An Emphasis on Sprint Mechanics

While hurdlers and hurdle coaches tend to place a tremendous amount of emphasis on hurdling mechanics (and rightfully so), it is also equally important to emphasize sprint mechanics. How one runs over hurdles is, after all, an extension of how one runs. Flaws in one’s sprint mechanic Flaws will inevitably lead to flaws in hurdling mechanics. That is why, often, trying to fix the hurdling flaw can be an exercise in futility if the sprinting flaw causing the hurdling flaw isn’t addressed first.

Listed below are what I consider the main flaws in sprint mechanics to look out for, with explanations as to the hurdling flaws they cause.

Toes Pointing Down (ankles not flexed)
This one is the cause of all other sprinting flaws. Running with the toes pointed down causes back-kick, low knee lift, and low heel recovery. It prevents the athlete from being able to cycle his or her legs. It causes the foot to land in front of the hip, so that the athlete is putting on the brakes with every stride; the upper body is behind the lower body with every footstrike. Your feet are landing in front of you instead of under you. You’re scooting instead of sprinting.

The hurdle issues created by this flaw include swinging the lead leg from the hip, a locked straight-leg lead leg, a lack of forward momentum going into the hurdle, less space to clear the hurdle, and the hurdle feels higher than it actually is. So, if you’re trying to lead with the knee, you still won’t be able to, no matter how hard you try, if your toes are pointing down. Your foot will lead the way, not your knee, because your foot has been leading the knee with every stride.

Back-Kick
When the toes are pointing downward, the foot will kick backward when it leaves the ground instead of rising upward. This flaw causes shorter stride lengths because back-kick inhibits knee lift, forcing the knee to point downward instead of facing the front. It also creates an extra motion in the sprinting stride, so you’re doing more work, creating earlier onset of fatigue.

Hurdle issues created by back-kick include a delayed trail leg that pauses before it drives to the front, a lot of length between the lead leg and the trail leg so that you’re not in a tight box, a wide trail leg that cannot make it to the front before the lead leg lands, hips twisting, an off-balance landing, and a short first stride coming off the hurdle.

Low Knee Lift
When the toes are pointing down, the knees will point down, which causes the back-kick, which causes low knee lift. So low knee lift is more a consequence of other problems more so than a problem unto itself. So to just say, “Lift your knees!” to a sprinter/hurdler with low knee lift doesn’t really help. That athlete will not be able to run with high knee lift, even if he or she is trying to, if his or her toes are pointing down and he or she is running with a lot of back-kick.

Hurdle issues created are the same as with back-kick and toes pointing down. I would also add that one of the most psychologically beneficial things a hurdler wants to do is to make the hurdle feel smaller than it actually is. Low knee lift prevents this feeling. So, just feeling like the hurdle is really high will cause a lot of hurdlers to jump higher than they need to, and to therefore float on the way up and on the way down.

Low Heel Recovery
You can be doing all the above things correctly – toes are pointing up, no or very little back-kick, high knee lift, and yet still have low heel recovery. Not all coaches emphasize high heel recovery in the sprint stride, but I feel it is of great value to a sprinter, and even more so to a hurdler. Basically, with high heel recovery, the heel rises with the knee while the ankle is flexed. So, in a full stride at top speed, the heel rises up and almost touches the upper hamstring, just in front of the glute, before the foot cycles to the front. Coaches who teach a stricter version of front-side mechanics prefer that the heel move more forward after leaving the ground instead of straight up. I don’t prefer that style because it takes away space for hurdle clearance and prevents leading with the knee. I would also add that those athletes who have high heel recovery appear to have a lot of back-kick, but they actually do not. The foot is moving up, not back; the heel is moving under the hamstring, not behind the hamstring.

Hurdle issues created by low heel recovery include a lead leg that does lead with the knee but that opens to soon in attacking the crossbar. Also, the lead leg attacks the hurdle at an upward angle instead of a downward angle, or at least a straight angle, thus making the hurdle higher than it is. Trajectory of the trail leg tends to be low, causing the trail leg to hit hurdles with the knee and ankle.

Upper Body Too Erect
This is not necessarily a problem for sprinters, although I like for my sprinters to run with their chests pushed forward, so that their upper body weight is slightly in front of their lower body. For a hurdler, it will be essential to make a “dive,” or deep lean, into the hurdle. The higher the hurdle, the deeper the lean will need to be. Personally, I like for all of my hurdlers to lean very deeply into the hurdle, regardless of the height of the hurdle, as the lean serves to create much speed coming off the hurdle. So, the problem with erect sprinting posture for a hurdler is that the lean over the hurdle cannot be but so deep if you’re running too tall between the hurdles. If you already have a slight forward lean in your sprinting strides, then leaning deeply over the hurdle won’t be a problem.

Being too erect during hurdle clearance may cause you to “float” over the hurdle, it can also put too much pressure on your groin and hip flexors to do the bulk of the work in getting you over the hurdle, so they can’t be used as much to make you faster coming off the hurdle. Another potential problem of being too erect is that it may cause the arms to swing across the body if the hip flexors and groin aren’t flexible and/or strong enough to compensate.

© 2012 Steve McGill

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