Thoughts on the Women’s 100m Hurdles

I have occasionally received comments from women that I don’t put up many articles that focus on the women’s 100m hurdle race. True, I must admit I’m much more interested in the men’s 110’s, but in this article I willl take some time to take a close look at the women’s race. The biggest reason I don’t get as excited about this event has to do with the height of the hurdles, as I have discussed in previous articles. It allows great sprinters who lack technical excellence to be champions. In the women’s race, you see many glaring technical flaws that go unaddressed, and that, unfortunately, don’t really need to be. A female hurdler with exceptional sprint speed doesn’t need to be a great hurdler in order to run exceptional hurdle times.

But let’s look at the plus side of the women’s race. It is definitely more exciting than the men’s race. A sprint race is fun to watch. The men’s race is slower, because the men don’t have enough room to open up and sprint between the hurdles. So, unless you’re deeply interested in the technical aspects of hurdling, the men’s race is not very enjoyable to watch at all. Also, the margin for error is much smaller in a women’s race. Hit one hurdle and you can land flat on your face. We all know about Gail Devers in 1992, Lolo Jones in 2008, but it happens all the time to less famous people. The reason the margin for error is so much smaller is because the women are moving so much faster. While they may not be able to use all of their flat sprinting speed, they can use a lot more of it than the men can. Let’s be real here, men, because they are moving more slowly, can clobber hurdle after hurdle and get away with it. Allen Johnson hit more than half the hurdles in his 1996 Olympic victory, smashed the last one, and still ran 12.95. In his prime years in the mid-‘90s he was hitting hurdles all the time and running sub-13s.

So if you prefer the thrill of watching a sprint race, then you enjoy the women’s race over the men’s. But if you prefer hurdling prowess, then the women’s race seems really unfair. If a woman has the sprint speed, she doesn’t truly have to learn how to hurdle well.

Still, I would argue that, no matter how fast a female hurdler is, if she were to learn to master the technical aspects of hurdling, she could run even faster. As one of my male athletes said to me recently, it’s important to identify your weaknesses so you can work on them and turn them into strengths, until you get to the point where you have no weaknesses.

Let’s take a look at some of great female hurdlers from recent years and see what we can observe:

In the three photos above, we see, from left to right, Damu Cherry, Lolo Jones, Priscillia Lopes-Schliep, and Perdita Felicien. In these photos, we can see that a common technical flaw with female hurdlers has to do with their arm motion. One photo does not define a technique, but it does provide a starting point for discussion. In the above photos, Felicien, on the far right, is the only who keeps her arms in a tight up-and-down motion that more or less mirrors the ideal angles of a sprinter’s arms. Cherry’s trail arm, too high, and locked at the elbow, is throwing off her forward alignment. Lolo and Lopes have raised their shoulders and opened up their arms more widely than necessary, which means they won’t get a full amount of force from the arms as they descend. Both seem to be using their arms more for balance than for generating speed. Cherry and Lopes also seem to be tilting a bit to the lead-leg side. With Lolo, her trail leg knee is pointing down, and the foot of that leg is higher than the knee, which means there’s some back-kick going on between the hurdles.

So, you might ask, if these women have such noticeable flaws in their technique, what are they doing right that enables them to run so fast? The answer lies primarily with the lead leg. With all four hurdlers shown here, the lead leg is bent at the knee, and it is descending upon the hurdle. That’s huge. That’s the one thing men can’t do over 42-inch barriers. They can’t run over them, no matter how hard they try. Dayron Robles is the closest thing to it, but he doesn’t do it really. The women do it by rule. By being able to descend upon the hurdle, they are literally sprinting over the hurdle. When you’re able to do that, you don’t really need a perfect trail leg. As a point of reference, I remember, when I was in high school, I had a very lazy trail leg that didn’t come to the front, but just kind of slid over the hurdle and dropped. But it never affected my ability to keep moving down that line. When I got to college, over the 42’s, I was smacking hurdles so often with the knee of my trail leg that I developed a mushy numb spot there. I had to fix my trail leg if I was going to continue to race. But the women, because their hurdles remain at 33 inches, never face that problem. They can win Olympic and World Championships with a lazy trail leg.

My contention would be, however, that a high and tight trail leg would increase a female hurdler’s speed, and, as opposed to creating more danger of crashing, would actually give the athlete more control and enhance her ability to react reflexively at the bar.

Another common technical problem among female hurdlers is that the arms cross the body during hurdle clearance. Women generally run more with their elbows out than men do, which is fine, but over the hurdles, the arms should never cross the body. It shifts the momentum, and causes a need to compensate with the lower limbs.

In the above photo, Joanna Hayes, on her way to Olympic gold in the 2004 Games, swings her lead arm across her body; her trail arm follows suit and flings out widely in the same direction. The torso follows the arms, while the lead leg tries to compensate by curving back inward. Definitely not textbook form. But look at how the lead leg is bent at the knee, look how that lead leg is descending upon the hurdle. Damn the arms if you can run 12.37 and become the best in the world without them. But again, my contention would be that she could’ve run sub-12.30 or maybe even sub 12.20 if she had gotten her arms right. For the women, I think the world record could get down into the 12.0 range if you get a hurdler with sub-11.0 speed who really learns how to get up and down off those hurdles and learns to manage her speed between.

If the goal is to maximize one’s potential, then I do feel that it’s important that women become true technicians, not just sprinters. The whole point of improving technique is to allow oneself to put as much of one’s flat sprint speed into a hurdle race as possible. It’s not just about looking good. The key, as I see it, in both the men’s and women’s race, lies in changing our whole perspective on what hurdling is all about. Yes, it’s a race, but it’s also an art form. If I’m a saxophonist or a pianist, I want to master my instrument; if I’m a novelist or poet, I want to master my craft; if I’m a sculptor or artist, I want to master my medium. Hurdlers, if they are to reach their potential, must look at hurdling the same way. I mean, you have to be deep if you want to be a hurdler. On an intellectual level, and on a spiritual level. You have to immerse yourself in the intracacies of the event. You have to be willing to do a heavy volume of drills in order to correct flaws. You have to be willing to take a step backward in the short-term in order to take two steps forward in the long-term. As coaches, we can’t just stand there with a watch in our hand and record touchdown times. We have to teach our athletes. We have to listen to our athletes. We have to give them the confidence to trust their instincts and gut feelings. We must encourage them to try new ideas that might not work. The track needs to be a classroom, with the quest being to figure out the most efficient, most effective way for this particular athlete get over these hurdles and down this track to the finish line.

I’m not saying that, in the women’s race, speed shouldn’t matter. Nor am I saying that the women’s race should mirror the men’s race. What I am saying is that there needs to be a greater emphasis on technical mastery in the women’s race. By combining speed with technique and merging them into a unified rhythmic dance, without over-emphasizing one over the other, female hurdlers could enter new realms of achievement never before thought possible. Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about.

© 2010 Steve McGill

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