Is the Two-Step the Next Step?

Sprint Like Sprinters

Now that there are many world class hurdlers taking seven steps to the first hurdle, the next question we need to ask is whether we will be seeing someone taking two steps between the hurdles at some point in a race in the future.

Sounds far-fetched, I know, but don’t think it can’t be done. It can. And it is the doorway to times previously thought inconceivable. 12.7-12.5 is possible, maybe even faster for all I know.

The influx of seven-steppers to the first hurdle has added a speed element to the 110 hurdles that is new. The seven-step approach allows for more speed to the first hurdle, puts the hurdler more in sprinter mode as opposed to hurdler mode. But after hurdle one, the hurdlers are back in hurdler mode, and the emphasis returns to negotiating the barriers as opposed to sprinting.

To two-step would require a sprinter’s mentality, not a hurdler’s mentality. Modern elite 110 hurdlers have to think in terms of chopping their strides, shuffling between the hurdles, getting their feet down quickly. They can’t use their sprinting speed. It’s the only event in track where you can’t use your sprint speed. Even the women in the 100m hurdles can use their sprint speed. If not all of it, most of it. Even if they get crowded, the hurdles are low enough that there’s not a drastic shift between their between-the-hurdles mechanics and their over-the-hurdles mechanics. Guys have a dramatic shift from low hands, low knees, quick feet to exploding into position.

Two-stepping would give guys more of a chance to sprint like sprinters, with knees high, hands high, covering ground.

Where and When to Two-step?

I was coaching a post-collegiate athlete a few years ago and we experimented with two-stepping a lot. He was able to do it some in practice, but it too much strain on his body. The idea would not be to two-step every hurdle because that would be physically impossible. The idea would be to two-step a maximum of four hurdles. In a sprint race, the drive phase lasts about 30-35 meters, so in a hurdle race you’d want to wait that long before trying to two-step.

Anyone 8-stepping to the first hurdle need not even think about two-stepping.

Seven-steppers have an opportunity to gather enough speed into hurdle one, increase it through hurdle two, and put themselves in position to two-step hurdle three. The key would be to sprint through hurdle two, cover ground and literally run in the air over hurdle two, so that you land very far out, but without losing speed in the air. So essentially, you would touch down close to where your first stride off the hurdle would land normally. Then, one-two-hurdle over hurdle three, alternating lead legs. Then three-step hurdle four, staying on the other leg before gathering enough speed to two-step again at hurdle five. From there, the idea would be to either three-step the rest of the race, or to try to continue two-stepping every other hurdle the rest of the way, so that you’d end up two-stepping hurdles 3, 5, 7, and 9.

I think that if a hurdler who is already running 13.00-12.80 could two-step just two hurdles – hurdles three and five – he could drop down to the 12.70-12.60 range. If you think about it in sprinting terms, isn’t the winner of a sprint race the one who takes the least amount of strides? Isn’t the thing that makes Usain Bolt a freak of nature the fact that he can run a 100 meter race in 41 strides, whereas most everybody else is taking 44-45? So a seven-stepper to the first hurdle is already taking one less stride than the traditional eight-stepper. If he can take off two more strides in the middle part of the race, where crowding becomes such a major issue, then the advantages could be enormous.

And really, that’s what we’re talking about here. Figuring out a way that the elite level men can have the freedom to sprint between the hurdles. I think that after two-stepping hurdles three and five, three-stepping the rest of the way won’t feel nearly as bunched as it does now because of the exertion required to two-step.

Think Like a 400 Hurdler

The whole idea of two-stepping requires 110 hurdlers to think like 400 hurdlers. I think of Kevin Young’s 46.78 race in particular. He twelve-stepped two hurdles in that race – hurdles three and four, on the backstretch. He didn’t try to twelve-step hurdle two because he wanted to make sure he had his speed up first, and he knew he’d have a better chance of being able to do it when he was free of the curve. He also knew that the backstretch was the part of the race where he’d been feeling most crowded thirteen-stepping in previous races. So after twelve-stepping those two hurdles, he thirteen-stepped the rest of the race on his stronger lead leg, and at no point did the thirteen-step feel bunched. He pulled it off. Had he not twelve-stepped those two hurdles on the backstretch, that 46.78 would not have happened.

Master Alternating

For the two-step to become a reality in the men’s 110 hurdles, much would have to happen. But it can happen. Firstly, in addition to the 400 hurdler mindset that I mentioned above, 110 hurdlers would have to develop the ability to lead with either leg. They would have to be ambidextrous hurdling-wise. Over 42-inch hurdles. No stronger leg vs. weaker leg, good leg vs. bad leg. Ambidextrous. Or else it can’t be done.

Three-stepping means having one leg that always serves as the lead leg, and another leg that always serves as the trail leg. So there are natural imbalances in hurdlers that don’t appear in other track athletes. Difficulties lie in teaching the lead leg to function as a trail leg – to push off the ground, to rotate at the groin and hip, and to drive to the front from behind. Also difficult would be teaching the trail leg to function as a lead leg – to drive the knee at the crossbar, to cycle it through and drive the heel back under the hip upon landing. But learning to alternate can be done. Even for experienced 110 hurdlers who have never alternated, it can be learned. That’s what drills are for.

Another thing that would have to happen is that the hurdler would have to learn to adapt to a lot of rhythm shifts. From seven-stepping hurdle one, to three-stepping hurdle two, to two-stepping hurdle three, etc., the rhythm shifts are constant. But again, you have the capacity to do whatever you train to do. Hurdlers are dancers. So if the dance changes from a three-step to a two-step back to a three-step back to a two-step back to a three-step, then practice the rhythm until you become the rhythm. Again, it can be done.

Really, a truly ambidextrous hurdler might only two step one hurdle – say, hurdle five, when he’s at top speed, and then three-step the rest of the way on the other leg. Even two-stepping one hurdle might mean a significant drop in time. Meanwhile, the other exciting thing is that this is something you can continue to experiment with through the course of a season and the course of a career. You  might two-step one hurdle one year, then two hurdles the following year, etc., depending on how things are going. But you never have to feel that you are stuck, that you are locked into a stride pattern that inhibits your ability to drop time.

Who can two-step?

I do believe, for now anyway, that the possibility of two-stepping is reserved for taller hurdlers. Probably you’re talking 6-4 or taller. But honestly, I think that anyone who has the capacity to seven-step the first hurdle has the capacity to two-step at some point in a race. It’s not just a matter of height; even more so, it’s a matter of speed. You have to be moving fast enough to cover the ground. The problem for smaller guys is that the hurdle is so high that they really need to focus on the hurdle. But I do feel that even a shorter guy in the 6-1 range who has 10.00 100 meter speed is a viable candidate for two-stepping.

Exceptional core strength is a must to even consider two stepping. Again, the imbalances in hurdlers are generally in their core, particularly the groin and hip flexors, and, as an extension, the hamstrings. These muscle groups have to be equally strong on both sides.

To even think about two-stepping in an actual meet you have to be a little bit crazy. Maybe a lot of bit crazy. This is not just outside-the-box thinking. This is tear the damn box down thinking. If you really want to be a two-stepper, you have to have not only the physical tools and the natural athletic gifts, but you have to have a very, very strong will, an uncommon fearlessness. And by fearlessness I don’t mean bravery, an “I got this” attitude. Instead I mean you have to be willing to accept the fact that people will laugh at you and think you’re throwing your career away. You have to look failure in the eye and not be afraid. You can’t kinda sorta try two-stepping, you can’t give it a shot and see how it goes. You have to fully commit to it, body mind and soul.

Realistically, it may require taking a year off from competing – maybe one of those dead years, like 2014, with no World Championships and no Olympics – and just go in the woodshed, mastering all of the two-step elements and strengthening your body so that it can perform the motions.

But again, it can be done. When I see a lot of these races these days, it looks like the hurdlers should be two-stepping they’re so crowded between the hurdles. There’s no sprint element at all in the 110’s. And let me tell you something for sure, once one hurdler two-steps, the gates will open and more and more will be following behind. We’ve already seen that with seven-stepping. It was just Antwon Hicks and Dayron Robles for the longest time; now everybody and their grandmother is seven-stepping.

It CAN Be Done

Did I say that already? Then I’ll say it again. It can be done. This past summer in youth track, I was coaching a kid who is 6-2, but only 14 years old. In his age group, the hurdles are only 33 inches, and the spacing is the same as it is for the girls. During the school season, he had run varsity over the 39-inch hurdles at the full spacing. So, in youth track, he had to go back to the lower hurdles, bunched in. Because he was getting so crowded, I had him experiment with two-stepping. In practice, he was consistently able to two-step the third hurdle with ease. But because he wasn’t strong enough on both sides, he wasn’t able to two-step again at hurdle five in order to get back on his good leg. So, two-stepping hurdle three in a race would’ve meant clearing the last seven hurdles with his weaker lead leg. So we never tried it in a race. We didn’t have time to develop his alternating ability and his trust in the weaker leg. As a result, he three-stepped the whole way in races, and was beaten by shorter kids who were straight-up sprinting between the hurdles while he was tip-toeing. Had he been able to two-step hurdles three and five, he’d’ve been right there with those kids.

Now I know that 33’s and 42’s are worlds apart, but my point is, based on my work with him and with the post-collegian I mentioned earlier, I don’t see why two-stepping can’t be the next frontier. The innovative mind never settles for what it already knows. It sees possibility and moves in the direction that will make it reality. I contend that unless we look at two-stepping as a viable option, the men’s 110 hurdles will remain stuck in the 12.80-12.90 range until the end of time.

© 2012 Steve McGill

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