. Mood rings were a fad. Increased cell phone use among teenagers is a trend. Childhood obesity is a trend. It ain’t going away any time soon.

In a previous article on this website, I weighed the pros and cons of the 7-step approach to the first hurdle in the men’s 110’s. Since then, it seems that more hurdlers are switching to this approach, or at least experimenting with it. This article will address the question of whether the 7-step approach will prove to be a fad – something that many hurdlers try just because other hurdlers are trying it – or whether it will prove to be a trend that will eventually become the norm at the elite and collegiate levels.

First, let me tell you what I think: the 7-step is here to stay. While there are plenty of coaches more qualified than me to discuss the physics of 7-stepping vs. 8-stepping, I would still make the argument that any elite-level male hurdler is capable of 7-stepping. Thirteen-year-olds can 8-step, a 44-year-old like myself can still 8-step. And I couldn’t 3-step between the hurdles anymore if my life depended on it. In my opinion, the reason that 99% of the hurdlers out there still 8-step is because that’s what everyone else is doing. Most have never even considered any other options, and most coaches will advise against experimenting because the 8-step approach has proven so successful over the years. Nehemiah ran 12.93 8-stepping to the first hurdle. Allen Johnson ran something like twenty sub-13’s 8-stepping. Colin Jackson, Roger Kingdom, the list goes on and on. So, if it ain’t broke, why fix it?

There’s a one-word answer to that question: Robles. The old phrase, “necessity is the mother of invention,” also holds true for trends. Let’s look at some other examples first for perspective. When the San Francisco 49ers won a boatload of Super Bowls with the West Coast Offense of Coach Bill Walsh back in the 1980’s, that brand of football went on to become the norm in ensuing years, to the point where, now, there are variations of the West Coast Offense throughout professional and collegiate football. Opposing coaches initially copied Walsh’s style because they felt they had to in order to keep up with him. Similarly, look at the “Big Three” trend in the NBA. It started with the Boston Celtics, who won a title in 2008, led by the trio of stars Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, and Kevin Garnett. Then, last summer, the “big three” of Lebron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh joined forces in Miami, and are in the midst of a quest for the title. Meanwhile, the New York Knicks have acquired two stars thus far – A’mare Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony – and are hoping to land a third, with Chris Paul being at the top of their wish list. The thinking is, if you want to win a championship, you need to have a big three. Two superstars aren’t enough. (So teams with no superstars, like my 76ers, have no prayer, but I won’t hate).

Back to Robles. When he had that season for the ages in 2008 – when he set what still stands as the world record (12.87) – the hurdling world took notice. Robles, a 7-stepper, was getting to the first hurdle as fast as the fastest 8-steppers, even Terrence Trammell, who has the best start of anyone in the sport of track and field. Prior to Robles, 7-stepping was a novelty, at best. Antwon Hicks, for example, had been 7-stepping for years before Robles, but no one paid him any mind because he wasn’t winning world championships or setting any records. So Robles’ success has ramped up the urgency level. If you want to roll with Robles, you must 7-step; it’s not a luxury, but a necessity. He’s already got impeccable technique, significant power, a forceful trail leg, so if he beats you out of the blocks, you can’t beat him.

Now, the world’s three best hurdlers – Robles, David Oliver, and Liu Xiang – all take seven steps to the first hurdle. Oliver switched to the 7-step approach in 2010 and is still in the process of mastering it. Sometimes it’s on and sometimes it’s off. But when it’s on, look out. Xiang, after missing huge chunks of the past three years with injury, showed up in Shanghai last weekend and defeated Oliver and others, sporting his new 7-step approach. Wow. You’d think that Xiang, who has run 12.88 himself and has his own gold medal in the trophy case, wouldn’t be too concerned with what Robles and Oliver are doing. But I’m sure that while he was injured he saw the big years that Robles and Oliver had, including Oliver’s dominant 2010, and figured that if he wanted to keep up with these guys, he couldn’t come back with the same old same old, but would have to bring his own brand of 7-step to the starting blocks. Also, if you watched that Shanghai race, you may have noticed that Dwight Thomas is another hurdler who is now taking seven strides to the first hurdle.

As the video shows, Xiang’s 7-step approach was much better than Oliver’s on this day, forcing Oliver to press from behind and hit a lot of hurdles.

So, is the 7-step here to stay? Yes it is, but it’s not for everybody. At this point anyway, I’m convinced that it’s designed for the taller hurdler. It takes away the smaller hurdler’s advantage in the early stages of the race. And it prevents the taller hurdler from needing to chop his strides in order to fit in eight steps to the first hurdle. Chopping the strides not only makes for a slower touchdown at hurdle one, but the braking effect also decreases acceleration from hurdle one to hurdle two. With the 7-step approach, the taller hurdler can sprint through the first hurdle like the smaller 8-stepper does.

For the record, Robles is 6-4, Xiang, Oliver, and Hicks are all 6-2, and Thomas is listed at 6-1, but I think he’s 6-2 too. And, with the exception of Xiang, they are all very powerful, strong men. And Xiang, although light (he’s listed at 163 pounds), has a lot of spring in his legs. So, I believe, that as time moves forward and the years roll by, 7-stepping will gradually become the norm for hurdlers 6-2 and above.

Another question to ask is whether or not the smaller (6-0 and under) hurdler will eventually  be phased out of the event. Have we seen the last of the days when an Allen Johnson, a Colin Jackson, a Renaldo Nehemiah can sit atop the world rankings and win major championships? I don’t think so. I do believe that the majority of the world’s top hurdlers will be 6-2 or taller, and that the majority of them will be 7-steppers to the first hurdle, but I don’t think we’ll ever get to the point where the smaller hurdler gets totally phased out. Truly, there will always be a place at the top for the technical masters. Xiang and Robles are not just 7-steppers; they are technical masters. Allen Johnson was a technical master. Same with Jackson, and Nehemiah in his day.

To conclude, I feel that 7-stepping is an option that the taller hurdler, and the coach of the taller hurdler, must seriously consider. It’s not a fad, it’s not a gimmick, it’s not a neat trick. It’s a viable alternative that could prove to be effective toward running faster times.

© 2011 Steve McGill

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